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

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The Longing of our Time for a Worldview

The new image of the earth’s surface, completely transformed and recast in just a few decades, and the enormous changes manifest in every city and every landscape of the world since industrialization, correspond to an upheaval in the human mind and soul. This development has so accelerated in the years since the outbreak of the world war that one can already, without exaggeration, identify the death and dismantling of the culture into which the elder among us were raised as children and which then seemed to us eternal and indestructible. If the individual has not himself changed (he can do this within two generations no more than any animal species could), then at least the ideals and fictions, the wishes and dreams, and the mythologies and theories that rule our intellectual life have; they have changed utterly and completely. Irreplaceable things have been lost and destroyed forever; new, unheard-of things are being imagined in their place. Destroyed and lost for the greater part of the civilized world are, beyond all else, the two universal foundations of life, culture and morality: religion and customary morals. Our life is lacking in morals, in a traditional, sacred, unwritten understanding about what is proper and becoming between people.

One need only undertake a short journey to be able to observe in living examples the decay of morals. Wherever industrialization is still in its beginnings, wherever peasant and small-town traditions are still stronger than the modern forms of transportation and work, there the influence and emotional power of the church is quite essentially stronger as well. And in all of these places we continue to come across, more or less intact, that which were once called morals. In such backward regions one still finds forms of interaction—greeting, entertainment, festivals, and games—which have long since been lost to modern life. As a weak substitute for lost morals, the modern individual has fashion. Changing from season to season, it supplies him with the most indispensible prescriptions for social life, tosses off the requisite phrases, catchwords, dances, melodies—better than nothing, but still a mere gathering of the transitory values of the day. No more popular festivals, but the fashionable entertainment of the season. No more popular ballads, but the hit tune of the current month.

Now, what morals are to the exterior shaping of a life, the agreeable and comfortable guidance of tradition and convention, religion and philosophy are to more profound human needs. The individual has not only the need—in customs and morals, dress and entertainment, sports and conversation—to be ruled and guided by a valid model by some kind of ideal, be it merely the daily ideal of fashion. He has as well in the deeper recesses of his being the need to see meaning attached to all that he does and strives for, to his existence, his life, and the inevitability of death. This religious or metaphysical need, as old and as important as the need for food, love, and shelter, is satisfied in calm, culturally secure times by the churches and the systems of itinerant thinkers. In times like the present a general impatience and disillusion with both received religious creeds and scholarly philosophies grow; the demand for new formulations, new interpretations, new symbols, new explanations is infinitely great. These are the signs of the mental life of our times: a weakening of received systems, a wild searching for new interpretations of human life, a flourishing of popular sects, prophets, communities, and a blossoming of the most fantastic superstitions. For even those who are superficial, not at all spiritual, and disinclined to thought still have the primal need to know that there is meaning to their lives. And when they are no longer able to find a meaning, morals decay, and private life is ruled by wildly intensified selfishness and an increased fear of death. All of these signs of the time are clearly legible, for those who care to see, in every sanatorium, in every asylum, and in the material reported everyday by psychoanalysts.

But our life is an uninterrupted fabric of up and down, decay and regeneration, demise and resurrection. Thus are all the dismal and lamentable signs of cultural decline matched by other, brighter signs that point to a reawakening of metaphysical needs, to the formation of a new intellectuality, and to a passionate concern for the creation of new meaning for our lives. Modern literature is full of these signs, modern art no less so. Making itself felt with particular urgency, however, is the need for a replacement for the values of the vanishing culture, for new forms of religiosity and community. That there is no shortage of tasteless, silly, even dangerous and bad substitute candidates is obvious. We are teeming with seers and founders; charlatans and quacks are mistaken for saints; vanity and greed leap at this new, promising area—but we must not allow these facts alone to fool us. In itself this awakening of the soul, this burning resurgence of longings for the divine, this fever heightened by war and distress, is a phenomenon of marvelous power and intensity that cannot be taken seriously enough. That there lurks alongside this mighty current of desire flowing through the souls of all the peoples a crowd of industrious entrepreneurs making a business of religion must not be allowed to confuse us as to the greatness, dignity, and importance of the movement. In a thousand different forms and degrees, from a naïve belief in ghosts to genuine philosophical speculation, from primitive county-fair ersatz religion to the presentiment of truly new interpretations of life, a gigantic wave is surging over the earth; it encompasses American Christian Science and English theosophy, Mazdaznan [neo-Zoroastrian cult] and neo-Sufism [Muslim sect], [Rudolf] Steiner’s anthroposophy, and a hundred similar creeds; it takes Count Keyserling around the world and leads him to his Darmstadt experiments [a spiritual School of Wisdom], supplies him with such a serious and important collaborator as Richard Wilhelm, and concurrently gives rise to a whole host of necromancers, sharpers, and clowns.

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