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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Apotheosis of Humanity
By Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803)
 
From the ‘Philosophy of the History of Man’: Translation of T. Churchill

NO sophistical argument can lead us to deny that our earth has grown older in the course of some thousands of years; and that this wanderer round the sun is greatly altered since its origin. In its bowels we perceive how it once was constituted; and we need but look around us to see its present constitution. The ocean foams no longer,—it has subsided peaceably into its bed; the wandering streams have found their shores; and plants and animals have run through a progressive series of years in their different races. As not a sunbeam has been lost upon our earth since its creation, so no falling leaf, no wasted seed, no carcass of a decaying animal, and still less an action of any living being, has been without effect. Vegetation, for example, has increased, and extended itself as far as it could; every living race has spread within the limits nature assigned it, through the means of others; and even the senseless devastations of man, as well as his industry, have been active implements in the hand of Time. Fresh harvests have waved over the ruins of the cities he has destroyed; the elements have strewed the dust of oblivion upon them; and soon new generations have arisen, who have erected new buildings upon the old, and even with their ancient remains. Omnipotence itself cannot ordain that effects shall not be effects; it cannot restore the earth to what it was thousands of years ago, so that these thousands of years, with all their consequences, shall not have been.  1
  Already, therefore, a certain progress of the human species is inseparable from the progress of Time, as far as man is included in the family of Time and Earth. Were the progenitor of mankind now to appear and view his descendants, how would he be astonished! His body was formed for a youthful earth; his frame, his ideas, and his way of life, must have been adapted to that constitution of the elements which then prevailed; and considerable alteration in this must have taken place in the course of six thousand years or upwards. In many parts, America is no longer what it was when discovered; two thousand years hence its ancient history will have the air of romance. Thus we read the history of the siege of Troy, and seek in vain the spot where it stood; in vain the grave of Achilles, or the godlike hero himself. Were a collection of all the accounts that have been given of the size and figure of the ancients, of the kind and quantity of their food, of their daily occupations and amusements, and of their notions of love and marriage, the virtues and the passions, the purpose of life and a future existence, made with discriminating accuracy and with regard to time and place, it would be of no small advantage toward a history of man. Even in this short period, an advancement of the species would be sufficiently conspicuous to evince both the consistency of ever-youthful Nature and the progressive changes of our old mother Earth. Earth nurses not man alone; she presses all her children to one bosom, embraces all in the same maternal arms: and when one changes all must undergo change.  2
  It is undeniable, too, that this progress of time has influenced the mode of thinking of the human species. Bid a man now invent, now sing, an Iliad; bid him write like Æschylus, like Sophocles, like Plato: it is impossible. The childish simplicity, the unprejudiced mode of seeing things,—in short, the youthful period of the Greeks,—is gone by. It is the same with the Hebrews and the Romans; while on the other hand, we are acquainted with a number of things of which both the Romans and the Hebrews were ignorant. One day teaches another, one century instructs another century; tradition is enriched; the muse of Time, History, herself sings with a hundred voices, speaks with a hundred tongues. Be there as much filth, as much confusion, as there will, in the vast snowball rolled up by Time, yet this very confusion is the offspring of ages, which could have arisen only from the unwearied rolling on of one and the same thing. Thus every return to the ancient times, even the celebrated Year of Plato, is a fiction; is, from the ideas of the world and of time, an impossibility. We float onward; but the stream that has once flowed returns no more to its source.  3
  Where are the times when people dwelt as troglodytes, dispersed about in caves behind their walls, and every stranger was an enemy? Merely from the course of time, no cave, no wall, afforded security. Men must learn to know one another; for collectively they are but one family, on one planet of no great extent. It is a melancholy reflection that everywhere they first learned to know one another as enemies, and beheld each other with astonishment as so many wolves; but such was the order of nature. The weak feared the strong; the deceived, the deceiver; he who had been expelled, him who could again expel him; the inexperienced child, every stranger. This infantile fear, however, and all its abuses, could not alter the course of nature; the bond of union between nations was knit, though in a rough manner owing to the rude state of man. Growing reason may burst the knots, but cannot untwist the band, and still less undo the discoveries that have once been made. What are the geologies of Moses and Orpheus, Homer and Herodotus, Strabo and Pliny, compared with ours? What was the commerce of the Phœnicians, Greeks, and Romans, to the trade of Europe? Thus, with what has hitherto been effected, the clue to the labyrinth of what is to be done is given us. Man, while he continues man, will not cease from wandering over his planet till it is completely known to him: from this neither storms nor shipwreck, nor those vast mountains of ice, nor all the perils of either Pole, will deter him; no more than they have deterred him from the first most difficult attempts, even when navigation was very defective. The incentive to all these enterprises lies in his own breast, lies in man’s nature. Curiosity, and the insatiable desire of wealth, fame, discovery, and increase of strength, and even new wants and discontents, inseparable from the present course of things, will impel him; and they by whom dangers have been surmounted in former times, his celebrated and successful predecessors, will animate him. Thus the will of Providence will be promoted both by good and bad incentives, till man knows and acts upon the whole of his species. To him the earth is given; and he will not desist till it is wholly his own, at least as far as regards knowledge and use. Are we not already ashamed that one hemisphere of our planet remained for so long a time as unknown to us as if it had been the other side of the moon?  4
