The Limits of State Action

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1792)

“Le difficile est de ne promulguer que des lois nécessaires, de rester à jamais fidèle à ce principe vraiment constitutionnel de la société, de se mettre en garde contre la fureur de gouverner, la plus funeste maladie des gouvernemens modernes.”

—Mirabeau l’Aîné, sur l’Education Publique, p. 69.


The book of which a translation is here offered to the English reader was published posthumously at Berlin, in the year 1852, by the Author’s younger brother, Alexander von Humboldt, the eminent Naturalist. It appeared under the title of ‘Ideen zu einem Versuch, die Gränzen der Wirksamkeit des Staats zu bestimmen;’ forming part of the seventh and concluding volume of the ‘Gesammelte Werke’ of its distinguished author. Written in 1791, in his early manhood, and at a time when the ideas which it unfolds were in striking contrast to the events and opinions of the day, the book was long obnoxious to the scruples of the German Censorship; and his friend Schiller, who took much interest in its publication, had some difficulty in finding a publisher willing to incur the necessary responsibility. The Author therefore retained the manuscript in his possession, revising it from time to time, and re-writing considerable portions, which appeared in Schiller’s ‘Thalia’ and the ‘Berlin Monthly Review;’ but, although the obstacles which at first opposed the issue of the book were subsequently removed, it was never given to the world in a complete form during his life. It is probable that his important official engagements,[*] and those profound studies in critical philology, of which we have such noble and enduring monuments in the literature of Germany, left him no leisure to revert to this the chosen subject of his earlier labours. But we cannot but feel grateful to his distinguished brother, for giving publicity to a treatise which has such strong claims to attention, whether we regard the eminence of its Author as a philosopher and a statesman, the intrinsic value of its contents, or their peculiar interest at a time when the Sphere of Government seems more than ever to require careful definition. To Englishmen, least of all, is it likely to prove unattractive or uninstructive, since it endeavours to show the theoretical ideal of a policy to which their institutions have made a gradual and instinctive approximation; and contributes important ideas towards the solution of questions which now lie so near to the heart and conscience of the English public.

With respect to the translation, I have aimed at scrupulous fidelity; believing that, even where there may be some obscurity (as in one or two of the earlier chapters), the intelligent reader would prefer the ipsissima verba of so great a man, to any arbitrary construction put upon them by his translator. Still, I have spared no pains to discover the author’s sense in all cases, and to give it in simple and unmistakable words; and I would here mention, with grateful acknowledgment, the valuable assistance I have received in this endeavour from my accomplished German friend, Mr. Eugen Oswald: those who are best acquainted with the peculiarities of thought and style which characterize the writer, will be best able to appreciate the importance of such assistance.

In conclusion, I cannot but feel that there may be many to whom this book contains little to recommend itself;—little of showy paradox or high-sounding declamation, little of piquant attack or unhesitating dogmatism, little immediate reference to sects, or parties, or political schools; but I would also venture to anticipate that there are others, to whom the subject is no less congenial, who would willingly listen to a calm investigation of the most important questions that can occupy the attention of the statesman and the moralist, to earnest ideas clothed in simple and well-measured words; and that these will receive with welcome any worthy contribution to the expanding opinions of our day and nation, and look in these “Ideas,” perhaps not unsuccessfully, for some true and abiding materials towards the structure of some fairer polity of the future.

*In the MS. of the Third Chapter, on “Positive Welfare,” there occurs an hiatus of a few pages. This has not been supplied in the German edition, published by the Author’s brother; but the thread of the argument is sufficiently clear, from the Author’s summary, to occasion little difficulty to the reader in continuing it in his own mind.



[*] In 1790 Humboldt was appointed a Councillor of Legation, and attached to the High Court of Berlin. In 1791 he resigned these offices, and the next ten years of his life (during which the present work was written) were spent in travel, literary activity, and constant intercourse with Goethe, Schiller, Wolf, etc. In 1802 he was made Privy Councillor of Legation and Ambassador at the Papal Court, in which capacity he resided six years at Rome. On giving up his diplomatic engagements, he was appointed in 1808 Privy Councillor of State; and as Minister of Worship and Public Instruction, was one of the most active members of the Prussian Reform Ministry, until, through the influence of Napoleon, it was dismissed in 1810. Among many other important improvements and reforms, he founded the University of Berlin. Soon after, he was appointed Ambassador and Plenipotentiary at the Austrian Court, with the additional title of Privy Minister of State. In 1813 he was Plenipotentiary at the Peace Congress of Prague, at Chatillon, and subsequently at the Congress of Vienna. He afterwards visited Paris in a diplomatic capacity; and it was here that Madame de Staël was so much impressed with his genius and culture, that she called him “la plus grande capacité de l’Europe.” In 1818 he was appointed to the Ministry of the Interior; but his strenuous advocacy of constitutional liberty (in opposition to the Carlsbad decrees) was an insuperable obstacle to the schemes of the Cabinets of Vienna and Petersburg, and of some of his colleagues in the Ministry of Prussia. He was offered the ministerial pension of 6000 dollars, but, refusing it, retired to prosecute his more congenial literary labours.

 Writings of Wilhelm Von Humboldt

 Classical Liberals