1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Herder, Johann Gottfried von

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HERDER, JOHANN GOTTFRIED VON (1744–1803), one of the most prolific and influential writers that Germany has produced, was born in Mohrungen, a small town in East Prussia, on the 25th of August 1744. Like his contemporary Lessing, Herder had throughout his life to struggle against adverse circumstances. His father was poor, having to put together a subsistence by uniting the humble offices of sexton, choir-singer and petty schoolmaster. After receiving some rudimentary instruction from his father, the boy was sent to the grammar school 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 hardships 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 expressed a wish to become a minister of the gospel, but his aspirations were 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 abandoned 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, 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 Königsberg, and which was destined to be far more permanent, was that of J. G. Hamann, “the northern Mage.” This writer had already won a name, and in 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 gifted writer our author acquired some of his strong feeling for the naïve element in poetry, and for the earliest developments of national literature. Even before he went to Königsberg he had begun to compose verses, and at the age of twenty he took up the pen as a chief occupation. His first published writings were occasional poems and reviews contributed to the Königsbergische Zeitung. Soon after this he got an appointment at Riga, as assistant master at the cathedral school, and a few years later, became assistant pastor. In this busy commercial town, in somewhat 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 information 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 abandoned his somewhat visionary scheme of a social reconstruction of a Russian province. He has, however, left a curious sketch of his projected school reforms. His new duties led him to Strassburg, where he met the young Goethe, on whose poetical development he exercised so potent an influence. 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 member of the consistory at Bückeburg. Here he had to encounter bitter opposition from the orthodox clergy and their followers, among whom he was regarded as a freethinker. 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 depression. 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 one of the leaders of the new Sturm und Drang movement. He co-operated with a band of young writers at Darmstadt and Frankfort, including Goethe, who in a journal of their own sought to diffuse the new ideas. His marriage took place in 1773. In 1776 he obtained through Goethe’s influence the post of general superintendent and court preacher 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 he was very popular, and an opportunity of carrying out some of his 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. This, added to ill-health, served to intensify a natural irritability of temperament, and the history of his later 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 the 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 cultivated 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 much that Herder produced after settling in Weimar has little value, he wrote also some of his best works, among others his collection of popular poetry on which he had been engaged for many years, Stimmen der Völker in Liedern (1778–1779); his translation of the Spanish romances of the Cid (1805); his celebrated work on Hebrew poetry, Vom Geist der hebräischen Poesie (1782–1783); and his opus magnum, the Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1784–1791). 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 on the 18th of December 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. His works 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 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. Lessing was the exponent of German classicism; Herder, on the contrary, was a pioneer of the romantic movement. He 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 Rousseau. 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 attention which was requisite for the genetic explanation of later developments. 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 intimately connected with some of the most characteristic attributes 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 may be arranged 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 development. Secondly, we have in the Ideen a general account of the process 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 has but little value; Herder was a skilful verse-maker but hardly a creative poet. He was most successful in his translation 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 Scots. 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 eagerness to be French. 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 whose works he was one of the first to elucidate, the Hebrew poets, and the poetry of the north as typified in “Ossian.” This same idea of necessary relation 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 Shakespeare’s genius than his predecessor had shown.

2. The views on art contained in Herder’s Kritische Wälder (1769), Plastik (1778), &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 fundamental 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 excellences of Gothic art. Beyond this, he eloquently pleaded 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 sculpture. 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 Dürer.

3. By his work on language Über den Ursprung der Sprache (1772), 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 specially 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 reflection. “If,” Herder says, “it is incomprehensible to others how a human mind could invent language, it is as incomprehensible 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 services 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 naturalness 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 deception, 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 Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte, 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 physical nature. Herder defines human history as “a pure natural history 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 Spencer and Darwin. Thus in a passage in book xv. chap, ii., which unmistakably foreshadows 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 graminivorous, 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 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 more 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 he may be said to have laid the foundations of the science of primitive culture 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 be 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 knowledge either of Spinoza, whose monism he advocated, or of Kant, whose critical philosophy he so fiercely attacked. Herder’s Spinozism, which is set forth in his little work, Vom Erkennen und Empfinden der menschlichen Seele (1778), 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 (1799), it is easy to understand how his concrete mind, 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 reflection to the unity of mind, and so to develop the post-Kantian line of speculation. Herder was much attracted by Schelling’s early writings, but appears to have disliked Hegelianism because of the atheism it seemed to him to involve. In the Kalligone (1800), work directed against Kant’s Kritik der Urteilskraft, 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 aesthetics is but the reflection of his practical opposition to the form-idolatry of the Weimar poets.  (J. S.) 

Bibliography.—An edition of Herder’s Sämtliche Werke in 45 vols. was published after his death by his widow (1805–1820); a second in 60 vols. followed in 1827–1830; a third in 40 vols. in 1852–1854. There is also an edition by H. Düntzer (24 vols., 1869–1879). But these have all been superseded by the monumental critical edition by B. Suphan (32 vols., 1877 sqq.). Of the many “selected works,” mention may be made of those by B. Suphan (4 vols., 1884–1887); by H. Lambel, H. Meyer and E. Kühnemann in Kürschner’s Deutsche Nationalliteratur (10 vols., 1885–1894). For Herder’s correspondence, see Aus Herders Nachlass (3 vols., 1856–1857), Herders Reise nach Italien (1859), Von und an Herder: Ungedruckte Briefe (3 vols., 1861–1862)—all three works edited by H. Düntzer and F. G. von Herder. Herder’s Briefwechsel mit Nicolai and his Briefe an Hamann have been edited by O. Hoffmann (1887 and 1889). For biography and criticism, see Erinnerungen aus dem Leben Herders, by his wife, edited by J. G. Müller (2 vols., 1820); J. G. von Herders Lebensbild (with his correspondence), by his son, E. G. von Herder (6 vols., 1846); C. Joret, Herder et la renaissance littéraire en Allemagne au XVIII e siècle (1875); F. von Bärenbach, Herder als Vorgänger Darwins (1877); R. Haym, Herder nach seinem Leben und seinen Werken (2 vols., 1880–1885); H. Nevinson, A Sketch of Herder and his Times (1884); M. Kronenberg, Herders Philosophie nach ihrem Entwicklungsgang (1889); E. Kühnemann, Herders Leben (1895); R. Bürkner, Herder, sein Leben und Wirken (1904).