Ernest Renan on the nation (1/2)

Ernest Renan, professor of Hebrew, head of the archaeological mission to Phoenicia in 1860, and author of "History of the People of Israel," enriched in the Levant, the observations he had made in Europe on the concepts of culture and identity. He sought to understand what distinguished one society from another and how to define a people. Finally, he asked "what is a nation?"

This article was originally published in French by Ici Beyrouth on February 11, 2023. The original can be found here.

By Dr Amine Jules Iskandar President of the Syriac Maronite Union – Tur Levnon

Ernest Renan was interested in the origins of the human species, in peoples and their societies. He questioned the essence of cultures, civilizations and nations. The evolution of man was central in his scholarly work, especially Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In his writings, he elaborated on the ethno-geographical features that reveal the links between religions and their natural environment. For example, he noted that forest peoples were polytheistic and based their religion and rituals on the diversity of climatic seasons, while Semites living in the desert were more inclined toward monotheism.

Henriette Renan mausoleum in Amchit. ©William Matar

The Life of Jesus

In his attempts to understand the origins of civilizations and religions in a positivistic way, Renan wanted to explore further and further. This brought him to the Levant where he enriched his research on Phoenician religion, Judaism and even Christianity. It was in Ghazir, Lebanon, that he wrote his book “The Life of Jesus.” It led to his suspension as professor of Hebrew at the Collège de France for blasphemy and insulting the Christian faith. It was the first of seven volumes of his “History of the Origins of Christianity”, published between 1863 and 1883.

His positivism put him on a scientific approach to the person of Jesus and led him to present Jesus as an extraordinary revolutionary, a founder of absolute religion, of religion par excellence. But Jesus was, after all, a man, not a God. Renan loved Jesus deeply and admired him without deifying him. He tried to find his reality in everyday life, in that of the inhabitants of the same country. He therefore visited the Levant, Lebanon in particular, with which he felt a special connection. He left behind his sister Henriette but encountered the biblical and ancient past instead; he found it in every step, in every face and in every voice. The beauty of the people he met in the churchyards on Sundays, the liturgical hymns, the freshness of nature and the accent of the villagers merged with his archaeological discoveries and his anthropological and linguistic knowledge.

The Lebanon

“Under the name of Syriac and identified with the dialect of the people of Lebanon, Phoenician crossed the Middle Ages,” he wrote. Phoenicia had not disappeared; it was still there, still alive. Few people have understood and felt Lebanon as intimately as Ernest Renan. He came to Lebanon with the army of Napoleon III and undertook the first archaeological expedition with his “Mission de Phénicie” (Calmann-Lévy, 1864). This expedition resulted in a treasure trove and not limited to only one part of Antiquity, but included Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Frankish and Syriac archeological discoveries. By studying all these strata, Renan understood the porosity that characterizes these intertwined periods. They continue and complement each other. The local culture is at the intersection of each of them. The Phoenician language assimilates the Aramaic before opening up to the Greek language. Aramaic then becomes Hellenized and Christianized to give birth to the Syriac language. And all this still resonates in the “dialect of the people of Lebanon”.

Ernest Renan did not know Phoenician, but he mastered another form of Canaanite, i.e., Hebrew. He used the Hebrew script to transcribe the Phoenician epigraphs in his “Mission de Phénicie”. His knowledge of Canaanite enabled him to distinguish similarities in the liturgical Syriac that he heard, as well as in the dialect that he encountered in the mountains.

But Renan also understood the influence of the surrounding wild nature and the deep gorges of Lebanon on the Phoenician religion and on Syriac Maronite Christianity. As much as the pagan cult seems to have drawn from the roughness of the dark and steep valleys, so much did the softness of the Mediterranean slopes impregnated the Christian rite and the personality of the mountain people.

What is a nation?

As a professor of Hebrew, author of a “History of the People of Israel,” head of the archaeological mission to Phoenicia in 1860, and having visited Greece and Asia Minor in 1865, Renan enriched in the Levant his observations on the notions of culture and identity which he had already acquired in Europe. What differentiates one society from another? How do we define a people? In 1882, he was still trying to understand these questions and “What is a nation?” in a lecture given at the Sorbonne.

In that time period, the notion of nation-state was still a relatively new concept. In Antiquity, belonging was relative to a city and its immediate territory for Phoenicians and for Greeks. For the Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans, it was the empire that erased all other considerations.  But the nineteenth century is the century of great questioning: is the nation a community of race, language or religion? Is it necessarily defined by natural boundaries?

Subjects of the Syriac inscriptions of Kfifén, Ilic and Smar-Jbeil, in “Mission of Phenicia” (Calmann-Lévy, 1864). ©Drawings by Édouard Lockroy


Race is the least suitable to define nationality. The Roman Empire had challenged this notion by favoring the city or the province, independently of the origin of its inhabitants. Christianity, in its universal character, dealt it the final blow. In the East, when the Christianized Provincia Syria developed its new Syriac language, it did not distinguish between Phoenicians, Arameans or Greeks. In the West, the barbarian invasions drew the borders between their respective kingdoms without taking the slightest account of ethnicity.

France will be Celtic, Iberian and Germanic, Renan tells us; Germany will be Germanic, Celtic and Slavic; Italy gathers Gauls, Etruscans, Pelasgians and Greeks; the British Isles offer a mixture of Celtic and Germanic blood. For Renan, the racial criterion is a chimera. He recalls how “the study of race is capital for the scholar who deals with the history of humanity, while it can have no application in politics.

More recently, the Lebanese researcher Pierre Zalloua, known for his work on the Phoenician and even on Maronite genomes, repeatedly stated that his discoveries do not define identity in any way. Identity is a cultural value. His work on DNA, he explains, must remain comparable to that of archaeologists probing the ground in successive layers. The data obtained have the merit to inform us on events, strata, dates, and migrations, but not on the identity of a human group.


Considering different experiences, language, like race, does not seem to be able to define nationality. Renan substantiates this with the example of Switzerland where three languages, three religions and four ethnic groups coexist. He also points to cases of linguistic mutation such as in Prussia, which spoke Slavic a few centuries ago, in Wales, which has become English-speaking, or in Egypt, whose language has been replaced by Arabic.

Language cannot define politics, even if its cultural influence is undeniable. A Brazilian is not Portuguese, but the Portuguese language that he or she speaks projects him or her unquestionably into a Latin and Catholic cultural identity. Through the English language that it has adopted, America has been built on an Anglo-Saxon and Protestant model.

Very often, language has helped to draw the borders between countries and has helped in the genesis of nation-states. But in many cases, the criterion of language alone was not sufficient and may even have been absent. The question is therefore whether religion, geography, history or some other criterion can define the nature of the nation.

Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar is an architect and the former president of the Syriac Maronite Union – Tur LevnonAmine Jules Iskandar has written several articles on the Syriac Maronites, their language, culture, and history. You can follow him @Amineiskandar2

For the article in Spanish see Maronitas