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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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It is a beautiful dream of future life, that we shall there enjoy friendly intercourse with all the wise and good, who have ever acted for the benefit of mankind, and gone to the regions above with the sweet reward of accomplished labors: but history in a certain degree unlocks to us this arbor of pleasing conversation and intimacy with the intelligent and just of all ages. Here Plato stands before me: there I listen to the friendly interrogations of Socrates, and participate in his last fate. When Marcus Antonius confers in secret with his own heart, he confers also with mine; and the poor Epictetus issues commands more powerful than those of a king. The afflicted Tully, the unfortunate Boethius, confidentially disclose to me the circumstances of their lives, their sorrows, and their consolations. How ample, yet how narrow, is the human heart! How individual, yet how recurrent, are all its passions and desires, its faults and foibles, its hope and its enjoyment! The problem of humanity has been solved a thousand ways around me, yet every where the result of man’s endeavors is the same: “the essence, the object, and the fate of our species, rest on understanding and justice.” There is no nobler use of history than this: it unfolds to us as it were the counsels of Fate, and teaches us, insignificant as we are, to act according to God’s eternal laws. By teaching us the faults and consequences of every species of irrationality, it assigns us our short and tranquil scene on that great theater, where Reason and Goodness, contending indeed with wild powers, still, from their nature, create order, and hold on in the path of victory.

Hitherto we have been wandering through the obscure field of ancient nations: we now joyfully advance to approaching day, and view the harvest, that the seed of antiquity has produced for succeeding ages. Rome destroyed the balance of nations; and under her a World bled to death: what new state will arise from this balance destroyed? what new creature will spring from the ashes of so many nations?

Source of English translation: Johann Gottfried von Herder, Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind. Abridged and with an Introduction by Frank E. Manuel. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1968, pp. 79-118.

Source of original German text: Johann Gottfried Herder, Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit [Writings on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind]. Darmstadt: Joseph Melzer Verlag, 1966, pp. 395-420.

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