Humboldt’s State – and Ours (May 2021)

Welcome to our May 2021 edition of Liberty Matters.  This month Professor Michael Bentley has written our lead essay on Wilhelm von Humboldt.  Humboldt is one of the least well known yet very influential liberal philosophers in the Western world.  Humboldt is best known for his work in the fields of linguistics, education, and the importance of individual development.  His most famous work, The Limits of State Action, published by Liberty Fund, had a significant impact on John Stuart Mill’s thinking in his classic, On Liberty.  Professor Bentley notes that while Humboldt was read in the 19th century as someone commenting on the size and reach of government, the state as he knew it was much smaller, and therefore he focused on the importance of individuals and individual development.  According to Bentley, Humboldt’s key contribution to the history of liberal thought is his emphasis on individual experimentation in the scope of human existence.  He writes that “He (Humboldt) sees liberty of action as fundamental to personal growth. Its exercise, so long as we do not harm others, functions as a mainstay for an individual-within-society.”  It was this focus on providing a wide space for individuals to live their own lives as they saw fit that so influenced Mill and others.

The Debate

Lead Essay:

          Michael Bentley, "Humboldt's State - And Ours" [Posted May 3, 2021]

The Conversation

          Edoardo Tortarolo, "Humboldt, the State, and Human Potential" [Posted May 6, 2021]

Lead Essay: Humboldt's State - And Ours 

Among Liberty Fund’s excellent series of foundational texts in libertarian thought, a small volume written over a few months in 1791-2 may escape the eye when surrounded by more familiar names and books. The name of Humboldt has its own familiarity, to be sure, but it often attaches, especially in Latin America, to Wilhelm’s younger brother Alexander – explorer, naturalist, and acclaimed travel writer – rather than to the author of The Limits of State Action. Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) tends to win acknowledgment in today’s world in two locations: the University of Berlin which he did much to found in 1810 and which, from 1949, decided to call itself the Humboldt University; and among theorists of language and education who still feel some enthusiasm for Humboldt’s contributions to their field of study. As a political thinker, Humboldt mostly reaches modern ears through John Stuart Mill who acted as impresario by making reference to him in On Liberty and elsewhere. Yet, for all the frailty of this truncated text, the author of The Limits of State Action deserves to be known better because his ideas comment not only on his own ‘state’ but also on ours.

Like much of Humboldt’s writing, the Limits did not appear in Humboldt’s lifetime but only in 1852.  He had wanted to modify and perhaps expand it, but he never did. That posthumous edition circulated, therefore, at exactly the moment when Mill sought to sharpen his liberalism for On Liberty (1859). The thought obscures, however, a more important one and explains why the dwelling on a text displaced in time takes us beyond mere historicism. It is this: the published version of Humboldt’s book easily becomes read as an analysis of the ‘state’ in 1791 when in fact it should be received as a picture of what the 1850s thought the 1790s looked like. By the mid-nineteenth century, both state and society had entered on their mutual transformation into complexity. Not only had western society begun a process of what the sociologists call ‘massification’ into an increasingly urbanized and anonymous conglomerate, but the ‘state’ – the thing that the 1850s took Humboldt to have had in mind – had also begun a journey towards the concept that we might recognise in the twenty-first century. Dwelling on this disturbing aperçu then prompts another observation that we need in order to open a window onto Humboldt’s text. He could not effectively delimit ‘his’ state because he did not have a state to delimit.

Humboldt did not know that. So obvious to him was the idea of the state that he did not bother to define it; he made of it a transparency, rather than hinting at the creeping, multi-layered, police-enforced, tentacular monster that some of us might call to mind in our own day. Inspection suggests that his state equated to a regime or a government or any institution concerned with compulsion and arrogating to itself some sense of sovereignty, or, if the idea abbreviated a national entity that conducted policy- especially foreign policy and war – in the name of a society. France and Britain could be called ‘states’ but so could his own Prussia, when in reality it figured merely as one constituent of the fissiparous German lands. Humboldt’s career in diplomacy in Rome and Vienna doubtless encouraged him to see those fractured entities on the Italian peninsula and within the Holy Roman Empire also as ‘states.’ Above all, he saw ‘his’ state, not as an originating force or historical sediment, but as an outcome, the product of individual wills and aspirations without whose presence no state could claim legitimacy.

