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Johann Gottfried von Herder-‘Do We Still Have The Fatherland Of The Ancients?’

Johann Gottfried Herder, a portrait by Anton Graff .


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA is a reflection of nationality, nationhood and fatherland, written in 1795, by the German philosopher, theologian, poet, and literary critic, Johann Gottfried von Herder. He was the leading figure of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ literary movement and an innovator in the philosophy of history and culture. His influence, augmented by his contacts with the young J.W. von Goethe, made him a harbinger of the Romantic movement. He was ennobled (with the addition of von) in 1802. (Encyclopedia Britannica). Our text is excerpted from ‘Another Philosophy of History and Selected Political Writings’, translated, with introduction and notes, by Ioannis D. Evrigenis and Daniel Pellerin, Hackett Publishing Company, 2004.


An introductory insight by Godfried van Benthem van den Bergh

‘Herders’ idea of the nation as unpolitical could in fact be a political perspective. Herder hated the state of Prussia because of its expansionist and war-prone policies and its despotic character. He saw the borders of dynastic states as artificial and those of nations as natural. In Herder’s time dynastic states ruled by aristocratic regimes were still accepted as being in the nature of things. The people ruled were of heterogeneous origin, in part as the result of migratory movements. Rulers, however, were not interested in the composition of the ruled. What, then, could make opposition to the rulers of dynastic states possible? Herder may not explicitly have thought of the nation as a power resource, but his idea of the nation was implicitly the only possible growing source of resistance to dynastic states. Herder defended his idea of the nation by stressing its character as peaceful. He stated that the Volks-Geist of all nations would determine their specific character and that they would no longer be forced to compete. His idea of nations would guarantee that mankind would become peaceful. Herder’s idea of the nation was therefore more political than he would admit. Whether, or not, Herder realized this is another matter. At the end of his life he did accept the aristocratic ‘von’ before his name – and, practically at the same time, rejoiced in the French revolution. This may illustrate the ambivalence of Herder’s orientation.’


‘For the Greeks and Romans, the word “fatherland” was sweet and worthy of honor. Who is not familiar with passages from their poets and orators in which the sons of the fatherland dedicate to it, as to a mother, their childlike love and gratitude, their praises, wishes, and sighs? He who finds himself removed from it yearns to return; with hope or with sorrow he looks in its direction, receiving the winds blowing from there as messengers of his beloved. Having returned to the fatherland, he embraces it and tearfully kisses its soil. He who dies at a distance bequeaths his ashes to it, wishing even for an empty tomb of memory among his people. To live for the fatherland was for them the highest glory; to die for it, the sweetest death. He who helped raise the father- land by his counsels and actions, who rescued it and adorned it with the wreaths of glory, earned for himself a seat among the gods; he was certain of immortality in heaven and on earth. He, on the other hand, who insulted the fatherland or dishonored it by his actions, who betrayed it or made war on it, thrust a sword into the bosom of his mother; he was a murderer of father, child, friend, and brother. “The fatherland must be dearer to us than we ourselves.” “It is sweet and honorable to die for the fatherland.” And so forth. Do we, too, have this fatherland of the ancients? And what are the bonds of love that tie us to it?

The soil of the country, on which we are born, can hardly tie this magic bond all by itself. It would, rather, be the heaviest of all burdens if man, viewed like a tree or a plant or a beast, would have to belong, inherently and eternally, with all his soul, body, and powers, to the land where he was born. There have been and still are enough harsh laws about such servitude and serfdom, and so forth. [Meanwhile] the whole course of reason, of culture, even of industry and of utilitarian calculation, leads towards a gradual unshackling of these slaves, born of a mother’s womb or of the mother-earth, from the hard scrap of land that they are expected to fertilize with their sweat in life and their ashes in death, and instead ties them with more gentle bonds to a fatherland.
When nomadic peoples were still roaming the earth, dwelling in deserted places for periods of time and burying their fathers there, the ground of the land held by these peoples, at that time or in the past, gave rise to the name land of the fathers. “We shall await you at the graves of our fathers,” one would call out to the enemy: “Their ashes, too, we shall protect as we defend our land.” Thus the holy name emerged, and not as if human beings had sprung from the soil. Only children can love the fatherland, not serfs born of the soil or slaves captured like wild animals.

