Ah, the great magisterial sighs of the 19th century bigwigs! One way to explain the cultural critique in Nietzsche is his exasperation with the high culture of mandarin resignation. It is the side of Nietzsche that can be summed up by the theory of the eternal return (a theory that leads inevitably to parody, or even to parody as the very principle of worldmaking) or by a phrase that never occurs in the papers of that son of a Lutheran pastor: fuck you!
Jules Renan was a great magisterial sigher. He had the highest reputation in the 19th century. Reviewing his “Reminiscences of Childhood and Youth”, Henry James wrote, Jamesianly: “It is not enough to say of him that he has the courage of his opinions: for that, after all, is a comparatively frequent virtue. He has the resignation; he has the indifference; he has, above all, the good humor.“
There is something to this. To be indifferent to your opinions is as comparatively rare as it is frequent to have the courage of them. One could even ask why one should form opinions at all if we are going to be indifferent to them. Renan, being a classicist, might reply to that question by pointing to Parmenides poem about Being, a poem in which the great struggle between Night and Light is, as well, a non-struggle, in as much as they cannot mix at all, but only separate. This is not only the struggle between becoming and being, but the struggle between believing and knowing. The latter is a utopia, an aporia, given that the forms or ideas can never mix with that of which they are forms. Knowledge, then, requires a certain exhaustion. We are finally brought to the variable, which no content can fix. This can be viewed as an epistemological tragedy, or… a historical farce.
The back and forth of farce is what Renan opts for. Hence in the introduction to his Reminiscences, he basically signs the death warrant for the world as he has known it:
“The world is marching towards a kind of Americanism, which would all our refined ideas, but which, once the present crisis is over, could well be no worse than the old order for the only thing that counts, which is to say, the franchisement and progress of the human spirit. A society where personal distinction has little price, where talent and intelligence have no official recognition, where high function does not ennoble, where politics becomes the job of classless men and persons of the lowest order, where the rewards of life go, by preference, to the intrigue, vulgarity and charlatanism that cultivates the art of the advertisement, to the rascality of those who find ways to squeeze the Penal Code; such a society, I say, does not please us.”
But then, of course, comes the other hand, that hand that, as though driven by some neurological defect, comes up and slaps its owner’s face. For Renan reviews all the “old orders” he or his parents have lived in, and found them all to come up short, to be full of scurrility, vulgar powerbrokers, and heartbreaking obstacles to the enfranchised imagination. So don’t worry, old man. The worst is yet to come – but it is always yet to come. The worst is behind us – but it is also ahead of us. This is positivism inverted, and it has a certain odd comfort to it. But it is a high price to pay for indifference to one’s opinions.
James notices this too, and makes a reply to Renan that also has its place in some impossible dialogue between Parmenides and Protagoras (who, not by coincidence, name two of Plato’s dialogues): “He [Renan] makes the remark that in his opinion less importance will be attached to talent as the world goes on; what we shall care for will be simply truth. This declaration is singular in many ways, among others in this: that it appears to overlook the fact that one of the great uses of talent will aways be to discover truth and present it; and that, being an eminently personal thing, and therefore susceptible of great variety, it can hardly fail to be included in the estimate that the world will continue to make of persons.”