Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought, 1790-1800

By Frederick C. Beiser | Go to book overview

5
THE EARLY POLITICAL THEORY OF WILHELM VON HUMBOLDT

5. 1. Humboldt and the Liberal Tradition

One of the foremost exponents of the liberal conception of the state in the 1790s was Wilhelm von Humboldt ( 1767- 1835). In 1793 he completed, if only in draft, one of the major expositions of liberal doctrine in the eighteenth century, his Ideen zu einem Versuch, die Grenzen der Wirksamkeit des Staats zu bestimmen. 1 Compared to other liberal writings in the 1790s, the great strength of Humboldt's treatise lay in its rigorous systematic form. While Schiller, Jacobi, Kant, and Forster were content to sketch general principles, Humboldt worked out his liberal views in great detail, applying them to every aspect of civil life, whether that was education, marriage, religion, international relations, or civil and criminal law.

Although it was never finished, or published in his lifetime, Humboldt's Ideen eventually became something of a classic. The book had great success after its initial publication in 1851. German liberals, who found themselves thrown back on the defensive after the debacle of 1848, seized on Humboldt's work as a virtual manifesto. It has been reprinted many times, most notably and appropriately in 1918 and in 1945 after the collapse of the authoritarian German state. Humboldt's treatise also played an important role in the development of liberalism outside Germany. In France it inspired Edouard Laboulaye to write a section in praise of Humboldt in his L'État et ses limites. 2 And in England it provided the motto for J. S. Mill's On Liberty. Mill cited Humboldt with warm praise on several occasions in his work; 3 and he paid handsome tribute to him in his Autobiography. Writing about the influences on his On Liberty, Mill declared, "The only author who preceded me of whom I thought it appropriate to say anything was Humboldt."4

If the historical significance of Humboldt's Ideen lies largely in its influence on later liberalism, it is important not to read this work in the light of later liberal doctrine. For Humboldt would not have manned the barricades in 1848. Unlike later liberals, he was no champion of democracy. In his view, a monarchy or aristocracy can protect liberty better than a democracy,

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