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Wilhelm von Humboldt: German Classical Liberal

FEBRUARY 01, 1991 by RICHARD MINITER

Richard Miniter is an environmental policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. As a summer fellow at The Institute for Humane Studies in 1989, he concentrated on Wilhelm yon Humboldt.

John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is probably one of the best known, and most unabashed, liberal works ever published. Mill’s seminal defense of freedom of thought, speech, and action is widely acknowledged. Less well known are the writings of his intellectual precursor and some might say inspiration, the German liberal and author of The Limits of State Action, Wilhelm von Humboldt.

Mill began On Liberty around 1854, when Humboldt’s work was first published in English. The question of whether Humboldt stimulated Mill to write his famous essay is open to debate, yet Mill’s frequent references to Humboldt in the text suggest a connection. In Mill’s Autobiography he writes, “[t]he only author who had preceded me . . . of whom I thought it appropriate to say anything, was Humboldt.” Mill cites Humboldt as a formative influence, quoting him directly and in paraphrase throughout On Liberty. “Few persons, out of Germany, even comprehend the meaning of the doctrine which Wilhelm von Humboldt, so eminent both as a savant and as a politician, made the text of a treatise,” wrote Mill in chapter 3 of On Liberty.

That “celebrated treatise,” in the words of The Westminster Review, is The Limits of State Action, which “ushered in a new era” in political theory. Humboldt’s thinking about the self-development of man and the role of the state inspired several thinkers to publish political essays.

Born in 1767 to a noble family, Humboldt gained renown as a humanist, a linguist, an education reformer, and a Prussian diplomat. He was among the greatest of Germany’s liberals, a tradition which passed from prominence sometime before the middle of the last century. He stood strongly against state intervention—despite holding some of the highest posts in Prussia. Lord Acton called Humboldt “the most central figure in Germany” of his time, noting his close friendship with Goethe and Schiller. He was respected as both a scholar and a statesman. He founded the University of Berlin. German schoolmasters remember him as the architect of the German educational system and as an accomplished scholar in history, classical literature, and linguistics. Lin guists, such as Noam Chomsky, still cite his work. He served as the Prussian emissary to the Holy See and was Prussia’s chief negotiator at the surrender of Napoleon’s armies.

Humboldt learned political philosophy the way he advocated all education should take place: through a series of voluntary associations. He became a regular member of the circle of Henri-ette Herz, a leading Jewish intellectual. He joined several mutual improvement societies in Berlin and entered into “serf-examining and explaining correspondence.” Through his future wife Caroline von Dacheroden, Humboldt met Friedrich Schiller, perhaps the greatest of the German romantics after Goethe. After meeting Schiller several times at Weimar and Jena, Humboldt kept up a regular correspondence with him. Later, he became a close friend of Goethe’s, as well.

Through a broad spectrum of experiences, Humboldt set out to develop a well-cultivated, unique, and sensitive personality. He wanted to animate all that was latent within himself, to become all that he was capable of being. Such an experiment in living required freedom (“the first and indispensable condition”), a variety of people and situations, and individuality. Each of these components can be found in a more developed form in The Limits of State Action, and for that matter, in Mill’s On Liberty.

The French Revolution

At the beginning of what was to become a lifelong trek toward self-improvement, Humboldt found himself in the midst of Europe’s living laboratory of political science: revolutionary France. In the summer of 1789, Humboldt’s former tutor was invited to Paris by Mirabeau and took young Humboldt along. Mirabeau showed the pair the National Assembly at Versailles and the grave of Rousseau. But Humboldt had doubts about the future of the French Constitution and its bold plans to remold French society—by force, if necessary. He felt strongly that force impedes self-development, retards natural social evolution, penalizes innovative thinking, and rewards only conformity to the imposed order.

After returning from France, and corresponding with his friend Friedrich yon Genz, a supporter of the revolution, Humboldt wrote Ideas on the Constitutions of States, occasioned by the New French Constitution. In this essay, published anonymously in 1791, he expressed doubts about the results of reshaping a society by force of law. Intended as a letter to a friend, this essay anticipates some of the ideas covered by Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France. More interesting still, Humboldt at this point had no knowledge of Burke. As Burke did, Humboldt believed that nations and constitutions had to evolve naturally, not called into existence by parlor philosophers without great peril. “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 on trees,” Humboldt wrote.

