Johann Gottfried Von Herder, a German author, born at Mohrungen, Aug. 25, 1744, died in Weimar, Dec. 18, 1803. He was the son of a schoolmaster and chorister, and became the amanuensis of a clergyman named Trescho, under whom he made wonderful progress in study and various reading. At the age of 18 his philosophical and literary erudition gained him the friendship of a Russian physician, who sent him to Konigsberg, whence he was to go to St. Petersburg as a lecturer on surgery. But he renounced his intended profession after witnessing a single operation, and devoted himself to theology. In 1765 he became a preacher at Riga, where the fervor and power of his discourses quickly made him an object of general enthusiasm. His Fragments uber die neuere deutsche Literatur (1707), and his Kritische Walder (1769), were manifestoes against the artificial spirit and literature of his age, as compared with the grander inspirations of the early Orient and of ancient Greece. In 1769 he resigned his pastorate in order to travel in Germany, France, and Italy. At Strasburg he was intimately associated with Goethe. In 1771 he was called as court preacher to Buckeburg, and in 1776 was appointed court preacher and member of the consistory at Weimar. By his Aelteste Urkunde desmenschlichen Geschlechts (1774) he had already given a new impulse to theology by seeking poetic sentiments in religious traditions, and by tracing in the primitive world the sublime instincts of human nature and the foreshadowings of human destiny.
At Weimar he passed the remainder of his life, in association with the leading minds in that most brilliant period of German literature, and occupied with constant labors in theology, poetry, and history. As a theologian he cooperated with Lessing in opposing the despotism of the letter and of dogmas, and brought the instincts of piety and of poetic fancy, illustrated by a wide erudition, rather than the dialectics of the schools, to bear upon the questions of religion. This tendency appears in his Geist der Ebraischen Poesie (Dessau, 1782; translated into English by Dr. James Marsh, 2 vols., Burlington, 1833), in which he treats the Hebrew writings as productions at once of primitive poetry and of religious inspiration. He translated many legends and songs from Arabian, Indian, Italian, Spanish, and ancient German poets, among which were the Spanish romances of the Cid. His most important work is the unfinished Ideen zur Philosophic der Geschichte der Mensclilieit (4 vols., Riga, 1784-'91; translated into English by T. Churchill, under the title of "Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man," 4to, London, 1800, and 2 vols. 8vo, 1803), which is one of the principal and standard treatises on the subject.
He traces the course of humanity as of an individual placed on the earth by an unseen hand, changing its forms and objects as it passes from country to country and from age to age, protesting everywhere against the finite world which enchains it, seeking the triumph of the infinite, the victory of the soul, tending in spite of detours and through a series of revolutions to civilization, and preparing for the blossoming of life in another world. His numerous writings have been collected in 45 vols. (Stuttgart, 1806-'20), and in other editions, including one of his select works by H. Kurtz in 4 vols. (1871). A monument, with the inscription Licht, Liebe, Leben, was erected to his memory by Grand Duke Charles Augustus at Weimar in 1818. His biography was written by his son E. G. von Herder (6 vols., Erlangen, 184G-'7). N. L. Frothingham has translated some of his poems into English. A complete edition of his works was published in 1872, under the patronage of the Prussian government.