The Sphere and Duties of Government, by Wilhelm von Humboldt

Chapter 16.

practical application of the theory proposed.

Every development of truths which relate to human nature, and more especially its active manifestations, is attended with a wish to see worked out in practice what theory has shown us to be just and good. To man, whose mind is seldom satisfied with the calmly beneficent influence of abstract ideas, this desire is perfectly natural, and it increases in liveliness with the spirit of benevolent sympathy in social happiness and well-being. But, however natural in itself, and however noble in its origin, this desire has not unfrequently led to hurtful consequences — nay, often to greater evils than the colder indifference, or (as from the very opposite cause the same effect may follow) the glowing enthusiasm, which, comparatively heedless of reality, delights only in the pure beauty of ideas. For no sooner has anything that is true struck deep root in human nature (even though it should be but in the heart of one man), than slowly and noiselessly it spreads its blessed influence over the surface of actual life; while, on the contrary, that which is at once transferred into living action, becomes not unfrequently changed and modified in its form, and does not even re-act at all on the ideas. Hence it is that there are some ideas which the wise would never attempt to realize in practice. Nay, reality is in no age sufficiently ripe for the reception of the most matured and beautiful thoughts; and before the soul of the artist, whatever his art may be, the fair image of the ideal must still hover like a model that is inapproachable. Such considerations, therefore, serve to point out the necessity of more than common prudence in the application of even the most consistent and generally accepted theory; and they urge it the more on me to examine, before concluding my task, as fully and at the same time as briefly as possible, how far the principles herein developed can be transferred into actual practice. This examination will, at the same time, serve to defend me from the charge of having thought to prescribe immediate rules to actual life in what I have said, or even to disapprove of all which contradicts the results of my reasoning in the real state of things — a presumption I should be loath to entertain, even although I had sure grounds for supposing the system I have unfolded to be perfectly just and unquestionable.

In every remodelling of the present, the existing condition of things must be supplanted by a new one. Now every variety of circumstances in which men find themselves, every object which surrounds them, communicates a definite form and impress to their internal nature. This form is not such that it can change and adapt itself to any other a man may choose to receive; and the end is foiled, while the power is destroyed, when we attempt to impose upon that which is already stamped in the soul a form which disagrees with it. If we glance at the most important revolutions in history, we are at no loss to perceive that the greatest number of these originated in the periodical revolutions of the human mind. And we are still more strikingly convinced of this, when, on watching the influences that have most operated to change the world, we observe that those which accompany the exercise of human power have been the mightiest to alter and modify the existing order of things. For the influences of physical nature — so calm and measured in their progression, and so uniformly revolving in their ever-returning cycles — are less important in this respect; as are also the influences of the brute creation, when we consider these apart and of themselves. Human power can only manifest itself in any one period, in one way, but it can infinitely modify this manifestation; at any given epoch, therefore, it betrays a single and one-sided aspect, but in a series of different periods these combine to give the image of a wonderful multiformity. Every preceding condition of things is either the complete and sufficient cause of that which succeeds it, or, at least, exercises such modifying influences that the external pressure of circumstances can produce no other. This very prior condition, then, and the modifications it receives, act also to determine in what way the new order of circumstances shall exercise an influence on human nature; and the force of this determination is so great, that these very circumstances are often wholly altered by it. Hence it comes, that we might be justified in regarding everything which is done on earth as both good and beneficial; since it is man’s internal power which masters and subdues everything to itself, of whatever nature it may be, and because this internal power, in any of its manifestations, can never act otherwise than beneficially, since each of these operates in different measure to strengthen and develope it. In view of this consideration, we understand how the whole history of the human race could perhaps be represented merely as a natural result of the revolutions of human power; and while the study of history in this light would be perhaps more pregnant than any other in interest and instruction, it would at the same time point out to him who designs to act upon his fellow-men, the way in which he should attempt to sway and guide human forces successfully, and the direction in which he must never expect them to go. While, therefore, this human power deserves our especial regard, commanding our respect and admiration as it does by its precious and intrinsic worth, it has double claims on our consideration when we recognize the mighty influence with which it subjects all other things to its sway.