Self-Development venus State Action

When he returned to Berlin, Humboldt was given a minor post at the law court. But soon he realized that public life had become controlled and thus grew anxious to leave Berlin. Liberalism in Germany had all but perished with Frederick the Great in 1786. Restrictions on freedom of the press and free exercise of religion were imposed with a new vigor. Government censors would, in some cases, require approval of articles prior to publication. Humboldt found little spontaneity and diversity in the life of the civil service and the court. Whatever opportunities for self-development may have existed, Humboldt felt his education had been arrested. Needless to say, he was ill at ease with the rulers of Prussia, although he remained wisely silent at the time.

Despite the urging of friends, Humboldt resigned his government post in the spring of 1791. Believing he could not prevent much evil or do much good in public office, he entered semi-retirement at Tegel, the family estate, to devote himself “entirely to the cultivation of his friends, his newly married wife, and himself.”

His self-development—not to be confused with selfishness, but a genuine desire to become a better, fuller person—had become all-important. In August 1791, Humboldt wrote to Georg Forster:


I have now absolved from all business, left Berlin, married, and live, in the country, an independent, freely chosen, infinitely happy life . . . . I do not feel from you such disapprobation of my step as I met with from so many others. You esteem liberty and independent activity too highly to expect much utility from a man only dependent on his official position . . . . The axiom that nothing on earth is so important as the highest power, and most varied cultivation of the individual, and that, therefore, the primary law of true morality is, educate yourself, and only the second, influence others by what you are; these axioms are so firmly impressed upon my mind that nothing can change them.” (italics mine)

Perhaps no shorter summary of Humboldt’s political philosophy could be written. The Limits is a more formal and complete statement of Humboldt’s philosophical opposition to state intervention in the natural and necessary self-development of its citizens.

The Limits of State Action

In thinking over his exit from the Prussian bureaucracy, Humboldt began to reconsider the proper functions of the state. It didn’t square with his idea of a many-sided self-development. He considered all governments of his day too large to provide the social conditions that enable human development. This view is directly opposed to the one widely held today and warrants some explanation.

Since a large state inevitably leads to an increase in the amount of force the government wields over society and individuals, and since power cannot long tolerate freedom or a diversity of views, a state seeking to provide for anything more than their physical safety ultimately ends up stifling its citizens. A limited state, in which individuals are able to flourish with the aid of genuinely social institutions (such as unregulated churches and schools), can protect its citizens from foreign invasion and domestic violence. But, Humboldt argues, a welfare state erects barriers between the individual and the society in which lie lives. By freely interacting with the world around him, an individual seeks newer, better methods of solving common problems. Some of these methods he will come upon on his own; some innovations will be learned from others. This is the source of social progress in a liberal society. By dictating the terms under which people form associations, the state deprives such associations of their essential vigor and spontaneity. Thus, the transmission of new ideas is slowed and, when the state gains enough authority to regulate all of society, soon stops altogether.

In a sense, Humboldt’s political theory is aesthetic: the individual is a work of art. While styles and techniques can be learned from others, the artist must hone his skills over time and learn to express himself in finer, subtler ways. Commands issued from a central authority cannot create art. Art can only be created by the free and spontaneous interplay of ideas between the artist and his subject.

This was the form of his ideas when Humboldt’s friend Karl yon Dalberg pressed him for his findings. The two began a debate which soon led Humboldt to write The Limits of State Action.

Young Humboldt wrote this tract in 1791. “At a time when the ideas which it unfolds were in striking contrast to the events and opinions of the day, the book was long obnoxious to the scruples of German censorship.” Only passages from The Limits were published by Schiller. Joseph Coulthard notes that Schiller “took much interest in its publication, [yet] had some difficulty in finding a publisher willing to incur the necessary responsibility.”

Humboldt never strayed far from the work he penned in his early 20s. He made several revisions to The Limits during the course of his life, both before and after his years of service at some of the highest posts in the Prussian state. The Limits was finally published 17 years after his death. The manuscript remained incomplete and less polished than Humboldt’s other works. Some gaps appear in the text, yet it helped shape the arguments of many 19th century liberals.

In The Limits Humboldt argues for a conception of happiness based on what he considers a natural drive for self-development. It is in freely choosing and pursuing self-development “and in striving to reach it by the combined application of his moral and physical energies that the true happiness of man, in his full vigor and development, consists.”

What is the goal of this drive for self-development, which Humboldt describes as the source of happiness? “The true end of man, or that which is prescribed by the eternal and immutable dictates of reason, and not suggested by vague and transient desires, is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole.”

