Viktor Zhirmunsky 1959

J. G. Herder


Author: Viktor Zhirmunsky;
Written: 1959;
First published: 1959 as introductory article to the Russian edition of the Collected Works of Johann Gottfried Herder;
Source: https://urss.ru/cgi-bin/db.pl?lang=Ru&blang=ru&page=Book&id=53004
Translated by: Anton P.


The significance of Herder for the development of European historical and literary thought of the 19th century has not yet been adequately assessed. Already contemporaries, under the one-sided impression of the polemics of the old Herder with the leading currents of contemporary literature and philosophy, with the Classicism of Goethe and Schiller, with Kant and the young Romantics, began to forget about the enormous role of Herder himself in the origin and development of these currents. Herder was also rendered a disservice by the editors of his posthumous collected works (1805), who, wishing to “rehabilitate” the deceased in their own way, subjected his most striking, ideologically often revolutionary, statements to a smoothing literary treatment. In the same way, the latest bourgeois criticism (especially the German one) eagerly looked for reactionary elements in Herder’s ideological heritage. From this point of view, Herder was portrayed primarily as an irrationalist, an enemy of the 18th century Enlightenment, and a critic of culture; in his indications of the contradictions of bourgeois progress, they saw a denial of historical progress in general. In his recognition of the individual originality of national cultures they saw an anticipation of reactionary theories about the independence of the development of peculiar and closed cultural worlds. Like the “Lessing legend” exposed by Mehring, this Herder legend must be rejected as a falsification of the historical image of the great German humanist and democrat, who, with all the contradictions of his historical outlook, remains a pupil of the advanced European bourgeois-democratic thought on the eve of the French Revolution.

Compared with the philosophy of the bourgeois Enlightenment, what was essentially new in Herder’s historical outlook was the understanding of the historical and national identity of “times and peoples.” The national culture of a given people, in turn, determines its language, art and poetry as an expression of its consciousness and national character. Therefore, for art and poetry there is no single ideal of the beautiful, obligatory for all times and peoples (as the rationalistic aesthetics of Classicism of the 17th–18th centuries believed), but a multitude of historically conditioned types of artistic perfection.

Herder’s historical universalism denies the existence of “classical” peoples as the only bearers of culture and art. Herder delved into the poetry of the East, the knightly Middle Ages, the peoples of the “north” (Celts, Germans), the Slavs and the Baltic peoples, and finally, outside of European culture, the songs of primitive, “wild” peoples: American Indians, Greenland Eskimos, etc.

At the same time, art for Herder is not the privilege of the “educated”, in other words, the ruling classes of contemporary European society. In its highest achievements, truly national art is always folk art, that is, an expression of the thoughts and feelings of the whole people. Herder’s discovery of “folk poetry” is connected with his criticism of the contemporary rational civilization of class society and the art of the ruling classes in its class limitations. Following Rousseau in this matter, Herder is looking for a direct expression of “nature” and genuine “feeling” in the remnants of primitive culture and in the work of the patriarchal-medieval masses of the people, untouched by the corrupting influence of modern civilization. With this, he laid the foundation for the inclusion of folklore and ethnographic material in the history of literature.

At the basis of these new ideas of Herder lies the broad third-estate democratism of the progressive thinker of the period of the bourgeois Enlightenment, acting as the defender and ideologist of the oppressed masses of the people. Contemporary German democratic criticism has rightly pointed out Herder’s political radicalism and his democratic social sympathies. Professor Wolfgang Steinitz calls Herder “the most conscious and brilliant representative of the democratic and national interests of the German burghers at the end of the 18th century.” Coming from the lower social classes of these burghers, from the broad masses of the working people, Herder retained for life his hatred for feudal absolutism, for the personal regime of the “enlightened” and unenlightened rulers of the German people, from which his feelings of independence and human dignity so often suffered, for social privileges and the claims of the upper class and its upper civilization, brought up on the imitation of foreign models, French court and noble literature. He condemned the aggressive policy of European sovereigns and sharply hated the barracks military regime of the Prussian state. Being himself a Prussian by birth, he shared with many advanced minds of Germany (Lessing, Winkelmann, Klopstock) a critical attitude towards the military glory of “Frederick the Great” and wrote in his travel diary of 1769: “The lands of the king of Prussia will not be happy until they are fraternally divided.”

“Philosopher and plebeian, enter into an alliance to be useful,” wrote the young Herder in 1765, outlining with these words the future program of his own activities.

It is precisely this democratic ideology of Herder that explains his deep sympathy for the “simple”, that is, the working people, as well as for the oppressed nations, for the Slavic and Baltic peoples, with whom he became better acquainted during the years of his pastoring in Riga (1764–17b9), to “savages” as an object of exploitation of “civilized” Europeans, and his conviction that poetry is a universal gift that belongs to all classes of society, and not just its educated tops, and to all peoples, large and small, “wild” and civilized.

