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Hermann Hesse, "The Longing of our Time for a Worldview" (1926)

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I do not dare draw the line between that which is worthy of discussion and the utterly farcical. But, aside from the dubious promoters of modern secret orders, lodges, and fraternities, the unabashed superficiality of fashionable American religions, and the ignorance of unflinching spiritualists, there are other, sometimes supremely worthy phenomena, like [Karl Eugen] Neumann’s [1922] translation and dissemination of sacred Buddhist texts, Wilhelm’s translations of the great Chinese thinkers; there is the great and splendid return of Lao Tse, who, unknown for centuries in Europe, has appeared within three decades in countless translations in nearly all European languages, and conquered a place in European thought. Just as there arose within the chaos and irritating bustle of the German revolution a few pure, noble, unforgettable figures, like Gustav Landauer and Rosa Luxemburg, likewise there stands amid the raging, murky flood of modern attempts at religion a number both noble and pure: theologians like the Swiss pastor Ragaz; figures like Frederik van Eeden, who returned to Catholicism in old age; men, quite singular in Germany, like Hugo Ball, once a dramaturge and one of the founders of dadaism, then unabashed opponent of the war and critic of the German war mentality, then recluse and author of the wonderful book, Byzantinisches Christentum; and, so as not to forget the Jews, Martin Buber, who points modern Judaism toward profounder goals and has reacquainted us with the piety of the Hasidim, one of the most charming of all the blossoms in the garden of religions.

“And now,” some readers will ask, “where is it all leading? What will be the result, the final destination? What might we expect of it in general? Has one of the new sects the prospect of becoming a new world religion? Will one of the new thinkers be able to put forward a new, broad-minded philosophy?”

In some circles these questions will be answered in the affirmative. Among some adherents of the new doctrines, in particular the young, the happy mood of devotees confident of victory reigns, as if our epoch were destined to give birth to the savior, to give the world new certainties, new faiths, and new moral orientations for a new period of culture. That black mood of decline of some older, disillusioned critics of our time corresponds to this youthful credulity of the newly converted as its antipode. And still these youthful voices resound more pleasantly than those of the ill-humored and old. Nevertheless, these believers might be in error.

It is proper that we meet the longing of our time—this yearning search, these experiments, some blinded with passion, others coolly bold—with respect. Even if they are all condemned to failure, they nonetheless remain serious concerns with supreme goals; should none at all of them survive our time, they fulfill an essential function while they live. All of these fictions, these religious elaborations, these new doctrines of faith help people live, help them not only to endure this difficult, questionable life but to value it highly and hold it sacred. And if they were nothing but a lovely stimulus or a sweet anesthesia, then even that perhaps would not be so little. But they are more, infinitely more. They are the schools through which the intellectual elite of our times must pass. For every intellectualism and culture has a twofold task: first to give security and encouragement to the many, to console them, and to bestow meaning on their lives and second the more secret but no less important task for the few, for the great minds of tomorrow and the day after: to make it possible for them to mature, to lend protection and care to their beginnings, to give them air to breathe.

The intellectualism of our time is infinitely different from the one that our elders once took up as our heritage. It is more turbulent, wilder, and poorer in tradition; it is less well schooled and has little in the way of method. But all in all, this contemporary intellectualism, including its powerful bent for mysticism, is certainly in no way worse off than the better trained, more learned, richer in traditional heritage, although less powerful intellectualism of that time in which aged liberalism and youthful monism were the leading tendencies. To me personally even the intellectualism in today’s leading currents, from Steiner to Keyserling, remains a few degrees too rational, too little bold, too little prepared to enter upon the chaos, upon the underworld, there to overhear from the “mothers” of Faust the longed-for occult doctrine of the new humanity. None of today’s leaders, however enthusiastic or clever they might be, has the breadth and the significance of Nietzsche, whose true inheritors we have not yet learned to be. The thousand intersecting voices and paths of our time, however, have this one valuable thing in common: a coiled desire, a will born of the need to surrender. And these are the preconditions of all greatness.

Source of English translation: Hermann Hesse, “The Longing of our Time for a Worldview” (1926), in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, edited by Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg. © 1994 Regents of the University of California. Published by the University of California Press, pp. 365-68. Reprinted with permission of the University of California Press.

Source of original German text: Hermann Hesse, “Die Sehnsucht unser Zeit nach einer Weltanschauung,” Uhu 2 (1926), pp. 3-14.

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