“I have just left Herder,” Schiller wrote in July, 1787. “. . . His conversation is brilliant, his language warm and powerful; but his feelings are swayed by love and hate.”9
Herder’s duties at Weimar were multifarious, and allowed him little time for writing. As chaplain to the Duke he performed the baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and funerals of the ducal family and the court. As General-superintendent of the duchy he supervised clerical conduct and appointments, attended consistory meetings, and preached sermons as orthodox as his private doubts would permit. The schools of the duchy were under his management, and became a model for all Germany. These responsibilities, added to his fistula and general ill-health, made him irritable, and gave his conversation, now and then, what Goethe called a “vicious bite.”10 For three years (1780-83) he and Goethe avoided each other; the Duke resented some of Herder’s sermons (“After such a sermon,” said Goethe, “there’s nothing left for a prince but to abdicate”11); and the amiable Wieland remarked, in 1777, “I’d like to have a dozen pyramids between Herder and me.”12 Weimar learned to make clinical allowances for its Dean Swift, and his pleasant wife Caroline counteracted some of his bite. On August 28, 1783, Goethe took advantage of this being the birthday of himself and Herder’s eldest son to invite the Herders to dinner; councilor and Generalsuperintendent were reconciled, and Goethe wrote that “the wretched clouds that so long separated us have been dispelled, and, I am convinced, forever.”13 A month later he added: “I know no one of a nobler heart or a more liberal spirit”;14 and Schiller noted in 1787, “Herder is a passionate admirer of Goethe—he almost idolizes him.”15 In time Wieland and Herder became understanding friends,16 and in the salon of Anna Amalie it was these two, rather than Goethe or Schiller, who led the conversation and won the Dowager Duchess’s heart.17
Amid his administrative chores Herder pursued primitive poetry, gathered specimens from a dozen nations, and from Orpheus to Ossian, and published them in an anthology, Volkslieder (1778), which became a fountain-head of the Romantic movement in Germany. While Goethe was preparing a return to classical ideals, forms, and styles, and to restraint of emotion by intellect, Herder counseled a reaction against eighteenth-century rationalism and seventeenth-century formalism to medieval faith, legends, lays, and ways.
In 1778 the Bavarian Academy offered a prize for the best essay “On the Effects of Poetry upon the Customs and Morals of the Nations.” Herder’s contribution was crowned, and was published by the Academy in 1781. It traced what the author considered the deterioration of poetry, among the Hebrews, the Greeks, and the North Europeans, from an early bardic expression of popular history, feelings, and ideas, in free and flowing rhythms, into a “refined” and scholastic exercise, counting syllables, wrenching rhymes, venerating rules, and losing the vitality of the people in the deadening artificialities of city life. The Renaissance, Herder held, had taken literature away from the people and imprisoned it in courts, and printing had replaced the living minstrel with the book. In another essay, “On the Spirit of Hebrew Poetry” (1783), Herder, who had made himself a good Hebraist, proposed that the Book of Genesis should be read as poetry, not as science; and he suggested that such poetry could convey as much truth through symbolism as science does through “fact.”
His religious faith struggled to maintain itself despite his wide reading in science and history. In his first year at Weimar he was suspected of being an atheist, a freethinker, a Socinian, an “enthusiast” (mystic).18 He had read the Wolfenbüttel Fragments of Reimarus as published by Lessing, and was sufficiently impressed to doubt the divinity of Christ.19 He was not an atheist, but he accepted Spinoza’s pantheism. He told Jacobi in 1784, “I do not recognize an extramundane God.”20 He followed Lessing in studying and defending Spinoza; “I must confess that this philosophy makes me very happy.”21 He devoted to Spinoza the opening chapters of Gott, einige Gespräche (God, Some Conversations, 1787); in this treatise God lost personal form and became the energy and spirit of the universe, unknowable except in the order of the world and the spiritual consciousness of man.22 However, in tracts addressed to the clergy Herder accepted the supernatural quality of Christ’s miracles, and the immortality of the soul.23
He brought the scattered elements of his philosophy into a comparatively ordered whole in a massive masterpiece which he modestly entitled Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (Ideas for a Philosophy of the History of Mankind), one of the epochal, seminal books of the eighteenth century. It appeared in four parts in 1784, 1785, 1787, and 1791. That so vast an undertaking should have neared completion amid Herder’s official responsibilities is evidence of a strong character and a good wife. So Herder wrote to Hamann, May 10, 1784: “In my whole life I have not written any work with so many troubles and exhaustions from within, and so many disturbances from without, as I have this one; so that if my wife, who is the real autor autoris [author of the author] of my writings—and Goethe, who accidentally got to see Book I—had not incessantly encouraged me and urged me on, everything would have remained in the Hades of the unborn.”24
Part I begins with a frankly secular story of “creation,” based on current astronomy and geology, and making no use of the Bible except as poetry. Life did not evolve from matter, for matter itself is alive. Body and mind are not separate and opposed substances, they are two forms of one force, and every cell in every organism contains, in some degree, both forms. There is no external design visible in nature, but there is an internal design—the mysterious and “perfect determination” of each seed to develop into a specific organism with all its own complex and characteristic parts. Herder does not derive man from lower animals, but he sees him as a member of the animal kingdom, fighting like other organisms for sustenance and survival. Man became man by taking erect stature, which developed in him a sensory system based upon sight and hearing rather than upon smell and taste; forefeet became hands, free for grasping, manipulation, comprehension, thought. The highest product of God or nature is the conscious mind acting with reason and freedom, and destined to immortality.
