The Limits of State Action

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1792)

Translated by Joseph Coulthard (1854)



Besides that education of the young to which our attention has just been directed, there is another important means for exercising an influence on the morals and character of a nation, through which the State endeavours to educate, as it were, the full-grown man, accompanies him throughout the whole course and conduct of his life—his ways of thinking and acting,—and aims at imparting to them some definite and preconceived direction, or forestalling probable deviations from the path it prescribes;—this is Religion.

History shows us that all States have thought fit to avail themselves of this source of influence, but with very different designs, and in very different degrees. In the ancient nations it was perfectly interwoven with the political constitution,—it was, in fact, a grand guiding principle and essential pillar of the State organism; and hence all that I have observed of similar ancient institutions, applies no less aptly to religion. When the Christian religion, instead of the earlier local deities of nations, taught men to believe in a universal God of humanity, thereby throwing down one of the most dangerous barriers which sundered the different tribes of the great human family from each other;—and when it thus succeeded in laying the foundation for all true human virtue, human development, and human union, without which, enlightenment and even science and learning would have long, and perhaps always, remained the rare property of a few;—it also directly operated to loosen the strong bond of connection that of old existed between religion and the political constitution. But when, afterwards, the incursion of the barbarian tribes had scared enlightenment away;—when a misconception of that very religion inspired a blind and intolerant rage for proselytism; and when, at the same time, the political form of States underwent such changes, that citizens were transformed into subjects, and these not so much the subjects of the State as of the person in whom the government was vested;—the solicitude for religion, its preservation and extension, was left to the conscientiousness of princes, who believed it confided to their hands by God himself. In our times this prejudice has, comparatively, ceased to prevail; but the promotion of religion by laws and State institutions has been no less urgently recommended by considerations of internal security, and of morality, its strongest bulwark. These, then, I regard as the principal distinctive epochs in the history of religion as a political element, although I am not prepared to deny that all these reasons, characteristic of each, and especially the last-mentioned, have been co-operating throughout, while at each period, doubtless, one of them prevailed.

In the endeavour to act upon morality through the medium of religious ideas, it is especially necessary to distinguish between the propagation of a certain form of religion, and the diffusion of a spirit of religiousness in general. The former is undoubtedly more oppressive in its character, and more hurtful in its consequences; but, without it, the latter is hardly possible. For when once the State believes morality and religiousness to be inseparably associated, and considers that it can and may avail itself of this method of influence, it is scarcely possible, so long as there are various forms of religious opinion,—corresponding differently with morality, whether true, or constructed according to accepted notions,—that it should not extend its protection to one of these forms of religion in preference to the others. Even where it aims at wholly avoiding this preference, and assumes the position of protector or defender of all religious parties, it can only judge of what it defends from external actions, and must therefore indirectly countenance the opinions of those parties who actually come under its cognizance, to the suppression of other possible but unmanifested varieties of belief; and in any case, it evinces its concern for one opinion at least, in that it strives to render the real, living belief in a God the one generally predominant. It will be evident, moreover, on a moment’s reflection,—and the consideration is especially important in regard to what we would maintain,—that, owing to the vagueness and ambiguity of all expressions, which enable them to convey so many different ideas by the same general word, the State itself would be obliged to supply some definite interpretation of the term Religiousness, before it could apply it in any way as a clear rule of conduct. So that I would absolutely deny the possibility of any State interference in religious affairs which should not be more or less chargeable with encouraging certain distinct opinions, and did not therefore admit the application of principles and arguments, derivable from the supposition of such a partial tendency. Neither, with any more reason, can I grant the possibility of any such interference, without the implication of some guiding and controlling influence—some drag and hindrance, as it were, upon the liberty of the individual. For, however widely certain kinds of influence may naturally differ from coercion,—as exhortation, or the mere procuring of facilities for the acceptance of ideas,—there still exists, even in the last of these (as we have already tried to demonstrate more fully in the case of several similar institutions), a certain preponderance of the State’s views, which is calculated to repress and diminish freedom.

