Excerpt from Heine’s “Reise von München nach Genua. Capitel XXIX.”

But What Is that Great Call­ing of Our Age?

It is eman­ci­pa­tion. Not just that of the Irish, the Greeks, the Frank­furt Jews, the West-Indi­an Blacks and those equal­ly oppressed peo­ples, but it is the eman­ci­pa­tion of the whole world, pecu­liar­ly of Europe, which matured, and now tears itself from the iron strings of the priv­i­leged, the aris­toc­ra­cy. Though some philo­soph­i­cal rene­gades of free­dom may forge the finest chains of log­ic to prove to us that mil­lions of peo­ple are cre­at­ed as the beasts of bur­den to a few thou­sand priv­i­leged knights; yet they will nev­er­the­less not be able to con­vince us as long as they, as Voltaire says, can­not prove to us that those with sad­dles on their backs and those with spurs on their feet were born as such.

Every age has its call­ing and the com­ple­tion there­of moves mankind fur­ther along. The ear­li­er inequal­i­ty, engen­dered by the feu­dal sys­tem in Europe, was per­haps nec­es­sary, or a nec­es­sary pre­con­di­tion to the pro­gress­es of civ­i­liza­tion; but now the sys­tem inhibits the same, it out­rages civ­i­lized hearts. This inequal­i­ty, which col­lides with the prin­ci­ples of soci­ety in the most petu­lant ways, nec­es­sar­i­ly most deeply exas­per­at­ed the French, the peo­ple of soci­ety. They sought to force equal­i­ty into being by sim­ply chop­ping off the heads of those, who thor­ough­ly sought to excel, and the rev­o­lu­tion became a bea­con for the war of the lib­er­a­tion of mankind.

Let us praise the French! They took cared for the two great­est needs of human soci­ety: good food and civic equal­i­ty. Both in the art of cook­ing and in free­dom they made the great­est progress, and when we all hold, at some point, that great feast of atone­ment and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, all will be well — for what could be bet­ter than a soci­ety from Paris at a well-stocked table? Then let us offer our first toast to the French. It will def­i­nite­ly take some more time until we can cel­e­brate this fes­ti­val, until eman­ci­pa­tion can be ful­ly brought about. But it will come, that age, when we will, rec­on­ciled and equal, sit at the same table. Then we will be uni­fied, and will fight as one against the suf­fer­ings inher­ent to life, maybe in the end even against death, whose solemn sys­tem of equal­i­ty at least does not offend us as much as the mock­ing inequal­i­ty teach­ings of the aris­toc­ra­cy.

Don’t smile, future read­er. Every age believes that its strug­gle is the most impor­tant of all, this is the quin­tes­sen­tial belief of the ages. This is the belief with­in which ages live and ages die, and we too want to live and die in this reli­gion of free­dom, which might have done more to deserve the title of reli­gion than the hol­low, extinct specter of the soul, which we tend to so name. Our holy bat­tle seems to us the most impor­tant which has ever been fought on this earth, even if a knowl­edge of his­to­ry tells us that one day our grand­chil­dren will look down upon this bat­tle, with maybe the same apa­thy with which we look down upon the bat­tles of the first peo­ples, who had to fight against sim­i­lar­ly greedy mon­sters, wyverns and giants.

Reise von München nach Gen­ua.” Chap­ter XXIX. in Hein­rich Heine’s sämtliche Werke: 68.

This excerpt comes from Heine’s “Reise von München nach Gen­ua.” (trip from Munich to Genoa) in his larg­er work, Reise­bilder (Trav­el-pic­tures). It is a fun and pen­e­trat­ing look at how 19th Cen­tu­ry lib­er­als and pro­gres­sives saw their world and the great strug­gles with­in it. Heine’s point, in this excerpt, is that every age right­ly feels that their call­ing is the most impor­tant in his­to­ry. Heine right­ly saw that his was the age of Eman­ci­pa­tion. Our age, too, has its wyverns to slay.

I went to a talk not long ago, where one of the speak­ers, Andrew Del­Ban­co argued that in the past, life was much more clear-cut. The author argues in a book, as he did in the talk, that Satan has died in Amer­i­can con­scious­ness, and the evils of soci­ety have become hard­er to pin­point and more com­pli­cat­ed to deal with. Maybe we have lost the sense of dread asso­ci­at­ed with the dev­il. As such, I think we do not have one sin­gle evil that we can point to and call the call­ing of our age.

On the oth­er hand, there seem to me to be tons of caus­es that can right­ful­ly be called the call­ing of our age: the fight against glob­al warm­ing, glob­al anti-black racism, glob­al anti-lgbtqia prej­u­dice, slav­ery, pre­ventable ill­ness­es, obe­si­ty and mal­nu­tri­tion, etc. We still have dev­ils in the world. Heine would say that all of our mod­ern mal­adies are con­nect­ed, and I’m inclined to believe him.

I guess that the great call­ings of our age may be the con­nec­tion of the world. More than ever, human­i­ty is inter­act­ing with one anoth­er, dis­tance is becom­ing neg­li­gi­ble. In such a world, reli­gions break down, even Heine’s enlight­en­ment notion of progress, but that’s the the­sis for anoth­er thought.

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