Because Humboldt begins with individuals, we need to follow him to find the core of his thinking. For when he talks about discrete human beings, rather than their agglomerations, he does not rely on transparency; he defines what it is to be human with precision and passion. Humboldt had read Kant, and following him he argues that we need three things – liberty, challenge, and (his unique contribution) experiential variety – in order to ‘become’ what we have the potential to be. He sees liberty of action as fundamental to personal growth. Its exercise, so long as we do not harm others, functions as a mainstay for an individual-within-society. (Here began the distinction between self- and other-regarding behaviour popularised by Mill.) A challenge comes with that liberty because we shall in our freedom encounter the need to take responsibility for our actions and learn to cope with the adversities that confront every person. Not knowing what lies around the next corner, good or bad, encourages self-reliance and maturing. Turning to social institutions for rescue from every difficulty diminishes self-respect. It also reduces the need for ‘energy’ which stands among Humboldt’s prize values in humankind. Take it away and the other half of the binary cuts in; society begins to ‘degenerate.’ (Humboldt formulates this a century before Max Nordau gave the idea wings in the 1890s.) Our freedom, moreover, encourages individuals to behave in different ways; our challenges vary from person to person. And difference, in Humboldt's reading, maketh man. So we should not lament our difference in life-experience but nurture it, celebrate it, and go the extra mile to protect it. Like wildflowers in a meadow, we create together a carpet of colour that satisfies precisely because each plant responds to its own earth and location, bending and nodding in the breeze with others yet never abandoning its particularity.

Having conceived human personality and flourishing in this way, Humboldt can now proceed to model his ‘state’ and to ask questions about what it may legitimately do. The question shows a Janus face: it asks what should be done but also what could be done. In his otherwise very acute Introduction to the Liberty Fund edition, John Burrow misses this ambiguity in glossing the title of Humboldt’s text: Ideen zu einem Versuch die Grenzen der Wirksamkeit des Staats zu bestimmen, literally ‘Ideas for an attempt to determine the limits of the effectiveness of the state.’ This matters to his conception because Humbold’s state did not have the apparatus, the sheer administrative capacity, to penetrate society in the way that ours does, so his thought draws some of its texture from his envisioning of eighteenth-century étatisme. He wants to seek answers about what his ideal individual could reasonably expect from this imagined structure. More pregnantly, he wants to know what might reasonably be resisted.

Now his chapters turn, in Joseph Coulthard’s English translation, on the antiquated term ‘solicitude.’ Most of them have as their header ‘The solicitude of the state for …’ followed by one of a range of issues (positive welfare, negative welfare, religion and churches, civil law, criminal law, defence and so on). Humboldt’s term strikes a dissonant chord for later generations because of its connotations of anxiety or worry. But the original German does not use Heidegger’s term Sorge, which might provoke that connotation, but rather Sorgfalt, which we might better think of as ‘care’. If we silently effect that translation, then all the issues raised by Humboldt may come under the aegis of a single question framed in our own modern idiom: Does the state have a duty of care to its citizens?

Remember that Humboldt’s answer cannot float free in abstract calculation. It must operate as a derivation from his previously-constructed understanding of human flourishing, energy, and self-reliance. His answer comes early and promises no dilution. No interference with the citizen by the state carries legitimacy unless specifically stimulated by a need to protect his security against depredation by other individuals or from other states. He reaches this point by a thought experiment beginning from his initial conception of a human being:

I shall therefore adhere to the system I have hitherto adopted. I have so far begun by considering the greatest possible extension of State interference, and then tried step by step to discover where it can be diminished, until at length the concern for security is all that remains. (47)

He knows that extending interference has acquired popularity in an age of Enlightened Despotism; he concedes that some attempts at achieving it might even be effective.

