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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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“Now were any advancement observable in all this, it would be something: but where is it to be found in history? In it we everywhere perceive destruction, without being able to discern, that what rises anew is better, than what was destroyed. Nations flourish and decay: but in a faded nation no new flower, not to say a more beautiful one, ever blooms. Cultivation proceeds; yet becomes not more perfect by progress: in new places new capacities are developed; the ancient of the ancient places irrevocably pass away. Were the Romans wiser, or happier, than the Greeks? Are we more so than either?

“The nature of man remains ever the same: in the ten thousandth year of the World he will be born with passions, as he was born with passions in the two thousandth, and ran through his course of follies to a late, imperfect, useless wisdom. We wander in a labyrinth, in which our lives occupy but a span; so that it is to us nearly a matter of indifference, whether there be any entrance or outlet to the intricate path.

“Melancholy fate of the human race! With all their exertions chained to an Ixion’s wheel, to Sisyphus’s stone, and condemned to the prospect of a Tantalus. We must will; and we must die, without having seen the fruit of our labors ripen, or learned a single result of human endeavors from the whole course of history. If a people stand alone, its characters wear away under the hand of Time: if it come into collision with others, it is thrown into the crucible, where its impression is equally effaced. Thus we hew out blocks of ice; thus we write on the waves of the sea: the wave glides by, the ice melts; our palaces, and our thoughts, are both no more.

“To what purpose then the unblessed labor, to which God has condemned man as a daily task during his short life? To what purpose the burden, under which every one toils on his way to the grave; while no one is asked, whether he will take it up or not, whether he will be born on this spot, at this period, and in this circle, or no? Nay, as most of the evils among mankind arise from themselves, from their defective constitutions and governments, from the arrogance of oppressors, and from the almost inevitable weakness both of the governors and the governed; what fate was it that subjected man to the yoke of his fellows, to the mad or foolish will of his brother? Let a man sum up the periods of the happiness and unhappiness of nations, their good and bad rulers, nay the wisdom and folly, the predominance of reason and of passion, in the best: how vast will be the negative number! Look at the despots of Asia, of Africa, nay of almost the whole Earth: behold those monsters on the throne of Rome, under whom a World groaned for centuries: note the troubles and wars, the oppressions and tumults that took place, and mark the event. A Brutus falls, and an Anthony triumphs: a Germanicus dies, and a Tiberius, a Caligula, a Nero, reign: Aristides is banished: Confucius is a wanderer upon the Earth: Socrates, Phocion, Seneca, are put to death. Everywhere, it must be confessed, is discoverable the proposition: ‘what is, is; what can be, will be; what is susceptible of dissolution, dissolves:’ a melancholy confession, however, which universally proclaims, that rude Violence, and his sister, malignant Cunning, are everywhere victorious upon Earth.”

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