Humboldt at 250: The Prussian Aristocrat Who Spoke Out for Liberty

Wilhelm von Humboldt was born on June 22, 1767, in Potsdam. This essay by Ralph Raico on Humboldt’s life is published in honor of his 250th birthday.

When Oswald Spengler, in one of his minor books, scornfully characterized German classical liberalism as “a bit of the spirit of England on German soil,” he was merely displaying the willful blindness of the school of militaristic-statist German historians, who refused to acknowledge as a true compatriot any thinker who did not form part of the “intellectual bodyguard of the House of Hohenzollern.”

Spengler had apparently forgotten that Germany had had its Enlightenment, and the ideals of freedom which were conceived and propagated in England, Scotland, and France towards the end of the eighteenth century had found an echo and a support in the works of writers such as Kant, Schiller, and even the young Fichte. Although by 1899, William Graham Sumner could write that “there is today scarcely an institution in Germany except the army,” it is nevertheless true that there existed a native German tradition of distinguished, libertarian thought, which had, in the course of the nineteenth century, to some degree at least been translated into action. Of the thinkers who contributed to this tradition, Wilhelm von Humboldt was unquestionably one of the greatest.

Born in 1767, Humboldt was descended from a Junker family which had faithfully served the rulers of Prussia for generations—a fact which was later to cause surprise to some of those who heard young Humboldt in conversation passionately defend personal liberty. He was educated at Frankfurt-am-Oder, and later at Gottingen, at that time one of the centers of liberal ideas in Germany.

Ideas on the Constitutions of States

In the summer of 1789, Humboldt undertook a trip to Paris in the company of his former tutor, Campe, who was a devotee of the philosophes, and now eager to see with his own eyes, “the funeral rites of French despotism.” His pupil did not share his enthusiasm for the revolution, however; for from what Humboldt had witnessed at Paris and from conversations with Friedrich Gentz (at that time a supporter of the French Revolution) there came a brief article, “Ideas on the Constitutions of States, occasioned by the New French Constitution.”

This little essay, originally intended as a letter to a friend, is noteworthy for a number of reasons. In the first place, Humboldt appears to have arrived at some of the major conclusions of Burke, without at that time being familiar with the latter’s work. He states, for instance, that “reason is capable to be sure of giving form to material already present, but it has no power to create new material… . Constitutions cannot be grafted upon men as sprigs upon trees.” For a new political order to be successful, it is necessary for “time and nature” to have prepared the ground. Since this has not been the case in France, historical analogy compelled an answer of “no” to the question of whether this new constitution will succeed.

In addition, this essay anticipates an idea central to the thesis of Humboldt’s most important work on political theory, which was never far from his mind whenever he deliberated on the nature of man—the notion that, “whatever is to flourish in a man must spring from within him, and not be given from without.”

On his return to Berlin, Humboldt had been given a minor post at the law court. But the relative freedom of thought which had been enjoyed in Prussia under Frederick the Great was at this time being replaced by persecutions of the press and religious intolerance; Humboldt did not find the atmosphere of public life congenial. Added to this was the disinclination which he felt to interfere in the lives of others (a nicety of feeling almost grotesquely out of place in a “public servant”). Most important of all, perhaps, was the new conception which he was beginning to formulate of the legitimate functions of government, a conception which virtually compelled him to look on the states of his time as engines of injustice. In the spring of 1791, Humboldt resigned his position.

The Limits of State Action

The genesis of his major work on political theory, and the one of most interest to individualists, is also to be found in discussions with a friend—Karl von Dalberg, who was a proponent of the “enlightened” state paternalism then prevalent in Germany. He pressed Humboldt for a written exposition of his views on the subject, and Humboldt responded, in 1792, by composing his classic, The Limits of State Action.

This little book was later to have a good deal of influence. It was of importance in shaping some of John Stuart Mill’s ideas in this field, and may even have provided the immediate occasion for his On Liberty. In France, Laboulaye, the late-nineteenth-century individualist, owed much to this work of Humboldt, and in Germany it exercised an influence even over such a basically unsympathetic mind as von Treitschke’s. But it is also a book which has an inherent value, because in it are set forth—in some cases, I believe, for the first time—some of the major arguments for freedom.

Humboldt begins his work by remarking that previous writers on political philosophy have concerned themselves almost exclusively with investigating the divisions of governmental power and what part the nation, or certain sectors of it, ought to have in the exercise of this power. These writers have neglected the more fundamental questions, “To what end ought the whole apparatus of the state to aim, and what limits ought to be set to its activity?” It is this question that Humboldt intended to answer.

