1902 Encyclopedia > Johann Gottfried von Herder

Johann Gottfried von Herder
German philosopher, theologian, poet, and literary critic

JOHANN GOTTFRIED VON HERDER, (1744-1803), one of the most prolific and influential writers that Germany has produced, was born in Mohrungen, a small t'.wn near Königsberg, in 1744. Like his contemporary Lessing, with whose literary aims his own had so much in common, Herder had throughout his life to struggle against adverse circumstauces. His father was poor, having to put together a subsistence by uniting the humble offices of sexton, choir singer, and petty schoolmaster. Gottfried seems to have got some rudimentary instruction from his father, after which he was sent to the grammar school (gymnasium) of his native town. The mode of discipline practised by the pedantic and irritable old man who stood at the head of this institution was not at all to the young student's liking, and the impression made upon him stimulated him later on to work out his projects of school reform. The hard-ships of his early years drove him to introspection and to solitary communion with nature, and thus favoured a more than proportionate development of the sentimental and poetic side of his mind. When quite young he ex-pressed a wish to enter the church, but his aspirations were somewhat rudely discouraged by the local clergyman. In 1762, at the age of eighteen, he went up to Königsberg with the intention of studying medicine, but finding himself unequal to the operations of the dissecting-room, he aban-doned this object, and by the help of one or two friends and his own self-supporting labours, followed out his earlier idea of the clerical profession by joining the university. There he came under the influence of Kant, who was just then passing from physical to metaphysical problems. Without becoming a disciple of Kant, the young Herder was deeply stimulated to fresh critical inquiry by that thinker's revolutionary ideas in philosophy. To Kant's lectures and conversations he further owed something of his large interest in cosmological and anthropological problems. Among the writers whom he most carefully read were Plato, Hume, Shaftesbury, Leibnitz, Diderot, and Rousseau. Another personal influence under which he fell at Königs-berg, and which was destined to be far more permanent, was that of Hamann, "the northern Mage." This writer had already won a name, and in the young Herder he found a mind well fitted to be the receptacle and vehicle of his new ideas on literature. From this vague, incoherent, yet clever writer our author acquired some of his strong feeling for the natural naif element in poetry, and for the earliest developments of national literature. Even before he went i to Königsberg he had begun to compose verses, and at i the age of twenty he took up the pen as a chief occupa- I tion. His first published writings were occasional poems I and articles contributed to the Königsberg Journal. Soon after this he got a double appointment at Riga, as assistant master at the cathedral school, and as curate to the sub-urban churches. In this busy commercial town, in some-what improved pecuniary and social circumstances, he developed the main ideas of his writings. In the year 1767 he published his first considerable work Fragmente über die neuere deutsche Literatur, which at once made him widely known and secured for him the favourable interest of Lessing. From this time he continued to pour forth a number of critical writings on literature, art, &c. His bold ideas on these subjects, which were a great advance even on Lessing's doctrines, naturally excited hostile criticism, and in consequence of this opposition, which took the form of aspersions on his religious orthodoxy, he resolved to leave Riga. He was much carried away at this time by the idea of a radical reform of social life in Livonia, which (after the example of Rousseau) he thought to effect by means of a better method of school-training. With this plan in view he began (1769) a tour through France, England, Holland, &c, for the purpose of collecting infor-mation respecting their systems of education. It was during the solitude of his voyage to France, when on deck at night, that he first shaped his idea of the genesis of primitive poetry, and of the gradual evolution of humanity. Having received an offer of an appointment as travelling tutor and chaplain to the young prince of Eutin-Holstein, he aban-doned his somewhat visionary scheme of a social reconstruc-tion of a Russian province. He has, however, left a curious sketch of his projected school reforms. His new duties led hira to Strasburg, where he met the young Goethe, on whose poetical development he exercised so potent an influ-ence. At Darmstadt he made the acquaintance of Caroline Flachsland, to whom he soon became betrothed, and who for the rest of his life supplied him with that abundance of consolatory sympathy which his sensitive and rather querulous nature appeared to require. The engagement as tutor did not prove an agreeable one, and he soon threw it up (1771) in favour of an appointment as court preacher and memDer of the consistory at Bückeburg. Here he had to encounter bitter opposition from the orthodox clergy and their followers, among whom he was received as a free-thinker. His health continued poor, and a fistula in the eye, from which he had suffered from early childhood, and to cure which he had undergone a number of painful operations, continued to trouble him. Further, pecuniary difficulties, from which he never long managed to keep himself free, by delaying his marriage, added to his depres-sion. The correspondence between Herder and Caroline Flachsland indicates a relationship which offers a curious parallel and contrast to that of Lessing and his future wife under very similar circumstances. Notwithstanding these trying circumstances he resumed literary work, which his travels had interrupted. For some time he had been greatly interested by the poetry of the north, more particularly Percy's Reliques, the poems of "Ossian " (in the genuineness of which he like many others believed), and the works of Shakespeare. Under the influence of this reading he now finally broke with classicism and became the leader of the new " Sturm und Drang" movement. He co-operated with a band of young writers at Darmstadt and Frankfort, includ-ing Goethe, who in a journal of their own sought to diffuse the new ideas of Herder. His marriage took place in 1773. In 1776 he obtained through Goethe's influence the post of upper court preacher and upper member of the consistory at Weimar, where he passed the rest of his life. There he enjoyed the society of Goethe, Wieland, Jean Paul (who came to Weimar in order to be near Herder), and others, the patronage of the court, with whom as a preacher his pet ideas of school reform. Yet the social atmosphere of the place did not suit him. His personal relations with Goethe again and again became embittered. He had not th.3 poet-minister's liking for the elegant frivolities of court life, while the efforts of Goethe and Schiller to make Weimar a dramatic centre repelled his austerely moral nature. All this, added to ill-health, served to intensify a natural irrita-bility of temperament, and the history of his latter Weimar days is a rather dreary page in the chronicles of literary life. He had valued more than anything else a teacher's influence over other minds, and as he began to feel that he was losing it he grew jealous of tbe success of those who had outgrown this influence. Yet while presenting these unlovely traits, Herder's character was on the whole a worthy and attractive one. This seems to be sufficiently attested by the fact that he was greatly liked and esteemed, not only in the pulpit but in private intercourse, by culti-vated women like the countess of Bückeburg, the duchess of Weimar, and Frau von Stein, and, what perhaps is more, was exceedingly popular among the gymnasium pupils, in whose education he took so lively an interest. While during the last years of his life he produced much that is of little value, he wrote also some of his best works, among others his collection of popular poetry, Stimmen der Völker; his most notable original poem, the Cid; his celebrated work on Hebrew poetry, Vom Geist der hebräischen Poesie ; and his op>us magnum, the Ideen zur Philosophie der Ge-schichte. Towards the close of his life he occupied himself like Lessing with speculative questions in philosophy and theology. The boldness of some of his ideas cost him some valuable friendships, as that of Jacobi, Lavater, and even of his early teacher Hamann. He died in the year 1803, full of new literary plans up to the very last.

