The Limits of State Action

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1792)

Translated by Joseph Coulthard (1854)


On the Solicitude of the State for Security Against Foreign Enemies

If it were not conducive to the clearness of our principal idea to apply it successively to single objects, it would not be essential to the present inquiry, to make any reference to the subject of security against foreign enemies. But this brief digression is the less to be regretted, and indeed may not be without illustrative importance, so long as I confine my attention to the influence of war on national character, and regard its institutions from the same point of view that has suggested the master-principle of the whole investigation.

Now, when thus regarded, war seems to be one of the most favourable manifestations for the culture of human nature; and I confess, it is not without regret that I see it disappearing more and more from the scene. However fearful in some aspects, it is still the extremity through which all that active daring—all that endurance and fortitude are steeled and tested, which afterwards work themselves out into such various and beautiful results in the ordinary conduct of life, and which alone impart to its whole form and character that elastic strength and rich diversity, without which facility is feebleness, and unity, inanity.

It may, perhaps, be argued that there are many other means of securing this invigorating discipline in the school of trial and danger—that there are a thousand forms of employment full of mere physical peril, and innumerable crises of moral conflict which assail the firm, unfaltering statesman in the silence of the cabinet, and the free and fearless thinker in his solitary cell. But I cannot divest myself of the belief, that as everything spiritual is but the more exquisite bloom and development of the corporeal, so too, in war, the noblest forms of action and daring are crowned with the fairest moral issues. It is true we still possess, in the eventful past, the strong stem, as it were, from which these active virtues could continue to shoot and bud forth in the present. But the memory of the past is ever dimly receding from our eyes in the distances of oblivion; and while the number of those who fondly cherish its teaching is always diminishing in a nation, its influence even on them tends also gradually to decline. We seldom acknowledge, moreover, in other pursuits, however difficult or perilous, that inherent idea of greatness and glory so inseparably associated with warlike achievement—an idea, based as it is on the conception of superior power, which is far from being chimerical or imaginary.

As for the elements, we do not labour so much to oppose and subdue their antagonism, as to escape their effects and outlast their fury:—

“With the resistless might of gods
Men may not measure strength;”[1]

—deliverance is not victory; the boon which fate beneficently offers, and of which human courage and susceptibility only avail themselves, is not the fruit or the earnest of superior power. In war, moreover, every one is inspired with the feeling of rights to be defended and wrongs to be avenged; and while man, in a state of nature, esteems it a far higher object to redeem his honour than to accumulate the means of subsistence, it is a choice which even the most civilized would not feel disposed to deny to him.

It will not be supposed for a moment that the death of a fallen warrior has something in it more beautiful to my eyes than the death of the fearless Pliny, or, to instance devotion somewhat too little honoured, the death of Robert and Pilatre du Rozier. But such instances are rare; and it may be fairly questioned whether they would ever, even, occur without the inspiring memory of those former examples. Neither have I selected the most favourable position in the case of war, nor regarded the finer manifestations of its high-souled enthusiasm. Let me recall the Spartans at Thermopylæ, and ask what influence such an illustrious example of heroism in its sons is likely to exercise on the general character of a nation. I do not deny that such a spirit of daring devotedness and self-sacrifice can find room for manifestation in any form or position in life, nor that it actually does thus exhibit itself; but can we blame him, if, as a sentient being, man is most fondly captivated with its most vivid and visible embodiment, or refuse to believe that such a conspicuous expression of courageous virtue exercises the most living and lasting influence on the national spirit and character? And as to the bracing discipline of ordinary life I would observe that, with all that I have heard of evils more terrible than death, I never yet knew any, save the enthusiast, who, while in the full fruition of all the joys of existence, could really afford to despise it. Least of all would we look for such a spirit in antiquity, where as yet the thing itself was superior to the name, and the reality of the present more highly prized than the shadowy uncertainty of the future. My view of the warrior, then, does not apply to such as were trained up and devoted to warlike pursuits in Plato’s Republic,[2] but to men who take life and death, like other things, for what they really are, and who, having the highest in view, can dare to set the highest at stake. Lastly, it is to be observed that all those situations in which contrasting extremes are most closely and variously intermingled, are the deepest and richest in interest, and conduce most remarkably to human development; but of what is this so true and so striking a characteristic as of war—where inclination and duty, and the duty of the man and that of the citizen, seem ever in irreconcilable conflict, and where, nevertheless, all these intricate antagonisms find their clearest and fullest solution, as soon as the spirit of just defence has put weapons into our hands?