“The true end of man—not that which capricious inclination prescribes for him, but that which is prescribed by eternally immutable reason—is the highest and most harmonious cultivation of his faculties into one whole. For this cultivation, freedom is the first and indispensible condition.” Humboldt thus begins by placing his argument within the framework of a particular conception of man’s nature, but it ought to be noted that the validity of his argument does not depend upon the correctness of his view of “the true end of man.” Of primary importance are his ideas in regard to the mechanism of individual and social progress; and here even such a socially-minded utilitarian as John Stuart Mill could find instruction and inspiration.

For the full flourishing of the individual, Humboldt asserts, there is requisite, besides freedom, a “manifoldness of situations,” which, while logically distinct from freedom, has always followed upon it. It is only when men are placed in a great variety of circumstances that those experiments in living can take place which expand the range of values with which the human race is familiar. It is through expanding this range that increasingly better answers can be found to the question, “In exactly what ways are men to arrange their lives?”

A free nation would, according to Humboldt, be one in which “the continuing necessity of association with others would urgently impel each gradually to modify himself” in the light of his appreciation of the value of the life-patterns others have accepted. In such a society, “no power and no hand would be lost for the elevation and enjoyment of human existence.” Each man, in applying his reason to his own life and circumstances, would contribute to the education of other men, and would, in turn, learn from their experience. This is Humboldt’s view of the mechanism of human progress.

It should be clear, however, that this progressive refinement of the individual personality can take place only under a regime of freedom, since “what is not chosen by the individual himself, that in which he is only restricted and led, does not enter into his being. It remains foreign to him, and he does not really accomplish it with human energy, but with mechanical address.” This is one of the central ideas of the book, and merits some discussion.

It is an idea which no one will dispute when it involves a question of scientific progress. No one expects worthwhile scientific thought to take place when the scientist is compelled or restricted in some important facet of his work. He must be free to develop his ideas, in accordance with the self-imposed standards of his profession, out of his own originality. But scientific knowledge is only one type of knowledge; there are other types, some at least as socially useful. There is the knowledge which consists in skills and techniques of production, and the type which, as we have seen, is embedded in values and ways of life: Besides knowledge which is acquired through abstract thought, there is the sort of knowledge acquired through practical thought and through action. The argument for freedom in the elaboration of scientific knowledge, therefore, is simply a special instance of the argument for freedom in general.

Freedom and Science

Professor Michael Polanyi has described the benefits of “individualism in the cultivation of science.”

The pursuit of science can be organized … in no other manner than by granting complete independence to all mature scientists. They will then distribute themselves over the whole field of possible discoveries, each applying his own special ability to the task that appears most profitable to him. Thus as many trails as possible will be covered, and science will penetrate most rapidly in every direction towards that kind of hidden knowledge which is unsuspected by all but its discoverer, the kind of new knowledge on which the progress of science truly depends.

Few will doubt that scientific progress would have been appallingly retarded if, for instance, Einstein had been compelled to obtain permission from a board in charge of “planning science” before he could undertake his researches (or if a government commission had been empowered to pass on Galileo’s intended work!). But if men like Henry Ford had not been free to put their ideas into operation, industrial progress would have been no less stanched. We may concede freely that the abstract scientific thought of an Einstein is a loftier thing, representing a greater achievement of the human mind. But this has no bearing on the argument.

We believe that individual scientists should be unhindered in the pursuit of their aims, because those who would be in charge of the central direction of scientific research, or those who had power to restrict scientists in essential ways, would not know as well as the scientists themselves—each of whom has an immediate knowledge of the relevant factors in his particular situation—which are the most promising lines to be explored. In addition, a self-chosen activity, or one which may be followed up freely in all of its ramifications, will summon forth energy which will not be available in cases where a task is imposed from without, or where the researcher meets up against countless frustrations in the pursuit of his goal—the free activity, in other words, will command greater incentive.

But both of these propositions are equally true of activities involving practical knowledge, or knowledge in action, of which techniques of production are an example. The socialist who believes in central direction of economic activity ought, consistently, to believe also in the central planning of science; those who favor widespread government control of economic life, because the state “knows better,” should, if they were consistent, favor a return to the system that shackled the scientific enterprise as well.

It was partly because force necessarily interferes with individual self-development and the proliferation of new ideas, by erecting a barrier between the individual’s perception of a situation and the solution he thinks it best to attempt, that Humboldt wanted to limit the activities of the state as severely as possible. Another argument in favor of this conclusion is that a government wishing to supervise to even a modest degree such a complex phenomenon as society, simply cannot fit its regulations to the peculiarities of various concatenations of circumstances. But measures which ignore such peculiarities will tend to produce uniformity, and contract the “manifoldness of situations” which is the spur to all progress.

