The New International Encyclopædia/Herder, Johann Gottfried von

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The New International Encyclopædia
Herder, Johann Gottfried von
Edition of 1905. See also Johann Gottfried Herder on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

HERDER, Johann Gottfried von (1744-1803). An eminent German philosophical and critical writer, of the classical period, born at Mohrungen. He was the son of a schoolmaster and cantor. His frail health unfitted him for industrial life, and his first earnings were as copyist to Deacon Trescho, a voluminous but forgotten author. Here he was neither appreciated nor justly treated, but he gained a knowledge of books and an easy style. He had begun independent composition when he awakened the interest of a Prussian surgeon, with whom he went to Königsberg, where he hoped to have an operation performed on an eye, and then to study medicine. But for the latter his nerves proved too weak, and he turned to theology, getting a small scholarship and eking out a livelihood by teaching. He soon won notice both as pedagogue and preacher, and became intimate with Kant, the philosopher, who, with Rousseau, was the guide of his future metaphysical speculations. In 1764 he accepted a call to the Cathedral School at Riga, where he maintained his reputation, and would have remained had he not become involved in a literary controversy with Klotz about Lessing, in the course of which he was led to protest that he had not written articles that universal opinion, supported by circumstantial evidence, held that he had. Thus he lost reputation, and resolved to recruit his health in the south of France in 1769. He returned to Germany in that year. He became tutor to the Prince of Holstein-Eutin, sharpened his critical genius in a fortnight with Lessing at Hamburg, found at Darmstadt his future congenial mate in Karoline Flachsland, and accepted a call to the pastorate of Bückeburg. He went thither in 1771, after a long stay in Strassburg for optical treatment, during which he was a helpful friend and critic of the young Goethe. He had printed the famous critical attacks on the artificial literary spirit of his time, Fragmente über die neuere dentsche Litteratur (1767) and the Kritische Wälder (1769), and a prize essay, Ueber den Urssprung der Sprache (1772). He now began to gather material for the Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit, his greatest work, though unfinished, published 1784-91 (translated by Churchill), for Aelteste Urkunde des Menschengeschlechts (1774), an aesthetic study of Genesis, and for the studies in popular poetry (Volkslieder, 1778-79), the works that were to constitute his chief title to fame. In 1773 he married. In 1776 Goethe procured for him the posts of Court preacher and member of the Upper Consistory at Weimar, where he found the environment best suited to his delicately organized genius and labored effectively for Church reform, though he soon found himself in moral estrangement from Goethe and his associates. Many of Herder's important publications were completed in the period between 1778 and his journey to Italy in 1788. They consist of theological, æsthetic, philosophic, philologic, and political studies, of Vom Geiste der Ebräischen Poesie (1782), translated by Marsh (The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry, 1833), of a translation of The Cid (1805), and of Stimmen der Völker (Voices of the Peoples) (1778-80), in which he translated the popular songs of many nations with a felicity and sympathy that preserve in wonderful degree the local color and feeling. Herder's original work in æsthetics, philosophy, literature, and philology has powerfully influenced German thought. He was possibly best as an interpreter of others: for he had a truer perception of the relation of language to human nature and national character than any other of his day. He was thought, if not a systematic a most stimulating thinker, perhaps more a seer than a scholar, yet by the scope of his intuitional perceptions he abounded in suggestions that have borne fruit in the modern correlation of the sciences. Herder's Works are in 60 vols. (1827-30). The literary portion has been best reëdited by Suphan and Redlich (9 vols., Berlin, 1884 et seq.). For Herder's biography, consult his widow's Erinnerungen aus dem Leben Johannis Gottfried von Herders (Stuttgart, 1830); his sons, Lebensbild (Erlangen, 1846-47); and his Letters (ib., 1846-48). There are Lives by Haym (Berlin, 1880-85); Kühnemann (Munich, 1894); and in English by Nevinson (London, 1884).