Johann Gottfried Herder 1774
Source: Johann Gottfried Herder. Another Philosophy of History and Selected Political Writings (pp. 23-32). Translated by I.D. Evrigenis and D. Pellerin, Hackett Publishing Company;
Transcribed by Andy Blunden.
Original German Full Text
I. No one in the world feels the weakness of general characterization more than I. One paints an entire people, age, part of the earth – whom has one painted? One captures successive peoples and times in an eternal alternation, like waves of the sea – whom has one painted? Whom has the describing word depicted? In the end, one summarizes them in Nothing, as a general word, when everyone perhaps thinks and feels what he means How one can be misunderstood!
Whoever has noticed what an inexpressible thing the peculiarity of one human being is; how difficult it is to be able to put the distinguishing distinctively, how he feels and lives, how different and peculiar all things become for him after his eye sees them, his soul measures, his heart senses – what depth there is to the character of even one nation that even though one may have perceived and marveled at it often enough, yet flees the word so persistently, and that put into words, rarely becomes recognizable to anyone, so that he may understand and empathize – such an observer will marvel and become dizzy all the more before what one calls the “spirit of the inclinations” in such distant peoples, times, and countries. For him it is as if one had to capture the mighty ocean of entire peoples, ages, and countries in a single glance, feeling, word! Dull half-image and shadow of the word! The whole living painting of manners of life, habits, needs, peculiarities of lands and skies would have to follow later or to have preceded; one would first have to sympathize with a nation to feel a single of its inclinations and actions, to feel them all together; to find one word, to think all in its richness: or else one reads ... a word.
We all believe, even now, to have the paternal and domestic and humane drives of the Oriental, to be as capable of loyalty and artistic diligence as the Egyptians were. Phoenician liveliness, Greek love of freedom, Roman strength of soul: who does not feel predisposed to all of this but for time, opportunity? And behold, my reader, that is just where we are! The most cowardly scoundrel no doubt retains a faint disposition and potential for the most magnanimous heroism – but between this and “the entire feeling of being, the existence within such a character”: chasm! If you lacked nothing, then, but time and opportunity to turn your predisposition to be an Oriental, a Greek, a Roman into skills and sound drives: chasm! We are talking of nothing but drives and skills. To empathize with the entire nature of a soul, which rules through everything, which molds all other inclinations and forces of the soul after its own model, coloring even the most indifferent actions, do not answer with words, but enter into the age itself, follow the compass, enter into all history, feel your way into everything – only then will you be on your way to understanding the word; only then will the thought fade whether all this, taken separately or taken together, is really you! You as everything taken together? The quintessence of all ages and peoples? That already shows the foolishness!
Character of the nations! Nothing but the facts of their constitution and history must decide. Did not a patriarch also have, or could he not have had, inclinations besides those that you attribute to him? To both of which I say only: indeed! Indeed h e had others, secondary traits that follow self-evidently from what I have or have not said, that I, and perhaps others contemplating his story with me, already acknowledge in the word. And [I acknowledge] even more readily that he could have turned out very differently – in a different place, in that age, with the progress of education [Bildung], under different circumstances. Could not Leonidas, Caesar, and Abraham have been gentlemen of our century? – could have been: but were not. Ask history about this: that is what we are talking about.
So I am likewise preparing myself for petty objections out of the great detail of peoples and ages. That no people ever remained or could have remained what it was for long, and that each one, like any art and science and what not in the world, had its period of growth, of blossoming, and of decline; that each and every such change lasted only the minimum of time that the wheel of human fortune was able to grant; that finally, in the world, no two moments are ever the same, and that, accordingly, the Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks were also not the same at all times. I tremble when I think what wise objections some wise folks, and those versed in history to boot, may raise about this’ Greece consisted of many lands: Athenians and Boeotians, Spartans and Corinthians were anything but the same! Was not agriculture practiced in Asia, too? Did not the Egyptians once trade just as well as the Phoenicians? Were not the Macedonians conquerors just like the Romans? Aristotle just as speculative a thinker as Leibniz? Did not our Nordic peoples surpass the Romans in courage? Were all Egyptians, Greeks, Romans – are all rats and mice – the same- No! But they are still rats and mice!