Whoever, then, would attempt the difficult task of interweaving, artificially, a new condition of things with that which is already existing, should never lose sight of this all-important agency. He must wait, therefore, in the first place, for the full working out of the present in men’s minds; should he rashly attempt to cut through the difficulty, he might succeed, perhaps, in creating anew the external aspect of things, but never the inner disposition of human nature, which would surely re-manifest itself in everything new that had been forcibly imposed on it. It must not be supposed that in proportion as full scope is allowed to the influence of the present, men become more averse to any subsequent change. In human history, it is extremes which lie most closely together; and the condition of external things, if we leave it to continue its course, undisturbed by any counteracting agency, so far from strengthening and perpetuating itself, inevitably works out its ruin. This is not only proved by the experience of all ages, but is in strict accordance with human nature; for the active man never remains longer with one object than his energy finds in it sufficient scope and material for exercise, and hence he abandons it most quickly when he has been most uninterruptedly engaged on it; and as for the passive man, although it is true that a continuing pressure serves to blunt and enfeeble his powers, it causes him to feel, on the other hand, the stringent influence more keenly. Now, without directly altering the existing condition of things, it is possible to work upon the human mind and character, and give them a direction no more correspondent with that condition; and this it is precisely which he who is wise will endeavour to do. Only in this way is it possible to reproduce the new system in reality, just as it has been conceived in idea; and in every other method (setting aside the evils which arise from disturbing the natural order of human development) it is changed, modified, disfigured by the remaining influence of preceding systems, in the actual state of circumstances as well as in the minds of men. But if this obstacle be removed — if the new condition of things which is resolved upon can succeed in working out its full influence, unimpeded by what was previously existing and by the circumstances of the present on which this has acted — then must nothing further be allowed to stand in the way of the contemplated reform. The most general principles of the theory of all reform may therefore be reduced to these:—

  1. We should never attempt to transfer purely theoretical principles into reality, before this latter, in its whole scope and tendency, offers no further obstacles to the manifestation of those consequences to which, without any intermixture of other influences, the principles arrived at would lead.

  2. In order to bring about the transition from the condition of the present to another newly resolved on, every reform should be allowed to proceed as much as possible from men’s minds and thoughts.

In my exposition of abstract theoretical principles in this Essay, I have always proceeded strictly from considerations of human nature; I have not presupposed in this, moreover, any but the usual measure of power and capability, yet still I imagined man to exist in that state alone which is necessary and peculiar to his nature, and unfashioned by any determinate relation whatever. But we never find man thus: the circumstances amidst which he lives have in all cases already given him some or other determinate form. Whenever a State, therefore, contemplates extending or restricting its sphere of action, it must pay especial regard to this varying form which human nature assumes. Now, the misrelation between theory and reality, as regards this point of political administration, will in all cases consist (as may easily be foreseen) in an insufficient degree of freedom; and hence it might appear that the removal of existing bonds, would be at all times possible and at all times beneficial. But however true in itself such a supposition may be, it should not be forgotten that the very thing which cripples men’s power on the one side, furnishes it on the other with the food and material of its activity. I have already observed, in the beginning of this Essay, that man is more disposed to domination than freedom; and a structure of dominion not only gladdens the eye of the master who rears and protects it, but even the meanest underworkers are uplifted by the thought that they are members of a majestic whole, which rises high above the life and strength of single generations. Wherever, then, there is still such a commanding spectacle to sway men’s admiration, and we attempt to constrain man to act only in and for himself, only in the narrow circle of his own individual power, only for the brief space during which he lives, all living energy must slowly pine away, and lethargy and inaction ensue. It is true that this is the only way in which man can act on the most illimitable space and on the most imperishable duration, but at the same time he does not thus act immediately; he rather scatters vital and self-germinating seeds than erects structures which reveal at once the traces of his hand; and it requires a higher degree of culture to rejoice in an activity which only creates powers and leaves them to work out their own results, rather than in that which at once realizes and establishes them before our eyes. This degree of culture it is which shows the ripe moment for freedom. But the capacity for freedom which arises from such a degree of culture is nowhere to be found perfect and matured; and this perfection, I believe, is ever destined to remain beyond the reach of man’s sensuous nature, which is always disposing him to cling to external objects.