Part II of the Ideen starts with the assumption that man is by nature good; it renews the argument for the relative excellence and happiness of primitive societies, and deprecates the Kantian—later Hegelian—notion that the state is the goal of human development. Herder despised the state as he knew it. “In great states,” he wrote, “hundreds must go hungry so that one can strut and wallow in luxury; tens of thousands are oppressed and driven to death so that one crowned fool or wise man can carry out his fancy.”25
In Part III Herder praised Athens for its comparative democracy, which allowed culture to spread into many strata of the population. Rome, building its wealth on conquest and slavery, developed a narrow culture that left the people in poverty and ignorance. In all this history Herder saw no Providence; it was too evil to be divine. God, being one with nature, lets matters take their course according to natural law and human stupidity. Nevertheless, by the very struggle for existence, some progress emerges from the chaos; mutual aid, social order, morals, and law are developed as means of survival, and man moves slowly toward a humane humanity. Not that there is a continuous line of progress; this cannot be, for each national culture is a unique entity, with its own inherent character, its own language, religion, moral code, literature, and art; and, like any organism, each culture, barring accidents, tends to grow to its natural maximum, after which it declines and dies. There is no guarantee that later cultures will excel earlier ones, but the contributions of each culture are better transmitted to its successors, and so the human heritage grows.
Part IV lauds Christianity as the mother of Western civilization. The medieval papacy served a good purpose in checking the despotism of rulers and the individualism of states; the Scholastic philosophers, though they wove meaningless webs with ponderous words, sharpened the terms and tools of reason; and the medieval universities gathered, preserved, and transmitted much of Greek and Roman culture, something even of Arabic and Persian science and philosophy. So the intellectual community grew too numerous and subtle for the custodians of power; the cake of custom was broken, and the modern mind declared itself free.
Between the third and fourth installments of the Ideen Herder realized his long-deferred hope of seeing Italy. Johann Friedrich Hugo von Dalberg, Catholic privy councilor to the Archbishop-Elector of Trier, invited Herder to accompany him on a grand tour, all expenses paid. The Duke of SaxeWeimar—and Caroline—gave him leave of absence, and Herder left Weimar August 7, 1788. When he joined Dalberg in Augsburg he found that Dalberg’s mistress was an important member of the party. Her presence and her demands shared with ill-health in souring the trip for Herder. In October Anna Amalie arrived in Rome; Herder left Dalberg and joined her entourage. He liked Angelica Kauffmann too much for Caroline’s liking, and Caroline’s letters spoke too often and fondly of Goethe. Herder, having heard of Goethe’s life in Rome, resumed his bite: “My journey here,” he wrote, “has unfortunately made Goethe’s selfish existence, which is inwardly altogether unconcerned about others, clearer to me than I could desire. He can’t help it, so let him be.”26
He returned to Weimar July 9, 1789. Five days later the Bastille fell, and Herder changed his writing plans. He completed Part IV of the Ideen, then put the book aside, and, instead, wrote Briefe zur Beförderung der Humani-tät (Letters for the Advancement of Humanity, 1793-97). He began with cautiously approving the French Revolution; he welcomed the collapse of French feudalism, and shed no tears over the secularization of the Catholic Church in France.27 When the Duke and Goethe went off to face the French at Valmy, and came back sore with defeat, Herder suppressed those early Briefe, and devoted the remainder to praise of geniuses safely dead.
In his old age he lost none of his relish for intellectual combat. He countered Kant’s criticism of the Ideen with an incisive attack upon the Critique of Pure Reason. He called that book a monstrous jugglery of words with metaphysical phantoms, like “synthetic judgments a priori”; he denied the subjectivity of space and time; and he accused Kant of bringing back into psychology the “faculties” into which the Scholastic philosophers had allegedly divided the mind. He suggested, prophetically, that philosophy might make a new approach through a logical analysis of language—for reasoning is internal speech.
Goethe largely agreed with Herder’s criticism of Kant, but this did not protect him from an occasional bite. When the two were staying under the same roof at Jena in 1803 Goethe read, to a gathering that included Herder, some parts of his new drama, Die natürliche Tochter. Herder praised the play to others, but when the author asked for his opinion he could not resist a pun about the boy that Goethe’s mistress had borne him: “I like your natural son better than your Natural Daughter.” Goethe did not appreciate the wit. The two men never saw each other again. Herder retired into the seclusion of his Weimar home, and died there December 18, 1803—two years before Schiller, ten before Wieland, twenty-nine before Goethe. Duke Karl August, who had often been offended by him, had him buried with high honors in the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul.