Wilhelm von Humboldt

The Sphere and Duties of Government




These are passages from the English translation (known also under the title The Limits of State Action) of von Humboldt's work in which the author argues why the sphere of state action has to be circumscribed if human freedom and social variety are to be developed.



Conditions for human development: freedom and variety

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. Freedom is the first and indispensable condition which the possibility of such a development presupposes; but there is besides another essential, — intimately connected with freedom, it is true, — a variety of situations. Even the most free and self-reliant of men is thwarted and hindered in his development when set in a monotonous situation. But as it is evident, on the one hand, that such a diversity is a constant result of freedom, and on the other, that there is a species of oppression which, without imposing restrictions on man himself, gives a peculiar impress of its own to surrounding circumstances; these two conditions, of freedom and variety of situation, may be regarded, in a certain sense, as one and the same.

I therefore deduce, as the natural inference from what has been argued, that reason cannot desire for man any other condition than that in which each individual not only enjoys the most absolute freedom of developing himself by his own energies, in his perfect individuality, but in which external nature even is left unfashioned by any human agency, but only receives the impress given to it by each individual of himself and his own free will, according to the measure of his wants and instincts, and restricted only by the limits of his powers and his rights.


Obstacles to human development : state interference

The very variety arising from the union of numbers of individuals is the highest good which social life can confer, and this variety is undoubtedly merged into uniformity in proportion to the degree of State interference. Under such a system, we have not so much the individual members of a nation living united in the bonds of a civil compact; but isolated subjects living in a relation to the State, or rather to the spirit which prevails in its government, — a relation in which the undue preponderance of the State element tends already to fetter the free play of individual energies. Like causes produce like effects; and hence, in proportion as State co-operation increases in extent and efficiency, a common resemblance diffuses itself, not only through all the agents to which it is applied, but through all the results of their activity. And this is the very design which States have in view. They desire nothing so much as comfort, ease, tranquility; and these are most readily secured to the extent that there is no clash of individualities.
But that to which man’s energies are ever urging him, and towards which he must ceaselessly direct his efforts, is the very reverse of this inertness and uniformity, — it is variety and activity.

The evil results of a too extended solicitude on the part of the State, are still more strikingly manifested in the suppression of all active energy, and the necessary deterioration of the moral character. We scarcely need to substantiate this position by further argument. The man who frequently submits the conduct of his actions to foreign guidance and control, becomes gradually disposed to a willing sacrifice of the little spontaneity that remains to him. He fancies himself released from an anxiety which he sees transferred to other hands, and seems to himself to do enough when he looks for their leading, and follows the course to which it directs him. Thus, his notions of right and wrong, of praise and blame, become confounded. The idea of the first inspires him no longer; and the painful consciousness of the last assails him less frequently and violently, since he can more easily ascribe his shortcomings to his peculiar position, and leave them to the responsibility of those who have shaped it for him. If we add to this, that he may not, possibly, regard the designs of the State as perfectly pure in their objects or execution — should he find grounds to suspect that not his own advantage only, but along with it some other additional purpose is intended, then, not only the force and energy, but the purity and excellence of his moral nature is brought to suffer. He now conceives himself not only free from any responsibility which the State has not expressly imposed upon him, but exonerated at the same time from every personal effort to ameliorate his own condition; and even shrinks from such an effort, as if it were likely to open out new opportunities, of which the State might take advantage.


The state as a bureaucratic Leviathan

When once thus accustomed to the transaction of State affairs, men gradually lose sight of the essential object, and limit their regard to the mere form; they are thus prompted to attempt new ameliorations, perhaps true in intention, but without sufficient adaptation to the required end; and the harmful effect of these necessitates new forms, new complications, and often new restrictions, and thereby creates new departments, which require for their efficient supervision a vast increase of functionaries. Hence it arises that in most states with the passing of time the number of the public officials and the extent of registration increase, while the liberty of the subject proportionately declines. In such an administration, moreover, it follows of course that everything depends on the most vigilant supervision and careful management, since there are such increased opportunities of falling short in both; and hence we may not unjustly suppose the Government desirous that everything should pass through as many hands as possible, in order to defeat the risk of errors and embezzlement.
But according to this method of transacting affairs, business becomes in time merely mechanical, while the men who are engaged in it relapse into machines, and all genuine worth and honesty decline in proportion as trust and confidence are withdrawn. Finally, as the occupations we refer to must be vested with high importance, and must in consequence really acquire that importance in men’s opinion, the idea of what is momentous or trivial, of what is dignified or contemptible, of what are essential and what are subordinate aims, becomes wholly reversed.


Human beings as lifeless instruments of the state

In the kind of policy we are supposing, then, men are neglected for things, and powers for results. A political community, organized and governed according to this system, resembles rather an accumulated mass of living and lifeless instruments of action and enjoyment, than a multitude of acting and enjoying powers. In disregarding the spontaneity of acting beings, such States seem to confine their view to the attainment of happiness and enjoyment alone. But although the calculation would be correct, inasmuch as the sensation of him who experiences them is the best index of happiness and enjoyment, it would still be very far below the dignity of human nature.