What, then, would be the task of the statesman who should undertake such a reform? First, then, in every new step which is out of the course of things as they exist, he must be guided strictly by the precepts of abstract theory, except where there are circumstances in the present on which to try to graft it would be to frustrate wholly, or in part, the proper consequences of that theory. Secondly, he must allow all restrictions on freedom to remain untouched which are once rooted in the present, so long as men do not show by unmistakable signs that they regard them as enthralling bonds, that they feel their oppressive influence, that they are ripe for an increase of freedom in these respects; but when this is shown, he must immediately remove them. Finally, he must make men thus ripe for enlarged freedom by every possible means. This last duty is unquestionably the most important, and at the same time, as regards this system, the simplest. For by nothing is this ripeness and capacity for freedom so much promoted as by freedom itself. This truth, perhaps, may not be acknowledged by those who have so often made use of this want of capacity as a plea for the continuance of repressive influences. But it seems to me to follow unquestionably from the very nature of man. The incapacity for freedom can only arise from a want of moral and intellectual power; to elevate this power is the only way to counteract this want; but to do this presupposes the exercise of that power, and this exercise presupposes the freedom which awakens spontaneous activity. Only it is clear we cannot call it giving freedom, when fetters are unloosed which are not felt as such by him who wears them. But of no man on earth — however neglected by nature, and however degraded by circumstances — is this true of all the bonds which oppress and enthral him. Let us undo them one by one, as the feeling of freedom awakens in men’s hearts, and we shall hasten progress at every step. There may still be great difficulties in being able to recognize the symptoms of this awakening. But these do not lie in the theory so much as in its execution, which, it is evident, never admits of special rules, but in this case, as in every other, is the work of genius alone. Theoretically, I should thus endeavour to solve this confessedly intricate problem.

The legislator should keep two things constantly before his eyes:— 1. The pure theory developed to its minutest details; 2. The particular condition of actual things which he designs to reform. He must command a view of the theory, not only in all its parts, and in its most careful and complete development, but must, further, never lose sight of the necessary consequences of each of its several principles, in their full extent, in their manifold inter-connection, and (where they cannot all be realized at once) in their mutual dependency on each other. It is no less his duty (although it is doubtless infinitely difficult) to acquaint himself with the actual condition of things, with the nature of all restrictive bonds which the State imposes on the citizens, and which these (under shelter of the political power) impose on each other, contrary to the abstract principles of the theory, and with all the consequences of these restrictions. He should now compare these two pictures with each other; and the time to transfer a theoretical principle into reality would be thus recognized, when it was shown by the comparison that after being transferred the principle would be unaltered, and would produce the results represented in the first picture; or when (if this coincidence should not be perfect) it might yet be anticipated that this difference and shortcoming would be removed, after reality had more closely approximated to theory. For this last-mentioned goal, this continual approximation, should never cease to attract the regard of the legislator.

There may seem to be something strange in the idea of these imaginative representations, and it might be supposed impossible to preserve the truthfulness of such pictures, and still more to institute an exact comparison between them. These objections are not without foundation; but they lose much of their force when we remember that theory still yearns for freedom only, while reality, in so far as it differs from theory, is only characterized by coercion; that we do not exchange coercion for freedom only because it is impossible, and that the reason for this impossibility can only be found in one of these two considerations — either that man or the condition in which things are is not yet adapted to receive the freedom, which (in either case) frustrates the natural results without which we cannot conceive of existence, not to say freedom; or that the latter (a consequence which follows only from the first supposition, or the actual incapacity of man) does not produce those salutary effects with which otherwise it is always attended. Now we cannot judge as regards either of these cases, without carefully picturing the present to our minds, and the contemplated change in its full extent, and instituting an exact comparison between their respective forms and issues. The difficulty still further decreases when we reflect, that the State itself is never in a position to introduce any important change until it observes in the citizens themselves those indications which show it to be necessary to remove their fetters before these become heavy and oppressive; so that the State only occupies the place of a spectator, and the removal of restrictions on freedom, implying nothing more than a calculation of possibility, is only to be guided by the dictates of sheer necessity. Lastly, it is scarcely needed to observe, that we are alluding here to cases in which a change, proceeding from the State, is not only physically but morally possible, and which contain therefore no contradiction to principles of right. Only it is not to be forgotten, with regard to this last condition, that natural and general right is the sole true basis of all positive law; that therefore we should always revert to that natural foundation; and hence that (to adduce a point of law which is, as it were, the source of all the others) no one can at any time, or in any way, obtain any right with regard to the powers or means of another against or without his will.