Herder's writings were for a long time regarded as of temporary value only, and fell into neglect. Recent criticism, however, has tended very much to raise their value by tracing out their wide and far-reaching influence. The number of publications relating to Herder that have appeared during the last few years shows that there is a revival of interest in this writer. His writings are very voluminous, and to a large extent fragmentary and devoid of artistic finish; nevertheless they are nearly always worth investigating for the brilliant suggestions in which they abound. His place in German literature has already been faintly indicated in tracing his mental development. Like Lessing, whose work he immediately continued, he was a pioneer of the golden age of this literature. Lessing had given the first impetus to the formation of a national literature by exposing the folly of the current imitation of French writers. But in doing this he did not so much call his fellow-countrymen to develop freely their own national sentiments and ideas as send them back to classical example and principle. Herder on the contrary fought against all imitation as such, and bade German writers be true to themselves and their national antecedents. As a sort of theoretic basis for this adhesion to national type in literature, he conceived the idea that literature and art, together with language and national culture as a whole, are evolved by a natural process, and that the intellectual and emotional life of each people is correlated with peculiarities of physical temperament and of material environment. In this way he became the originator of that genetic or historical method which has since been applied to all human ideas and institutions. Herder was thus an evolutionist, but an evolutionist still under the influence of Bousseau. That is to say, in tracing back the later acquisitions of civilization to impulses which are as old as the dawn of primitive culture, he did not, as the modern evolutionist does, lay stress on the superiority of the later to the earlier stages of human development, but rather became enamoured of the simplicity and spontaneity of those early impulses which, since they are the oldest, easily come to look like the most real and precious. Yet even in this way he helped to found the historical school in literature and science, for it was only after an excessive and sentimental interest in primitive human culture had been awakened that this subject would receive the amount of attentiou which was requisite for the genetic explanation of the later acquisitions of the species. This historical idea was carried by Herder into the regions of poetry, art, religion, language, and finally into human culture as a whole. It colours all his writings, and is inti-mately connected with some of the most characteristic attri-butes of his mind, a quick sympathetic imagination, a fine feeling for local differences, and a scientific instinct for seizing the sequences of cause and effect.