I have thought it necessary to make these preliminary observations, in order to anticipate an objection that might, perhaps, be advanced as I proceed, viz. that in the views I entertain of the consequences of a solicitude for religion, my attention was confined to the encouragement of certain particular forms, to the exclusion of the possibility of a care for religion in general; and I hoped moreover thus to avoid needlessly embarrassing and dismembering my inquiry, by a too minute review of the single possible cases.

All religion,—viewing it in its relation to morality and happiness, and as it has therefore become a matter of feeling,—rests upon a want or necessity of the soul. It is obvious that in thus restricting my view, I am not considering religion in so far as reason perceives, or fancies it perceives, any religious truth; for the perception of truth is independent of all influence from the will or desire;—nor in so far as revelation tends to strengthen any particular belief; since even historical belief should be exempt from all such influences derived from our sensitive nature. We hope, we dread, because we desire. Wherever there is no vestige of spiritual culture, this want or necessity is purely sensuous in its character. Fear and hope with regard to the phenomena of external nature, which are transformed by fancy into spiritual existences, constitute the whole sum of religion. But when culture dawns on the spirit, this is no longer sufficient and satisfying. The soul then yearns towards an intuition of perfection, of which a scintillation faintly glimmers in itself, but whose clear, complete effulgence, a deep presentiment assures it, is without. This first intuition gradually merges into admiration; and conceiving of himself as in some relation to this higher existence, man’s wonder ripens into love, from which there springs a longing to assimilate himself to this outward manifestation of perfection,—a desire for union. This development of the religious idea is even true of nations in the lowest grade of civilization; for it is from this very process of conception that, even among the rudest tribes, the chiefs of the people are brought to believe themselves lineally descended from the gods, and destined, after death, to return to them. It is only to be observed that the actual conception of the Divine Nature varies according to the different ideas of perfection which prevail in particular ages and nations. The gods of the remoter ages of Greece and Rome, and those worshiped by our own earliest forefathers, were simply ideals of bodily strength and prowess. When to this view of perfection the idea of sensuous beauty succeeded and gradually became refined, the sensuous personification of beauty was exalted to the throne of Deity; and hence arose what we would designate as the Religion of Art. Further, when men ascended from the sensuous to the purely spiritual—from the beautiful to the good and true, the sum of all moral and intellectual perfection became the high object of their adoration, and religion the property of philosophy. It might perhaps be possible to estimate the comparative worth of the different forms of religion that have prevailed according to this ascending scale, if it were true that religion varied according to nations and sects, and not according to the nature of single individuals. But, as it is, religion is wholly subjective, and depends solely on the manner of individual conception.

When the idea formed of Divinity is the fruit of true spiritual culture, its intimate re-action on the inner perfection is at once beneficial and beautiful. All things assume a new form and meaning in our eyes when regarded as the creatures of forecasting design, and not the capricious handiwork of unreasoning chance. The ideas of wisdom order, and adaptative forethought,—ideas so necessary to the conduct of our own actions, and even to the culture of the intellect,—strike deeper root into our susceptible nature, when we discover them everywhere around us. The finite becomes, as it were, infinite; the perishable, enduring; the fleeting, stable; the complex, simple,—when we contemplate one great regulating Cause on the summit of things, and regard what is spiritual as endlessly enduring. Our search after truth, our striving after perfection, gain greater certainty and consistency when we can believe in the existence of a Being who is at once the source of all truth, and the sum of all perfection. The soul becomes less painfully sensible of the chances and changes of fortune, when it learns how to connect hope and confidence with such calamities. The feeling of receiving everything we possess from the hand of love, tends no less to exalt our moral excellence and enhance our happiness. Through a constant sense of gratitude for enjoyment—through clinging with fond trustfulness to the object towards which it yearns, the soul is drawn out of itself, nor always broods in jealous isolation over its own sensations, its own plans, hopes, and fears. Should it lose the exalting feeling of owing everything to itself, it still enjoys the rapture of living in the love of another,—a feeling in which its own perfection is united with the perfection of that other being. It becomes disposed to be to others what others are to it; it would not that they too should receive nothing but from themselves, in the same way that it receives nothing from others. I have ventured to touch, in these remarks, on the subject of the co-operation of religion with morality; to enter into it more fully, after the masterly exposition of Garve,[1] would be at once useless and presuming.