But what is the indispensible minimum of government activity? Humboldt finds that the one good which society cannot provide for itself is security against those who aggress against the person and property of others. His answer to the question which he posed at the beginning of his work—“What limits ought to be set to the activity of the state?”—is “that the provision of security, against both external enemies and internal dissentions, must constitute the purpose of the state, and occupy the circle of its activity.”

As for the services which it is commonly held must fall within the scope of government action—as, for instance, charity—Humboldt believes that they need not be provided by political institutions, but can safely be entrusted to social ones. “It is only requisite that freedom of association be given to individual parts of the nation or to the nation itself,” in order for charitable ends to be satisfactorily fulfilled. In this, as, indeed, throughout his whole book, Humboldt shows himself to be a thoughtful but passionate believer in the efficacy of truly social forces, in the possibility of great social ends being achieved without any necessity for direction on the part of the state. Humboldt thus allies himself with the thinkers who rejected the state in order to affirm society.

Parts of Humboldt’s book appeared in two German periodicals in 1792, but difficulties with the Prussian censorship and a certain apparently innate lack of confidence in his own works caused him to put off publication of the book until it could be revised. The day for revision never came, however, and it was only 16 years after the author’s death that The Limits of State Action was published in its entirety.

An Anomaly in Government

For ten years after the completion of this book, Humboldt devoted himself to traveling and private studies, principally in aesthetics, the classics, linguistics, and comparative anthropology. From 1802 to 1808 he served as Prussian minister to Rome, a post which involved a minimum of official business and which he accepted chiefly out of his love for that city. Humboldt’s real “return to the state” occurs in 1809, when he became director of the Section for Public Worship and Education, in the Ministry of Interior. In this capacity, he directed the reorganization of the Prussian public education system, and, in particular, founded the University of Berlin.

That so unquestionably sincere a man as Humboldt could have acted in such disharmony with the principles set forth in his only book on political philosophy (including the concept that the state should have no connection with education), requires some explanation. The reason is to be sought in his patriotism, which had been aroused by the utter defeat suffered by Prussia at the hands of Napoleon. Humboldt wished to contribute to the regeneration of his country which was being undertaken by men such as Stein and Hardenberg, and the reform of the educational system fitted his abilities and inclinations.

This task completed, Humboldt served in various diplomatic posts for a number of years, including that of Prussian minister to the Congress of Vienna, and, after peace had been established, as a member of the Council of State. But the spirit which now predominated in Berlin, as well as throughout Europe, was the spirit of Metternich—who, always able to identify accurately the enemies of his system, had already (in 1814) termed Humboldt a “Jacobin.”

Humboldt’s opposition to the reactionary policies of his government gained him as much ill-will at court as it did popularity among the people. He was hated and intrigued against by the reactionaries at court; they went so far as to open his mail, as if he had in actuality been a Jacobin. When, in 1819, Metternich induced Prussia to agree to the Karlsbad Decrees, which attempted to establish a rigid censorship for all of Germany, Humboldt termed the regulations “shameful, unnational and provoking to a great people,” and demanded the impeachment of Bernstorff, the Prussian minister who had signed them.

It was clear that a man like Humboldt was an anomaly in a government which treacherously refused to fulfill its wartime promises of a constitution, and whose domestic policies were largely dictated by Metternich. In December 1819, Humboldt was dismissed. He refused the pension offered him by the king.

The rest of his life he devoted to his studies, of which the researches into linguistics were the most important, and gained for him the reputation of a pioneer in the field. He died in 1835.

If we ask what are the primary contributions of Humboldt to libertarian thought, we will find the answer in his ideas on the value of the free, self-sustaining activity of the individual, and of the importance of the unhindered collaboration—often unconscious—of the members of society. These are ideas which are finding increasing application in fields such as psychology, linguistics, economics, and social theory. (Occasionally, as with F.A. Hayek and Noam Chomsky, contemporary thinkers in these areas even make the connection to Humboldt explicit.) That ideas which were set forth by Humboldt should be proving so relevant to contemporary research into man and society is a sign of the clearly discernible trend towards individualism in present-day thought at the highest levels.

Ralph Raico’s essay on Wilhelm von Humboldt originally appeared in the Spring 1961 issue of New Individualist Review, of which he was editor-in-chief.146061

Ralph Raico (1936-2016) was an American libertarian historian of European liberalism. He was formerly a professor of history at Buffalo State College.

This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

fee logo text black


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

Do you like the article?

We are glad you do! Please consider donating if you want to read more articles like this one.


Share this article!
Join our community and stay updated!