Article abstract: Herder was a major figure in the transitional period in German letters encompassing the second half of the eighteenth century. He was a universalist whose writings dealt with many areas of human thought.
Johann Gottfried Herder was born on August 25, 1744, in the small East Prussian town of Mohrungen. He came from a family of modest financial resources; his father worked as a teacher, organist, and church warden. Both parents were pious people, and Herder grew up influenced by the moderate Pietist ideas common in the clergy at this time, which were opposed to orthodoxy and dogma in favor of a more personal, inner-directed religious life.
Herder had two sisters, who married and remained in Mohrungen. He showed his great desire to study rather early in life. While in Latin school, he became the favorite student of the stern schoolmaster, and at the age of sixteen he obtained free lodging with a vicar named Sebastian Trescho in exchange for work as a copyist. This arrangement was particularly advantageous for Herder because the vicar had an excellent library, where Herder could satisfy his avid desire to read.
Although Herder wished to attend the university, family finances might have made that impossible. Fortunately, when the Russian troops moved into the region in 1762, the regimental surgeon met Herder and generously offered to pay for his medical studies at Königsberg. In the spring of that year, Herder enrolled in medicine at the university, but he was clearly not suited to that field. Changing his field to theology, he lost his benefactor’s support but was able to finance his own studies with a stipend and money earned by tutoring at the Collegium Fridericianum.
In Königsberg, Herder met Johann Georg Hamann, whose ideas greatly influenced him even though his own philosophical views differed from Hamann’s, for example, on the origin of language. Hamann’s thoughts on the Bible inspired some of Herder’s early attempts at a better understanding of the book through its poetic medium and an understanding of its social and historical context. During those same years, Herder attended lectures by Immanuel Kant on a wide range of subjects, which offered great stimulus to his thought, as did contact with humanistic and humanitarian ideas, such as those of the “Deutsche Gesellschaft” (German society).
In 1764, Herder began his professional life in the Domschule of Riga. He stayed for five years, during which time he became a successful teacher and preacher and published his first two books, Über die neuere deutsche Literatur: Fragmente (1767; on recent German literature: fragments) and Kritische Wälder (1769; critical forests), which brought him recognition and also criticism. His ideas about language became central to many other parts of his thinking as well. In his literary criticism, Herder rejects absolute standards and argues instead that the critic must enter into the spirit of the literary work, judging it from the point of view of its intentions.
In 1769, Herder departed from Riga for France. He spent several months in Nantes, where he wrote a type of diary of his voyage, revealing important parts of his inner life (not for publication). His intended destination was Paris, which he found that he disliked, and he soon left to accompany the Prince-Bishop of Oldenburg-Eutin’s son on a three-year tour. He first went to the Netherlands and then continued on to Hamburg, where he met Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Matthias Claudius. The companion role did not suit Herder, so he soon separated from the prince; however, the tour did bring him in contact with his future wife, Karoline Flachsland, in Darmstadt. After an unsuccessful eye operation in Strasbourg, he met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1770. Herder’s ideas on language, the historical development of humanity, and Hebrew poetry in the Old Testament had a great influence on the young Goethe. Herder was working on Abhandlung über den Ursprung der Sprache (1772; Treatise upon the Origin of Language, 1827), which was awarded a prize from the Prussian Academy of Sciences and which was something of a nucleus for future works. Through his organic philosophy of history and his recourse to the senses, Herder became recognized as a leading figure of the Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) literary movement.
Also in 1771, Herder decided to accept a church position as a Hofprediger, or court preacher, in Bückeburg so that he could be married, and he began a period of intensive writing. Herder’s views put him in conflict with the count (Wilhelm of Schaumburg-Lippe), since Herder defended the rights of the Church. At the same time, the clergy found him too liberal. When he was unable to move to Göttingen as a theology professor because of opposition from the other clergy, he took a position in Weimar, which Goethe helped him to obtain.
Herder moved to Weimar in 1776, where he remained, although he complained that his efforts—in church and school reform, for example—were not appreciated. Herder’s relationship with Goethe was...
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