The Sphere and Duties of Government, by Wilhelm von Humboldt

Chapter 1.

introduction.

To discover the legitimate objects to which the energies of State organizations should be directed, and define the limits within which those energies should be exercised, is the design of the following pages. That the solution of this prime question of political philosophy must be pregnant with interest and high practical importance is sufficiently evident; and if we compare the most remarkable political constitutions with each other, and with the opinions of the most eminent philosophers, we shall, with reason, be surprised to find it so insufficiently discussed and vaguely answered; and agree, that any attempt to prosecute the inquiry with more success, is far from being a vain and superfluous labour.

Those who have either themselves remodelled the framework of State constitutions, or proposed schemes of political reform, seem mostly to have studied how to apportion the respective provinces which the nation, and any of its separate elements, should justly share in the administration — to assign the due functions of each in the governmental plan — and to adopt the precautions necessary for preserving the integrity of the several interests at stake. But in every attempt to frame or reorganize a political constitution, there are two grand objects, it seems to me, to be distinctly kept in view, neither of which can be overlooked or made subordinate without serious injury to the common design; these are — first, to determine, as regards the nation in question, who shall govern, who shall be governed, and to arrange the actual working of the constituted power; and secondly, to prescribe the exact sphere to which the government, once constructed, should extend or confine its operations. The latter object, which more immediately embraces the private life of the citizen, and more especially determines the limits of his free, spontaneous activity, is, strictly speaking, the true ultimate purpose; the former is only a necessary means for arriving at this important end. And yet, however strange it may appear, it is to the attainment of the first of these ends that man directs his most earnest attention; and, as it becomes us to show, this exclusive pursuit of one definite purpose only coincides with the usual manifestation of human activity. It is in the prosecution of some single object, and in striving to reach its accomplishment by the combined application of his moral and physical energies, that the true happiness of man, in his full vigour and development, 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. If we consider the position of man in the universe — if we remember the constant tendency of his energies towards some definite activity, and recognize the influence of surrounding nature, which is ever provoking him to exertion, we shall be ready to acknowledge that repose and possession do not indeed exist but in imagination. Now the partial or one-sided man finds repose in the discontinuance of one line of action; and in him whose powers are wholly undeveloped, one single object only serves to elicit a few manifestations of energy. It may be well to observe, before deriving inferences from these general considerations on the usual tendency of man’s activity, that the dissatisfaction we notice as attendant on possession, does not at all apply to that ideal of human perfection which is conceivable by imagination; but it is true, in the fullest sense, of the wholly uncultured man, and proportionately true of every intermediate gradation between this utter want of culture and that ideal standard above mentioned. It would appear then, from these general characteristics of human nature, that to the conqueror his triumph affords a more exquisite sense of enjoyment than the actual occupation of the territory he has won, and that the perilous commotion of reformation itself is dearer to the reformer than the calm enjoyment of the fruits which crown its successful issue. And thus it is true, in general, that the exercise of dominion has something in it more immediately agreeable to human nature than the mere reposeful sense of freedom; or, at least, that the solicitude to secure freedom is a dearer satisfaction than that which is afforded by its actual possession. Freedom is but the possibility of a various and indefinite activity; while government, or the exercise of dominion, is a single, but yet real activity. The ardent desire for freedom, therefore, is at first only too frequently suggested by the deep-felt consciousness of its absence.

But whatever the natural course of political development may be, and whatever the relation between the desire for freedom and the excessive tendency to governmental activity, it is still evident that the inquiry into the proper aims and limits of State agency must be of the highest importance — nay, that it is perhaps more vitally momentous than any other political question. That such an investigation comprises the ultimate object of all political science, has been already pointed out; but it is a truth that admits also of extensive practical application. Real State revolutions, or fresh organizations of the governing power, are always attended in their progress with many concurrent and fortuitous circumstances, and necessarily entail more or less injury to different interests; whereas a sovereign power that is actually existing — whether it be democratic, aristocratic, or monarchical — can extend or restrict its sphere of action in silence and secresy, and, in general, attains its ends more surely, in proportion as it avoids startling innovations. Those processes of human agency advance most happily to their consummation, which most faithfully resemble the operations of the natural world. The tiny seed, for example, which drops into the awaiting soil, unseen and unheeded, brings forth a far richer and more genial blessing in its growth and germination than the violent eruption of a volcano, which, however necessary, is always attended with destruction; and, if we justly pride ourselves on our superior culture and enlightenment, there is no other system of reform so happily adapted, by its spirit of calm and consistent progression, to the capacities and requirements of our own times.