But although the influence of religious ideas unmistakably harmonizes and co-operates with the process of moral perfection, it is no less certain that such ideas are in no way inseparably associated with that process. The simple idea of moral perfection is great, and inspiring, and exalted enough to require no other veil or form; and every religion is based on personification to a greater or less degree,—represents itself in some shape of appeal to the senses,—some or other modification of anthropomorphism. The idea of perfection will still hover before him who has not been wont to comprise the sum of all moral excellence in one absolute Ideal, and to conceive of himself as in a relation with that being: it will be to him at once the grand incentive to all activity, and the element of all his happiness. Firmly assured by experience of the possibility of raising his soul to a higher degree of moral perfection, he will strive with earnest and unwearying efforts to reach the goal he has set before him. The thought of the possible annihilation of his being will cease to alarm, when his illusive imagination is no longer painfully alive to the sense of nothingness in the non-existence of death. His unalterable dependency on the capricious mutations of fortune no more daunts and dismays him: comparatively indifferent to external joys and privations, he regards only what is purely moral and intellectual; and no mere freak of changeful destiny has power to disturb the calm, inner life of his soul. His spirit is exalted to a proud height of independence through its perfect sense of self-sufficingness—its lofty superiority to external vicissitude—the rich and overflowing fulness of its own ideas—the profound consciousness of its internal, deep-seated strength. And then when he looks back to his eventful journey in the past, and retraces its onward progress, step by step, through doubt and difficulty; when he sees with what varied means and happy appliances every separate circumstance was made so happily focal to the whole, and with what a regular series of gradations he arrived at that which he now is; when he learns to perceive in himself the complete union of cause and effect, of end and means, and, full of the noblest pride of which finite beings are capable, exclaims,

"Hast not thyself accomplished all,
Thou heart with holy ardour glowing?”[2]

how will dark and despairing thoughts—the thoughts of his lonely and unsolaced life—of helplessness, of failing support and consolation, vanish from before him,—thoughts which we are wont to believe mostly to beset those in whose minds the idea of a personal, superintending, rational cause of the chain of finite being is wanting! This constant, ruling self-consciousness, moreover, this living solely in and through himself, need not render the moral man callous and insensible to the lot and happiness of others, or shut out from his heart every loving sympathy and benevolent impulse. This very idea of perfection, towards which all his activity converges as to a grand, sufficient centre, so far from being a mere cold abstraction of the reason, may prove a warm and genial feeling of the heart, and thus transport his existence into the existence of others. For in them too there exists a like capacity for greater perfection, and this latent fitness it may be in his power to elicit and improve. He is not yet penetrated with the loftiest idea of all morality, so long as he can be content to regard himself or others as distinct and isolated—so long as all spiritual existences seem not to him merged and united in the sum of perfection which lies diffused around him. Nay, his union with other beings of kindred nature with himself is perhaps only the more intimate, and his sympathy in their fates and fortunes only the more keen and constant, in proportion as their destiny and his own seem to him to be entirely dependent on him and them.

