Johann Gottfried Herder

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We live in a world we ourselves create.

Johann Gottfried Herder (or von Herder) (25 August 174418 December 1803) was a German poet, philosopher, literary critic and folksong collector. He is remembered as a theorist of the Sturm und Drang movement, and as a decisive influence on the young Goethe.


Should there not be manifest progress and development but in a higher sense than people have imagined it? ... No one is in his age alone, he builds on the preceding one, this becomes nothing but the foundation of the future
The craving for a delicate fruit is pleasanter than the fruit itself.
Brave the tamer of the lion;
Brave whom conquered kingdoms praise;
Bravest he who rules his passions
Who his own impatience sways.
Whate'er of us lives in the hearts of others is our truest and profoundest self.
  • Wir leben immer in einer Welt, die wir uns selbst bilden.
    • We live in a world we ourselves create.
    • Übers Erkennen und Empfinden in der menschlichen Seele (1774); cited from Bernhard Suphan (ed.) Herders sämmtliche Werke (Berlin: Weidmann, 1877-1913) vol. 8, p. 252. Translation from Roy Pascal The German Sturm und Drang (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1959) p. 136
  • Should there not be manifest progress and development but in a higher sense than people have imagined it? ... No one is in his age alone, he builds on the preceding one, this becomes nothing but the foundation of the future, wants to be nothing but that — this is what we are told by the analogy in nature, God’s speaking exemplary model in all works! Manifestly so in the human species!
    • "This Too a Philosophy of History for the Formation of Humanity" ["Auch eine Philosophie zur Geschichte der Menscheit"] (1774), as translated by Michael N. Forster, in Johann Gottlieb von Herder: Philosophical Writings (2002), edited by Michael N. Forster, p. 299
  • Am sorgfältigsten, mein Freund, meiden Sie die Autorschaft darüber. Zu früh oder unmäßig gebraucht, macht sie den Kopf wüste und das Herz leer, wenn sie auch sonst keine üblen Folgen gäbe. Ein Mensch, der die Bibel nur lieset, um sie zu erläutern, lieset sie wahrscheinlich übel, und wer jeden Gedanken, der ihm aufstößt, durch Feder und Presse versendet, hat sie in kurzer Zeit alle versandt, und wird bald ein blosser Diener der Druckerey, ein Buchstabensetzer werden.
    • With the greatest possible solicitude avoid authorship. Too early or immoderately employed, it makes the head waste and the heart empty; even were there no other worse consequences. A person, who reads only to print, to all probability reads amiss; and he, who sends away through the pen and the press every thought, the moment it occurs to him, will in a short time have sent all away, and will become a mere journeyman of the printing-office, a compositor.
    • Briefe, das Studium der Theologie betressend (1780-81), Vierundzwanzigster Brief; cited from Bernhard Suphan (ed.) Herders sämmtliche Werke (Berlin: Weidmann, 1877-1913) vol. 10, p. 260. Translation from Samuel Taylor Coleridge Biographia Literaria (London: Rest Fenner, 1817) vol. 1, ch. 11, pp. 233-34
  • Der Appetit nach einer schönen Frucht ist angenehmer als die Frucht selbst.
    • The craving for a delicate fruit is pleasanter than the fruit itself.
    • Christoph Martin Wieland (ed.) Der deutsche Merkur vol. 20 (1781) p. 214; cited from Bernhard Suphan (ed.) Herders sämmtliche Werke (Berlin Weidmann, 1888) vol. 15, p. 307. Translation from Maturin M. Ballou Pearls of Thought (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1881) p. 13
  • Calmly take what ill betideth;
    Patience wins the crown at length
    Rich repayment him abideth
    Who endures in quiet strength.
    Brave the tamer of the lion;
    Brave whom conquered kingdoms praise;
    Bravest he who rules his passions,
    Who his own impatience sways.
    • "Die wiedergefundenen Söhne" [The Recovered Sons] (1801) as translated in The Monthly Religious Magazine Vol. 10 (1853) p. 445
  • Was in dem Herzen andrer von Uns lebt,
    Ist unser wahrestes und tiefstes Selbst.
    • Whate'er of us lives in the hearts of others
      Is our truest and profoundest self.
    • "Das Selbst, ein Fragment", cited from Bernhard Suphan (ed.) Herders sämmtliche Werke (Berlin: Weidmann, 1877-1913) vol. 29, p. 142; Translation from Hans Urs von Balthasar (trans. Graham Harrison) Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988) vol. 1, p. 504.
  • Sag' o Weiser, wodurch du zu solchem Wissen gelangtest?
    "Dadurch, daß ich mich nie andre zu fragen geschämt."
    • "Tell me, O wise man, how hast thou come to know so astonishingly much?"
      By never being ashamed to ask of those that knew!
    • "Der Weg zur Wissenschaft"; cited from Bernhard Suphan (ed.) Herders sämmtliche Werke (Berlin Weidmann, 1887-1913) vol. 26, p. 376; Translation by Thomas Carlyle, from Clyde de L. Ryals and Kenneth Fielding (eds.) The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995) vol. 23, p. 160.
  • Jesus Christ is, in the noblest and most perfect sense, the realized ideal of humanity.
    • Reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895), p. 54
  • [India is the] lost paradise of all religions and philosophies," "the cradle of humanity," and also its "eternal home," and the great Orient "waiting to be discovered within ourselves."... "mankind's origins can be traced to India, where the human mind got the first shapes of wisdom and virtue with simplicity, strength and sublimity which has - frankly spoken - nothing, nothing at all equivalent in our philosophical, cold European world."... "O holy land (India), I salute thee, thou source of all music, thou voice of the heart' ... "Behold the East - cradle of the human race, of human emotion, of all religion."
    • Quotes by Herder about India. Quoted from Londhe, S. (2008). A tribute to Hinduism: Thoughts and wisdom spanning continents and time about India and her culture. New Delhi: Pragun Publication. (quoting Ghosh, Pranebendranath Johann Gottfried Herder's Image of India (1900)p334, Singhal, Damodar P India and world Civilization Rupa and Co Calcutta 1993 p. 231)
  • It is therefore indisputable, that the Brahman had educated their people towards a certain gentleness, moderation and purity, or, at the very least, had strengthened them in these virtues, so that, conversely, to them the Europeans often appeared dirty, drunken and raving. Their bearing and language are spontaneous and graceful, their relations are peaceful, their bodies are clean, and their way of life is simple and harmless. Children are raised in a mild manner, yet they nevertheless are not lacking in knowledge, nor even less in quiet industry and the fine, though imitative, arts; even the lowest tribes learn to read, write and count. Therefore, since the Brahman were for millennia the educators of the youth, they have provided an unequivocal service to humanity.
    • quoted from :Arvidsson, Stefan (2006), Aryan Idols: Indo-European Mythology as Ideology and Science, translated by Sonia Wichmann, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.p 24. Herder 1814-16, 3:31; in German in Herder 1965. 2:33:
  • Herder (1803) objected that "the pains that have been taken, to make of all the people of the earth, according to this genealogy, descendants of the Hebrew, and half-brothers of the Jews, are contrary not only to chronology and universal history but to the true point of view of the narrative itself." As far as he was concerned, "the central point of the largest quarter of the Globe, the primitive mountains of Asia, prepared the first abode of the human race" (517-18).
    • quoted in Bryant, E. F. (2001). The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture : the Indo-Aryan migration debate. Oxford University Press. ch 1

Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man (1784-91)

How transitory all human structures are, nay how oppressive the best institutions become in the course of a few generations.
German quotations are from Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1841); except where otherwise noted, English translations are from Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man (1803) as translated by T. Churchill
Nowhere on earth does the rose of happiness blossom without thorns; but what bursts forth out of these thorns is everywhere and in various guises the transient, yet beautiful rose of man’s joy in living.
  • Die zwei größten Tyrannen der Erde, der Zufall und die Zeit.
    • The two grand tyrants of the Earth, Time and Chance.
    • Vol. 1, p. x; translation vol. 1, p. xi
  • Jeder liebt sein Land, seine Sitten, seine Sprache, sein Weib, seine Kinder, nicht weil sie die besten auf der Welt, sondern weil sie die bewährten Seinigen sind, und er in ihnen sich und seine Mühe selbst liebt.
    • Every one loves his country, his manners, his language, his wife, his children; not because they are the best in the World, but because they are absolutely his own, and he loves himself and his own labours in them.
    • Vol. 1, p. 13; translation vol. 1, p. 18
    • Variant translation: Everyone loves his own country, customs, language, wife, children, not because they are the best in the world, but because they are his established property, and he loves in them himself, and the labor he has bestowed on them.
  • Das Maschinenwerk der Revolutionen irret mich also nicht mehr: es ist unserm Geschlecht so nötig, wie dem Strom seine Wogen, damit er nicht ein stehender Sumpf werde. Immer verjüngt in neuen Gestalten, blüht der Genius der Humanität.
    • I am no longer misled, therefore, by the mechanism of revolutions: it is as necessary to our species, as the waves to the stream, that it becomes not a stagnant pool. The genius of humanity blooms in continually renovated youth.
    • Vol. 1, p. 294; translation vol. 1, p. 416
    • Variant translation: The working of revolutions, therefore, misleads me no more; it is as necessary to our race as its waves to the stream, that it may not be a stagnant marsh. Ever renewed in its forms, the genius of humanity blossoms.
  • Air, fire, water and the earth evolve out of the spiritual and material staminibus in periodic cycles of time. Diverse connections of water, air, and light precede the emergence of the seed of the simplest plant, for instance moss. Many plants had to come into being, then die away before an animal emerged. Insects, birds, water animals, and night animals preceded the present animal forms; until finally the crown of earthly organization appeared—the human being, microcosm. He is the son of all the elements and beings, Nature’s most carefully chosen conception and the blossom of creation. He must be the youngest child of Nature; many evolutions and revolutions must have preceded his formation.
  • Wie hinfällig alles Menschenwerk, ja wie drückend auch die beste Einrichtung in wenigen Geschlechtern werde. Die Pflanze blühet und blühet ab; eure Väter starben und verwesen: euer Tempel zerfällt: dein Orakelzelt, deine Gesetztafeln sind nicht mehr: das ewige Band der Menschen, die Sprache selbst veraltet; wie? und Eine Menschenverfassung, Eine politische oder Religionseinrichtung, die doch nur auf diese Stücke gebauet sein kann: sie sollte, sie wollte ewig dauern?
    • How transitory all human structures are, nay how oppressive the best institutions become in the course of a few generations. The plant blossoms, and fades: your fathers have died, and mouldered into dust: your temple is fallen: your tabernacle, the tables of your law, are no more: language itself, that bond of mankind, becomes antiquated: and shall a political constitution, shall a system of government or religion, that can be erected solely on these, endure for ever?
    • Vol. 2, p. 79; translation vol. 2, pp. 113-14
  • Die Natur des Menschen bleibt immer dieselbe; im zehntausendsten Jahr der Welt wird er mit Leidenschaften geboren, wie er im zweiten derselben mit Leidenschaften geboren ward, und durchläuft den Gang seiner Thorheiten zu einer späten, unvollkommenen, nutzlosen Weisheit. Wir gehen in einem Labyrinth umher, in welchem unser Leben nur eine Spanne abschneidet; daher es uns fast gleichgültig sein kann, ob der Irrweg Entwurf und Ausgang habe.
    • 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.
    • Vol. 2, p. 186; translation vol. 2, pp. 266-7
  • …nothing in Nature stands still; everything strives and moves forward. If we could only view the first stages of creation, how the kingdoms of nature were built one upon the other, a progression of forward-striving forces would reveal itself in all evolution.
  • Nowhere on earth does the rose of happiness blossom without thorns; but what bursts forth out of these thorns is everywhere and in various guises the transient, yet beautiful rose of man’s joy in living.
    • Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, Bk. 8, Ch. 5; as quoted in Johann Gottfried Herder : Another Philosophy of History and Selected Political Writings (2004), edited and translated by Ioannis D. Evrigenis and Daniel Pellerin, p. v