  How vast the progress from the first raft that floated on the water, to an European ship! Neither the inventor of the former, nor the many inventors of the various arts and sciences that contribute to navigation, ever formed the least conception of what would arise from the combination of their discoveries; each obeyed his particular impulse of want or curiosity: but it is inherent in the nature of the human intellect, and of the general connection of all things, that no attempt, no discovery, can be made in vain. Those islanders who had never seen a European vessel beheld the monster with astonishment, as some prodigy of another world; and were still more astonished when they found that men like themselves could guide it at pleasure over the trackless ocean. Could their astonishment have been converted into rational reflection on every great purpose and every little mean of this floating world of art, how much higher would their admiration of the human mind have arisen! Whither do not the hands of Europeans at present reach, by means of this single implement? Whither may they not reach hereafter?  5
  Besides this art, others innumerable have been invented within the space of a few years by mankind, that extend their sway over air and water, over earth and heaven. And when we reflect that but few nations were engaged in this contest of mental activity, while the greater part of the rest slumbered in the lap of ancient custom; when we reflect that almost all our inventions were made at very early periods, and scarcely any trace, scarcely any ruin of an ancient structure or an ancient institution exists, that is not connected with our early history,—what a prospect does this historically demonstrated activity of the human mind give us for the infinity of future ages! In the few centuries during which Greece flourished, in the few centuries of modern improvement, how much has been perceived, invented, done, reduced to order, and preserved for future ages, in Europe, the least quarter of the globe, and almost in its smallest parts! How prolific the seeds that art and science have copiously shed, while one nourishes, one animates and excites, the other! As when a string is touched, not only everything that has music resounds to it, but all its harmonious tones re-echo the sound till it becomes imperceptible, so the human mind has invented and created when a harmonious point of its interior has been hit. When a new concord was struck in a creation where everything is connected, innumerable new concatenations followed of course.  6
  But it may be asked, How have all these arts and inventions been applied? have practical reason and justice, and consequently the true improvement and happiness of the human species, been promoted by them? In reply, I refer to what has recently been urged respecting the progress of disorder throughout the whole creation: that according to an intrinsic law of nature, nothing can attain durability, which is the essential aim of all things, without order. A keen knife in the hand of a child may wound it; yet the art that invented and sharpened the knife is one of the most indispensable of arts. All that use such a knife are not children; and even the child will be taught by pain to use it better. Artificial power in the hand of a despot, foreign luxury in a nation without controlling laws, are such pernicious implements; but the very mischief they do will render men wiser, and soon or late the art that created luxury as well as despotism will first confine both within due bonds, and then convert them into real benefits. The heavy plowshare wears itself out by long use; the slight teeth of new watch-work gain, merely by their revolution, the more suitable and artful form of the epicycloid. Thus, in human powers, abuses carried to excess wear themselves down to good practices, extreme oscillations from side to side necessarily settle in the desirable mean of lasting fitness in a regular movement, Whatever is to take place among mankind will be effected by men; we suffer under our faults till we learn of ourselves the better use of our faculties, without the assistance of miracles from Heaven.  7
  We have not the least reason, therefore, to doubt that every good employment of the human understanding necessarily must and will, at some time or other, promote humanity. Since agriculture has prevailed, men and acorns have ceased to be food. Man found that he could live better, more decently, and more humanely, on the pleasing gifts of Ceres, than on the flesh of his fellows or the fruits of the oak; and was compelled so to live by the laws of men wiser than himself. After men had learned to build houses and towns they ceased to dwell in caves; under the laws of a commonweal, the poor stranger was no longer liable to death. Thus trade brought nations together; and the more its advantages were generally understood, the less murders, oppressions, and deceptions, which are always signs of ignorance in commerce, would necessarily be practiced. Every addition to the useful arts secures men’s property, diminishes their labor, extends their sphere of activity, and necessarily lays therewith the foundations of further cultivation and humanity. What labor was saved, for example, by the single invention of printing! what an extensive circulation of men’s ideas, arts, and sciences, did it promote! Were a European Kang-Ti now to attempt to eradicate the literature of this quarter of the globe, he would find it impossible. Had the Phœnicians and Carthaginians, the Greeks and Romans, possessed this art, the destruction of their literature would not have been so easy to their spoilers, if it could by any means have been accomplished. Let savage nations burst in upon Europe, they could not withstand our tactics; and no Attila will again extend his march from the shores of the Black Sea and the Caspian to the plains of Catalonia. Let monks, sybarites, fanatics, and tyrants arise as they will, it is no longer in their power to bring back the night of the Middle Ages. Now, as no greater benefit can be conceived to arise from any art, Divine or human, than not merely to bestow on us light and order but from its very nature to extend and secure them, let us thank the Creator that he conferred understanding on mankind, and made art essential to it. In them we possess the secret and the means of securing order in the world.  8
  Neither need we any way repine that many excellently conceived theories, of morals not excepted, have remained so long without being carried into practice among mankind. The child learns much which the man alone can apply; but he has not therefore learned in vain. The youth heedlessly forgets what at some future period he must take pains to recollect, or learn a second time. So, no truth that is treasured up, nay, no truth that is discovered, among a race continually renovating, is wholly in vain: future circumstances will render necessary what is now despised; and in the infinity of things, every case must occur that can in any way exercise the human species. As in the creation we first conceive the power that formed chaos, and then disposing wisdom, and harmonious goodness, so the natural order of mankind first develops rude powers; disorder itself must guide them into the path of understanding: and the further the understanding pursues its work, the more it perceives that goodness alone can bestow on it durability, perfection, and beauty.  9
 
 
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