If it is objected to this picture (and it is an objection which might fairly be urged) that to realize it in actual life would be a task far beyond the common range of human energy and capability, I would reply that such a condition is no less essential in order that religious feelings become the groundwork, in a man’s character, of a truly beautiful life, equally removed from coldness on the one hand and enthusiasm on the other. The force of this objection could only be admitted, moreover, if I had peculiarly recommended the cultivation of that harmony of being which I have just endeavoured to portray. But, as it is, my only object was to show that human morality, even the highest and most consistent, is not at all dependent on religion, or in general necessarily connected with it, and haply to contribute a few collateral reasons for removing the faintest shadow of spiritual intolerance, and for cherishing that profound respect which we should ever entertain for the individual thoughts and feelings of our fellow-men. If it were necessary still further to justify the view thus taken of morality, it were easy to delineate a contrasting picture of the pernicious influences of which an exclusive religious disposition, as well as its opposite, are capable. But it is painful to dwell on such ungrateful themes, and history only supplies us too abundantly with convincing illustrations. It may be more conducive to our present design, and furnish us a greater weight of evidence in favour of the principles we advocate, to cast a hasty glance at the nature of morality itself, and at the close relation of religious systems, as well as of religiousness, to the system of human sensation.

Now, neither that which morality prescribes as a duty, nor that which gives sanction to its dictates and recommends them to the will, is dependent on religious ideas. I will not dwell on the consideration that such a dependency would even impair the purity of the moral will. In reasoning derived from experience, and to be similarly referred to it, this position might not be thought sufficiently valid. But the qualities of an action which constitute it a duty, arise partly from the very nature of the human soul, and partly from the stricter reference to men’s mutual relations; and, although it is certain that these qualities are especially recommended and enhanced by a feeling of religion, this is neither the sole medium of impressing them on the heart, nor by any means one which admits of application to every variety of character. On the contrary, religion depends wholly for its efficiency on the individual nature, and is, in the strictest acceptation, subjective. The man whose character is cold and essentially reflective—whose conception never passes into sensation—with whom it is enough to see clearly the natural tendency of things to shape his resolution accordingly, needs no religious motive to induce him to adopt a course of virtuous action, and, as far as is consistent with such a form of character, to be virtuous. But it is wholly otherwise in the opposite case, where the capacity of sensation is peculiarly strong, and every thought rapidly merges in feeling. And yet even here the shades and modifications of character are infinitely various. For example, wherever the soul feels a strong and resistless impulse to pass out from itself, and establish a union with others, religious ideas will prove genuine and efficient motives. But, on the other hand, there are varieties of character in which so intimate a sequence prevails between all feeling and ideas—which share such a profundity of conception and sensation, that they acquire a measure of strength and self-reliance which neither needs nor allows the surrender of the whole nature to another being, and cannot entertain that confidence in foreign strength in which religion especially manifests itself. The very circumstances, even, which dispose the soul to revert to ideas of religion, assume a different significance from this same diversity of character. With one, every powerful emotion, every impulse to joy or sorrow, suffices; with another, the simple and spontaneous outflow of gratitude for enjoyment. Perhaps such a disposition as this to which we have last referred, is far from being the least estimable. While those whom it characterizes have a confident strength of their own, which does not urge them to look for external help in trial and misfortune, they have, on the other hand, too keen a sense of the feeling of being loved, not to associate with the idea of enjoyment the endearing image of a loving benefactor. The longing for religious ideas, moreover, has often a still nobler, purer, and, so to speak, a still more intellectual source. Whatever man beholds in the world around him, he perceives only through the medium of the senses; the pure essence is nowhere immediately revealed to his gaze; even that which inspires him with the most ardent love and enthusiasm, and takes the strongest hold on his whole nature, is mysteriously shrouded in the densest veil. There are some minds to which this sentiment is most constantly and vividly present; the engrossing object of their lifelong activity is a striving to penetrate this mysterious vesture,—their whole pleasure, a presentiment of truth in the enigma which is enwrapped in the symbol—a hope of uninterruptedly contemplating it in other periods of existence. Now it is when, in wonderful and beautiful harmony, the spirit is thus restlessly searching, and the heart fondly yearning, for this immediate contemplation of the actual existence—when the scantiness of conception does not suffice to the deep force of thought, nor the shadowy image of fancy and the senses, to the living warmth of feeling,—it is then that belief uninterruptedly follows the peculiar bent of reason to enlarge every conception beyond all barriers between itself and the ideal, and that it clings closely to the idea of a Being which comprehends all other beings, and, purely and without medium, exists, contemplates, and creates. But, on the other hand, in some minds a prudent diffidence serves to confine belief within the domain of experience: often, it is true, the feeling willingly delights in the contemplation of the ideal so peculiar to reason, but finds a more pleasurable fascination in the endeavour to interweave the sensuous and spiritual natures in a closer union—to lend a richer significance to the symbol, and render it a more intelligible and suggestive embodiment of the truth; and thus man is often compensated for the loss of that enthusiasm of hopeful longing, by that ever-attendant consciousness of the success of his endeavours which strictly forbids his gaze to wander lost in endless distances. Though less bold, his course is more certain; the conception of reason to which he closely clings is still clearer; the sensuous intuition, although a less faithful reflex of the truth, is more readily adapted to experience, and therefore more fully answers his requirements. On the whole, there is nothing which the mind so willingly admires, and is inclined to with such perfect unison of feeling, as the recognition of orderful omniscience presiding in a countless number of various and even antagonistic individuals. Yet this admiration is far more characteristic of some minds than others; and there are some who more readily embrace a belief according to which one Being created and regulated the universe, and ever preserves it with the solicitude of far-seeing wisdom. In the conception of others, the individual seems more sacred; they are more peculiarly attracted by this idea than by the universality of adaptative order; and to such minds an opposite system is usually suggested, that, namely, in which the individual essence, developing itself in itself, and subject to the modification of reciprocal influences, becomes attuned to that perfect harmony of being in which alone the human heart and mind can find repose. I am far from supposing that I have exhausted in these insufficient sketches a subject which is so copious as to defy all methodical investigation. My only object has been to show, by a few illustrative examples, that not only all true religiousness, but every true system of religion, proceeds, in the highest sense, from the innermost harmony and correlation of man’s processes of sensation.

