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

Although Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) was devoted to the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and progress toward peaceable self-government, he emphasized the centrality of ethno-linguistically or religiously defined cultures in his conception of human history. He believed that these cultures alone provided a context for meaningful human action (whether rational or otherwise). He called these cultures “peoples” [Völker]. History then appeared as an interaction of cultures rather than a progression (or chaos) of religions, individuals, or states. With this contribution, Herder vitally shaped the discourse of early nationalism in Germany, in which linguistic-cultural identity rather than political subjecthood loomed largest.

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Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind

Johann Gottfried von Herder


“Thus everything in history is transient: the inscription on her temple is evanescence and decay. We tread on the ashes of our forefathers, and stalk over the entombed ruins of human institutions and kingdoms. Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, flit before us like shadows: like ghosts they rise from their graves, and appear to us in the field of history.

“When any political body has outlived its maturity, who would not wish it a quiet dissolution? Who does not shudder, when, in the circle of living active powers, he stumbles over the graves of ancient institutions, which rob the living of light, and narrow their habitations? And when the present race has cleared away these catacombs, how soon will its institutions have a similar appearance to another, and be in like manner leveled with the earth!

“The cause of this transitoriness of all terrestrial things lies in their essence, in the place they inhabit, and in the general laws, to which our nature is subject. Man’s body is a fragile, ever-renovating shell, which at length can renew itself no longer: but his mind operates upon Earth only in and with the body. We fancy ourselves independent; yet we depend on all nature: implicated in a chain of incessantly fluctuating things, we must follow the laws of its permutation, which are nothing more than to be born, exist, and die. A slender thread connects the human race, which is every moment breaking, to be tied anew. The sage, whom time has made wise, sinks into the grave; that his successor may likewise begin his course as a child, perhaps madly destroy the work of his father, and leave to his son the same vain toil, in which he too consumes his days. Thus year runs into year: thus generations and empires are linked together. The Sun sets, that night may succeed, and mankind rejoice at the beams of a new morn.

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