Herder's works easily arrange themselves in an ascending series, corresponding to the way in which the genetic or historical idea was developed and extended. First come the works on poetic literature, art, language, and religion as special regions of develop-ment. Secondly, we have in the Ideen a general account of the pro-cess of human evolution. Thirdly, there are a number of writings which, though inferior in interest to the others, may be said to supply the philosophic basis of his leading ideas. (1) In the region of poetry Herder sought to persuade his countrymen, both by example and precept, to return to a natural and spontaneous form of utterance His own poetry is voluminous, and as a whole has but little value. Herder was a skilful verse-maker but hardly a creative poet. His best poetry consists of translations of popular song, in which he shows a rare sympathetic insight into the various feelings and ideas of peoples as unlike as Greenlanders and Spaniards, Indians and Scotch. In the Fragmente he aims at nationalizing German poetry and freeing it from all extraneous influence. He ridicules the ambition of German writers to be classic, as Lessing had ridiculed their eager-ness to be French. " Let us," he says, '' be idiotistie writers, adapt-ing ourselves to the peculiarities of our people and our language ; whether we are classic posterity may find out." In his sweeping condemnation of contemporary writers, he does not exempt even Klopstock, with whose feeling for nature he has so much sympathy, but whose poems appear to him exotic in sentiment and ideas. He looked at poetry as a kind of "proteus among the people, which changes its form according to language, manners, habits, according to temperament and climate, nay, even according to the accent of different nations." This fact of the idiosyncrasy of national poetry he illustrated with great fulness and richness in the case of Homer, the nature of wdiose works he was one of the first to elucidate, the Hebrew poets (Geist der hebraischen Poesie), and the poetry of the north as typified in "Ossian." This same idea of necessary re-lation to national character and circumstance is also applied to dramatic poetry, and more especially to Shakespeare. Lessing had done much to make Shakespeare known to Germany, but he had regarded him in contrast to the French dramatists with whom he also contrasted the Greek dramatic poets, and accordingly did not bring out his essentially modern and Teutonic character. Herder does this, and in doing so shows a far deeper understanding of Shake-speare's genius than his predecessor had shown. His appreciative criticisms of Hamlet, Othello, and other plays are worthy of being read along with those of later German critics. (2) The views on art contained in Herder's Silvoe, Plaslik, &c., are chiefly valuable as a correction of the excesses into which reverence for Greek art had betrayed Winckelmann and Lessing, by help of his fundamentaf idea of national idiosyncrasy. He argues against the setting up of classic art as an unchanging type, valid for all peoples and all times. He was one of the first to bring to light the characteristic excel-lences of Gothic art. Beyond this, he eloquentlypleaded the cause of painting as a distinct art, which Lessing in his desire to mark off the formative arts from poetry and music had confounded with sculp-ture. He regarded this as the art of the eye, while sculpture was rather the art of the organ of touch. Painting being less real than sculpture, because lacking the third dimension of space, and a kind of dream, admitted of much greater freedom of treatment than this last. Herder had a genuine appreciation for early German painters, and helped to awaken the modern interest in Albrecht Diirer. (3) By his work on language XJeber den Unsprung der Spraclie, Herder may be said to have laid the first rude foundations of the science of comparative philology and that deeper science of the ultimate nature and origin of language. It was specialty directed against the supposition of a divine communication of language to man. Its main argument is that speech is a necessary outcome of that special arrangement of mental forces which distinguishes man, and more particularly from his habits of reflexion. "If," Herder says, "it is incomprehensible to others how a human mind could invent language, it is as incom-prehensible to me how a human mind could be what it is without discovering language for itself." The writer does not make that use of the fact of man's superior organic endowments which one might expect from his general conception of the relation of the physical and the mental in human development. (4) Herder's ser-vices in laying the foundations of a comparative science of religion and mythology are even of greater value than his somewhat crude philological speculations. In opposition to the general spirit of the 18th century he saw, by means of his historic sense, the natural-ness of religion, its relation to man's wants and impulses. Thus with respect to early religious beliefs he rejected Hume's notion that religion sprang out of the fears of primitive men, in favour of the theory that it represents the first attempts of our species to explain phenomena. He thus intimately associated religion with mythology and primitive poetry. As to later forms of religion, he appears to have held that they owe their vitality to their embodiment of the deep seated moral feelings of our common humanity. His high appreciation of Christianity, -which contrasts with the contemptuous estimate of the contemporary rationalists, rested on a firm belief in its essential humanity, to which fact, and not to conscious decep-tion, he attributes its success. His exposition of this religion in his sermons and writings was simply an unfolding of its moral side. In his later life, as we shall presently see, he found his way to a speculative basis for his religious beliefs. (5) Herder's masterpiece, the Ideeii, has the ambitious aim of explaining the whole of human development in close connexion with the nature of man's physical environment. Man is viewed as a part of nature, and all his widely differing forms of development as strictly natural processes. It thus stands in sharp contrast to the anthropology of Kant, which opposes human development conceived as the gradual manifestation of a growing faculty of rational free will to the operations of physi-cal nature. Herder defines human history as " a pure natural his-tory of human powers, actions, and propensities, modified by time and place." The Ideen shows us that Herder is an evolutionist after the manner of Leibnitz, and not after that of more modern evolutionists. The lower forms of life prefigure man in unequal degrees of imperfection ; they exist for his sake, but they are not regarded as representing necessary antecedent conditions of human existence. The genetic method is applied to varieties of man, not to man as a whole. It is worth noting, however, that Herder in his provokingly tentative way of thinking comes now and again very near ideas made familiar to us by Mr Spencer and Mr Darwin. Thus in a passage in book xv. chap, ii., which unmistakably fore-shadows Mr Darwin's idea of a struggle for existence, we read : '' Among millions of creatures whatever could preserve itself abides, and still after the lapse of thousands of years remains in the great harmonious order. Wild animals and tame, carnivorous and gra-minivorous, insects, birds, fishes, and man are adapted to each other." With this may be compared a passage in the Ursprung der Sprache, where there is a curious adumbration of Mr Spencer's idea that intelligence, as distinguished from instinct, arises from a growing complexity of action, or, to use Herder's words, from the substitution of a m ore for a less contracted sphere. Herder is more successful in tracing the early developments of particular peoples than in constructing a scientific theory of evolution. Here lie may be said to have laid the foundations of the science of primitive cul-ture as a whole. His account of the first dawnings of culture, and of the ruder Oriental civilizations, is marked by genuine insight. On the other hand the development of classic culture is traced with a less skilful hand. Altogether this work is rich in suggestion to the philosophic historian and the anthropologist, though marked by much vagueness of conception and hastiness of generalization. (6) Of Herder's properly metaphysical speculations little needs to he said. He was too much under the sway of feeling and concrete imagination to be capable of great things in abstract thought. It is generally admitted that he had no accurate knowdedge either of Spinoza, whose monism he advocated, or of Kant, whose critical philosophy he so fiercely attacked. His sympathy with the one and his antipathy to the other were intimately connected with the essential character of his mind, which was more synthetic than analytic, regarded things in their concrete surroundings rather than in abstract isolation. It was but oue step more to the man who had learnt to view poetry, art, language, &c, in their connexion with social and physical surroundings, and to conceive of human history in its relation to physical events, to bring together the great aggre-gates of material and spiritual phenomena under one total concep-tion of a single substance or God. Herder's Spinozism, which is set forth in his little work, Vom Erkennen und Empfindung der menschlichen Seele, is much less logically conceived than Lessing's. It is the religious aspect of it which attracts him, the presentation in God of an object which at once satisfies the feelings and the intellect. With respect to his attacks on the critical philosophy in the Metakritik, it is easy to understand how his concrete mino, ever alive to the unity of things, instinctively rebelled against that analytic separation of the mental processes which Kant attempted.

