No. 6: Early German Romanticism: A Very Brief Introduction II

(Part 2 of 3)

Strasbourg, 1770; “I was ever of opinion, that the honest man who married and brought up a large family, did more service than he who continued single, and only talked of population,” read the pastor to the assembled students. The book? Oliver Goldsmith’s “Vicar of Wakefield”, the pastor? Johann Gottfried Herder. Hamann was an honest man who was more than happy to do as Dr. Primrose suggested, intellectually speaking that is. He was good enough to take a bride in Kant, and Herder, the child of their rivalry, now himself in 1770 was an up and coming mind in his own right.

Strasbourg was a dying German town, the mighty Gothic cathedral sat wrecked and unattended to, the folk stories of the German people surrounding the city slowly vanished, and as was the case across the whole of Germany, French culture reigned supreme. In the courts the princes and the courtiers spoke French. The tutors of the nation taught French to all the students. And on the stage, Racine, Molière and Corneille enjoyed an unrivalled superiority of reputation.

Not around the hearth of Heder’s distinctly German heart however, and in the little room where his young adherents gathered, where his family assembled. There it was all Oliver Goldsmith, all Laurence Strene and Tobias Smollett, all Ossian, and most importantly of all, all Shakespeare.

Among the number collected there, beneath the cracked and crumbling tower of the cathedral, was Goethe, and Herder was to be his mentor, for the time being. Herder for his part, in those days, was hard at work still on what would be his greatest work yet, “On The Origin of Human Language”, a work that was to win him a prize from the Aufklärungers and establish his reputation as a thinker independent from his own mentors, Kant and Hamann.

And here, gentle reader, should you permit me to refer to you as such, yes, here gentle reader is the birth of Marxism. For Herder, language had no divine origin (imagine how his father Hamann must have felt upon hearing his son speak like that), but was a product of nature. All was within nature, language, art, culture, and yes, ideas and even the mind. What better way to study Man than to study his history. Herder marks the beginning of modern philosophy of language, history, and anthropology, and for all intents and purposes, was the first Marxist.

Goethe would, in time, step out from his master’s shadow, but for now, as Herder worked on outlining his grand unifying theory of history, which would culminate in his masterpiece, his “Ideas For a Philosophy of Human History”, Goethe was to remain his student.

The project of the day was the creation of Germany. There was no political Germany, only Germany in idea. A German world that extended into France, into the Denmark of Hamlet, the Holland of Egmont and the Switzerland of Lavater. There was this idea of “The Public”, of “Society”, and this idea of the Enlightenment, of the national cultural and political body of which we are all members, is perhaps the most important idea to be developed through the course of the 17th and 18th centuries.

How to find the public? How to speak to them? How do you educate them, and give them culture and refine them and improve their manners? How do you reach them and raise them up and make for yourself a better public, a better society?

Herder tried to answer these questions, along with Goethe and the other so called “geniuses”, the rising stars of German literature who promised each to be messiah to German letters and act as rallying point for the entire mass of the German people. They invented the middle ages, the romantic middle ages you and I know today, of knights and gothic castles and fairy tales. That was to be Herder’s German culture, the historical myth he believed he could create to make a Germany from thin air.

But Germany deserved, well, a better Germany than Herder could conceive. And it would get one.

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