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.
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.