Work, property, freedom

Every occupation, then, of whatever nature, is more efficiently performed if pursued for its own sake alone, rather than for the results to which it leads. So deeply grounded is this in human nature, that what has at first been chosen for its utility, in general becomes ultimately attractive in itself. Now this arises simply because action is dearer to human nature than mere possession, but action only in so far as it is spontaneous. It is precisely the most vigorous and energetic who would prefer inactivity to a course of labour to which they are constrained. Further, the idea of property gains proportionate strength with the idea of freedom, and it is to the sense of property that we owe the most vigorous activity.

The more a man acts on his own, the more does he develop himself. In large associations he is too prone to become an instrument merely. A frequent effect of these unions moreover is to allow the shadow to be taken for the substance, and this always impedes true development. The dead hieroglyphic does not inspire like living nature. For an example I need only take the case of poor-laws. Does anything tend so effectually to deaden and destroy all true commiseration, — all hopeful yet unobtrusive entreaty, — all loving trustfulness of man in man? Do we not all fitly despise the beggar who rather resigns himself to be fed and nursed in an almshouse than, after sore struggling with want, to find, not a mere hand flinging him a pittance, but a tenderly sympathizing heart?

Nothing promotes this ripeness and capacity for freedom so much as freedom itself. This truth, perhaps, may not be acknowledged by those who have so often made use of this want of capacity as a plea for the continuance of repressive influences. But it seems to me to follow unquestionably from the very nature of man. The incapacity for freedom can only arise from a want of moral and intellectual power; to elevate this power is the only way to counteract this want; but to do this presupposes the exercise of that power, and this exercise presupposes the freedom which awakens spontaneous activity. Only it is clear we cannot call it giving freedom, when fetters are relaxed which are not felt as such by him who wears them. But of no man on earth — however neglected by nature, and however degraded by circumstances — is this true of all the bonds which oppress him. Let us undo them one by one, as the feeling of freedom awakens in men’s hearts, and we shall hasten progress at every step.


Against state education

I would observe, that men have now arrived at a far higher pitch of civilization, beyond which it seems they cannot aspire to still loftier heights save through the development of individuals; and hence it is to be inferred that all institutions which act in any way to obstruct or thwart this development, and compress men together into vast uniform masses, are now far more hurtful than in earlier ages of the world.
It seems to follow, even from these few and general reflections, that national education — or that which is organized or enforced by the State — is at least in many respects very questionable. The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument hitherto unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity; but national education, since at least it presupposes the selection and appointment of some one instructor, must always promote a definite form of development, however careful to avoid such an error. And hence it is attended with all those disadvantages which we before observed to flow from such a positive policy; and it only remains to be added, that every restriction becomes more directly fatal, when it operates on the moral part of our nature, — that if there is one thing more than another which absolutely requires free activity on the part of the individual, it is precisely education, whose object it is to develop the individual.

But even though we were to deny to national education all positive contribution to culture of any kind, if we were to make it its duty simply to encourage the spontaneous development of men’s faculties, this would still prove impracticable, since whatever is pervaded by a unity of organization, invariably begets a corresponding uniformity in the actual result, and thus, even when based on such liberal principles, the utility of national education is still inconceivable. If it is only designed to prevent the possibility of children remaining uninstructed, it is much more expedient and less hurtful to appoint guardians where parents are remiss, and extend assistance where they are in indigent circumstances.

In fine, if education is only to develop a man’s faculties, without regard to giving human nature any special civil character, there is no need for the State’s interference. Among men who are really free, every form of industry becomes more rapidly improved, — all the arts flourish more gracefully, — all sciences become more largely enriched and expanded. In such a community, too, domestic bonds become closer and sweeter; the parents are more eagerly devoted to the care of their children, and, in a higher state of welfare, are better able to follow out their desires with regard to them. Among such men emulation naturally arises; and tutors better befit themselves, when their fortunes depend upon their own efforts, than when their chances of promotion rest on what they are led to expect from the State.


Energy, Inquiry, Creativity

Energy appears to me to be the first and unique virtue of mankind. Whatever exalts our energy is of greater worth than what merely puts materials into our hands for its exercise.

For nothing exercises such a vast influence on the whole character, as the expression of the spiritual in the sensuous, — of the sublime, the simple, the beautiful in all the works of nature and products of art which surround us.

To inquire and to create — these are the centres around which all human pursuits revolve, or at least to these objects do they all more or less directly refer.

Freedom heightens energy; and, as is always the collateral effect of increasing strength, tends to promote a spirit of liberality. Coercion stifles energy, and engenders all selfish desires, and all the mean artifices of weakness. Coercion may prevent many transgressions; but it robs even actions which are legal of a portion of their beauty. Freedom may lead to many transgressions, but it lends even to vices a less ignoble form.

All political arrangements, in that they have to bring a variety of widely discordant interests into unity and harmony, necessarily occasion manifold collisions. From these collisions spring a disproportion between men’s desires and their powers; and from these, transgressions. The more active the State is, the greater is the number of these. If it were possible to make an accurate calculation of the evils which police regulations occasion, and of those which they prevent, the number of the former would, in all cases, exceed that of the latter.

In the physical world, the State does not shatter every rock to pieces that lies on the path of the wanderer. Obstacles serve to stimulate energy, and discipline forethought; none uselessly obstruct, save those which arise from human injustice; but that obstinacy is not such an impediment which may indeed be bent by the force of laws in single cases, but can only be removed by the blessed influences of freedom.



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