To regard war in this light, in which alone it can be considered as either beneficial or necessary, seems to indicate, in my opinion, the nature of the policy to be observed by the State with respect to it. In order to cherish and promote the nobler spirit which it engenders, and to diffuse it throughout the whole body of the nation, it will be evident that freedom is the prime condition. Now this already argues against the maintenance of standing armies; and we would observe further, that these and other modern methods and appurtenances of warfare in general, are very far removed from the ideal we can conceive as most highly conducive to human culture. If the warrior in general becomes degraded to a machine as soon as he surrenders his freedom, this degradation must be still more complete and deplorable in our methods of conducting war, in which so much less than formerly depends upon the valour, strength, and skill of the individual. How fatal must the uniformity consequent on such a sacrifice become, when, in time of peace, a considerable portion of the nation is condemned to this machine-like existence—not for a few years only, but often throughout life—merely in the prospect of a possible war! Perhaps it is in nothing so strikingly manifest as in the institutions to which we now refer, that with the progressive development of the theory of human enterprises, their utility declines as regards the immediate agents concerned. It cannot be questioned that the art of war has made incredible strides in advance in modern times, but it is equally unquestionable that the nobler characteristics of the warrior have proportionately disappeared, and that it is only in antiquity that we find them flourishing in graceful and consummate beauty; or, at least, if this seems exaggerated, that the warlike spirit appears now to bring little but injurious consequences in its train for the nations which entertain it, while in the ancient world we see it so commonly productive of beneficial results. Our standing armies carry war, so to speak, into the very bosom of peace. Now, a warlike spirit is only honourable in union with the fairest virtues which bloom out from peace, and military discipline, only when allied with the highest feeling of freedom; if these are severed,—and it is needless to show how such a disunion is promoted by the existence of marshalled armies in the midst of peace,—the former rapidly degenerates into wild and lawless ferocity, and the latter into the abject submission of slavery.

Still, although I would condemn the maintenance of standing armies, it may be well to observe that I only introduce the subject in this place, in so far as it accords with the immediate scope I have in view. I am far from overlooking their great and undoubted usefulness, which checks and counterbalances the headlong tendency to ruin, towards which their faults and disadvantages would inevitably hurry them like everything else on earth. They are a significant portion of the whole—the vast web, which has been woven, not by any plans of vain human reason, but by the sure hand of destiny; and the picture that would represent us by the side of our ancestors, fully and fairly delineated in all the complex phases and workings of our modern life, would have to show how mightily they operate on every other characteristic of our age, and how they share with them the praise and blame of all the good or bad that distinguishes it.

I must moreover have been very unfortunate in the exposition of my views, if I am supposed to infer that the State should, from time to time, seek causes for producing war. It may extend the various possibility of freedom to its people, and a neighbouring nation may enjoy a like degree of freedom, which is the only soil where war and every other healthful manifestation of human power arises naturally to meet the necessity and occasion. Men, in every age, are men; nor do they lose their original passions. War will arise of itself; and if, under these circumstances, it should not so arise, it is then at least certain that peace has not been gained by compulsion, nor produced by artificial paralysis; and such a spontaneous tranquillity will be so much the more blessed gift to the nations, as the peaceful ploughman is a more grateful image in our eyes than the blood-stained warrior. And if we conceive of a progressive civilization of the whole human race, it is indeed certain that the later ages will become gradually more peaceful; but in such a development peace will spring from the internal capacities of the beings themselves, and it is the very character of men—free men, that will be imbued with its pure and benevolent spirit. Even now—a single year of European history proves it—we enjoy the fruits of peace, but not a spirit of peacefulness. Human forces, which are ever striving towards an activity that is infinite, either merge in union when they encounter each other, or clash in direct collision. The form which the conflict of these forces may assume,—whether that of war, or competition, or unknown modifications yet to be revealed,—depends chiefly on the measure of their refinement.

If I may now venture to derive an inference from these reflections accordant with my ultimate design, I would lay down the principle—that the State should in no way attempt to encourage war, but neither should it forcibly interfere to prevent it, when demanded by necessitous occasion; that it should allow perfect freedom to the diffusion of warlike impulses through the spirit and character of the nation, while it especially refrains from all positive institutions calculated to foster a national military development; or, where these last are absolutely necessary—as, for instance, in the training of the citizens to the use of arms—that it should give them a direction likely to induce, not only the skill, daring, and subordination of the mere soldier, but animate those under its discipline with the spirit of true warriors, or rather of noble-minded citizens, ready at all times to fight in the defence of their country.



[1]“Mit Göttern

     Soll sich nicht messen
     Irgend ein Mensch.”

     --Goethe, in dem Gedicht: Grenzen der Menschheit, ii. p. 69, Ausg. v. 1840.

[2] These were to be trained to regard death not as something terrible and to be solicitously avoided, but to be met with indifference and even disdain. The poets were forbidden to represent Hades as dreadful, but the contrary; and illustrious men were not to set an enervating example, by giving way to grief under misfortune. Vid. Republ. iii. init.—Tr.

 Writings of Wilhelm Von Humboldt

 Classical Liberals