Home > Uncategorized > Johann Gottfried von Herder: Divine law ordains more doves and sheep than lions and tigers

Johann Gottfried von Herder: Divine law ordains more doves and sheep than lions and tigers

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

German writers on peace and war

Johann Gottfried von Herder: Selections on war

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Johann Gottfried von Herder
From Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind
Translated by T.O. Churchill

It is a divine law in the animal kingdom that not so many lions and tigers are capable of existence, and actually exist, as sheep and doves: in history we find the same beneficent disposition of things; so that we have a much smaller number of Nebuchadnezzars, Cambyses, Alexanders, Syllas, Attilas, and Genghis-Khans, than of less ferocious generals, or quiet peaceful monarchs. To the production of the former either very inordinate passions and faulty natural dispositions are requisite, whence they appear to the Earth as fiery meteors instead of associate planets; or singular circumstances of education, rare occurrences of early habit or the imperious demands of hostile, political necessity, stir up these scourges of divine wrath, as they are called, against mankind and keep up their relentless swing. If it be true, therefore, that Nature deviates not from her course on our account, when, among the innumerable varieties of form and temperament she produces she occasionally exhibits to the World men of unruly passions, spirits of destruction, not of preservation; still it remains in men’s own power not to entrust their flocks to these wolves and tigers and even to tame them by the laws of humanity. The wild ox no longer appears in Europe, which formerly enjoyed its forest domains in every part of it; and Rome at length found it difficult to procure the number of African monsters she required for her amphitheatres. In proportion as lands are cultivated, deserts are diminished and their wild inhabitants become rarer. In the human species the increasing civilization of man has had a similar effect; his disposition to unruly passions giving way with his decrease of strength, a more delicate creature was formed. With all this, irregularities are possible; and these frequently rage more perniciously from being founded on infantile weakness, as the examples of many Roman and Eastern despots show: however, as a spoiled child is always more easy to restrain than a bloodthirsty tiger, Nature, with her corrective regulations has taught us the way to rule the lawless and tame the insatiable savage by increasing diligence. If there be no longer regions of dragons to employ the arms of the giants of antiquity we require no Herculean destructive powers against men themselves. Heroes of this stamp may pursue their bloody game on Caucasus, or in Africa, and there seek new minotaurs to encounter…

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One passion kicks up the scale of reason, another drives it down, and thus history goes on for years and ages, before the period of tranquility returns. Thus Alexander destroyed the equilibrium of an extensive region of the World; and it was long after his death before the storm subsided. Thus Rome disturbed the peace of the Globe for more than a thousand years; and half a World of savage nations was requisite for the slow restoration of its quiet. The peaceable progress of an asymptote could by no means be expected, in these convulsions of countries and nations.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. August 31, 2018 at 2:15 am

    The text touches on several historical processes and ecological principles:

    1. In the Darwinian competition of species for territory and food the most ferocious and brutal one (humans) prevailed. The elimination of big predators (tigers, lions, bears) by humans started 10,000 years ago and continued till today.

    Which means, that deadly violence and ruthlessness is a part of human nature, it is our ancient and prehistoric heritage. Needless to say, that the same principle applies to intrahuman competition (among individuals, families, tribes, societies, and nations).

    2. Sometimes, somewhere humans found it more practical and convenient to cooperate instead of competing. For instance when giant wild beasts could only be fended off or defeated by a coordinated group effort, when plentiful natural resources (the commons) could be easily exploited in an orderly and tightly regulated way, when impending deadly dangers made it necessary to stand together and forget about petty bickering and squabbling.

    3. As we live in an imperfect world, there will always be violent psychopaths, people who are mentally ill, just like there will always be any other kind of diseases. There will be many people with traumatic experiences (from an accident for instance) in their early childhood, which will negatively influence their character. There will always be testosterone driven male violence in the competition for females.

    A stable society will deal with psychopathic individuals in a sensible and humane way, educating, healing, restraining, or, if nothing else helps, isolating them.

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