Under this supposition I would venture to lay down the following principle:—

With regard to the limits of its activity, the State should endeavour to bring the actual condition of things as near to the true and just principles of theory as this is possible, and is not opposed by reasons of real necessity. Now, the possibility consists in this, that men are sufficiently ripe to receive the freedom which theory always approves, and that this freedom can succeed in producing those salutary consequences which always accompany its unhindered operation. The other consideration, or that of opposing necessity, reduces itself to this: that freedom, if once granted, is not calculated to frustrate those results, without which not only all further progress, but even existence itself, is endangered. In both of these cases the statesman’s judgment must be formed from a careful comparison between the present condition of things, and the contemplated change, and between their respective consequences.

This principle proceeds absolutely from the application, in this particular case, of the principle we before laid down with regard to all methods of reform. For, as well when there is an incapacity for greater freedom, as when the essential results we have referred to would suffer from the increase, the real condition of things prevents the abstract principles of theory from manifesting themselves in those consequences which, without the intermixture of any foreign influence, they would invariably produce. I shall not add anything further as to the development of the principle I propose. I might, perhaps, go on to classify the possible positions which reality may assume, and illustrate the manner of its application to those. But in attempting this, I should only contradict my own principles; for I have observed, that every such application requires a commanding view of the whole and all its parts in their closest inter-connection, and such a whole can never be exhibited by any mere process of hypothesis.

If we add to this rule, which we have laid down for the practical guidance of the State, those laws which are imposed on it by the theory we previously developed, we shall conclude that its activity should always be left to be determined by necessity. For the theory we have advanced allows to it only the solicitude for security (since security alone is unattainable by the individual man, and hence this solicitude alone is necessary); and the practical rule we have proposed for the State’s direction serves to bind it strictly to the observance of the theory, in so far as the condition of the present does not necessitate a departure from the course it prescribes. Thus, then, it is the principle of necessity towards which, as to their ultimate centre, all the ideas advanced in this essay immediately converge. In abstract theory the limits of this necessity are determined solely by considerations of man’s proper nature as a human being; but in the application we have to regard, in addition, the individuality of man as he actually exists. This principle of necessity should, I think, prescribe the grand fundamental rule to which every effort to act on human beings and their manifold relations should be invariably conformed. For it is the only thing which conducts to certain and unquestionable results. The consideration of the useful, which might be opposed to it, does not admit of any true and unswerving decision. It presupposes calculations of probability, which (even setting aside the fact that, from their very nature, they cannot be free from error) always run the risk of being falsified by the minutest unforeseen circumstances; while, on the other hand, that which is necessary urges the soul with an influence that is resistless, and whatever necessity demands is not only useful, but absolutely indispensable. The useful, moreover, since its degrees are as it were infinite, presupposes a constant succession of new arrangements and expedients; while the limitations, on the contrary, which necessity enjoins, tend to lessen its very demands, since they leave ampler scope to the original power. Lastly, the solicitude for the useful encourages for the most part the adoption of positive arrangements; that for the necessary chiefly requires negative measures; since, owing to the vigorous and elastic strength of man’s original power, necessity does not often require anything save the removal of oppressive bonds. From all these reasons (to which a more detailed analysis of the subject might add many more) it will be seen, that there is no other principle than this so perfectly accordant with the reverence we owe to the individuality of spontaneous beings, and with the solicitude for freedom which that reverence inspires. Finally, the only infallible means of securing power and authority to laws, is to see that they originate in this principle alone. Many plans have been proposed to secure this great object; to most it has appeared the surest method, to persuade the citizens that the laws are both good and useful. But even although we admit that they possess these qualities in given cases, it is always difficult to convince men of the usefulness of an arrangement; different points of view give different opinions; and men are often prone to oppose convictions, and, however ready to embrace the utility of anything they have themselves recognized, to resist aught that is attempted to be thrust upon them. But to the yoke of necessity every one willingly bows the head. Still, wherever an actually complicated aspect of things presents itself, it is more difficult to discover exactly what is necessary; but by the very acknowledgment of the principle, the problem invariably becomes simpler and the solution easier.

I have now gone over the ground I marked out in the beginning of this Essay. I have felt myself animated throughout with a sense of the deepest respect for the inherent dignity of human nature, and for freedom, which is alone becoming that dignity. May the ideas I have advanced, and the expression I have lent to them, be not unworthy such a feeling!

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