The Clare Spark Blog

October 18, 2010

The Dialectic of Multiculturalism: Helvetius vs. Herder, Fichte

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Meissen chocolate pot

Angela Merkel’s recent statement that multiculturalism in German has “utterly failed” has provoked blogs and other punditry. What is not generally understood is that MC did not assume that all cultures were equal. As the Herder quotes show, he imagined a Golden Age and a hierarchy of value, preferring the Greeks. Moreover, he was arguing against Enlightenment materialism and its assault on the idea of national character (as shown in the quote from Helvétius). Finally, Fichte, a German idealist, clearly realizes that Herder’s hierarchy suggests that German culture will master the world. The remainder of this blog quotes from sources in English translation and includes footnotes.

[Helvétius, 1748; quoted in Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory, 1968, p.456:]  Nothing is generally more false and ridiculous than the portraits drawn to represent the characters of different nations.  Some paint their own nation after the particular society they frequent, and consequently represent the people as gloomy or gay, dull or witty…Others copy what a thousand writers have said before them; they have never examined the changes necessarily produced in a people, by those which happen in the administration and in the alteration of manners.  It has been said, that the French are gay; and this will be repeated to eternity.  They do not perceive, that by the misfortunes of the times having obliged the princes to lay considerable taxes on the country people; the French people cannot be gay, because the peasants, who alone compose two thirds of the nation, are in want, and want can never be gay; that even, in regard to the cities, the necessity, it is said, the police of Paris is under of defraying a part of the expence of the masquerades performed on holidays at St. Anthony’s gate, is not a proof of the gaiety of the artists and the citizen; spies may contribute to the safety of Paris; but being carried too far, they diffuse a general diffidence through the minds of the people, that is absolutely incompatible with joy, on account of the ill use that may be made of them.

[J. G. von Herder, “On Diligence in the Study of Several Learned Languages,” 1764:]  That flourishing age is gone when the small circle of our earliest ancestors dwelt round the patriarchs like children round their parents; that age, in which, in the simple and noble message of our revelation, all the world was of one tongue and language. Instead of the burden of our learning and the masks of our virtues, there reigned rouch, simple contentment. Why do I sketch a lost portrait of irreplaceable charms? It is no more, this golden age.—-

As the children of dust undertook that edifice that threatened the clouds, the chalice of confusion was poured over them: their families and dialects were transplanted to various points of the compass; and a thousand languages were created in tune with the climes and mores of a thousand nations. When here the native of the Morn glows under a blazing noon, the rushing current of his mouth streams forth a heated and emotive speech. There, the Greek flourishes in the most sensuous and mild of regions, his body–in Pindar’s words—is bathed in grace, his veins pulse with a gentle fire, his limbs are charged with sensitivity, his vocal instruments exquisite; and thus there arose among them that exquisite Attic tongue, Grace among her sisters.

The Romans, sons of Mars, spoke more forcefully, and only later gathered flowers in the garden of Greece to embellish their tongue. More masculine yet is the speech of the martial German; the sprightly Gaul invents a skipping, softer language; the Spaniard gives his own an appearance of gravity, though this be merely by means of echoes. The languorous African mumbles weakly, waning away in broken tones, and the Hottentot, at last, loses himself in a stammer of gibberish. So this plant transformed itself according to the soil that nourished it and heaven’s breeze, that quenched its thirst: it became a Proteus among nations.

If thus, each language has its distinct national character, it seems that nature imposes upon us an obligation only to our mother tongue, for it is perhaps better attuned to our character and coextensive with our way of thinking. I may perhaps be able to ape haltingly the sounds of foreign nations, without, however, penetrating to the core of their uniqueness.

…[However, through commerce] state policy links languages together into a universal chain of peoples, and precisely in that way they also become a great bond of learning. So long as the scattered crowd of scholars is not governed by a monarch who would set one language upon the throne of the ruins of so many others, so long as the plans for a universal language belong among the empty projects and journeys to the moon, so long will many languages remain an indispensable evil and thus almost a genuine good.[1]

[Herder on patriotism and sacrifice: “Do We Still Have the Public and Fatherland of Yore?”:] …do we yet have the fatherland, the love of which will move us to the unselfish sacrifice of our selves; do we yet know the passion of the ancients to court the fatherland’s love, its honor and reward, as the patriot’s finest garland?–Whoever entertains noble feelings even for those above him, whose heart beats warmly in his breast for his brother, who seeks to be a link in the chain of the whole, and is so joyfully, will not answer no to this question.

