Wilhelm von Humboldt was a German political theorist and a statesman. It is difficult to say when classical liberalism as a political philosophy fully emerged. In England, one usually thinks of John Locke and his Two Treatises on Government (1690) as the starting point of this philosophy of limited government. In Germany, the question cannot be answered as easily, although there is one major candidate for honors as its major early advocate: von Humboldt, whose famous treatise was titled The Limits of State Action. At the least, it is difficult to find another work of such outstanding relevance and quality within the German liberal tradition.

By the mid‐​18th century, liberal ideas had already made some advance within the various German principalities, but the French Revolution inspired the first wave of strict liberalism in the political world of the Old Empire. Thinkers such as Kant began to speak out for the rights of man, but there also were some conservatives and moderate liberals who expressed fears about the violent turn the French revolutionary movement would take. It was during this period that von Humboldt’s political mind was shaped.

Born in Potsdam, near Berlin, von Humboldt was born into the Prussian lower aristocracy. Brought up with his brother, the explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt, von Humboldt began studying law and classical literature at Göttingen University in 1788. When the French Revolution broke out a year later, he undertook a journey to Paris on the invitation of the political essayist and statesman the Comte de Mirabeau to watch the “funeral ceremony of French despotism.” He came back slightly disillusioned. As a result, in his Thoughts on Constitutions (1791), von Humboldt did not hesitate to declare his sympathy with the liberal ideals of the Revolution, but doubted whether these ideals could be maintained throughout its course. A more gradualist approach, he argued, would have been less dangerous.

The Limits of State Action outlined his political ideas most fully. Although today it is regarded as his masterpiece, von Humboldt felt uneasy about it, perhaps for fear of censorship. Only a few sections of the book were published during his lifetime, but it became an instant classic of political philosophy when it was published posthumously in 1851.

Von Humboldt’s intellectual interests went far beyond that of political philosophy. A universally educated man, he wrote extensively about such diverse subjects as linguistics, natural history, and education. However, it was practical politics, rather than theory, that soon became the focus of his life. Prussia’s defeats at the hands of Napoleon forced long‐​needed reforms within the Prussian state. A peculiar brand of liberalism came into existence that was typical of Prussia: Beamten‐​Liberalismus, or civil servants’ liberalism. Enlightened persons from the royal bureaucracy tried to modernize the country from the top down. Among them were Baron vom Stein, the father of German local self‐​government. Von Humboldt became minister for Public Instruction in 1809 and instituted a series of reforms that proved to be outstandingly efficient and durable. In fact, in Germany today von Humboldt is mainly remembered for these reforms. A multitiered system of educational institutions was introduced—from the elementary schools to the university level, all of which were aimed to encourage a sense of individual autonomy and independence of thought. As von Humboldt had already stated in his The Limits of State Action, self‐​development and individuality were the central goals of education.

Beginning in 1810, von Humboldt was the chief Prussian diplomat in Vienna; in 1813, he became ambassador to the British Court. In 1819, he became minister for Estate (Diet) Affairs, but soon resigned in protest against Metternich’s Karlsberg Decrees, which introduced more censorship and other repressive policies. At that point, he decided to withdraw from politics and devoted his life to his family and to academic research until his death in 1835. His political thought can be found in The Limits of State Action: “The true end of Man,” he wrote,

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 pre‐​supposes; 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 hindered in his development, when set in a monotonous situation.

Thus, he concluded that only a minimal state that secured internal and external peace and security was legitimate. A state that provided for more would inevitably encourage conformism and uniformity. Von Humboldt’s concept of self‐​education is distinguishable from similar traditional Aristotelian concepts. Aristotelian essentialism aimed at humans developing themselves as the realization of a general ideal of mankind, whereas von Humboldt believed in the development of the individual with all his individual peculiarities. Von Humboldt’s views deeply influenced John Stuart Mill, who had read the first translation of The Limits of State Action when it appeared in 1854. In his famous treatise, On Liberty (1859), Mill often referred to von Humboldt as his intellectual inspiration who helped him to overcome his narrow utilitaristic philosophy.

There is little reason to doubt von Humboldt’s liberal convictions throughout his life, despite his role in directing a system of state education. He never embraced nationalism, like so many of his previously enlightened liberal contemporaries, and he always stayed in touch with liberal circles throughout Europe, especially in France. Indeed, Benjamin Constant continued to remain politically close to him. With respect to his educational reforms, Humboldt simply had to accept certain constraints. Although he was in no position to privatize the whole educational system, he managed to make it accessible to everyone and cleared it of privilege and patronage. The autonomy and freedom of all educational institutions was the cornerstone of his reforms.

His role as education minister was consistent with his early liberal ideas. These were radical in their final vision, but they also were gradualist and reformist in their practical outlook. Self‐​organization and voluntary cooperation to him were more desirable than compulsory state‐​dominated association. Von Humboldt’s individualism was not atomistic. In the process of self‐​education, he maintained, one learns and rises to the level where such a cultivated voluntary self‐​organization is possible. Therefore, a liberal order could never be imposed on the people, but would grow with their capabilities.

This insight also is reflected in his later publications, such as the Memorandum on the German Constitution (1813), where he warned of the nationalistic enthusiasm for a centralized unitary state and advocated a decentralized constitution for all Germany that would secure freedom and cultural diversity to the citizens.

Further Readings

Humboldt, Wilhelm von. The Limits of State Action. J. W. Burrows, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1993.

Knoll, Joachim H., and Horst Siebert. Wilhelm von Humboldt: Politician and Educationist. Bonn: Inter Nationes, 1967.

Sweet, Paul R. Wilhelm von Humboldt. A Biography. Cleveland: Ohio State University Press, 1978.

Originally published