Ernest Renan on the nation (2/2)

For Renan, "the existence of a nation is a daily referendum". Nothing is immutable. The people, composed of free beings, is sacred, not the country, which is assumed to serve it. When doubts arise about a specific region, the locals should be consulted, not the elitist ideologues and grand theorists.

This article was originally published in French by Ici Beyrouth on February 18, 2023. The original can be found here.

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

In his lecture “What is a nation”, given in 1882 at the Sorbonne University, Ernest Renan endeavors to define the concept of nation by reasoning by elimination. He begins by eliminating the criteria of race and language by using examples that invalidate them from the outset. But there are other criteria or components to consider, such as religion, geography, heritage, and thus history and culture. Each of these components can support the formation of a nation to a certain extent, without necessarily being the instigating element on which it leans and finds its raison d’être.

Portrait of Ernest Renan by Antoine Samuel Adam-Salomon, c.1870. Photo taken from Wikipedia.


Religion cannot define the nation, especially not when it has been imposed by a victor on a vanquished. How else can we explain the fact that the landless Kurds did not dissolve into the Arab-Sunni world? How else can we understand the will of two European peoples, with the same language and the same religion, to form separate nations?

One can also wonder what makes the populations of North Africa, who adopted or had Islam imposed on them, and sometimes even the Arabic language, still feel fundamentally Amazigh today? If we witness conversions to Christianity in several villages of the Atlas Mountains, and if we see a clear revival of the Amazigh language, we are all the more inclined to want to understand what originally causes such conscious upheavals on the level of a society.

Borders are neither immutable nor sacred. Map of Central Europe: yesterday (top, ©Larousse Archives) and today (bottom, photo from www.europa-planet.com).


Like languages and religions, natural boundaries have played an important role in the formation of nations, but they cannot define them. Boundaries shift, but national entities persist. Armenia has lost Lake Van and Mount Ararat, but still exists as a nation-state today. No country has maintained its borders over the centuries. Some regions have even moved several times from one country to another without losing their specificity.

“It is not because a group of humans inhabits certain mountains and rivers that they form a nation,” said Johann Gottlieb Fichte, “On the contrary, a group of humans inhabits together because they were already a people by a far superior law of nature.”

Renan warns us. The idea of natural boundaries can be as harmful as the principle of race. Natural boundaries and race can justify all kind of violence, he says. Borders and territories are not sacred, they serve humans, and it is not humans who should be sacrificed for their preservation.

The historical narrative

The land is thus only the support, the substratum as Renan would say. It is man who embodies the raison d’être of the nation, or its soul, to use again a term from his lecture. Man writes his affinities and aspirations by writing his history with a selective memory focused on a common cause. He sees himself commemorating the same heroes and martyrs, what he sees as victories and defeats, and what he feels as joys, sorrows and sufferings.

For this narrative, it is necessary to remember together, but also to forget together. The Barbarians subjugated the European and North African populations of the Roman Empire with merciless massacres. But who still mentions the excesses committed by the Norman invaders, for example, themselves Christianized and dissolved into the rest of the population with whom they now share a common heritage and historical narrative?

History, therefore, as a cold science that does not want to forget anything, but also as a science that bans everything that lacks concrete evidence, becomes the enemy of national construction, and therefore a danger to humanity. Because, the nation is still a necessity. The mutations of political systems cannot be accelerated more rapidly than the organic evolution of societies. These societies, in their current constellation, still need the existence of nations, Renan reminds us in his lecture. They are “the guarantee of the freedom which would be lost if the world had only one law and only one master”.

The spiritual principle

The people, which Renan calls “the sacred thing”, is the basis of the spiritual principle that conceives the nation. Neither geography, language, religion, nor any ideology, river, mountain, or anything material can generate this principle. It is a spiritual construction nourished through history; the other components only come in to reinforce. It is a common culture and heritage that everyone agrees to transmit and to promote. “The cult of the ancestors is the most legitimate of all,” Renan writes, “the ancestors have made us what we are.”

The nation is legitimized by the people whose wish it embodies. It is created for the existential need and well-being of that people; it is by no means an end in itself. The nation is not a sacred place, not a territory defined by rivers or mountain ranges, not an island, a continent or a peninsula. It is the concretization of the “moral conscience” of an “aggregation of humans, sane of spirit”, we read so explicitly in the text of his lecture from 1882.


With a great deal of foresight, Renan identified that nothing is eternal. Nations evolve, just like societies do, and like the whole of humanity for that matter. He foresaw new political structures such as what he called the “European confederation”. But all this evolution must respect the natural rhythm of things and the right of peoples to self-determination. Their right to self-determination is a sacred thing, which transcends all ethnic, geographical, linguistic, religious or ideological considerations.

Proving that two or more communities have a common genetic heritage and speak the same language, can in no way impose coexistence in a political structure that is lethal for at least one of them.

“The essence of a nation,” Renan tells us, “is that all individuals have many things in common, and also that all have forgotten many things.” They must be able to read their past and their future in the same way. They must be able to transmit their version of their romanticized history and to project their future according to their aspirations and principles shared by society as a whole. Any state structure, any political regime, any national concept, any humanist ideology that takes away this possibility is an attack on the freedom and the right of peoples.

For Renan, “the existence of a nation is a daily referendum”. Nothing is immutable. The people, composed of free beings, is sacred, not the country, which is assumed to serve it. When doubts arise about a specific region, the locals should be consulted, not the elitist ideologues and grand theorists. When principles, however honorable, become lethal for a given group, they have lost all their humanity and are transmuted into an ideology.

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

Also read: Ernest Renan on the nation (1/2)

For the article in Spanish see Maronitas