Smith explores Humboldt’s defense of individuality, written in 1792.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

From time to time I will post essays on the relationship between culture and individual freedom. I begin with a discussion of a classic work by Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835), The Limits of State Action–one of the best defenses of limited‐​government libertarianism ever written. According to Humboldt, “[A]ny State interference in private affairs, where there is no immediate reference to violence done to individual rights, should be absolutely condemned.”

After a young Humboldt finished his book in 1792, some chapters were printed in two German periodicals. A complete German edition did not appear until 1852, long after Humboldt’s death, and this was followed by Joseph Coulthard’s English translation two years later under the title The Sphere and Duties of Government. A later translation by J.W. Burrow, which was based on Coulthard’s version, was published in 1969 by Cambridge University Press as The Limits of State Action, and reprinted (with corrections) in 1993 by Liberty Fund. (Coulthard’s 1854 translation may be found here.)

Many English readers first learned of The Limits of State Action while reading J.S. Mill’s On Liberty (1859). Mill quoted Humboldt in the epigraph to On Liberty and mentioned this “excellent essay” several times in his text. Humboldt’s influence is especially evident in Chapter 3 (“On individuality as one of the elements of well‐​being”), in which Mill wrote:

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–that ‘the end of man, or that which is prescribed by eternal or 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’; that therefore, the object ‘towards which every human being must ceaselessly direct his efforts, and on which especially those who design to influence their fellow‐​men must ever keep their eyes is the individuality of power and development’; that for this there are two requisites, ‘freedom and variety of situations’; and that from the union of these arise ‘individual vigour and manifold diversity’, which combine themselves in ‘originality’.

By “freedom,” Humboldt means the external freedom to act without coercive interference by others, so long as individual rights are respected. Humboldt regards such freedom as an essential precondition of personal growth, fulfillment and happiness–or what he calls the culture of the individual. The word “culture,” as used by Humboldt, pertains primarily to the individual, not to society. He means it in the sense of “cultivation.” We need to cultivate ourselves, especially our inner selves, if we are to approach or achieve the highest stage of development of which human nature is capable.

Humboldt therefore sees the good life as a continuous process of self‐​perfection, whereby a person achieves the harmonious exercise and integration of his or her faculties and abilities. This process of self‐​cultivation is for Humboldt the essence of individuality. The more we develop our particular talents and combine them into a harmonious whole, the more we become unique individuals.

Humboldt identifies two primary benefits from this ongoing process of self‐​cultivation. First, we become more valuable to ourselves because we are able to lead a rich and fulfilling life. Second, we become more valuable to others, and to society as a whole, because others will benefit, through voluntary social interaction, from the unique features of our individuality.

Humboldt identifies, in addition to freedom, another social condition that is necessary for self‐​cultivation, namely a variety of situations. We may have political freedom, we may be free to make choices according to our own judgment, but if our range of alternatives is excessively narrow, owing to social customs and norms, then our freedom cannot be put to its most productive use.

Suppose, for example, that you live in a free society with an extremely puritanical culture. You are free in a political sense to do as you wish, but the culture in which you live operates by the norms of authority, tradition, and social uniformity. You are taught from an early age that you must believe as authorities wish you to believe and to act as they tell you to act. Nonconformity will cost you dearly, not in a political sense (you will not be imprisoned or fined) but in a social sense. You will be ostracized; others will refuse to deal with you or with your family. You will have little chance of forming friendships or romantic relationships, and you will be excluded from the cultural life of the community. Your refusal to conform, in other words, will make you not an outlaw but an outcast.

According to Humboldt, this kind of society, though politically free, would hinder and stunt self‐​development, because it does not provide a variety of situations in which freedom can be exercised. People will tend to resemble each other; society will consist of social clones rather than of unique individuals.

There is another kind of society that can retard self‐​cultivation, according to Humboldt, namely a specialized society with an advanced division of labor. In such a society people may practice a specialized skill or trade, thereby focusing all of their energy in one direction and developing only a small part of their potential character.

Adam Smith, writing nearly two decades before Humboldt, also expressed concern about the cultural effects of the economic division of labor. The average laborer performs a routine and tedious job, day after day, and this causes him to become intellectually narrow and culturally shallow. Thus, despite the tremendous economic benefits brought about under an advanced division of labor, the resulting need to specialize in one’s job can also cause one to become stunted in other areas of life. For such people, the cultural values of their civilization may be available to them in theory, but they will be unable to enjoy and benefit from those values in practice.

To remedy this problem, Smith recommended a governmental system of elementary education whereby children would at least acquire the literacy skills that are needed to participate in the cultural life of society. Humboldt, in contrast, was a staunch voluntaryist who opposed all forms of state education (though he later changed his mind about this). In the name of educating children, the state would stamp them, as if by a cookie cutter, into one common and uniform mold; and this, in turn, would stifle individuality rather than encourage it.