But even if such laws and institutions were effectual, the harm they did would be proportionate to their effectiveness. A State, in which the citizens were compelled or moved by such means to obey even the best of laws, might be a tranquil, peaceable, prosperous State; but it would always seem to me a multitude of well-cared-for slaves, rather than a nation of free and independent men, with no restraint save such as was required to prevent an infringement of rights. (79)


Followng Aristotle, Humboldt sees freedom as a negative virtue – being left alone by external agents – and not as a benefit that state may confer, however desirable the conferral may at first glance appear. It will always damage more than it can enhance.

His most paradoxical position, granted his later founding of a state university, concerns his opposition to national education, one that Mill then absurdly espoused, though it followed directly from Humboldt’s views about conserving individual difference and avoiding uniformity. Humboldt did not see, or preferred not to see, that children whose parents could not afford private education could never, through enforced ignorance, attain his other desiderata in personal flourishing and future development into citizenship. But then, his sense of a society feels no wider than his sense of a state. He seems to hold in his mind’s eye an intimate, perhaps rural, settlement: an agricultural village in Pomerania; the gardens of Tivoli or a piazza in Siena;  a white-picket fence around a church spire in New England. Class makes no appearance. The French Revolution screams its absence for all the noise still in his ears. The economy is inconsequential. Women do not exist. His thought experiment continues its placid course, ruling out all meddling with an individual, a ‘citizen,’ created in his own imagination.

It is facile, of course, to criticize any eighteenth-century writer by presenting objections based on the concerns of a different era. But in turning Humboldt’s system on ourselves and asking what, if anything, its lessons hold for us, it becomes important to try to identify what the intervening years have done and locate the mechanisms in which ‘his’ state has become ‘ours.’ Some of that transformation Humboldt could have predicted from his own observations: the state’s growth in ambition; the development of more intrusive procedures to accomplish those ambitions; the increasing reluctance to hold out against all interference on the grounds of doctrinal purity. He might have anticipated the growth of cities to match Paris and London even if he might not have envisaged urban rookeries teeming with the poor or immigrant densities like those of New York’s Lower East Side. One accelerating vehicle, however, he may not have seen coming. The later nineteenth century, within earshot of the publication of the Limits, saw the erosion of Humboldt’s principal binary. He thought it both axiomatic and uncontroversial that individuals were ‘Us’ and that the State was ‘Them’. He could not have predicted that the distinction would fade in a post-Hegelian thought-world to the point that the State would become not merely a facet of Us but a manifestation of Our Better Self: the expression of a higher morality that we, as individuals, could never hope to achieve. Humboldt had taught that the State could legitimately enforce security because that need formed the sole requirement that the individual lacked the means to acquire alone; it could never and should never promote morality. ‘Our’ State believes itself to have learned that it must promote morality because the individual cannot be trusted to acquire it alone. And because we are doing this to ourselves in the new State order, rather than succumbing to an external oppressor, resistance becomes widely deemed futile and contemptible.

Placing this situation within the language developed by Humboldt, the modern State, ‘our’ State, has arrogated to itself precisely that ‘duty of care’ whose rejection stood at the centre of Humboldt’ political thought. The New Deal saw its origin. After World War Two, the welfarist regimes of Scandinavia, in particular, but also the foundation under a socialist government of Britain’s ‘welfare state’ promised social security from the cradle to the grave. Most of Europe developed similar systems with greater or lesser state involvement. What began as a state-led démarche then began its journey from a political fact to an assumed ‘human right.’ I am a citizen. I pay my taxes. The State owes it to me to care for my well-being even if the ‘challenges’ facing me, the ones that Humboldt thought critical for generating energy and resourcefulness, have arisen to confront me because of my own laziness, improvidence, or stupidity. Obamacare wrote the lesson in the sky and left many citizens, then and since, more disoriented than comforted.

