Johann Gottfried Herder 1766

Of the Changes in the Tastes of the Nations
Through the Ages
A Fragment

Source: Johann Gottfried Herder. Another Philosophy of History and Selected Political Writings (pp. 101-103). Translated by I.D. Evrigenis and D. Pellerin, Hackett Publishing Company;
Transcribed by Andy Blunden.

Once a man saw trees being planted for posterity and cried out: “Always we must do things for our descendants; I wished that our descendants would also do something for us!” This silly man, who did not consider that he was himself a descendant, that he owed everything to his ancestors, and that future generations would be a part of him, should have thought ahead a few centuries, putting himself in the position of the descendants who would enjoy these trees. Now what would they be able to do for him, their ancestor? Think of him! What could they do for their descendants, however? Work for them!

Thus every human being in every age stands in the middle. He can assemble the faded images of his ancestors around him; he can summon up their shadows and make a feast for his eyes as he lets them rush by. But can he also cast a prophetic eye on future times, beyond his grave, watching his children and grandchildren wander over his ashes, as it were? The view of the past is secured by history; the prospect of the future is darker – but even this shadowy darkness is pleasurable.

When one casts a glance ahead and behind from such philosophical heights; when one conjures up the spirit of an extinct age from its ashes; when one compares different, successive ages with each other and believes that one can see a continuous thread, a coherent whole – what, then, would be more natural than to wonder whether this chain of changes, which has been running along so evenly for many centuries, should be broken by us? Should it not keep running along beyond us? When one gathers together the many changes of the past, when one sees what altering power the arm of time possesses and how it has been employed, then does not the audacious look ahead become a little more excusable? Perhaps these will be the results of change behind our backs: so things changed before us, so they will change after us.

If, meanwhile, this prophetic glance were to prove deceptive, the examination of past generations would still be all the more useful. The spirit of change is the kernel of history, and he who does not direct most of his attention to picking out this spirit, putting together in his mind the tastes and character of each age, and traveling through the different periods of world events with the piercing perspective of a wanderer eager for instruction; he sees only trees instead of men, like the blind man, and ruins his stomach on history as on a dish of husks without kernels. Thus the greatest historians attained such heights by noting these changes through the ages, by also thinking as they told their story, by leading their readers around so that they might not only see but also learn. If Voltaire has some merit as a historian, it is with a view to his often apt remarks on the spirit of events. The greatest man in this regard, however, is in my opinion the historian of Britain, Hume, a writer who understands the difficult art of applying the pragmatic tricks of Tacitus or Polybius to the taste of our times.

No doubt my introductory remarks are too long for this one little treatise. If it were well received by the public, however, it should be merely the precursor for similar reflections on the spirit of change in the various ages. When philosophy is guided by history and history is enlivened by philosophy, then it is doubly entertaining and useful.

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Some people who are ignorant about history and know only their own age think that present tastes are the only ones and so necessary that anything besides would be unthinkable. They think that everything they find indispensable on account of their habits and education must have been indispensable at all times, and they do not know that the more comfortable we are with something, the newer it is likely to be. Commonly, pride is joined to such ignorance – two siblings who are as inseparable as envy and stupidity. Their times are the best because that is when they are living and because other ages have not had the honor of their acquaintance. These people are like the Chinese who, because they knew no one else, considered their country the square of the world and who painted the corners of this square with hideous grimaces and monsters, which were supposed to portray us, the pitiful inhabitants of the rest of the world. We laugh at the Chinese, and yet how often does it seem like one were [living] in China when one hears the opinions of persons who know the world only by the corner in which they are stuck and by the Hamburg Correspondent.

Two looks at history will dispel this prejudice. Time has changed everything so much that it would often take a magic mirror to recognize the same creature in so many shapes. The very shape of the earth has changed, its surface as well as its position; the blood, the manners of living and thinking, the forms of government, the tastes of the nations have [all] changed. How families change as well as individuals! If our great ancestor Adam, or Noah, or the other progenitors of every people were to rise [from the dead] – heaven, what a sight this would be for them!

None of these changes is as difficult to explain as the variation in tastes and manners of thinking. How could that which a nation holds at one time to be good, beautiful, useful, pleasant, or true be considered bad, ugly, useless, unpleasant, and untrue by it at another time? And yet this does happen. Are not truth, beauty, and moral goodness the same at all times? Surely – and yet one can observe how the same principles for which everyone would at one time have sacrificed his last drop of blood are at other times cast into the fire by the very same nation; how fashions that some years ago everyone found beautiful are soon after extinguished; how reigning practices, favorite conceptions of honor, merit, and utility can dazzle one age [as] by a magic light; how a [Particular] taste in this or that science can set the tone for a century; and how all this nevertheless dies out with that century! We should almost go mad with such skepticism, putting no more trust in our own tastes and feelings!