Herder, Johann Gottfried. Another Philosophy of History and Selected Political Writings. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2004.
The English title is misleading. One expects that this will be another volume along the same lines as Hegel or Augustine. It is not. The German title, Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte zur Bildung der Menscheit, clearly teaches us this is about education, not history. Even more, as the use of his term Bildung makes clear, it is about formative education.
Herder resists the Enlightenment attempt to judge all cultures from the standpoint of French atheism. Moreover, one should not wish to go back in time and live in x culture, for “God, climate, and [the] stage of world development” made you what you are, where you are.
Every nation and culture has “its center of gravity” (Herder 29).
Herder operates with a number of German terms that lose some of their nuance in English. The most important is Bildung. It isn’t simply education, but formation.
Herder begins history with the Oriental patriarchs. By Orient he probably means Mesopotamia and Abraham, not China or Japan. It’s necessary that history begin with the patriarchs. Mankind needed to be formed (Bild- words) in a way that would be a scaffold for later epochs. Mankind didn’t need the dry, cold reason of the French Enlightenment, but custom and inclination. Similarly, children do not need to begin with abstract reasoning but with stories of heroism.
Human history then moves from patriarchal huts to Egypt. The emphasis is no longer “the paternal oracles of the deity,” but law and security (Herder 12). Man needed stability before he could move to the Greek genius. History then moves to Phoenicia. Instead of a god-king, there is now an aristocracy of cities and commerce.
Then is Greece. The Greeks blended Phoenecian and Egyptian ways of thinking. The aristocracy of cities became polises. Greek art was light compared with Egyptian heaviness. “The giant temple became a stage” (20).
Rome follows Greece, as manhood does boyhood. Rome was also necessary in order to bridge Greece and Germany. Greek airiness lacked the manly spirit to tame the barbarians. Only Rome (and the Gospel) could do that. This gives rise to another of Herder’s arguments: each culture is an analogy of the one preceding it (39).
It is tempting to read Herder as one who wants to go back to Medieval Germany. He doesn’t say that. He is very clear on that point. Nonetheless, given the current Christian fascination with “classical education” and “classical cultures,” prioritizing Medieval Germany over pagan Greece might have something going for it.
Much of the middle ages was no doubt brutal, but consider what happened: instead of slavery, there were guilds (at least in the later centuries); Europe populated; self-reliance, etc.
All of this is excellent and good, but Herder is making a dangerous argument. He comes very close to saying we can’t judge another culture from our standpoint. What about cultural practices such as widow-burning in India and female circumcision in Africa? We most certainly can judge (and stop, as the manly British did in India) those cultures.
He then deconstructs terms like “happiness.” Happiness can’t simply be what French philosophes think it must be (with the conclusion that no nation was ever happy until 1789).
There are a number of modern-day applications we can make from Herder’s argument. Trying to import American (and really, just neo-liberal democracy) to other cultures is always doomed from the start. True, much of Iraqi and Afghani culture is bad, but destroying those mediating institutions, leaving nothing remaining, and then telling them to be good Western citizens is almost always worse. You get ISIS as a result.
Do We Have a Fatherland?
This text ends with several of Herder’s essays on the topic. This question would get him brought up on charges by Big Eva today. That’s because modern Americans, both secularists and Evangelicals, are utterly clueless on what nationalism means. A Fatherland is a nexus of numerous influences: soil, family, language. These are manifested in its institutions (which is why the godly must always fight efforts from the UN which threaten our institutions).
Ultimately, though, a Fatherland is revealed by its language. Note what Herder didn’t say. He didn’t say race. And for neo-liberals and neo-conservatives, he didn’t say oil or global markets.
This is a fun, bombastic work. Herder is certainly wrong in some of the particulars, but it is still a fun read.