From Pastor Johann Gottfried Herder
to Sir Professor John Wesley Worthy
Most honored Herr Professor!
You Americans will not anywhere find more enthusiastic admirers than us Germans, or any people more apologetic for their own rulers. When our Margrave of Hesse, in order to purchase diamond baubles for his mistresses, sold soldiers to King George III, he demanded a higher price for the casualties than for boys who returned home. You can imagine how avidly we read Ben Franklin's Autobiography, available to us here in Weimar only in French translation! Thus attuned to all that comes fresh out of America, I pricked up my ears at your claim that America is, above all else, an idea. I believe you have hit upon an important principle in cultural history here. From that point of view, I might caution you not to underestimate the statesmanship of Cleopatra. Her considered theories on governance are well tested by experience. Do not be deceived by the Romans' propaganda war against an "Oriental" and a "loose" woman, a "seductress." She is none of those things. History always snubs the vanquished, of course, but beyond that Cleopatra is victim of the lavishly rewarded talents of Virgil, Horace, Propertius, and other priggish men dependent on imperial Roman patronage--in a word, victim of the great Classics and to the gossipy professors who adored them.
So not another word on politics! Let us stick to the topic of your intriguing discussion with Saint Augustine and Cicero, where my protegé Goethe so avidly interrupted you. I say "protegé," because he uses that word. But to use his own metaphors, Goethe sheds one skin after another, like a snake, or like an onion. In short, the philosophy he espouses to you is a late development with him. As younger man he agrees with views developed by his teacher and mentor--me--in reaction against attitudes prevalent in our youth. I, somewhat less protean than Wolf, hold to those same principles still. Let me just very briefly outline our once commonly held view of the classics.
I reject the transcendental-respectable categories which you, Cicero, and indeed this Goethe in his maturer years, like to apply to art-- in order then endlessly to bicker about them. I reject absolutes in general, as being figments of our own vaunted "reason," but not discoverable anywhere outside our own heads. Every culture is different, every age in the same culture is different. Obviously, art is always unique. It is absurd to expect your Frank Lloyd Wright to invent a pagoda, it is inane to compare the Parthenon with Notre Dame. Each monument is the expression of its own people, and may be judged "better" or "worse" only on a scale of how true, adequate, genuine its native essence. I doubt that there are many moderns who would disagree with this.
But it certainly seems to me that spirits like yours, Professor Worthy, and Cicero's, would immediately draw from this principle of mine one very obvious conclusion . Literature and the other arts are the indispensable teachers of humanity. You both claim, do you not, to be concerned about education? How else shall we teach the infinite variety which is humanity, unless we pass on their poetry, their music? With Paul, I hold "whatsoever was written aforetime" to be sacred, whoever may have written it. Each one of us is so limited, so constrained, so prejudiced by the "wisdom" of his own finite time and place in history! But thanks to literature, and only to literature, each of us has the means to rise above that narrow ignorance, to become acquainted with the depth of human consciousness, with its unimaginable potential, and aspire at last to becoming a human. Yes, becoming human, for the uninformed soul who imagines himself, or his own wretched moment in history to be some kind of norm by which he could judge other men at other times and places, is surely not yet a human, but a mere child who, with your Robert Louis Stevenson asks,
Oh little Turk or Japanee,
Don't you wish that you were me?
Now that I recall, my protege himself puts it quite well: "He who cannot give account of three thousand years history, can just remain in the dark, live hand to mouth from one day to the next."
nicht von dreitausend Jahren
Sich weiß Rechenschaft zu geben,
Bleib' im Dunkeln unerfahren,
Mag von Tag zu Tage leben.
With my very best wishes,
Johann Gottfried Herder
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