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Johann Gottfried von Herder, Excerpts from Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (1784-91)

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Thus man doubts, and redoubts, after much apparent historical experience: nay, this melancholy complaint has to a certain degree the whole superficiality of all earthly occurrences in its favor: hence I have known many, who on the wide ocean of human history imagined they had lost that god, whom on the firm ground of natural knowledge they beheld with their mental eye in every stalk of grass, in every grain of dust, and adored with overflowing heart. In the temple of the earthly creation, everything appeared to them full of omnipotence, and benevolent goodness: in the theater of human actions, on the contrary, for which the periods of our life are calculated, they beheld nothing but a stage of conflicting sensual passions, brutal powers, destructive arts, or evanescent good purposes. To them history is a spider’s web, in a corner of the mundane mansion, the intricate threads of which display abundant traces of destructive rapine, while its melancholy center, the spider by which it was spun, nowhere appears.

Yet, if there be a god in nature, there is in history too: for man is also a part of the creation, and in his wildest extravagances and passions must obey laws, not less beautiful and excellent than those, by which all the celestial bodies move. Now as I am persuaded, that man is capable of knowing, and destined to attain the knowledge of everything, that he ought to know; I step freely and confidently from the tumultuous scenes, through which we have been wandering, to inspect the beautiful and sublime laws of nature, by which they have been governed.

Chapter 1

Humanity is the End of human Nature; and, with this End, God has put their own Fate into the Hands of Mankind

The end of whatever is not merely a dead instrument must be implicated in itself. Were we created, to strive with eternally vain endeavors after a point of perfection external to ourselves, and which we could never reach, as the magnet turns to the north; we might not only pity ourselves as blind machines, but the being likewise, that had condemned us to such a state of tantalism, in forming us for the purpose of such a malignant and diabolical spectacle. Should we say in his exculpation, that some good at least was promoted, and our nature preserved in perpetual activity, by these empty endeavors, incapable of ever attaining their object; it must be an imperfect, ferocious being, that could deserve such an exculpation: for in activity that never attains its end can lie no good; and he has weakly or maliciously deceived us, by placing before our eyes such a dream, from a purpose unworthy of him. But happily we are taught no such doctrine by the nature of things: if we consider mankind as we know them, and according to the laws that are intrinsic to them, we perceive nothing in man superior to humanity; for even if we think of angels, or of gods, we conceive them as ideal, superior men.

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