As an advocate of laissez‐​faire, Humboldt by no means denied the economic benefits of specialization and the division of labor. But he also believed that there is more to life than working and making a living. There is, in addition to our economic life, our cultural life–that community of values that we share with others in our society. And this cultural life should be as rich and diverse as possible if it is to offset the narrowness of specialization. There should exist a variety of situations, a broad spectrum of cultural options and attitudes. Only in this way can we discover and cultivate the values that best suit our individual requirements for self‐​fulfillment and happiness.

By cultural diversity, Humboldt is not referring principally to cultural artifacts, such as art and literature. He is thinking of other people who, as unique individuals, have a wide variety of values to offer to their friends and acquaintances. Thus Humboldt views love and friendship as “instruments of cultivation.”

Humboldt says that we should develop many sides of our nature, not just one. But it is not enough merely to apply our energies to a variety of objects–say, by going to a concert on one day and reading a book on the next. Rather, self‐​cultivation requires that we actively engage our powers and abilities in a variety of situations, and then integrate those powers and abilities into a unique whole, the cultivated individual.

This kind of cultivation is best achieved by interacting with others. To some extent, of course, we must have something in common with those others, or else there would not exist a basis for friendship or love. But in a culturally diverse society there is also a great deal we can learn and enjoy from others, who have their own unique talents and perspectives. The more intimate the relationship, whether on an intellectual or an emotional level, the more we can benefit from that relationship by partaking of others. However, we also need to maintain our independence in order “that each, in being possessed, may be transformed in his own unique way.” Humboldt continues:

[I]ndividual energy is essential to both parties, and, on the other hand, a difference between them, neither so great as to prevent one from comprehending the other, nor so small as to exclude admiration for what the other possesses, and the desire to assimilate it into one’s own character.

This individual vigor, then, and manifold diversity combine themselves in originality; and hence, that on which the whole greatness of mankind ultimately depends–towards which every human being must ceaselessly direct his efforts, and of which especially those who wish to influence their fellow‐​men must never lose sight: individuality of energy and self‐​development. Just as this individuality springs naturally from freedom of action, and the greatest diversity of the agents, it tends in turn directly to produce them.

Humboldt is here pointing out the synergistic relationship between freedom and cultural diversity on the one hand, and individuality on the other hand–resulting in what we may call a spontaneous cultural order. Freedom and a diversity of situations breed individuality; and individuality, in turn, generates even more freedom and diversity, which in turn promote even greater individuality–and so on, indefinitely. This mutual and reciprocal causation is the engine of cultural progress, as new talents are developed, new relationships are formed, and new ideas are discovered.

Another way of expressing this notion is in terms of the culture of the individual and the culture of a society. Individual culture and social culture go hand in hand, each developing and progressing alongside the other, and each stimulating the other in diverse and unforeseeable ways. A diverse social culture, with its variety of situations, stimulates the characters of particular individuals, who then become less uniform and more diverse. And as these individuals interact with one another in personal relationships, and as they develop further, they create even more cultural options, a wider range of values from which to choose.

This process is, in effect, a marketplace of cultural values in which, under a regime of freedom, new and unforeseeable benefits are continuously emerging. But unlike economic exchanges, which provide us with external goods, cultural exchanges provide us with internal goods–goods of the mind and soul, so to speak. These internal goods can be acquired only through the active participation of all parties, as each strives to develop his or her individuality. Quoting Humboldt:

Now, whatever man receives externally is only like the seed. It is his own active energy alone that can turn the most promising seed into a full and precious blessing for himself. It is beneficial only to the extent that it is full of vital power and essentially individual. The highest ideal, therefore, of the co‐​existence of human beings seems to me to consist in a union in which each strives to develop himself from his own innermost nature, and for his own sake. …[T]he exertions of such spontaneous agents succeed in exciting the highest energies.

In asserting that individual culture should be pursued for one’s own sake, Humboldt is arguing, in a manner parallel to the economic theory of Adam Smith, that a social culture is generated from the self‐​interested actions of individuals, rather than from a deliberate design or plan. Social culture is a spontaneous order–an order that arises from the purposeful and self‐​seeking actions of many diverse individuals.

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 the external nature itself is left unfashioned by any human agency, but only receives the impress given to it by each individual by himself and of his own free will, according to the measure of his wants and instincts, and restricted only by the limits of his power and his rights.

When Humboldt argues that “the external nature” should be “left unfashioned by any human agency,” he means that a government should not coercively interfere with the cultural life of a nation, such as by imposing its notions of virtue and morality. Government should only protect individual rights; beyond that it should leave individuals free to cultivate themselves, and thereby generate a spontaneous cultural order.