Critical Inquiry 13 (4):686-699 (1987)

In the fourth section of Goethe’s Zahme Xenien we find the quatrain from which I have taken the theme of such an old and new controversy, which, as I hope, concerns both Germanic studies and the other humanities: “What was it that kept you from us so apart?” I always read Plutarch again and again. “And what was the lesson he did impart?” “They were all human beings—so much is plain.”1 In the very years when Goethe wrote these lines, that is in the 1820s, Hegel repeatedly gave his lectures on the philosophy of history. Right at the beginning he formulated the opposite view which I should like briefly to characterize as “cultural relativism.”Every age has such peculiar circumstances, such individual conditions that it must be interpreted, and can only be interpreted, by reference to itself…. Nothing is shallower in this respect than the frequent appeal to Greek and Roman example which so often occurred among the French at the time of their Revolution. Nothing could be more different than the nature of these peoples and the nature of our own times.2 What is at issue here is not, of course, Hegel’s assertion that ages and peoples differ from each other. We all know that, and Goethe, the attentive reader and traveler, also knew, for instance, that the Roman carnival differed in its character from the celebrations of the Feast of Saint Rochus at Bingen, both of which he had described so lovingly. What makes the cultural historian into a cultural relativist is only the conclusion which we saw Hegel draw, that cultures and styles of life are not only different but wholly incommensurable, in other words that it is absurd to compare the peoples of a region or an age with human beings of other zones because there is no common denominator that would justify us in doing so. 1. ‘Was hat dich nun von uns entfernt?’ Hab immer den Plutarch gelesen. ‘Was has du den dabei gelernt?’ Sind eben alles Menschen gewesen.’ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Sämtlich Werke. Jubiläums-ausgabe in 40 Bänden 4:73; with commentary.2. See Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Vorselungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte, Werke, 20 vols. , 12:17. E. H. Gombrich was director of the Warburg Institute and Professor of the History of the Classical Tradition at the University of London from 1959 to 1976. His many influential works include The Story of Art, Art and Illusion, Meditations on a Hobby Horse, The Sense of Order, Ideals and Idols, The Image and the Eye, Tributes, Aby Warburg, and New Light on Old Masters. His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry include “The Museum: Past, Present and Future” , “Standards of Truth: The Arrested Image and the Moving Eye” , and “Representation and Misrepresentation”
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