However crude and hasty this critical investigation, it helped to direct philosophic reflexion co the unity of mind, and so to develop che post-Kantian line of speculation. Herder was much attracted by Schelling's writings, but appears to have disliked Hegelianism because of the atheism it seemed to him to involve. In the Calli-gone, a work directed against Kant's Critic of Judgment, Herder argues for the close connexion of the beautiful and the good. To his mind the content of art, which he conceived as human feeling and human life in its completeness, was much more valuable than the form, and so he was naturally led to emphasize the moral element in art. Thus his theoretic opposition to the Kantian aes-thetics is but the reflexion of his practical opposition to the form-idolatry of the Weimar poets.

The most valuable original sources of information on Herder, next to his own works (of which a new edition, critically revised by B. Suphan, is just appearing), are the Erinnerungen aus dem Leben J. G. von Herder, by Herder's wife; /. G. von Herder's Lebensbild, by his son Emil; and his letters, edited by Diintzer and Herder's grandson. The general reader will find a sufficient account of Herder in a number of recent biographical works. Among these the fullest are Ch. Jbrefs Herder et la Renaissance Littéraire en Allemagne (which unfortunately does not deal with the latter part of his life), and R. Haym's Herder nach seinem Leben iind seinen Werken. The account of Herder in Hettner's Literaturgeschichte is very full and interesting. (J. S.)


See article EVOLUTION, vol. viii. pp. 760, 761.
Herder's relation to modern evolutionists is dealt with in F. von Bärenbach's Herder als Vorgänger Darwins.

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