How annoying it gets to address an audience when one has to be prepared for ever the same and even worse objections, and presented in what tone, by the screaming part (the part that thinks more nobly remains silent!); and when one must expect, at the same time, that the great mass of sheep that cannot distinguish right from left will readily follow suit! Can there be any general image without mutual subordination and integration, or any broad perspective without elevation? When you keep your face close to the picture, fumbling with this splinter or groping at that speck of color, you will never see the entire image – you will see anything but an image! And when your head is full of a group with which you have become infatuated, would your sight be able to grasp the whole of such alternating ages, to impose order on them, to pursue them gently? To isolate only the main causes underlying each scene, to follow the currents quietly, and then – to name them? But if you are not able to do any of this – if history flickers and flares before your eyes, a welter of scenes, peoples, and ages-then read first and learn to see! I know by the way, like you, that every general image, every. general concept, is nothing but abstraction – the Creator alone is the one who conceives the full unity of any one and of all nations, in all their great diversity, without thereby losing sight of their unity.
II. Away, then, from these petty objections that miss all purpose and perspective! Placed within the design of the great and necessary whole, how miserable do “certain fashionable judgments of our century appear; made from merely general scholastic concepts, about the merits, virtues, happiness of such distant, such varied nations!”
Human nature is no deity self-sufficient in goodness: she needs to learn everything, to be formed by progressions, to stride ever onward in a gradual struggle. Naturally, she is therefore developed [Bildung] most, or even exclusively, on those sides giving the most occasion for virtue, for struggle, for progression – and in a certain sense all human perfection is therefore national, secular, and, examined most closely, individual. One does not develop anything but that for which time, climate, need, world, fortune gives occasion: separated from the rest, inclinations and abilities slumbering in the heart can never become skills. Therefore a nation may, alongside the most eminent virtues, have deficiencies oil another side, making exceptions and displaying contradictions and uncertain ties that are astonishing – but that will surprise only, someone who brings along his idealistic shadow-image of virtue from the compendium of his own century and who has philosophy enough to want to find the entire earth in one of its spots! For anyone wanting to recognize the human heart from within the circumstances of his own life, such exceptions and contradictions are perfectly human-proportions of forces and inclinations for a particular purpose that could never be attained without them – thus no exceptions at all, but the rule.
Be it, my friend, that the childish Oriental the attachment to the most tender sentiment of human life, contributes weaknesses, on the other side, that you condemn on the pattern of other ages. A patriarch cannot be a Roman hero, a Greek runner, or a merchant from the coast; still less, that to which the ideal of your lectern or your whims would raise him in order to praise him falsely or denounce him bitterly. Be it that he would appear, by later standards, fearful, scared of death, weak, ignorant, lazy, superstitions to you, and with gall in your eve, detestable: he is what God, climate, time, and stage of world development could make [Bildung] him – a patriarch! As against all the losses of later ages, he thus retains an innocence, fear of God, humanity that will forever make him a god to every later age! The Egyptian, crawling, slavish, an animal of the soil, superstitious and sullen, harsh against strangers, a thoughtless creature of habit – as against the light-handed Greek, turning all towards beauty on the one hand and a friend of mankind according to the high taste of our century on the other, who carries all wisdom in his head and all the world in his breast! But then also the Egyptian’s undaunted spirit, his loyalty and forceful calm – can you compare this to Greek pederasty and the adolescent wooing of everything beautiful and pleasurable? And again, compare the Greek lightness and dalliance to religion, the lack of certainty in love to discipline and respectability – taking whose ideal you will. But could those perfections have been developed on such a scale and to such a degree without these deficiencies? Providence herself, you see, did not require this but only wanted to fulfill her purpose by change, leading things along through the awakening of new forces and the demise of others. Philosopher in the northern valley of the earth, holding the cradle of your century in your hands, do you know better than she?
Decrees of praise and censure that we pour out on all the world, from the discovery of a favorite ancient people with which we have become infatuated – by what right do you exist, Those Romans could be as no other nation; they could do what none has done since: they were Romans. At the top of the world, and all around them valley; at the top from youth on, educated [gebildt] to the Roman spirit, they acted in accordance with it – no wonder! And no wonder that a small pastoral and agricultural people in one valley of the earth was no iron animal that could act thus! And no wonder, again, that they, in turn, possessed virtues that the noblest Roman lacked, and that the noblest Roman at his height could in extremis decide, in cold blood, on cruelties that the shepherd in the little valley did not have oil his soul. At the pinnacle of that gigantic machine, alas, sacrifice was often trifle, often emergency, often (poor mankind, what conditions you are capable of!) beneficence. The very machine that made extensive vice possible was also the one that lifted the virtues so high and spread effectiveness so widely: is mankind in its present state at all capable of pure perfection? The peak borders on the valley. Around the noble Spartans live the Helots, treated inhumanly. The triumphant Roman general, robed in the red of the gods, is invisibly painted with blood as well: rapine, sacrilege, and violent lusts surround his chariot., oppression leads the way: misery and poverty follow close behind. Thus want and virtue, in this sense, too, always dwell together in one human hut.
Beautiful art of poetry conjuring up a favorite people of the earth in superhuman splendor – and the art of poetry, is also useful, since man is ennobled even by beautiful prejudices. But when the poet is a historian, a philosopher; as most pretend to be, modeling all centuries after the one cast of their own age, which is often a very small and weak one! Humes! Voltaires! Robertsons! Classic ghosts of the twilight! What are you by the light of the truth?
A learned society of our day, no doubt with the loftiest of intentions, has proposed the question, “Which people, in history, might have been the happiest?” If I properly understand the question, and if it is not altogether beyond the scope of a human answer, I can think of nothing to say except that at a certain time and under certain circumstances every people must have experienced such a moment or else it never was [a people]. Then again, human nature is no vessel for an absolute, independent, immutable happiness, as defined by, the philosopher; rather, she everywhere draws as much happiness towards herself as she can: a supple clay that will conform to the most different situations, needs, and depressions. Even the image of happiness changes with every, condition and location (for what is it ever but the sum of “the satisfaction of desire, the fulfillment of purpose, and the gentle overcoming of needs,” all of which are shaped by land, time, and place?). Basically, then, all comparison becomes futile. As soon as the inner meaning of happiness, the inclination has changed; as soon as external opportunities and needs develop and solidify the other meaning – who could compare the different satisfaction of different meanings in different worlds? Who could compare the shepherd and father of the Orient, the ploughman and the artisan, the seaman, runner, conqueror of the world? It is not the laurel wreath that matters, nor the sight of the blessed flock, neither the merchant vessels nor the conquered armies’ standards – but the soul that needed this, strove for it, finally attained it and wanted to attain nothing else. Every nation has its center [Mittelpunkt] of happiness within itself, as every ball has its center of gravity [Schwerpunkt]!
Here, too, the good mother has provided well. Placing manifold dispositions in the heart, she made any one of them so little urgent in itself that even when only a few are satisfied, the soul soon creates a concert from these awakened tones, not feeling the ones not awakened except insofar as they support the ringing songs silently and in the dark. She placed manifold dispositions in the heart and assembled some of them in a circle around us, at our disposal: then she moderated the human gaze so that after a short period of habituation this circle became man’s horizon. Not to look beyond: hardly even to suspect what lies beyond! Everything that remains akin to my nature, that can be assimilated into it, I envy, pursue, appropriate; beyond this, kindly nature has armed me with I insensitivity, coldness, and blindness. She may even turn to contempt and disgust – yet she has no purpose but to push me back upon myself, to give me sufficiency at the center [Mittelpunkt] that sustains me. The Greek appropriated as much from the Egyptian, and the Roman from the Greek-, as he needed for himself: once he is satiated, the remains fall to the floor, and he pursues them no further! Or when in this development of particular national inclinations to a particular national happiness the distance from people to people has already expanded too far-see how much the Egyptian hates the shepherd, the vagrant! How he despises the carefree Greek’ Likewise any two nations whose inclinations and circles of happiness collide -one calls it prejudice, loutishness, narrow nationalism! Prejudice is good in its time: it makes men happy. It pushes peoples together at their center, making them stand firmer upon their roots, more flourishing in their way, more virile, and also happier in their inclinations and purposes. The most ignorant, prejudiced nation is in this sense often the first: the age of dreamy- wanderings and hopeful journeys abroad is already, sickness, flatulence, bloatedness, premonition of death!