What first invigorates us in the fatherland is not the earth beneath our feet but the air we breathe, the father’s hands that hold us, the mother’s breast that feeds us, the sun we see, the sib- lings we play with, and the friendly natures that are good for us. Our first fatherland, therefore, is the father’s house, a father’s field, family. It is in this small society that the first and foremost friends of the fatherland live, as in an idyllic circle; the land of our early youth lives by just such idylls. Let the soil or climate be what it may: the soul yearns to return there, and the further this small society in which we were raised was from a state, the less ranks and classes of men were separated within it, the fewer obstacles there are to the imagination that yearns to return to the bosom of this fatherland. It was there that we heard and understood the first tones of love; it was there that we committed ourselves to friend- ship for the first time and felt the first buds of tender attraction between the sexes.

We saw the sun, the moon, the sky, the spring with its trees, blossoms, and fruit that were then so sweet to us. The course of all the world was displayed for us; we saw the sea- sons roll along, we struggled with dangers, with grief and joy—we grew into the world like summer and winter, as it were. These impressions, moral and physical, remain engraved upon our imagination; the tree’s tender bark received them, and if they are not eradicated by force they will die only with the tree itself. Who has not read of the sighs and sorrows with which even the Greenlanders left behind the land of their youth and that accompanied them as they strove, through all the dangers, to make their way back from the culture of Europe? Whose ears do not ring with the sighs of the Africans who were torn away from their fatherland, where they had lived in simple small societies, in an idyllic land of youth.

The states—or rather cities—of the Greeks, to whom the name of the fatherland was so dear and precious, followed right after these small societies. Legislation favored them and originally derived all its energy from them. It was the land of the fathers that one protected; it was companions from one’s youth—siblings and friends—for whom one yearned. The league of love into which young men entered was approved and made use of by the father- land. One wished to be buried with one’s friends, to enjoy things together, to live and die with them. And since the noble ancestors of these tribes had built the community to which they belonged with the protection of the gods, marking it with their troubles and toil and sealing it with their blood, so the bond of such laws was sacred to their descendants as a moral fatherland. For the Greeks esteemed nothing more than the achievement of those civil institutions that had turned them into Greeks and by which they had been raised above all the barbarians of the world. The gods of their land were the most beautiful gods; their heroes, legislators, poets, and wise men were immortalized in institutions, songs, monuments, and celebrations. Their public places and temples were resplendent with all this. The victory of the Greeks over the Persians alone made their land, their constitution, their culture and language the crown of the universe for them. The Greeks were floating in the ether of such ideas when they so often used the name of the fatherland nobly, but also often abused it. Several cities shared in this glory, each in its own way. And how Rome thought of herself as the queen of all the world, the gathering place for all victory and glory, this Roman history shows.

It would be foolish to wish to return to the times of Greece or Rome. This youth of the world has passed, as has the iron age of the times of Roman rule, and we would hardly gain much of what we really desire by trading, even if such an exchange were possible. Sparta’s zeal for the fatherland oppressed not only the Helots, but also its citizens, and, with time, the other Greeks as well. Athens was often hard on its citizens and colonies, which needed to be concealed with sweet phantoms. Finally, the Romans’ love of their fatherland proved pernicious not only for Italy but for Rome itself and for the entire Roman world. We shall therefore seek out what we ought to respect and love about the fatherland, that we may love it worthily and purely.

1. Is it that once upon a time gods climbed down from the heavens and assigned this land to our fathers? Is it that they gave us a religion and established our constitution themselves? Did Minerva conquer this city in a contest? Did Egeria inspire our Numa with her dreams? A vain glory, for we are not our fathers. If, on Minerva’s hallowed ground, we cease to be worthy of the great goddess, if Numa’s dreams no longer accord with our times, then may Egeria rise once more from her spring and may Minerva bring new inspiration as she [once more] comes down from the heavens. To speak plainly, it is good and glorious for a people to have great ancestors, an advanced age, and illustrious gods of the fatherland, so long as [the people] are thereby roused to noble deeds and inspired to worthy convictions, so long as the ancient discipline and teaching remain suitable to them. Where [this discipline and teaching] is scorned by the people themselves, how- ever, it has outlived itself or is abused: “What good, you proud Pontic Mast,” cries Horace to his fatherland, “what good is your noble descent to you now? What good are the painted gods on your hulls?” A glory idly possessed and lazily inherited from our ancestors soon makes us vain and unworthy of them. He who fancies himself to be courageous, noble, and upright by birthright easily forgets to prove himself such. He misses the chance to reach for a wreath that he thinks he already possesses by inheritance from his ancestors.—about the fatherland, its religion, lineage, ancestry—that Judea, Greece, Rome, and nearly every ancient, mighty, or holy state has perished. Our respect and love is due not to what the fatherland may once have been, but to what it is now.