Now, it is doubtless true, that the conceptions of design, order, correspondency, and perfection, or all that is purely intellectual in religious ideas, is wholly independent of peculiar methods of sensation or the necessary differences of character. But while we allow this, it becomes us to add that we are not now regarding these ideas in the abstract, but rather in their influence on men, who do not preserve that independency in the same degree; and to observe further, that such ideas are not by any means the exclusive property of religion. The idea of perfection is at first derived from our impressions of animate nature, and, thence transferred to the inanimate, it approaches, step by step, to the all-perfect, stripped of every barrier. But does not nature remain the same also for the contemplation of the moral man, and might it not be possible to advance through all the preceding gradations of approach, and still to pause before the last? Now, if all religiousness depends so absolutely on the varied phases and modifications of character, and more particularly of feeling, the influence it exercises on morality cannot be based on the sum and substance of accepted dogmas, but on the peculiar form of their acceptance—on conviction and belief. I shall have occasion hereafter to apply this conclusion to other important considerations, and I trust it may be reasonably admitted from what I have here observed. The only reproach, perhaps, to which my treatment of this entire question may fairly be open, is that I have confined my views to men who are favoured alike by nature and by circumstances, and are for that reason so rare, while they interest us so deeply. But I hope to show in the sequel that I am far from overlooking the masses of which society is mainly composed, while I would observe, meanwhile, that it strikes me as unworthy of a noble mind to proceed from any but the loftiest premises, whenever human nature is the subject of inquiry.

