Herder’s First Principle

The life of rational individuals is chaotic as a madhouse. Herder writes:

“Whoever goes into a madhouse finds all the fools raving in a different way, each in his world; thus do we all rave, very rationally, each according to his fluids and tempers. The deepest basis of our existence is individual, both in sensations and in thoughts.”

Herder’s first principle: you will find the essence of who you are only in yourself, not in some general principle that applies to all people. You are not a type. We’re too different from each other for there to be such universal types.

Observe those around you. The well-established principle that there is no accounting for taste: we accept that there’s no general principle to explain the differences between people. We can only describe the situation: it is just a fact that human beings are different.

“What leaves the one person cold causes the other to glow; all the animal species are perhaps less different among themselves than human being from human being.”

This radical difference from individual to individual is the basis of creativity. If all human beings were alike, there would be a set of objective principles to discover, we could read the meaning of life there and the truth would be revealed. The truth out there to read, there would be nothing left to make up. To make up is to make something up out of yourself, out of what you find in yourself, your memories and thoughts and experiences tangled up in your deepest depths, interwoven with what you essentially are.

Perhaps some people never search for their depths, and it might seem that the truth really does lie there on the surface. Simple principles seem to be the highest truths. They learn to watch out for types, trust their instincts, satisfied that they know what – and who – is right and wrong. Talk of anything deeper sounds like nonsense to them.

But the deepest truth does not lie at the surface, in the form of such general principles. Each human being that is born brings into existence her own principle, which has to be freshly discovered in a life of experimentation, if it is to be discovered at all. And it lives and dies with that individual. This is the artist’s life, the life of a person who is fixated on truth and must discover it. And so must discover it for herself, since it belongs to her alone:

“If a human being could sketch the deepest, most individual basis of his enthusiasms and feelings, of his dreams and trains of thought, what a novel! As things stand, it is only perhaps illnesses and moments of passion that do this – and what monsters and amazing sea-miracles one often perceives!”

Of course, whatever is created, if it is truly new, must appear monstrous or miraculous. Because it has never been seen before, and will never appear again. Because the very universe from which it came – a single human life – was born into its own existence only to burn and blaze before it dies.

From Herder’s first principle you can derive the precept: you must find your own first principle, your deepest depth. It lies inside you and nowhere else. Or you can live on the surface and leave the treasure buried forever, to fade into oblivion.

(I’ve been reading the Philosophical Writings of Herder, translated and edited by Michael N. Forster.)

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