It may easily be foreseen, therefore, that the important inquiry into the due limits of State agency must conduct us to an ampler range of freedom for human forces, and a richer diversity of circumstances and situations. Now the possibility of any higher degree of freedom presupposes a proportionate advancement in civilization — a decreasing necessity of acting in large, compacted masses — a richer variety of resources in the individual agents. If, then, the present age in reality possesses this increased culture and this power and diversity of resources, the freedom of which these are the precious conditions should unquestionably be accorded it. And so its methods of reform would be happily correspondent with a progressive civilization — if we do not err in supposing this to be its favourable characteristic. Generally speaking, it is the drawn sword of the nation which checks and overawes the physical strength of its rulers; but in our case, culture and enlightenment serve no less effectually to sway their thoughts and subdue their will, so that the actual concessions of reform seem rather ascribable to them than to the nation. If even to behold a people breaking their fetters asunder, in the full consciousness of their rights as men and citizens, is a beautiful and ennobling spectacle: it must be still more fair, and full of uplifting hope, to witness a prince himself unloosing the bonds of thraldom and granting freedom to his people — nor this as the mere bounty of his gracious condescension, but as the discharge of his first and most indispensable duty; for it is nobler to see an object effected through a reverent regard for law and order, than conceded to the imperious demands of absolute necessity; and the more so, when we consider that the freedom which a nation strives to attain through the overthrow of existing institutions, is but as hope to enjoyment, as preparation to perfection, when compared with that which a State, once constituted, can bestow.

If we cast a glance at the history of political organizations, we shall find it difficult to decide, in the case of any one of them, the exact limits to which its activity was conformed, because we discover in none the systematic working out of any deliberate scheme, grounded on a certain basis of principle. We shall observe, that the freedom of the citizen has been limited from two points of view; that is, either from the necessity of organizing or securing the constitution, or from the expediency of providing for the moral and physical condition of the nation. These considerations have prevailed alternately, according as the constitution, in itself powerful, has required additional support, or as the views of the legislators have been more or less expanded. Often indeed both of these causes may be found operating conjointly. In the ancient States, almost all the institutions relating to the private life of the citizens were of a strictly political character. Possessed, as it was, of but little absolute authority, the constitution was mainly dependent for its duration on the will of the nation, and hence it was necessary to discover or propose means by which due harmony might be preserved between the character of established institutions and this tendency of national feeling. The same policy is still observable in small republican States; and if we were to regard it in the light of these circumstances alone, we might accept it as true, that the freedom of private life always increases in exact proportion as public freedom declines; whereas security always keeps pace with the latter. It is true the ancient legislators very often, and the ancient philosophers invariably, directed their attention to the inner life of the individual; and, in their eyes, the moral worth of human nature seemed to deserve the highest regard: of this we have an illustration in Plato’s Republic, of which Rousseau has very truly observed that it has more the character of an educational than a political treatise. Now if we compare the example of the most modern States, with regard to this tendency, we shall find the design of acting for the individual citizen, and of providing for his welfare, to be clear and unmistakable from the number of laws and institutions directed to this end, and which often give a very determinate form to private life. The superior internal consistency of our constitutions — their greater independence of national character and feeling — the deeper influence of mere thinkers, who are naturally disposed to more expanded views — the multitude of inventions which teach us to follow out and improve the common objects of national activity; and lastly, and before all, certain ideas of religion which represent the governing power as responsible, to a certain extent, for the moral and future welfare of the citizens, have all contributed to introduce this change and develope this positive solicitude. But if we examine into the origin of particular institutions and police-laws, we find that they frequently originate in the real or pretended necessity of imposing taxes on the subject, and in this we may trace the example, it is true, to the political characteristics of the ancient States, inasmuch as such institutions grow out of the same desire of securing the constitution which we noticed in them. With respect to those limitations of freedom, however, which do not so much affect the State as the individuals who compose it, we are led to notice a vast difference between ancient and modern governments. The ancients devoted their attention more exclusively to the harmonious development of the individual man, as man; the moderns are chiefly solicitous about his comfort, his prosperity, his productiveness. The former looked to virtue; the latter seek for happiness. And hence it follows, that the restrictions imposed on freedom in the ancient States were, in some important respects, more oppressive and dangerous than those which characterize our times. For they directly attacked that inner life of the soul, in which the individuality of human being essentially consists; and hence all the ancient nations betray a character of uniformity, which is not so much to be attributed to their want of higher refinement and more limited intercommunication, as to the systematic education of their youth in common (almost universal among them), and the designedly collective life of the citizens. But, in another point of view, it will be allowed that these ancient institutions contributed especially to preserve and elevate the vigorous activity of the individual man. The very desire which still animated all their political efforts, to train up temperate and nobleminded citizens, imparted a higher impulse to their whole spirit and character. With us, it is true, man is individually less restricted; but the influence of surrounding circumstances only the more operates to produce and continue a limiting agency — a position, however, which does not preclude the possibility of beginning a conflict against these external hindrances, with our own internal antagonistic strength. And yet the peculiar nature of the limitations imposed on freedom in our States; the fact that they regard rather what man possesses than what he really is, and that with respect to the latter they do not cultivate, even to uniformity, the physical, intellectual, and moral faculties; and lastly and especially, the prevalence of certain determining ideas, more binding than laws, suppress those energies which are the source of every active virtue, and the indispensable condition of any higher and more various culture. With the ancients, moreover, the increase of force served to compensate for their uniformity; but with the moderns uniformity is aggravated by the evil of diminished energy. This difference between the States of antiquity and those of our own times, is in general thoroughly evident. Whilst in these later centuries, the rapid strides of progress, the number and dissemination of artistic inventions, and the enduring grandeur of establishments, especially attract our attention; antiquity captivates us above all by that inherent greatness which is comprised in the life of the individual, and perishes along with him — the bloom of fancy, the depth of thought, the strength of will, the perfect oneness of the entire being, which alone confer true worth on human nature. Their strong consciousness of this essential worth of human nature, of its powers and their consistent development, was to them the quick impulse to every manifestation of activity; but these seem to us but as abstractions, in which the sense of the individual is lost, or at least in which his inner life is not so much regarded as his ease, his material comfort, his happiness. The ancients sought for happiness in virtue; the moderns have too long been endeavouring to develope the latter from the former;1 and even he2 who could conceive and portray morality in its purest form, thinks himself bound to supply happiness to his ideal of human nature through the medium of a highly artificial machinery, and this rather as a reward from without, than as a boon obtained by man’s own exertions. I need not trace any further the features of this striking difference, but will draw these hints to a conclusion with an illustrative passage from Aristotle’s Ethics:—“For that which peculiarly belongs to each by nature, is best and most pleasant to every one; and consequently, to man, the life according to intellect (is most pleasant), if intellect especially constitutes Man. This life therefore is the most happy3