At no time has this crux made itself felt so painfully as in the time of Covid. In Britain the National Health Service received promotion from what had been an organization supposed to treat sick people into a religious icon symbolizing not only the State’s duty of care but the individual’s duty not to get sick in order to conserve the health service. ‘Save the NHS. Save lives.’ In the US, some months behind the European pace of infection but then suffering an explosion in numbers, controversy arose over face-masks and a developing sense that the State had a ‘right’ to compel their use. What are the ‘limits’ of this evangelical ‘duty of care’? The worry does not emanate from a sense that the State now knows no limits but rather from a suspicion that asking the question at all should be limited to consenting adults in private.

Would Humboldt have worn a face-mask? Would he have obeyed the rules of social distancing? ‘His’ State perished long ago. His prescriptions for its pruning may strike modern readers as a literary curiosity in a world that is no longer his world. We are where we are. The global West has learned that it can manufacture compelling forms of étatisme that fertilize State structures and individual lives into an organic compost out of which grow, apparently, the green shoots of personal liberty-within-security. Humboldt’s denigration of that compound as a state of ‘slavery’ sounds at once fanciful and brutal in his wanting the State to say to its citizens that they are on their own. Nor can the hands of the clock be unwound. Two centuries of social and political development do not yield to reversal. From a period when commentators compared constitutions to clocks, Humboldt’s pendulum no longer makes its slow swing.

There remains, all the same, something trans-temporal and transnational about The Limits of State Action. Its legacy does not reside in its prescriptions, now impossible to enforce. Rather, the persistence wells up from its assumptions. Humboldt made his State after first making Man: the former he deduced from the latter. The knife that he took to his State still exists – rusty and blunted by time, certainly, but the blade continues to have its uses. Wielding it does not involve the disaggregation of every State apparatus, a piece of butchery that modern society would deem as undesirable as it is unworkable. But it does enjoin a return to Humboldt when he teaches that, before individual personality surrenders to collective organization, it must reflect on and prioritize what it is to be a human being and what are the conditions within which personality, in its myriad difference and integrity, may thrive.

He did that in this early, suggestive essay and we should listen to him.

Edoardo Tortarolo, Humboldt, the State, and Human Potential [Posted May 6, 2021] 

Michael Bentley has raised two different and equally essential questions in his reading of Humboldt's iconic essay on the limits of State authority. The first addresses the question of what Humboldt meant when he wrote down his ideas. The second is: does Humboldt help us understand our current predicaments? These are straightforward questions, and Michael Bentley gives straightforward answers.


When Wlhelm von Humboldt worked out his thoughts, he was a young man of 24 in Berlin, where he held a minor post in the local court (Kammergericht) for some time. In the summer of 1789 he traveled to Paris with his former preceptor, Campe, and watched the fateful events that led up to the abolition of feudal rights. Back in Berlin, he read a lot and wrote for himself and the public. While his thoughts on the limits of State authority were printed in their entirety as late as 1851, his comments on the French revolution and the 1791 Constitution appeared in the Berlinische Monatsschrift (Berlin Monthly Review), the flagship journal of the Berlin Enlightenment.

The Berlinische Monatsschrift was among the numerous publications that the relatively liberal government of Frederick II had favored. In the 1780s they became the expression of a critical approach to how the State acted, respectfully criticizing crucial measures taken by Berlin institutions, particularly in the field of religion and in fiscal policy. Together with the army based on the "canton system" of conscription, they were the most visible expressions of what the State meant for the average subject. Michael Bentley is certainly right in highlighting the essential difference between 'our' State and Humboldt's State, but the continuities deserve to be mentioned.