Only a Helvetius, who claims to find only selfish urges in man; a Mandeville, who transforms us into mere bees; a Hobbes, who inscribes hostility upon each man’s forehead; a Machievelli, who creates that monster of a despot who sucks the blood through tax collectors, vampires, and ticks; only these base and cold misanthropes deprive us of the gentle sentiment of patriotism; and each rotten soul that tears itself away from its fatherland and after the Ptolemaic scheme of the world makes the self’s terrestrial clod the center of the whole, will deprive itself of this gentle sentiment.—

…If one should take away from a monarch, from an empress, the sweet awareness of laboring for a fatherland, of caring for subjects as children, what would he be but the image of Machiavelli, what should she be more readily but the mechanical queen bee of Mandeville? If one should take away the invigorating thought of the fatherland from a judge, from an authority who must sacrifice private business to the public weal, who exhausts himself and surrenders the advantage of the family and personal pleasure to the benefit of the whole, is it to be wondered at when such a one, instead of petty laurels, dons the green Jew’s cap, when such a one, instead of holding court, goes out to dig where no one will notice for gold and ecclesiastical treasures?…[2]

[Greeks, Germans, and Fichte resolve the conflict between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, 1806-7:] “The patriot wishs that the purpose of mankind be reached first of all in that nation of which he is a member. In our day this purpose can only be furthered by philosophy (Wissenschaft). Therefore philosophy and its widest possible dissemination in our day must be the immediate purpose of mankind, and no other purpose can or should be fixed for it.

The German patriot wishes that this purpose be attained first of all among the Germans and that from them it spread to the rest of mankind. The German can desire this, for in his midst philosophy has had its origin and it is developed in his language. It may be assumed that in that nation which has had the wisdom to conceive philosophy there should also rest the ability to understand it. Only the German can desire this, for only he, through the possession of philosophy and the possibility given thereby to understand it, can comprehend that this is the immediate purpose of mankind. This purpose is the only patriotic goal. Only the German can therefore be a patriot. Only he can, in the interest of his nation, include all mankind. Since the instinct of Reason has become extinct and the era of Egotism has begun, every other nation’s patriotism is selfish, narrow, hostile to the rest of mankind.

…The Germans as the Urvolk, the original people, have learned to regard the state and the nation with truly religious spirit. Not in the manner of tyrants who preach religion as a cloak of despotism, urging submission, but in the manner of freemen who have learned to love their nation. For “a nation is the totality of all those living together in society, continuing its kind physically and spiritually, living under a special law of  the development of the divine out of itself.”  This law of development produces national character….The state must find its chief task in the education of its citizens for these higher ends.[3]

Johann Gottlieb Fichte

   NOTES.           [1] Johann Gottfried Herder, Selected Early Works 1764-1767, ed. Ernest A. Menze and Karl Menges. Transl. Ernest A. Menze with Michael Palma (University Park, Pennsylvania, Penn State UP, 1992), 29-31.

                             [2] Ibid., 61-62.

                             [3] H.C. Engelbrecht, Johann Gottlieb Fichte: A Study of his political writings with special reference to his Nationalism (N.Y.: AMS Press, orig. publ. 1933): 98, 117-18.    


  1. […] For more on Herder’s nationalism and his followers, see For the introduction of German Romanticism in progressive America, see […]

    Pingback by German Romanticism, Hitler, Herder, and multiculturalism | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — November 25, 2016 @ 8:57 pm | Reply

  2. […] This entire website has been preoccupied with tracing the “roots” of multiculturalism to the German Romantic reaction to the “materialism” of science and Enlightenment as understood in 18th Century France. (See, and […]

    Pingback by Multiculturalism vs. [Yid] Red spies: which agitates the Right? | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — April 24, 2015 @ 7:58 pm | Reply

  3. […] Earlier in the book, Pulzer brought up Herder (p.34), not as a multiculturalist but as nostalgic for the Holy Roman Empire and a greater Germany. But Herder was indeed a cultural nationalist and a subtle precursor of the racialism that Pulzer went on to denounce throughout as associated with the most venomous of the German Rightist parties and factions.  (On Herder’s cultural nationalism see […]