Quotes about Herder

  • We (Goethe and Herder) had not lived together long in this manner when he confided to me that he meant to be competitor for the prize which was offered at Berlin, for the best treatise on the origin of language. His work was already nearly completed, and, as he wrote a very neat hand, he could soon communicate to me, in parts, a legible manuscript. I had never reflected on such subjects, for I was yet too deeply involved in the midst of things to have thought about their beginning and end. The question, too, seemed to me in some measure and idle one; for if God had created man as man, language was just as innate in him as walking erect; he must have just as well perceived that he could sing with his throat, and modify the tones in various ways with tongue, palate, and lips, as he must have remarked that he could walk and take hold of things. If man was of divine origin, so was also language itself: and if man, considered in the circle of nature was a natural being, language was likewise natural. These two things, like soul and body, I could never separate. Silberschlag, with a realism crude yet somewhat fantastically devised, had declared himself for the divine origin, that is, that God had played the schoolmaster to the first men. Herder’s treatise went to show that man as man could and must have attained to language by his own powers. I read the treatise with much pleasure, and it was of special aid in strengthening my mind; only I did not stand high enough either in knowledge or thought to form a solid judgment upon it. But one was received just like the other; there was scolding and blaming, whether one agreed with him conditionally or unconditionally. The fat surgeon (Lobstein) had less patience than I; he humorously declined the communication of this prize-essay, and affirmed that he was not prepared to meditate on such abstract topics. He urged us in preference to a game of ombre, which we commonly played together in the evening.
    • The Autobiography of Johann Goethe, p. 349-350
  • Towards the close of the eighteenth century, Johann Gottfried Herder boldly proclaimed this idea, asserting that each age and every people embody ideals and capacities peculiar to themselves, thus allowing a fuller and more complete expression of the multiform potentialities of humankind than could otherwise occur. Herder expressly denied that one people or civilization was better than another. They were just different, in the same way that the German language was different from the French.
  • Over the years, historians have tried to discern grand patterns, perhaps one grand pattern, that explain everything. For some religions, history provides evidence of the working out of a divine purpose. For the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, it demonstrated the manifestation of the infinite spirit (Geist) on earth. Karl Marx built on Hegel to produce his “scientific” history, which purported to show that history was moving inexorably toward its destined end of full Communism. Johann Gottfried von Herder, the influential German thinker of the late eighteenth century, history showed that an organic German nation had existed for centuries, although in political terms it had not yet reached its full potential. For imperialists like Sir Charles Dilke, the study of the past confirmed the superiority of the British race. Arnold Toynbee, whose work is largely neglected now, saw a pattern of challenge and response as civilizations grew great in overcoming obstacles and then failed as they turned soft and lazy. The Chinese, unlike most Western thinkers, did not see history as a linear process at all. Their scholars talked in terms of a dynastic cycle where dynasties came and went in an unending repetition, following the unchanging pattern of birth, maturity, and death, all under the aegis of heaven.
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