If, after these general considerations on religion, and the nature of its influence in human life, I now return to the question whether the State should employ it as a means for reforming the morals of its citizens, it will be granted that the methods adopted by the legislator for the promotion of moral culture are always correspondent with their proposed end, and efficient in their practical working, according as they cherish the internal development of capacities and inclinations. For all moral growth and culture spring solely and immediately from the inner life of the soul, and can only be induced in human nature, and never produced by mere external and artificial contrivances. Now, it is unquestionable, that religion, which is wholly based on ideas, sensations, and internal convictions, affords precisely such a means of disposing and influencing a man’s nature from within. We develope the artist by accustoming his eye to dwell on the grand masterpieces of artistic skill; we expand his imagination by a study of the faultlessly beautiful models of antiquity; and in like manner must the process of moral development be effected through the contemplation of loftier moral perfection, in the school of social intercourse, in the mirror of past history, and lastly in the contemplation of its sublimest ideal in the image of Divinity itself. And yet, as I have already shown, this last glimpse of moral perfection is scarcely designed for every eye, or rather, to abandon metaphor, this manner of conception is only adapted to certain varieties of character. But even although this method of self-development were universally possible, it would only be efficient when grounded on the perfect coherency of all ideas and sensations, or when unfolded from the inner life of the soul, rather than imposed on it or importunately suggested by some external influence. Hence it will appear that the only means by which the legislator can attain the end in view, must be by removing obstacles that prevent the citizen’s mind from becoming familiarized with religious ideas, and by promoting a spirit of free inquiry. If, proceeding further, he ventures to direct or diffuse a spirit of religiousness; if he shelters or encourages certain definite religious ideas; or if, lastly, he dares to require a belief according to authority in lieu of a true and sincere conviction, he will most effectually thwart and deaden the soul’s noblest aspirations, and throw fatal impediments in the way of true spiritual culture; and, although he so far work on the citizen’s imagination by immediate emotions as to succeed in bringing his actions into conformity with the law, he can never produce true virtue. For this is independent of all peculiar forms of religious belief, and incompatible with any that is enjoined by, and believed on, authority.

Still, however, the question arises, If the influence of certain religious principles tends to produce and encourage those actions only which harmonize with the requirements of law, is this not enough to entitle the State to see to their diffusion, even at the sacrifice of general freedom of thought? The State’s design is surely fully accomplished when its legal injunctions are strictly observed; and the legislator seems to have adequately discharged his duty when he has succeeded in framing wise laws, and seen how to secure their authority with the citizen. The idea of virtue, moreover, which has just been enunciated, is only true of a few classes of the political community, of those, namely, whose position enables them to devote their time and means to the process of internal development. The State has to embrace the majority in the circle of its solicitude, and these are manifestly incapable of that higher degree of morality.

It would be a sufficient answer to this reasoning, and serve to remove the ground from the objection which it suggests, to oppose the principle established in the former portion of this essay—that the State institution is not in itself an end, but is only a means towards human development; and hence, that it is not enough for the legislator to succeed in investing his dictates with authority, so long as the means through which that authority operates are not at the same time good, or, at least, innocuous. But apart from this fundamental principle, it is erroneous to suppose that the citizen’s actions and their legal propriety are only important as far as the State is concerned. A State is such a complex and intricate machine, that its laws, which must always be few in number, and simple and general in their nature, cannot possibly prove adequate to the full accomplishment of its ends. The great essentials for social welfare are always left to be secured by the voluntary and harmonious endeavours of the citizens. To exhibit this, it is only necessary to contrast the prosperity and ample resources of a cultivated and enlightened people, with the wants and deficiencies of any ruder and less civilized community. It is for this reason that all who have occupied themselves with political affairs, have invariably been animated with the design of rendering the well-being of the State the direct, personal interest of the citizen. They have laboured to bring the political organism into the condition of a machine, which should always be preserved in its highest efficiency by the inner force and vitality of its springs, so as not to require the continual application of fresh external influences. Indeed, if modern States can lay claim to any marked superiority over those of antiquity, it is chiefly in the fact that they have more fully and clearly realized this principle. That they have done so, the very circumstance of their employing religion as a means of culture is a striking proof. But still, even religion, in so far as it is designed to produce good actions alone, by the faithful observance of certain positive principles, or to exercise a positive influence on morals in general,—even religion is a foreign agency, and operates only from without. Hence it should always remain the ultimate object of the legislator—an object which a perfect knowledge of human nature will convince him is attainable only by granting the highest degree of freedom—to elevate the culture of the citizen to such a point, that he may find every incentive to co-operation in the State’s designs, in the consciousness of the advantages which the political institution affords him for the immediate furtherance of his individual schemes and interests. Now, that such an understanding should prevail, implies the diffusion of enlightenment and a high degree of mental culture; and these can never flourish or spread themselves where the spirit of free inquiry is fettered and impeded by laws.

