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Johann Gottfried Herder 1766 Of the Changes in the Tastes of the Nations Through the Ages A Fragment

Source: Johann Gottfried Herder. Another Philosophy of History and Selected Political Writings (pp. 101-103). Translated by I.D. Evrigenis and D. Pellerin, Hackett Publishing Company; Transcribed by Andy Blunden.

Once a man saw trees being planted for posterity and cried out: “Always we must do things for our descendants; I wished that our descendants would also do something for us!” This silly man, who did not consider that he was himself a descendant, that he owed everything to his ancestors, and that future generations would he a part of him, should have thought ahead a few centuries, putting himself in the position of the descendants who would enjoy these trees. Now what would they be able to do for him, their ancestor? Think of him! What could they do for their descendants, however? Work for them!

Thus every human being in every age stands in the middle. He can assemble the faded images of his ancestors around him; he can summon up their shadows and make a feast for his eyes as he lets them rush by. But can he also cast a prophetic eye on future times, beyond his grave, watching his children and grandchildren wander over his ashes, as it were? The view of the past is secured by history; the prospect of the future is darker – but even this shadowy darkness is pleasurable.

when one sees what altering power the arm of time possesses and how it has been employed. If. and traveling through the different periods of world events with the piercing perspective of a wanderer eager for instruction. then it is doubly entertaining and useful. when one conjures up the spirit of an extinct age from its ashes. however. it should be merely the precursor for similar reflections on the spirit of change in the various ages. m-hen one compares different. then does riot the audacious look ahead become a little more excusable? Perhaps these will be the results of change behind our backs: so things changed before us. a writer who understands the difficult art of applying the pragmatic tricks of Tacitus or Polybius to the taste of our times. If Voltaire has some merit as a historian. meanwhile. so they will change after us. and he who does not direct most of his attention to picking out this spirit. The greatest man in this regard. Thus the greatest historians attained such heights by noting these changes through the ages. Hume. by leading their readers around so that they might not only see but also learn. No doubt my introductory remarks are too long for this one little treatise. is in my opinion the historian of Britain. it is with a view to his often apt remarks on the spirit of events. like the blind man. this prophetic glance were to prove deceptive. which has been running along so evenly for many centuries.When one casts a glance ahead and behind from such philosophical heights. *** . should be broken by us? Should it not keep running along beyond us? When one gathers together the many. When philosophy is guided by history and history is enlivened by philosophy. The spirit of change is the kernel of history. the examination of past generations would still be all the more useful. would be more natural than to wonder whether this chain of changes. successive ages with each other and believes that one can see a continuous thread. a coherent whole – what. putting together in his mind the tastes and character of each age. changes of the past. however. and ruins his stomach on history as on a dish of husks without kernels. he sees only trees instead of men. by also thinking as they told their story. then. If it were well received by the public.

the pitiful inhabitants of the rest of the world. They think that everything they find indispensable on account of their habits and education must have been indispensable at all times. Two looks at history will dispel this prejudice. How could that which a nation holds at one time to be good. its surface as well as its position. and yet how often does it seem like one were [living] in China when one hears the opinions of persons who know the world only by the corner in which they are stuck and by the Hamburg Correspondent. useful. considered their country the square of the world and who painted the corners of this square with hideous grimaces and monsters. and moral goodness the same at all times? Surely – and yet one can observe how the same principles for which everyone would at one time have sacrificed his last drop of blood are at other times cast into the fire by the very some nation. pride is joined to such ignorance – two siblings who are as inseparable as envy and stupidity. and untrue by it at another time? And yet this does happen. or Noah. which were supposed to portray us. the forms of government. ugly. How families change as well as individuals’ If our great ancestor Adam. because they knew no one else. the manners of living and thinking. beautiful. beauty. Are not truth. how fashions that some years ago everyone e found beautiful are soon after extinguished. These people are like the Chinese who. Commonly. unpleasant. or the other progenitors of every people were to rise [from the dead] – heaven. the blood. pleasant. what a sight this would be for them! None of these changes is as difficult to explain as the variation in tastes and manners of thinking. and they do not know that the more comfortable we are with something. Their times are the best because that is when they are living and because other ages have not had the honor of their acquaintance. useless. the newer it is likely to be. merit. how reigning practices.Some people who are ignorant about history and know only their own age think that present tastes are the only ones and so necessary that anything besides would be unthinkable. and utility can dazzle one age [as] by a magic light. We laugh at the Chinese. how a [Particular] taste in this or that science can set the tone for a century. Time has changed everything so much that it would often take a magic mirror to recognize the same creature in so many shapes. or true be considered bad. The very shape of the earth has changed. favorite conceptions of honor. the tastes of the nations have [all] changed. and how all this .

putting no more trust in our own tastes and feelings! .nevertheless dies out with that century! We should almost go mad with such skepticism.