    Pingback by Did German Jews assimilate to multiculturalism? | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 27, 2015 @ 1:09 am | Reply

  4. […] and laid the groundwork for today’s multiculturalism and cultural relativism. (See, and […]

    Pingback by Did “bureaucratic rationality” cause the Holocaust? | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — June 4, 2014 @ 7:09 pm | Reply

  5. […] We may observe that petit-bourgeois intellectuals–the sometimes defiant, sometimes conforming middle-managers who occupy the teaching and healing professions and who create media–have, owing to class origin, education, allegiance and interest, been structurally driven to identify with a declining “aristocracy.” The middle-managers tend to reject Eros (the life-affirming rainbow sighted by attractive popular democratic movements), for Thanatos (the bleak response of the still-controlling old order looking into a future in which it, the owning-class, could be dispossessed)–hence the flight of middle-management to sadomasochistic social relations as self-discipline or “adjustment” to élite-controlled, pseudo-democratic, unevenly emancipated institutions. For some progressives, pain melts away as they rosily merge into the All. To a rationalist like myself, amazed but not intimidated by the power of irrational psychological processes, the progressives are a disaster: in their “radical” and “pacifist” but finally völkisch and reactionary ideology there can be no unified social action, no self-management or informed consent to management by experts, no concept of the independent artist, scientist, or any (relatively) autonomous, dissenting individual, no constructively critical intellectual  meandering purposefully toward either provisional or solid conclusions. [For a related blog see […]

    Pingback by German Romantic predecessors to multiculturalism | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — July 15, 2013 @ 3:39 pm | Reply

  6. […] Herder’s counter-Enlightenment project in developing the notion of the rooted cosmopolitan see Such thinking led straight to Hitler and the notion of the racially pure “organic nation” or […]

    Pingback by Groupiness, group-think, and “race” | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — July 2, 2013 @ 8:06 pm | Reply

  7. […] arranged his different societies in a hierarchy that favored Germans and ancient Greeks. See, and […]

    Pingback by What is a materialist? « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — September 8, 2012 @ 6:47 pm | Reply

  8. Here’s an issue relevant to rldiuebing the party:Please,please,please eradicate the term grassroots from Liberal verbiage.It is so much like that demeaning phrase from the early movie award shows: and I’d like to thank the little people. Surely there’s a substitute,e.g. the membership , our fellow Liberals , Liberal-minded people across Canada , Canadian Grits or some such.Ironically, over recent months I’ve been sending variations of this message, via several different methods,to the leadership and I, at the grassroots (grrrr ) level, have received no response! Bill AtkinsonParry Sound-Muskoka

    Comment by Benjamin — June 11, 2012 @ 6:37 am | Reply

  9. […] As  Linda Gordon’s NYT review makes clear, Nell Irvin Painter, a much honored historian, has written The History of White People (Norton, 2010), directing this synoptic intellectual/cultural history to a popular audience, hence biting off too big a chunk of history. Not so surprisingly, Professor Gordon, a well-known left-feminist, does not launch an ideological critique, for she shares the same social democratic/New Deal belief system. Gordon is a noted historian of the welfare state and feminist issues, but since she is of the same ilk as Painter, she could not identify the slant of Painter’s book, which mocks the notion of cultural syncretism and the melting pot in favor of a salad bowl or multiplicity of American identities, defined in terms that rooted cosmopolitans would recognize: see, and […]

    Pingback by Nell Painter’s History of White People « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 31, 2012 @ 9:36 pm | Reply

  10. […] on the group constructing the hierarchy. For a German Romantic’s view of the hierarchy see Obviously, a Chinese or Japanese nationalist would have a different arrangement of the hierarchy […]

    Pingback by History as trauma « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 14, 2012 @ 9:25 pm | Reply

  11. […] For an example of multicultural racism and a racial hierarchy see Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Leave a […]

    Pingback by Baltzell on the good Jews « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — October 15, 2011 @ 9:09 pm | Reply

  12. appreciate your response. can’t disagree. One more question is anthropology itself discreditd by its ideational debts to essentialist thinkers?

