Romantic Nationalism, I: The Humanity of Herder

Romantic Nationalism

The development of nationalist theories and movements in the 19th century is usually associated with German philosophers and propagandists of the 19th century.  This is an historical battlefield where the bones have been picked clean by leftist internationalists who have turned German nationalists into demonic monsters to scare children into embracing globalism.

The basic argument is that beginning with the late 18th century, Germans began seeking ways of justifying unification and expansion of the German people as a superior race.  The usual sources they cite are Herder’s “romantic” notions about cultural unity, the researches into folklore made by the Brothers Grimm, the bizarre but influential philosophy of Hegel, who spoke of the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, which could be incorporated into a nation with a special destiny—and that it was the destiny of the German nation to be the masters of the new European civilization. 

Kant was not without his own nationalist strain, and he was both xenophobic and fiercely anti-semitic, German Romantic nationalism reaches its frenzied peak in one of Kant’s disciples, Johann Gottlieb Fichte.  In his “Address to the German Nation”:

The first, original, and truly natural boundaries of states are beyond doubt their internal boundaries. Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself, long before any human art begins; they understand each other and have the power of continuing to make themselves understood more and more clearly; they belong together and are by nature one and an inseparable whole.

Only when each people, left to itself, develops and forms itself in accordance with its own peculiar quality, and only when in every people each individual develops himself in accordance with that common quality, as well as in accordance with his own peculiar quality-then, and then only, does the manifestation of divinity appear in its true mirror as it ought to be; and only a man who either entirely lacks the notion of the rule of law and divine order, or else is an obdurate enemy thereto, could take upon himself to want to interfere with that law, which is the highest law in the spiritual world!

Since this language reappears in the mouth of Adolf Hitler, then all German nationalists going back to Herder must be proto-Nazis.  Not exactly.  Imagine one were to hold utopian socialists from Plato to Fourier responsible for the mass murders committed by Stalin and Mao.  What yelps and snarls we should hear from the Marxist professoriate.  

I hold no brief for Hegel or Fichte, but it is important to make some distinctions, and the easiest way to do that is to consider the thought of the godfather of German nationalism, Johann Gottlieb von Herder.  Herder was born to a humble family in East Prussia in 1744.  His philosophical studies led him to Kant, but not to the Kant of the Critique, but to the early Kant.  At the age of 20 he went to teach in Riga, and his experience of Baltic and Slavic peoples had a profound effect on him throughout his life.  

To a great extent Herder was a man of his time.  Although not an extreme rationalist, he was sublimely rational in his approach to most questions.  His views on metaphysics and the philosophy of mind were skeptical and naturalistic, and in his famous theory of the origin of language he rejected divine and supernatural causes in favor of natural causes—much as Epicurus and Lucretius had argued the materialist case in the ancient world.  In politics he advocated republican and democratic principles and took a cautious “wait and see” approach to the French Revolution—though he deplored the slaughter in the Vendée.  

Historians of philosophy still debate Herder’s importance, but there is not doubting his enormous influence.  This is partly due to the clarity and vividness of expression.  He rejected the convoluted language and style of academic philosophy and wrote powerful essays that appealed as much to the imagination as to reason.  It is not that he rejected systematic thought. In fact, he favored systematic thought, but he believed that it should be presented in such a manner as to attract intelligent but non-technical readers.  I think he also felt that dogmatic philosophy stultified the reader’s brain, while the technique of Plato in his dialogues, Hume in his essays, and, I would argue, Thomas in his scholastic method, stimulates thought.

Herder very much believed in nations, even small nations, and he gives the conventional political metaphor “the ship of state” a new twist, by arguing that the members of a nation are all on board, and no matter what problems their nation has, the passengers on board must love the ship and work together to see it through a storm.  “The word fatherland brought the ship afloat at the shore,” and each individual passenger “can and may no longer (unless he casts himself overboard and entrusts himself to the sea’s wild waves) stand idly by in the ship and count the waves as though he was on the shore.”  Culture and language, Herder insists in the same place, are essential aspects of nationality. 

Herder did not regard nations as mere ideas as Hegel seemed to regard them: Nations are “the result of a thousand cooperating causes of the whole element in which they live” and thus he concludes it would be childish “to present this formation as merely consisting in and occurring through a few brighter ideas towards which people have been trotting almost since the reinstitution of the sciences.”  Arguing against Voltaire and others, who declared that human beings are pretty much the same everywhere and at all times, Herder insisted that history and observation teaches us that the character of a people can change, and in his essay on “The Change of Taste”, he compares the Enlightenment’s universalistic attitude, seeing all cultures as imperfect reflections of itself, with the ignorant xenophobia of Chinese who hardly believed in the existence of other peoples.  Just as human individuals are different, even unique, so are human nations, the Germans no less than the Chinese.

Herder approached the nations of the world much as a radical environmentalist today regards endangered species.  Each nation is precious because it reflects some quality within the human type, and when an imperial nation eliminates another nation, it is committing a crime against humanity.  I thought I was the first to put forward what I have called the Golden Rule of nationalism—whatever you want for your own people, whether self-determination or rights to culture and language—you must be willing to grant to people of other nations, but Herder had worked this all out before 1800.  He has bitter things to say about European colonialism which not only brings misery to the peoples of Africa and the Americas, but which deforms and distorts the cultures of the enslaved peoples.  

Unlike Montaigne and Voltaire, Herder was no apologist for alien cultures at the expense of the European, but as a skeptic he believed that he was not entitled to make ultimate judgments on the value of civilizations he had not experienced.  Nature has made the nations separate, and world-unifiers, since the time of Nimrod, have been attempting to join by violence what nature has kept asunder.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

1 Response

  1. Charles C. Yost says:

    This article is extremely important. Conventional overviews of “nationalism” are usually so predictable. A question: Are the United States a state apparatus without (organic, actual) nations?