It has been from time to time disputed by publicists, whether the State should provide for the security only, or for the whole physical and moral well-being of the nation. The vigilant solicitude for the freedom of private life has in general led to the former proposition; while the idea that the State can bestow something more than mere security, and that the injurious limitation of liberty, although a possible, is not an essential, consequence of such a policy, has disposed many to the latter opinion. And this belief has undoubtedly prevailed, not only in political theory, but in actual practice. Ample evidence of this is to be found in most of the systems of political jurisprudence, in the more recent philosophical codes, and in the history of Constitutions generally. The introduction of these principles has given a new form to the study of politics (as is shown for instance by so many recent financial and legislative theories), and has produced many new departments of administration, as boards of trade, finance, and national economy. But, however generally these principles may be accepted, they still appear to me to require a more radical investigation; and this can only proceed from a view of human nature in the abstract, and of the highest ends of human existence.

1 This difference is never so strikingly evident as when we make the comparison between the ancient and modern philosophers. In place of other illustration, I quote some remarks of Tiedemann on one of the finest passages in Plato’s Republic:—“Quanquam autem per se sit justitia grata nobis: tamen si exercitium ejus nullam omnino afferret utilitatem, si justo ea omnia essent patienda, quæ fratres commermorant; injustitia justitiæ foret præferenda; quæ enim ad felicitatem maxime faciunt nostram, sunt absque dubio aliis præponenda. Jam corporis cruciatus, omnium rerum inopia, fames, infamia, quæque alia evenire justo fratres dixerunt, animi illam e justitia manantem voluptatem dubio procul longe superant, essetque adeo injustitia justitiæ antehabenda et in virtutum numero collocanda.” (Tiedemann in argumentis dialogorum Platonis. Ad l. 2, de Republica.)—“Now although justice is pleasing to us in its own nature, still if the practice of it did not confer any advantage whatever, if the just man had to endure all that the brothers relate, injustice would be preferable to justice; for the things which especially contribute to our happiness, are unquestionably to be preferred to others. Now bodily torture, utter indigence, hunger, infamy, and whatever else the brothers observed to befall the just man, far outweigh, doubtless, that spiritual pleasure which flows from justice; and so injustice would have to be preferred to justice, and ranked in the number of virtues.”

2 Kant, on the Summum Bonum, in his Elements of Moral Metaphysics (Riga, 1785), and in the Critique of Practical Reason.

3 Τὸ γὰρ οἰκεɩ̂ον ἑκάστῳ

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