The Limits of State Action, by "Germany's greatest philosopher of freedom," as F. A. Hayek called him, has an exuberance and attention to principle that make it a valuable introduction to classical liberal political thought. It is also crucial for an understanding of liberalism as it developed in Europe at the turn of the nineteenth century. Humboldt explores the role that liberty plays in individual development, discusses criteria for permitting the state to limit individual actions, and suggests ways of confining the state to its proper bounds. In so doing, he uniquely combines the ancient concern for human excellence and the modern concern for what has come to be known as negative liberty.
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."
Wilhelm von Humboldt
Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) was described by Friedrich Hayek as “Germany’s greatest philosopher of freedom.” Humboldt wrote a path-breaking defense of the minimal state which had a profound influence on John Stuart Mill. Humboldt later became Director of the Section for Public Worship and Education, in the Ministry of Interior. In this capacity, he directed the reorganization of the Prussian public education system, and, in particular, founded the University of Berlin.