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No Conservative

In response to:

Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism from the September 27, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

The first of Isaiah Berlin’s essays on de Maistre [NYR, September 27] contains a statement which, while not fundamentally relevant to the course of his discussion, needs correction. I refer to the passage (pp. 58–59) which begins with the words: “Conservatives, both Catholic and Protestant—Herder, Burke, Chateaubriand, Mallet du Pan, Johannes Mueller, Carl Ludwig Haller, and their allies—spoke….” If anyone is misplaced among these conservatives, it is Johann Gottfried Herder.

Throughout his life, Herder was and remained an ardent foe of absolutism, even the enlightened absolutism of his day. He was and remained (as already recognized by G.P. Gooch in his Germany and the French Revolution) a partisan of the French Revolution—a political attitude for which he was well known at the Weimar Court, and which was a factor in his ultimate estrangement from Goethe, the political Conservative. The central concept of Herder’s thought, Humanitaet, was an ideal of highly political connotations developed most clearly in his post-Revolutionary writings, as I have discussed in an essay, “Herder’s Concept of Humanitaet,” in Wulf Koepke, ed., Herder: Innovator Through the Ages (Bonn: Bouvier, 1982).

Nor was Herder a conservative in matters of religion. This is not only evidenced by his theological writings but also by the opinion of many of his contemporaries. It was, in fact, this aura of religious nonorthodoxy which cost him the chair at the University of Goettingen, which he greatly coveted, and for which he had been twice proposed.

True, in matters of cultural and aesthetic philosophy, the early Herder was an admirer of Edmund Burke’s. But it is striking that after the appearance of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, that clarion call of counterrevolutionary conservatism, Burke’s name disappears from Herder’s voluminous writings.

Placing Herder among the conservative thinkers in fact contradicts Isaiah Berlin’s earlier estimate in his perceptive Vico and Herder. A brief passage—one among several—may suffice (p. 165): “Like Hamann he is convinced that clarity, rigour, acuteness of analysis, rational, orderly argument, whether in theory or practice, can be bought at too high a price. In this sense he is the profoundest critic of the Enlightenment, as formidable as Burke, or de Maistre, but free from their reactionary prejudices and hatred of equality and fraternity” (emphasis mine).

As a further perspective on Herder’s political and philosophical development, one other significant fact merits consideration: Under the impact of the French Revolution, that pivotal historic event shaping the evolution of both his and de Maistre’s thought, Herder returned to the Enlightenment—the driest of American enlightened thinkers, Benjamin Franklin, becomes one of his heroes!—which, in a very fundamental way, he had never left.

Samson B. Knoll
Professor Emeritus of History
Chancellor Emeritus
Monterey Institute of International Studies
Monterey, California

Isaiah Berlin replies:

Professor Knoll is perfectly right. Herder was anything but a conservative. The essay on Herder in my book Vico and Herder (London: Hogarth Press, 1976; New York: Viking, 1976) makes it plain that on this issue I entirely agree with Professor Knoll. I cannot think how this absurd mistake crept into the text. If there is ever a second edition of my recent book, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, I shall correct the error.

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