The Prussian (and for that matter the French) State in the late 18th century was much less pervasive and less moralizing than the 21st-century State. Still, men in 1791-1792 could not foresee future technological and ideological developments. To Humboldt, the State, no matter how we would describe it, was a very tangible presence, definitely more than was desirable. And it was to be stopped from encroaching on the human prerogatives that more than anything else pertained to man's moral character. After Frederick died in 1786, two areas of moral importance were impacted by measures restricting freedom of religion, through an edict checking the freedom of the pastors to preach, and freedom of the press, enforcing forms of preventative control that were disregarded for many years. (Humboldt himself submitted his manuscript to the Berlin censor provoking mixed feedback: one censor denied approval, the other approved with reservations).

These changes, in relative terms, were clearly for the worse. Even in Berlin, voices were raised to argue for autonomous developments of individuals. In 1790 Gottlob Nathanael Fischer, an otherwise unremarkable pastor and writer, alluded to these restrictions in his essay for the Berlinisches Journal für Aufklärung (Berlin Journal for the Enlightenment): "[T]he supreme law for authorities and subjects alike is to act following the laws of absolute spontaneity in the natural sphere, complying with the universal natural laws as much as possible". A discourse on human energy, personal impulse towards the good and beautiful, and respect for the variety of individual developments circulated in Berlin and Germany around 1790. It was articulated in positive terms.

Humboldt's stress on the limitations to be placed on the State Sorgfalt, as Michael Bentley has pointed out, was balanced by his concern for the active forces inherent to man. In The Limits of State Authority the word Sorgfalt, the condescending attitude of the State that takes care of its subjects to foster their happiness, is mentioned 39 times. Its frequency reflects Humboldt's mistrust in the modern State. However, the set of words that express energy (18), activity (36), force (70), and self-cultivation (Bildung, 34) appears an impressive 158 times. On top of that, freedom occurs 80 times. Dynamic notions set the tone and define the intonation of the essay. Therefore, my argument would be that Humboldt’s perspective was defined by his passion for human potential, his contemplation of the breath-taking force emanating from humans, his trust in diversity and self-invention as the foundation of happiness. To uphold this principle, careful scrutiny was necessary for the State to be kept in its proper place: not annihilated, but restrained as much as possible, especially when a new government was established, as was the case in France in 1791.

His strategy was to define the theory of human development clearly and – subsequently – adjust historical reality to the principle of autonomous self-development. The crucial dimension was temporality: happiness was possible across time, since, as Humboldt stated at the very beginning:

[I]t is in the prosecution (Streben) of some single object (Ziel), and in striving to reach its accomplishment by the combined application (Aufwand) of his moral and physical energies (Kraft), that the true happiness of man, in his full vigour and development (das Glück des rüstigen, kraftvollen Menschen), consists. Possession, it is true, crowns exertion with repose; but it is only in the illusions of fancy that it has power to charm our eyes.


In focusing on the effort rather than on results, on the potential implied in any endeavor rather than on the real, tangible outcome that "crowns exertion", Humboldt was carrying on and developing the insights of the German philosophers with whom he was familiar and who shared his languages codes and modes of communication: Lessing, Herder, Kant, Goethe, and Schiller among the others. From the point of view of what Humboldt really meant, it makes more sense to read his thoughts along with Friedrich Schiller'Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen (On the Aesthetic Education of Man) more than any other text. Humboldt's thoughts went through a process of regeneration and globalization thanks to John Stuart Mill's interpretation of the English translation in 1854, but their first life was lived in letters, conversations, and manuscripts going back and forth from Berlin to Jena in the 1790s and centered on the ideals of self-development and self-cultivation. 

Humboldt's posthumous life is still very much with us. This is the second important point that Michael Bentley is making. Yes, indeed: the 20th and 21st centuries have created a massive public network of institutions and agencies that have taken much if not all the place that Humboldt assigned to the moral human being, acting on his or her own to push his or her potential to the limit. And States, far more than in Humboldt's day, have proved to be the persecutors and executioners of their citizens, in some cases at least after winning legal or semi-legal democratic elections. Far from focusing on providing happiness to their population within a utilitarian framework, States have declared significant groups unworthy of the minimal safety that Humboldt advocated, no matter how grudgingly. The distinction between professional soldiers and civilians, that Humboldt disparaged as a hurdle on the way to moral self-accomplishment, has been essentially obliterated in the 20th century, as wars between regular armies have turned into scorched-earth wars against the civil populations, on both sides of the national frontiers. Everybody has been recruited to fight in the 20th century, and global terrorism as much as the war on it has blurred many distinctions in the roles and responsibilities.