This end—harmonious self-development—is not a fixed point that can be completely captured or “possessed.” As in the natural world, “we find that rest and possession exist only in imagination.” And because it cannot be possessed, it cannot be given by the state to interested individuals. It must be pursued by each person in his own way.

Humboldt’s conception of man, as a being who must strive for self-cultivation within society and who requires society for his full development, is an important contribution to the liberal tradition. Scholars outside the tradition of Adam Smith, David Hume, and Herbert Spencer might anticipate Humboldt’s emphasis on the individual, but may be surprised by his positive view of society. Liberals are often criticized as “atomistic individualists”—self-interested islands who prefer to hold society at a distance. Humboldt’s arguments challenge the conventional wisdom that the individualistic premises of liberal thinking necessarily exclude society and community. In fact, society and its institutions are what Humboldt wants to save from the power and grip of the state.

Humboldt and Educational’ Reform

Humboldt is probably best remembered for reforming German education. Education was the social institution Humboldt cared most about—although, at first, he resisted being made Minister of Public Instruction charged with reforming German schools.

He brought a radical conception of education to the post. His revolutionary ideas were soon institutionalized and remained in place, with some modifications, well into this century. Humboldt’s tenure as Minister of Public Instruction was said to be as masterly in organization as that of Prussian generals in war. What is interesting about this assessment is that Humboldt held the post for a scant 16′months;

When Humboldt joined the liberal reform government in 1809, he advocated the abolition of military schools and the closing of schools catering to the nobility, and opposed the creation of special middle schools for adolescents either uninterested or financially unable to undertake university studies. Humboldt wanted German schools to be ‘places where a wide diversity of students would study together, free of state-imposed barriers.

The cornerstone of Humboldt’s educational reforms was the humanistic Gymnasium. Based on the classical languages and literatures, the Gymnasium remained the dominant educational institution in Germany until the second half of this century. Humboldt considered a student’s mastery of the literature and philosophy of the ancients, especially the Greeks, a key foundation to genuine education. The University of Berlin, which Humboldt founded, and much of Humboldt’s design of the educational system are still in place. Leaving aside the apparent violation of his earlier injunctions against state control of education, the reformed system is remarkably akin to the system he advocated years earlier. Through the imprint they left on a key sector of social life, Humboldt’s ideas have had an enduring influence on German intellectual development.

From 1810 to 1813, Humboldt was the chief Prussian diplomat in Vienna. He acted as a head negotiator both before and after Napoleon’s defeat, and served in London for the Prussian crown. In 1819, Humboldt fought the passage of the Karlsbad Decrees, which would have imposed rigid censorship throughout Germany. When his efforts failed, Humboldt retired to private life. He refused the pension offered him by the king and returned to his estate to study languages and pursue other scholarly work. He died in 1835.

Humboldt’s legacy is more than a string of political acts and scholarly contributions. The Limits of State Action offers a coherent and early defense of laissez-faire society without a single recourse to economics. For students of humanities, Humboldt’s work provides a solid and engaging introduction to liberal thought. 


1.   Humboldt also influenced Matthew Arnold, who disagreed with him, however. See Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, especially chapter 3. Arnold cited directly Humboldt’s ideas on education in Schools and Universities on the Continent.

2.   Juliette Bauer, Life of Wilhelm yon Humboldt (London: Ingram, Cooke, & Co., 1852) p. 250.

3.   Introduction to The Limits of State Action by Wilhelm yon Humboldt, edited by J. S. Burrow (New York: Cambridge University Press,’1969), p. ix.

4.   Bauer, pp. 277-78, citing Humboldt’s letter of August 16, 1791, to Forster.

5.   Wilhelm von Humboldt, The Sphere and Duties of Government, edited by Joseph Coulthard (London: Trubner & Co., 1854), p. iii (from Coulthard’s Introduction).

6.   1bid.

7.   This is not an uncontroversial statement. Some writers uphold Humboldt’s constancy of conviction; many do not. John Chapman wrote in the July-October 1854 issue of The Westminster Review, “. . . however startling to some may be its doctrines, it has all the authority due to the long sustained convictions of a man of extraordinary capacity . . . .”

      A majority of historians and philosophers who have examined Humboldt hold. differently, however. See Leo nard Krieger, The German Idea of Freedom (Chicago: Beacon, 1957), pp. 170-71; and Paul Sweet’s excellent Wilhelm yon Humboldt: A Biography, 2 vols. (columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1978, 1980), vol. I, p. 108, vol. II, p. 20. Sweet also has an appendix in the first volume dealing with the reception of The Limits.

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