2. Hence [the proper object of our respect and love], apart from our children, relatives, and friends, can only be the institutions [of our fatherland], the good constitution under which we would most like to live with what is dearest to us. Physically, we praise the location of a place whose healthy air is good for our body and spirits; morally, we consider ourselves to be happy in a state where under a lawful freedom and security we do not make ourselves blush, where we do not waste our efforts, where we and those dear to us are not abandoned but are free to do all our duties as worthy, active sons of the fatherland who are recognized and rewarded in the eyes of the mother. The Greeks and Romans were right [to think] that no other human achievement exceeds that of establishing such a union, or of strengthening, renewing, purifying, and preserving it. To think, to work, and (blessed lot!) truly to accomplish something not only for the common cause of those dearest to us but for all those who descend from us and for the entire, eternal fatherland of man- kind—what, compared to this, is a single life but a day’s work of a few minutes and hours?

Anyone aboard a ship caught amidst the tidal waves of the sea will feel the common bond of mutual aid for the preservation and rescue of the ship. It was the word fatherland that rendered the ship seaworthy at the shore; [he who boards it] cannot, must not, stand idly by as if he had remained on land, counting the waves— unless he were to fling himself overboard, surrendering himself to the wild waves of the sea. Duty calls him (for all his companions and loved ones are on the ship with him) that he may help and cry out for help whenever a storm looms, a danger threatens, the wind turns, or another ship skids towards a collision with his own. Quietly or loudly [he does his part] according to his station, be he a simple sailor, the helmsman, or the ship’s captain. Duty, the welfare of the entire ship, calls him. He cannot save himself on his own; he must not dream of punting in choice company at the shore, which is out of his reach, but must rather put his hands to the task and thereby become, if not the ship’s savior, then at least its loyal companion and guardian.

How did it come about that estates of men once highly respected gradually came to be despised, having sunk into disgrace and still sinking today? Because none of them were concerned with the common cause, because all lived by the privileges of their estate, its property and honor. They slept calmly through the storm like Jonah, and they met with the same fate as Jonah. O that men whose eyes can see will not believe in Nemesis! Every breach or neglect of duty entails not an arbitrary but a necessary punishment that accumulates from generation to generation. If the cause of the fatherland is holy and eternal, then every failure to promote it must by its very nature be atoned for, and vengeance is accumulated with every rotten dealing or generation. You are not to brood over the fatherland as you were not its creator, but you must join in aiding it wherever and however you can by encouraging, rescuing, improving—even if you were to be a goose guarding the Capitol.

3. Should we not, therefore, in the very spirit of the ancients, consider the voice of every single citizen an expression of the freedom of the fatherland, a holy ostracism, provided that it also appears in print? Perhaps the poor man could do nothing but write, or he would probably have done something better; would you rob him who is sighing of the breath that goes out into the desolate emptiness? But still more valuable to the intelligent man are the nods and glances of those who see further ahead. They wake [men] up when all are sleeping; they sigh, perhaps, when all are dancing. But they do not only sigh; they produce better results by simpler equations, by virtue of an unquestionable art. Do you want to silence them because you calculate only according to the common arithmetic? They keep silent easily and continue to calculate; but the fatherland counts on these silent calculators. A single step ahead that they pronounced to good effect is worth more than ten thousand ceremonies and words of praise.

Is our fatherland not supposed to need this art of calculation? Let Germany be courageous and upright. Courageously and uprightly it once let itself be led to Spain and Africa, to Gaul and England, to Italy, Sicily, Crete, Greece, Palestine. Our courageous and upright ancestors9 bled there—and are buried there.

[But] courageously and uprightly, so history shows, the Germans were [also] willing to fight each other for a price, within their fatherland and outside it, friend set against friend, brother against brother; the fatherland was torn apart and remained forsaken. Should not something more than courage and upright- ness therefore be necessary to our fatherland? Light, enlightenment, a public spirit; the noble pride not to be governed by others, but to govern oneself like other nations have done since time immemorial; to be Germans on their own well- defended land.

4. The glory of a fatherland in our time can hardly be that wild spirit of conquest anymore which stormed like an evil demon through the histories of Rome and of the barbarians and of many a proud monarchy. What kind of mother would sacrifice her children—like a second, worse Medea—in order to capture foreign children as slaves who must sooner or later become a burden on her own children? How miserable is the child of the fatherland that is given away or sold, that is made to die by the sword, or to devastate and murder, in order to satisfy a vanity that bears advantage for no one! In our time and before the judgment of an even stricter posterity, the glory of the fatherland can be no other than that this noble mother provide her children with the security, activity, cause for free and charitable exercise—in short, the upbringing—that makes for her own protection and utility, dignity and glory. All the peoples of Europe (other parts of the world not excepted) are now competing with each other in terms not of their physical but of their mental and artistic powers. When one or two nations are making such progress, in a short time, as once required centuries, then other nations cannot, must not, long to go back by centuries lest they come to grievous harm. They must move forward along with those [leading the way]: in our times one cannot be a barbarian any longer; as a barbarian one gets deceived, trodden on, despised, abused. The world’s epochs form a chain whose pull no individual link can resist in
the end, even if it wanted to.

