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Johann Gottfried Herder

Johann Gottfried HerderAKA Johann Gottfried von Herder

Born: 25-Aug-1744
Birthplace: Mohrungen, East Prussia, Germany
Died: 18-Dec-1803
Location of death: Weimar, Saxe-Weimar, Germany
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Herderkirche, Weimar, Germany

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Philosopher, Poet

Nationality: Germany
Executive summary: Sturm und Drang movement

One of the most prolific and influential writers that Germany has produced, Herder was born in Mohrungen, a small town in East Prussia, on the 25th of August 1744. Like his contemporary Gotthold Ephraim 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 practiced 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 favored 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 labors, followed out his earlier idea of the clerical profession by joining the university. There he came under the influence of Immanuel 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, David Hume, Shaftesbury, Gottfried Leibniz, Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Another personal influence under which he fell at Königsberg, and which was destined to be far more permanent, was that of Johann Georg 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 naive 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 favorable interest of Lessing. From this time he continued to pour forth a number of critical writings on literature, art, etc. 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, etc., 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 Strasbourg, 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 favor 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 William 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 Charlotte 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 (1778-79); his translation of the Spanish romances of El Cid (1805); his celebrated work on Hebrew poetry, Vom Geist der hebräischen Poesie (1782-83); and his opus magnum, the Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1784-91). 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 Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Johann Kaspar 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 enamored 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 colors 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.

Wife: Caroline Flachsland (m. 1773)



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