III. And should the general, philosophical, philanthropic tone of our century so generously and readily bestow “our own ideal” of virtue and happiness on every remote nation, every ancient age of the world? Is it the only judge, to be assessing, condemning, or prettifying their mores all by itself? Is not the good dispersed throughout the earth? Because one shape of mankind and one corner of the earth could not contain it, it was distributed among a thousand shapes-an eternal Proteus! – strolling through all the parts and ages of the world. Moreover, as he strolls and strolls on, it is not the greater virtue or happiness of the individual after which he strives, for mankind always remains only, mankind – and yet a plan of striving onward becomes visible. My great subject!
Whoever has so far undertaken to trace the progression of the centuries usually brought along a favorite idea on his journey: progression towards greater virtue and happiness of individual human beings. Towards this end, then, one has exaggerated or fabricated facts, diminished or passed over contrary facts in silence; entire pages have been covered, words taken for words, enlightenment for happiness, several and more refined ideas for and thus one has produced novels “about the generally progressing improvement of the world – that nobody, believed in, at least not the true student of history and of the human heart.
Others who saw the tediousness of this dream and did not know any better saw vices and virtues change like climates, saw perfections come into being and perish like a spring of leaves, saw human mores and inclinations flying and turning like pages of fortune – No plan! No Eternal revolution – weaving and tearing up! Penelopean labors! They, fell into a maelstrom – skepticism towards all virtue, happiness, and destiny of man – into which they wove all history, religion, and ethics: the latest fashion of the newest philosophers, particularly. the French, is a tone of doubt! Doubt in a hundred shapes, all under the dazzling title “From the History of the World”! Contradictions and waves of the sea: one falls, or what one rescues of morality and philosophy from the ship-wreck is hardly worth the mention.
But should there not be evident progression and development in a higher sense than one has been imagining.. Do you see this stream flowing along: how it sprang from a little source, growing, ceasing there, commencing here, always winding along and burrowing wider and deeper – yet always remaining water? Stream! Drop always only, a drop until it plunges into the sea – what if things were so with the human race? Or behold that growing tree! That human being striving upward! He has to pass through life’s different ages, all evidently in progression; one striving after another, continuously; between each of them are apparent resting places, revolutions! Changes! And yet each has the center [Mittelpunkt] of its happiness within itself! The young man is not happier the innocent, contented child, nor the calm old man, unhappier than the vigorously striving man: the pendulum swings always with the same force, whether it reaches the widest and strives wit h all the more speed or whether it sways the slowest, approaching calm. All the while an eternal striving! No one is alone in his age; he builds on what has come before, which turns into and wants to be nothing but the foundation of the future – thus speaks the analogy in nature, the talking image of God in all works! Evidently it is so with the human race! The Egyptian could not exist without the Oriental; the Greek built upon them, the Roman lifted himself atop the back of the entire world – true progression, progressing development, even if none in particular were to benefit from it! It enters into the great! It becomes something of which the history of empty hulls boasts so much and of which it shows so little: the stage for a guiding intention on earth! Even if we should not immediately discern the final design, a stage for the deity’, even if only, through the openings and the wreckage of individual scenes.
At least this view is wider than that philosophy, which mixes up top and bottom, which only ever clarifies particular confusions here and there, turning everything into a game of ants, into a striving of individual inclinations and forces without purpose, into a chaos where one despairs of virtue, purpose, and deity! If I could succeed in binding together the most disparate scenes without entangling them, to show how they, are mutually related, growing out of one another, losing themselves in each other, all only moments in the particular, mere means towards a purpose through progression — what a view! What a noble application of human history! What encouragement to hope, to action, to belief, even where one sees nothing, or does not see everything.