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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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12. Still human Reason pursues her course in the species in general: she invents, before she can apply; she discovers, though evil hands may long abuse her discoveries. Abuse will correct itself; and, through the unwearied zeal of ever-growing Reason, disorder will in time become order. By contending against passions, she strengthens and enlightens herself: from being oppressed in this place, she will fly to that, and extend the sphere of her sway over the Earth. There is nothing enthusiastical in the hope, that, wherever men dwell, at some future period will dwell men rational, just, and happy: happy, not through the means of their own reason alone, but of the common reason of their whole fraternal race.

I bend before this lofty sketch of the general wisdom of Nature with regard to the whole of my fellow creatures the more willingly, as I perceive that it is Nature’s universal plan. The law that sustained the mundane system, and formed each crystal, each worm, each flake of snow, formed and sustained also the human species: it made its own nature the basis of its continuance, and progressive action, as long as men shall exist. All the works of God have their stability in themselves, and in their beautiful consistency: for they all repose, within their determinate limits, on the equilibrium of contending powers, by their intrinsic energy, which reduces these to order. Guided by this clew, I wander through the labyrinth of history, and every where perceive divine harmonious order: for what can any where occur, does occur; what can operate, operates. But reason and justice alone endure: madness and folly destroy the Earth and themselves.

Thus when I hear a Brutus at Philippi, with the dagger in his hand, looking up to the starry sky, say, according to the fabled story. “O Virtue, I believed thee something; but now I perceive that thou art a dream!” I cannot discover the calm philosopher in the latter part of the complaint. Had he possessed true virtue, this, as well as his reason, would ever have found its own reward, and must have rewarded him even at that moment. But if his virtue were mere Roman patriotism, is it to be wondered, that the weaker yielded to the more strong, that the indolent sunk before the more alert? Thus the victory of Antony, with all its consequences, belonged to the order of things, and to the natural fate of Rome.

In like manner when among us the virtuous man so often complains, that his labors miscarry; that brutal force and oppression prevail upon Earth; and that mankind seem to be given merely as a prey to the passions, and to folly: let the genius of his understanding appear to him, and interrogate him friendly, whether his virtue be of the right kind, and connected with that intelligence, that activity, which alone deserve the name of virtue. Every labor, it must be confessed, does not succeed on all occasions; but do thy best, that it may succeed, and promote its time, its place, and that internal stability, in which real good alone subsists. Rude powers can be regulated only by reason: but they require an actual counterpoise that is prudence, zeal, and the whole force of goodness, to reduce them to order, and maintain them in it with salutary control.

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