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Renan, Ernest(ĕrnĕst` rənäN`), 1823–92, French historian and critic. He began training for the priesthood but renounced it in 1845. His first trip to Italy (1849) influenced his interest in antiquity but did not change most of his basic ideas, formed by 1848 when he wrote L'Avenir de la science (1890, tr. 1891). Relativistic, concerned with fundamental problems of human nature, he studied religion from a historical rather than a theological point of view. He wrote Histoire des origines du christianisme (8 vol., 1863–83; tr. The History of the Origins of Christianity, 5 vol., 1888–90), of which the first volume, Vie de Jésus, became his most widely known book, and the Histoire du peuple d'Israël (5 vol., 1887–93; tr. History of the People of Israel, 1888–96). In 1878 he was elected to the French Academy, and in 1883 he was made director of the Collège de France. Renan turned to creative writing in later years and, with irony and poetic style, composed Dialogues et fragments philosophiques (1876) and the much-discussed Drames philosophiques (1888). His subtle irony and beautiful prose are blended, sometimes whimsically, in the Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse (1883; tr. Recollections of My Youth, 1883). Renan's influence was widespread.
See biographies by H. W. Wardman (1964) and R. M. Chadbourne (1968); studies by R. M. Chadbourne (1957) and V. V. Gaigalas (1972).