Furthest Right

Johann Gottfried Herder (Isaiah Berlin)

Then I read a far more relevant thinker, namely the German philosopher and poet Johann Gottfried Herder. Herder was not the first (his teacher, Johann Georg Hamann, has that honour) to deny the doctrine of his French contemporaries that there are universal, timeless, unquestionable truths which hold for all men, everywhere, at all times; and that the differences are simply due to error and illusion, for the truth is one and universal – `quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est’.1 Herder believed that different cultures gave different answers to their central questions. He was more interested in the humanities, the life of the spirit, than in the external world; and he became convinced that what was true for a Portuguese was not necessarily true for a Persian.Montesquieu had begun to say this kind of thing, but even he, who believed that men were shaped by environment, by what he called ‘climate’, was in the end a universalist – he believed that the central truths were eternal, even if the answers to local and ephemeral questions might be different. Herder laid it down that every culture possesses its own ‘centre of gravity’;1 each culture has its own points of reference; there is no reason why these cultures should fight each other – universal toleration must be possible – but unification was destruction. Nothing was worse than imperialism. Rome, which crushed native civilisations in Asia Minor in order to produce one uniform Roman culture, committed a crime. The world was a great garden in which different flowers and plants grew, each in its own way, each with its own claims and rights and past and future. From which it followed that no matter what men had in common – and of course, again, there was a common nature to some degree – there were no universally true answers, as valid for one culture as for another.

Herder is the father of cultural nationalism. He is not a political nationalist (that kind of nationalism had not developed in his time), but he believed in the independence of cultures and the need to preserve each in its uniqueness. He believed that the desire to belong to a culture, something that united a group or a province or a nation, was a basic human need, as deep as the desire for food or drink or liberty; and that this need to belong to a community where you understood what others said, where you could move freely, where you had emotional as well as economic, social and political bonds, was the basis of developed, mature human life. Herder was not a relativist, though he is often so described: he believed that there were basic human goals and rules of behaviour, but that they took wholly different forms in different cultures, and that consequently, while there may have been analogies, similarities, which made one culture intelligible to another, cultures were not to be confused with each other – mankind was not one but many, and the answers to the questions were many, though there might be some central essence to them all which was one and the same. (Editor note: I would say that the humanity’s essence resides in its will to the differentiation and plurality)

Romanticism and its offspring 

This idea was developed further by the romantics, who said something wholly new and disturbing: that ideals were not objective truths written in heaven and needing to be understood, copied, practised by men; but that they were created by men. Values were not found, but made; not discovered, but generated -that is what some of the German romantics certainly believed, as against the objectivist, universalising tendency of the superficial French. Uniqueness mattered. A German poet writes poetry in German, in language which, in the course of writing, he to some degree creates: he is not simply a writer in German. The German artist is a maker of German paintings, poems, dances – and so in all other cultures. A Russian thinker, Alexander Herzen, once asked, ‘Where is the song before it is sung?’1 Where indeed? ‘Nowhere’ is the answer – one creates the song by singing it, by composing it. So, too, life is created by those who live it, step by step. This is an aesthetic interpretation of morality and of life, not an application of eternal models. Creation is all.

From this sprang all kinds of diverse movements – anarchism, romanticism, nationalism, Fascism, hero-worship. I make my own values, maybe not consciously: and besides, who is ‘I’? For Byronic romantics, ‘I’ is indeed an individual, the outsider, the adventurer, the outlaw, he who defies society and accepted values, and follows his own – it may be to his doom, but this is better than conformity, enslavement to mediocrity. But for other thinkers ‘I’ becomes something much more metaphysical. It is a collective – a nation, a Church, a Party, a class, an edifice in which I am only a stone, an organism of which I am only a tiny living fragment. It is the creator; I myself matter only in so far as I belong to the movement, the race, the nation, the class, the Church; I do not signify as a true individual within this super-person to whom my life is organically bound. Hence German nationalism: I do this not because it is good or right or because I like it – I do it because I am a German and this is the German way to live. So also modern existentialism – I do it because I commit myself to this form of existence. Nothing makes me; I do not do it because it is an objective order which I obey, or because of universal rules to which I must adhere; I do it because I create my own life as I do; being what I am, I give it direction and I am responsible for it.


[From “The Power of Ideas”]


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