Analysis of "What Is a Nation" by Ernest Renan

Updated on May 24, 2016
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Picture of Ernest Renan
Picture of Ernest Renan | Source

Ernest Renan attempts to define a nation in his essay "What is a nation." Renan endeavors to define a legitimate nation by reflecting on the uprisings led by nationalist leaders during the revolutions of 1848. He urges people to come together, and look to common bonding experiences that do not stifle progress and unity because of the differences in race, language, religion and geography. Ernest Renan’s central argument is a nation is a conglomerate of people who share a common past and have derived a strong bond, with an agreement to stay together and be governed by mutual consent in the future.

Though not explicitly stated, Renan’s first and central supposition is that all people are equal and free. His second and third suppositions rest on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity generated during the French Revolution. His arguments require that people who wish to become nations must be to be governed by “consent.” It is obvious here that he believes that all people are free, equal and capable to govern themselves. This supposition cannot be taken for granted as it is done today. More attention must be paid to it because when this rhetoric was first proclaimed, it was totally revolutionary to Europeans under autocratic regimes. Nationalist factions used this new rhetoric to cause great political upheavals that shook the foundations of European monarchies. This supposition is noteworthy because it supported the liberal and nationalist factions who wanted independence from old monarchies as demonstrated in the revolutions of 1848. Thus, the definition of nationhood Renan offers is legitimate because it rests on the choice of the people.

Renan’s second argument says that the inhabitants of a nation must share a common past. He believes a nation is defined as the “culmination of a long past of endeavors, sacrifice and devotion” and “a large scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past” (Internet Modern History Sourcebook 1). He means that a nation is an aggregate of people, unified by joy, grief, national sacrifices, triumphs and travails in the past. Renan’s statement is true because large scale events that affected a particular people are an impetus for people to bond and advance together as an entity. An example can be seen with the Jewish people. The memory of the Holocaust is shared by all Jews, and it unites them for a common goal of national existence. The result is just as Renan’s argument predicted—the founding of the state of Israel.

Renan’s third argument states people who show willingness to live together in the present in harmony are a nation. He states, “To have common glories in the past and to have common will in the present; to have performed great deeds together, to wish to perform still more-these are the essential conditions for being a people” (Internet Modern History Sourcebook 1). He means if people are willing to consolidate their past and perpetuate their unity and be governed together by consent, then they are a nation. An unfortunate example where the willingness to live with mutual consent and cooperation is not shown is in present day Iraq. If the rivaling Shia, Sunni and Kurdish factions would only agree to live together and be governed with their mutual consent, then peace would prevail in Iraq instead of political instability.

Renan’s arguments form the basis of modern nations. His arguments are legitimate because they rest on the people’s volition. His definition of a nation can be compared to marriage. If two independent individuals are fine with each other’s personalities, differences and similarities, likes and dislikes, and if they agree to live together in the bond of love for the rest of their lives, then they can enter the lifelong contract of marriage. Likewise, according to Ernest Renan, a nation is an expressive agreement of the inhabitants who have a preexisting bond to live together upon their consent. Just as neither spouse is a slave to the other nor is venturing for someone else permitted, similarly, no group of people are unfairly subject to the other and seizing of other territories are forbidden.

Cover of Ernest Renans lecture, delivered at the Sorbonne on 11 March 1882, entitled Quest-ce quune nation?
Cover of Ernest Renans lecture, delivered at the Sorbonne on 11 March 1882, entitled Quest-ce quune nation? | Source

Renan, Ernest. “What is nation?” Internet Modern History Sourcebook. 30 September 2008.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


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    8 years ago

    Ernest Renan indeed made a frantic effort to postulate the notion of a 'nation' which is built on the foundation of people's past (and probably present ) experiences. I appreciate his promotion of the philosophy of the equality of all men and to a great extent the idea of human interdependence. However, I do not know to what degree E. Renan took into consideration the basic factors of human uniqueness and variations in our experiences. Can a nation be formed in a situation where the past history of some communities were not friendly at all and their present seemingly gives no room for such amalgamation? On what basis is his notion of people' equality and freedom built?


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