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.