The transformation of the notion of the State has been picking up pace, and it is imperative to steer its course carefully. Bentley is definitely right in claiming that there is a transtemporal and transnational element in Humboldt's thoughts. They define a vision of being human in society that, despite its transformation, still resonates with us (do we remember "the death of the subject"?). In 2021, they point in the first place to the energy, the openness to the present and the future, and the moral character that are the proper focus of Bildung. It is possible to perceive confidence in the ability of human beings to meet the challenges of their time and rise to the occasion, a positive attitude to see what has gone wrong and redress it and to prosper in the gratifying awareness of being the best of what they can get out of themselves.

Nobody knows for sure if Humboldt would have worn a protective mask in times of an unprecedented pandemic and  if he would have kept social distancing from strangers. My guess is that the answer is probably yes: he would have worn a mask even before malaria killed his nine-year-old son in 1803 during his time as a Prussian envoy in Rome (as a consequence, he recommended his wife Caroline to go to Paris and safeguard the health of their surviving children). It is also an easy guess that his intensely aristocratic and elitist mindset would have resented the mobilization of collective fears on all possible media and the manipulative take of primordial emotions that the epidemic has occasioned in the age of real-time communication. However, I very much doubt that his notion of enlightened vitalism, preservation, and unfettered promotion of the natural force and élan of men, could ever contradict the necessity of increasing the chances to live a meaningful life.

About the Authors


Michael Bentley is Emeritus Professor of Modern History in the University of St. Andrews, U.K., and Senior Research Fellow in Historiography at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford. He is best known for a series of books about British political history and more recently for studies of historical writing as an intellectual form. The latter interest gave rise to his Companion to Historiography (1997), much used in universities and colleges as a core-text, and to an acclaimed biography of the English historian, Herbert Butterfield, in 2010. He is currently engaged in a comparative study of Western historiography since the Enlightenment to be published by Princeton University Press.

Edoardo Tortarolo is a Professor of early modern history at the University of Eastern Piedmont, Italy, since 1993. He is a permanent fellow of the Academy of the Sciences in Turin and a member of the Italian Committee on Historical Studies. A Humboldt fellow in 1989 and 1990, in 2006 he was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and in 2010 the Fulbright Distinguished Lecturer in Italian History at Northwestern University. His research interests cover the 18th- and 19th-century intellectual history and the history of historical writing. He has co-edited the third volume of the Oxford History of historical Writing (2012). His latest book is The Invention of the Free Press, Springer 2016


Hardy Bouillon, extracurricular professor of philosophy at Trier University, Germany, studied philosophy and art history at the universities of Albuquerque (USA), Oxford (GB), and Trier (D). A member of the Mont Pèlerin Society, Bouillon taught at several European universities and has authored/edited nearly 30 books and more than 160 articles, published in Chinese, English, German, Italian, Romanian, Turkish, and Vietnamese. His publications include Government: Servant or Master? (1993), Values and the Social Order (1995), Libertarians and Liberalism (1997), Ordered Anarchy (2007), and In Loyalty to Liberty (2018). His most recent English monograph, Business Ethics and the Austrian Tradition in Economics, was released in 2011.

Hartmut Kliemt is a philosopher economist working on foundational issues of rational choice and game theory as well as applied ethics and economics topics like the economics and ethics of organ allocation, rationing in medicine and business ethics. He has published about 100 articles in refereed journals and (co-)edited the collected works of James M. Buchanan and of Anthony de Jasay for Liberty Fund.



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