However, at the same time, this natural universal human gift can, according to Herder, develop only in favorable socio-political conditions. “Work overwhelms the soul,” writes Herder, “the thirst for profit poisons the taste; hunger and need plunge into dust and trample on everything that was noble in man.” “Freedom and humanity – this is the heavenly ether in which the beautiful and good grows, and without which it collapses and perishes.” In his discussion On the Causes of the Decline of Good Taste Among the Peoples Where It Formerly Bloomed (1775), Herder proves this idea by the example of the poetry of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Italian Renaissance and France of the times of Louis XIV. True poetry is created by freedom, not by the patronage of the nobles. “Court poetry” can only “cover the fetters with garlands of poetic flowers. No Tyrtaeus will follow our brothers, who were sold to America as soldiers, and no Homer will sing of this sad campaign. If religion, the people, the fatherland are oppressed and these very concepts have become vague, then the poet’s harp can only sound vague and muffled.”

The range of Herder’s literary sympathies and interests is extraordinarily wide – it covers, at least on assignment, all world literature, the development of which seems to him to be most closely connected with the general single process of world history. He contrasts the exclusivity of a priori aesthetic assessments of the phenomena of art and poetry with a broad historical and comparative study of their genesis and development. According to A.N. Pypin, “it was Herder who laid the first foundations for the construction of a general history of comparative literature and the study of poetry in all its forms and destinies.”

Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) was born in East Prussia, in the town of Mohrungen, which at that time numbered up to one thousand eight hundred inhabitants, in the family of a poor clerk of the Lutheran church, at the same time a bell ringer, chorister and village teacher. Herder’s childhood and youth passed in an atmosphere of poverty and deprivation: with difficulty he managed to get an education, earning money for food and teaching with small services in the house of his mentor. Thanks to the occasional help of a military surgeon of the Russian regiment stationed in Mohrungen, who drew attention to this talented young man, Herder managed to get to Königsberg, get a position as a warden at the school and at the same time enter the theological faculty of the university as a student. The study of theology and pastoral service were at that time the only mental profession available in Germany for a native of a poor burgher family. Herder subsequently often suffered from a contradiction between his profession and the warehouse of his worldview and ideological interests. His attitude to religion at different times of his life fluctuated between the humanistic free-thinking of the historian and the poetic “religion of the heart” and was invariably in conflict with Protestant orthodoxy and Herder’s official position as a “clergyman.” In his profession, Herder valued most of all the opportunity to preach and educate his flock, especially school youth: this was one of the few practical activities that was open to a burgher in Germany at that time. His church sermons, which later, in Weimar, so delighted Schiller with their simplicity and humanity, seemed to this latter “a practical philosophy applied to the particulars of the life of a burgher, which could be expected with the same reason in a Muslim mosque as in a Christian church.” Nevertheless, a certain external touch of theological phraseology, prompted by professional skills, is present in Herder, especially in his later writings.

Studying at the theological faculty, Herder, already in Königsberg, was mainly interested in philosophy and literature. His worldview is formed at this time under the influence of Kant’s university lectures, Rousseau’s reading and personal friendship with the pietist philosopher Hamann.

Herder met Kant at a time when the young Königsberg master was not yet the creator of a complete philosophical system. In the 1760s, Kant was strongly influenced by English empiricism, in particular by the skeptical philosophy of Hume. Kant’s lectures and personal contact with him instilled in the young Herder a skeptical attitude towards the dogmatic rationalism of the school of Leibniz and Wolff that prevailed in Germany, and this gave impetus to his independent philosophical development. In the field of aesthetics, Kant at that time also adhered to the ideas of English empiricism, which considered the problems of art on the basis of the psychology of artistic perception – a point of view to which the young Herder later adjoins. Kant was a scientist with encyclopedic knowledge and interests, covering, in addition to philosophy, various fields of natural sciences, geography, psychology, anthropology and aesthetics. In the field of natural sciences, he became famous in particular for his General Natural History and Theory of the Sky (1755), in which the development of the solar system is explained on the basis of the law of universal gravitation (the so-called “Kant-Laplace theory”). “Give me matter, and I will show you how the world should arise from it,” the young scientist wrote in this essay. Kant was fond of English literature and Rousseau, whom he repeatedly referred to in his writings. His lectures were free from school pedantry and gelerterism, distinguished by wit and liveliness, and even in the special philosophical writings of that time he imitated the elegant manner of the English essayists. “With the same mood of mind,” Herder later wrote, “with which he considered the works of Leibniz, Wolf, Baumgarten, Crusius, Hume and studied natural laws according to Kepler, according to Newton and other works on physics, he treated those that appeared at that time in the works of Rousseau, in his Emile and Eloise, as well as to all discoveries in the field of natural sciences, he appreciated these works at their true worth, but constantly returned to an impartial study of nature and to the moral virtues of man. History of mankind and various peoples, natural history, the study of nature, mathematics and his own experience were the sources from which he drew inspiration for his lectures and for his conversation.” In his travel diary of 1769, Herder dreams of a “living teaching” of natural sciences and philosophy, which would be built “from the result of all experimental knowledge”; such teaching “would be in the spirit of Kant: it would be divine lectures.”

His idea of ​​the formation and development of the world as an organic whole, as well as the philosophy of culture he created, influenced the development of German philosophy and contributed to the formation of cultural ideas. Herder owns an important conclusion that there are no and cannot be any contradictions between the universal achievements of culture and folk culture, that all cultures are a unity leading to the creation of human civilization.

Johann Gottfried Herder preached the national identity of art, asserted the historical originality and equivalence of different eras of culture and poetry. He is the author of works on the philosophy of history. History, according to Herder, is the realization of “humanity”.