A fatherland’s culture belongs here and so, within it, does the culture of language. What roused the Greeks to their glorious and most difficult works? The voice of duty and of glory. Whereby did they deem themselves more excellent than all the other nations on earth? By their cultivated language and what was planted among them by means of it. The imperatorial language of the Romans commanded the world, a language of law and action. Whereby has a neighboring nation won so much influence on all Europe’s peoples for more than a century now? Other causes aside, the primary and most excellent reason is its national language, one developed in the highest sense of the word. Anyone who delighted in [its] literature thereby joined its empire and participated in it. [Those who were dominant] formed and deformed; they commanded, they impressed. And the language of the Germans, which our ancestors considered the language of the tribe, the core, the hero—should it now pull the victory chariot of others, as if vanquished, while thrusting out its chest about the plodding style of its imperial officers and princelings’ courts? Throw it away, this oppressive adornment, you matron confined against your own will, and be what you can be and once were: a language of reason, of vigor and truth. You fathers of the father- land, honor her, honor the gifts that she brought you, unbid and un-thanked and yet deserving of praise. Shall every art and deed by which many would like to come to the aid of the fatherland first sell itself outside the country like the lost son, entrusting the fruits of hard work or genius to a foreign hand, so that you may have the honor of receiving it from there? Methinks I can see a time coming . . .

Let us not prophesy, however, but only observe, in conclusion, that every fatherland has a moral tendency even in its sweet name. It hails from our forefathers, and the name father brings to mind the days of our youth and its games; it reminds us to think of all the accomplished men that came before us, of all the worthy men whose fathers we shall become. It forges all mankind into a chain of continuous links that are to one another brothers, sisters, betrothed, friends, children, parents. How else should we think of ourselves on earth? Must one fatherland really have to rise up against another, nay against every other one, while all of them link their members together by the same bonds? Does the earth not have room for us all? Cannot one country lie quietly beside the others? Cabinets may deceive each other; political machines may be moved against each other until one blows the other to pieces. But fatherlands do not move against each other like this; they lie quietly side by side and assist each other as families do. Fatherlands against fatherlands in bloody struggle—that is the worst barbarism of the human language.’


Appendix I

Herder in ‘Letters towards the Advancement of Humanity’, letter 119:

“Could any spectacle be more detestable to a higher being than two armies facing each other and murdering one another with impunity? . . . [T]he terrible word ‘war,’ which one pronounces so easily, [ought] not only to become loathsome to men, but they should barely dare to name or write it, shuddering as they would before a
ghastly brain-fever, pestilence, famine, the trembling of the earth, Black Death” (DKV 7:720).


🌿 Appendix II,

Horace-Odes-Book I:XIV,

‘The Ship of State’,

Translated by A. S. Kline🌿 

O ship the fresh tide carries back to sea again.

Where are you going! Quickly, run for harbour.

Can’t you see how your sides

have been stripped bare of oars,

how your shattered masts and yards are groaning loudly

in the swift south-westerly, and bare of rigging,

your hull can scarce tolerate

the overpowering waters?

You haven’t a single sail that’s still intact now,

no gods, that people call to when they’re in trouble.

Though you’re built of Pontic pine,

a child of those famous forests,

though you can boast of your race, and an idle name:

the fearful sailor puts no faith in gaudy keels.

You must beware of being

merely a plaything of the winds.

You, who not long ago were troubling weariness

to me, and now are my passion and anxious care,

avoid the glistening seas

between the shining Cyclades.

Johann Gottfried Herder’s tomb plaque at his grave.


Source: ‘DO WE STILL HAVE THE FATHERLAND OF THE ANCIENTS?’ (1795) Second Part of a Text Appended to Herder’s 57th Letter towards the Advancement of Humanity DKV Werke vol. 7, p. 329 line 6–p. 338 line 5 (Cf. Suphan 17:311–9)🌿 About Herder:🌿About the book and the publisher: 🌿Godfried van Benthem van den Bergh full text here:–herder-and-the-idea-of-a-nation?rgn=main;view=fulltext🌿Horace Book I-Ode XIV:
Johann Gottfried von Herder-‘Do We Still Have The Fatherland Of The Ancients?’

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