On World History: An Anthology

By Johann Gottfried Herder; Hans Adler et al. | Go to book overview

11
On the Character of Humankind

This text is the twenty-fifth letter in Herder collection Letters Concerning the Advancement of Humanity ( 1793). It is one of those rare texts in which Herder formulates his general "credo" about humanity, in the very specific sense in which he uses the term. "Humanity" is the potential of every human being. It is the foundation of human history and must not be confused with sentimental applications like humanitarian efforts. "Humanity" (Humanität) is the power of human beings to form their history, for good or ill. World history is the development of humanity, which is not something each human being is endowed with by birth. The goal of world history is the attainment of the greatest possible human diversity; thus, history is a never-ending process. It proceeds in accordance with and is based on natural laws, which are analogically valid on the level of human culture and history; as Herder put it, "the nature of the human being is art." Hence, world history is an open process of self-aware perfection as an activity, not as a result: the present -- as Leibniz, who is omnipresent in Herder's oeuvre, put it -- is pregnant with the future, and the future is seen as a positive one. Herder as philosopher of history is an optimist. As a background for this text, we have to keep in mind that the French Revolution was just entering the phase of terror.

All your questions concerning the progress of our species, which really would call for a book in response, are answered, it seems to me, by one word, humanity, to be human. Were the question to be whether the human being could become, and should become, more than human, a superman, a human being beyond the realm of the species, every line written in response would be in vain. Now, however, since only the laws governing his nature, the ineradicable character of his kind and species are under discussion, allow me to write a few paragraphs.

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