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Ernest Renan

What is a Nation? (1882)

A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. This soul, this spiritual principle, is made up of two things, which are in fact one and the same. One is in the past, the other in the present. One is the common possession of a rich legacy of memories; the other is the present consent, the desire to live together, the will to continue to make the most of the inheritance that has been received undivided.

Man, gentlemen, cannot be improvised. The nation, like the individual, is the outcome of a long history of effort, sacrifice and dedication. The cult of the ancestors is the most legitimate of all; the ancestors made us what we are. A heroic past, great men, glory (I mean real glory), that is the social capital on which a national idea is built. To have common glories in the past, a common will in the present; to have done great things together, to want to do them again, these are the essential conditions for being a people. We love in proportion to the sacrifices we have made and the hardships we have suffered. We love the house that we have built and that we are passing on.

The Spartan song: "We are what you were; we shall be what you are" is in its simplicity the abbreviated anthem of every homeland.

In the past, a heritage of glory and regrets to be shared, in the future a common programme to be achieved; to have suffered, enjoyed and hoped together, that is better than common customs and borders in accordance with strategic ideas; that is what is understood in spite of the differences of race and language. I said earlier: "to have suffered together"; yes, suffering in common unites more than joy. As far as national memories are concerned, bereavements are better than triumphs, because they impose duties, they command a common effort.

A nation is therefore a great solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that have been made and those that are still to be made. It presupposes a past; yet it is summed up in the present by a tangible fact: the consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue living together. The existence of a nation is (forgive me this metaphor) a daily plebiscite, just as the existence of the individual is a perpetual affirmation of life.

Oh, I know, this is less metaphysical than divine right, less brutal than so-called historical right. In the order of ideas that I am submitting to you, a nation has no more right than a king to say to a province: "You belong to me, I take you". For us, a province is its inhabitants; if anyone in this matter has the right to be consulted, it is the inhabitants. A nation never has a real interest in annexing or retaining a country in spite of itself. The will of the nations is, in the final analysis, the only legitimate criterion, the one to which we must always return.

We have driven metaphysical and theological abstractions out of politics. What is left after that? There remains man, his desires, his needs. Secession, you may say, and, in the long run, the crumbling of nations are the consequence of a system which places these old organisms at the mercy of often unenlightened wills. It is clear that in such matters no principle should be pushed to excess. Truths of this kind are only applicable in their entirety and in a very general way. Human wills change; but what does not change here on earth? Nations are not eternal. They have begun, they will end. The European confederation will probably replace them. But this is not the law of the century in which we live. At the present time, the existence of nations is good, necessary even. Their existence is the guarantee of freedom, which would be lost if the world had only one law and one master.

By their diverse and often opposing faculties, nations serve the common work of civilisation; all contribute a note to this great concert of humanity, which, in short, is the highest ideal reality we can attain. Isolated, they have their weak parts. I often say to myself that an individual who had the defects held in nations to be qualities, who fed on vain glory, who was so jealous, selfish, quarrelsome, who could not bear anything without drawing his sword, would be the most intolerable of men. But all these dissonances of detail disappear in the whole. Poor humanity, how much you have suffered! How many trials still await you! May the spirit of wisdom guide you to preserve you from the innumerable dangers on your path!

Let me sum up, gentlemen. Man is not a slave to his race, nor to his language, nor to his religion, nor to the course of the rivers, nor to the direction of the mountain ranges. A great aggregation of men, sound of mind and warm of heart, creates a moral conscience which is called a nation. As long as this moral conscience proves its strength by the sacrifices demanded by the abdication of the individual in favour of a community, it is legitimate, it has the right to exist. If there are doubts about its boundaries, consult the disputed populations. They have a right to have an opinion on the matter. This will make the transcendents of politics smile, those infallible people who spend their lives being wrong and who, from the height of their superior principles, take pity on our land.

"To consult the people, how naive! Here are those puny French ideas which pretend to replace diplomacy and war by means of childish simplicity.

Let us wait, gentlemen; let the reign of the transcendent pass; let us know how to suffer the disdain of the strong. Perhaps, after much fruitless trial and error, we will return to our modest empirical solutions. The way to be right in the future is, at certain times, to know how to resign oneself to being out of fashion.

Translated with (free version)

Source: Translated from

Ernest Renan, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? (extrait) (1882)
Note Ceci est la partie terminale d’un conférence (Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?) tenue par Ernest Renan à la Sorbonne le 11 Mars 1882. Dans cette conférence Renan a présenté son idée originale de ce que constitue une nation : une héritage commune et une volonté par l’individu de partager cet héritage. L’appartenance à une nation pour l’être humain ne dépende « ni de sa race, ni de sa langue, ni de sa religion, ni du cours des fleuves, ni de la direction des chaînes de montagnes. » C’est le résultat d’une choix volontaire. C’est pour cela que pour Renan « l'existence d'une nation est un plébiscite de tous les jours. » Et dans cela on trouve toute l’originalité de la pensée de Renan à ce sujet."

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, March 2023

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