    Comment by david gansel — October 19, 2010 @ 10:41 pm | Reply

    • Again, individuals can appropriate an otherwise sound discipline for ideological purposes, so I don’t think that anthropology is evil in itself. Before Herder wrote, travelers were reporting on the social habits of peoples who were previously unknown. And afterwards too. Melville, for instance, used travel narratives to mount his critique of missionaries in Typee. I believe that it was travel that led to the cosmopolitanism that I endorse: we study the social structures and beliefs of other societies without pre-judging their system of morality, but try to understand them in the light of the material circumstances of their lives.

      Comment by clarespark — October 19, 2010 @ 11:10 pm | Reply

  13. An informative and thought-provoking entry Thank you.

    Kolakowski wrote of Marx’s responsibility for Stalinism that there are four (or was it three, I’m not sure) possibilities:

    1) That Marxism properly understood led necessarily to Stalinism (i.e. Marxism-Leninism as understood by Stalinists) and thus Stalinism is vindicated.. The Stalinist view.
    2) That Marxism led necessarily to Stalinism and thus is to be condemned in its origin as totalitarian. The anti-communist view.
    3) That Marxism properly understood could not have led to Stalinism, and the latter is a vile perversion of Marx whose vision is still to be praised.
    4) That Marxism did not necessarily lead to Stalinism but yet is an odious doctrine to be condemned on its own merits.

    Substituting ant-Semitism and German National Socialism for Stalinism and the thinking epitomized by Herder and Fichte for Marxism, where do you believe that responsibility is situated?

    Comment by david gansel — October 19, 2010 @ 7:43 pm | Reply

    • I would choose #4, but as an historian I prefer to avoid the notion that ideas (or Great Men) create historical transformations of the import of the Soviet Revolution and the various fascisms. There are too many factors to consider, and these are intertwined in ways that keep historians at each others’ throats over which is higher in the ranking of cause and effect. Fichte and Herder were appropriated by political actors because they supported their objectives in gaining adherents and in rationalizing their own behavior. Yours was a good question though.

      Comment by clarespark — October 19, 2010 @ 9:57 pm | Reply

      • Seems to me there’s a fifth logical possibility not adduced by David Gansel (can’t speak to Kolakowski) which is that Marxism did not necessarily lead to Stalinism and has a complex mixed moral and ethical character, whether we take Marxism to mean the ideas of Marx himself alone, which arguably changed over time and certainly have lots of internal contradictions and ambiguities, or Marxism in some broader sense of an intellectual school of thought or tradition. I suppose in principle the same might be said of ideas of nationalism or patriotism. This doesn’t seem to contradict your proposition about appropriation or in some cases selective appropriation by political actors.

        How do you see Merkel’s comments fitting in with the thinkers you quote?

        BTW while multiculturalism or cultural pluralism as you rightly say does not inherently presume the equality of cultures, there are egalitarian variants that do so and I suppose would characterize shallow popular cultural relativism.

        There are also more complex approaches like that of the intelligentsia of South African apartheid, whose position in a way paralleled the position of Christianity in cultures of ascribed hierarchy: just as souls may be equal in the eyes of God but persons not equal in the world, cultures were held to be of equal moral value or potential (the term apartheid was abandoned in favor of “separate development” in official ideology by the late 1960s) but unequal in power in the world, as well as endowed with a sort of right to self-defense. There are echoes of that to be heard in some variants of “clash of civilizations” rhetoric I believe.

        Comment by Chris Lowe — October 21, 2010 @ 8:12 pm

      • Chris, thanks for that thoughtful comment. All formulations of value are made in a context where the opposition is not necessarily addressed directly; that is why I used the word “dialectic.” For my own purposes, I try to get inside another culture’s belief systems (and there is not necessarily one consistent set of them), and describe them as dispassionately as I can. I don’t think that all cultures are equal, but then I come at the problem as a modern, a woman, and as a secular Jew. That I hold to the clash of civilizations argument is irrelevant to history.
        In the end, doing history or any cultural analysis is impossible, for, in my view, we select materials on the basis of their availability and because they do not scare us too much.
        As for Merkel, I think she meant that the Turkish-Muslim Germans would have to learn German and abide by the laws of the nation.

        Comment by clarespark — October 22, 2010 @ 3:26 am

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