Meanwhile, the propriety and expediency of such extensions of State agency are only acknowledged, because the conviction maintains its ground that neither external tranquillity nor morality can be secured without generally-received religious principles, or, at least, without the State’s supervision of the citizen’s religion, and that without these it would be impossible to preserve the authority of the law. Still, however prevalent this belief may be, it seems to me necessary to institute some more careful and searching investigation into the influence exercised by religious dogmas thus received, and indeed by any manifestation of a religious spirit called forth by political institutions. Now, as regards the acceptance of religious truth by the less cultivated masses of the people, most reliance is to be reposed in the ideas of future rewards and punishments. But these do nothing to lessen the propensity to immoral actions, or strengthen the leaning to that which is good, and therefore cannot improve the character: they simply work on the imagination, and therefore influence action as do images of fancy in general; but that influence is in like manner dissipated and destroyed by all that impairs the force and vivacity of the imaginative faculty. If we remember, moreover, that even in the minds of the most faithful believers these expectations are so remote, and therefore so uncertain, that they lose much of their efficiency from the thoughts of subsequent reformation, of future repentance, of hopes of pardon, which are so much encouraged by certain religious conceptions, it will be difficult for us to conceive how such tenets can do more to influence conduct than the sure consciousness of civil punishments, which, with good police arrangements, are near and certain in their operation, and are not to be averted by any possibility of repentance or subsequent reformation. Provided only that the citizen were familiarized with the retributive certainty of these punishments from his childhood, and taught to trace the consequences of moral and immoral actions, we cannot suppose such present influences to be less effectual than the other remote ideas.

But, on the other hand, it is not to be doubted that even comparatively unenlightened conceptions of religion often manifest themselves in far nobler and higher views of duty, in the case of a large portion of the people. The thought of being an object of affectionate solicitude to an all-wise and perfect Being, imparts new dignity to the character; the trust in endless duration leads the soul to loftier views, and infuses a spirit of order and design into the actions; the feeling of the loving goodness of Deity imbues the heart of the believer with a kindred disposition; and, in short, religion tends to inspire men’s souls with a sense of the beauty of virtue. But wherever such fair dispositions as these are expected to follow in the train of religion, the religious sentiment must be infused into the whole system of thought and sensation; and we cannot conceive this possible where the spirit of free inquiry is prostrated and enfeebled, and everything is reduced to a mere passive belief: before such results could arrive, moreover, there must have been some latent sense of better feelings, which must be taken as an undeveloped tendency towards morality, and on which the religious sentiment afterwards reacted. And, on the whole, no one will be disposed to utterly deny the influence of religion on morality; the only question at issue is, whether that influence reposes on a few religious dogmas, and, secondly, whether it is such as to show an indissoluble union between them. Both suppositions I hold to be erroneous. Virtue harmonizes so sweetly and naturally with man’s original inclinations; the feelings of love, of social concord, of justice, have in them something so dear and prepossessing, those of disinterested effort, of self-sacrifice, something so sublime and ennobling, and the thousand relations which grow out of these feelings in domestic and social life contribute so largely to human happiness, that it is far less necessary to look for new incentives to virtuous action, than simply to secure for those already implanted in the soul a more free and unhindered operation. Should we however be disposed to go further, and endeavour to supply new and additional encouragements to a moral course of life, we should not forget, through a spirit of one-sidedness, to strike the balance between their useful and hurtful tendencies. After so much has been said of the pernicious results arising from restricted freedom of thought, it hardly seems necessary to enforce this caution by any circumstantial exposition, and I have, besides, already dwelt sufficiently, in the former part of this chapter, on the hurtfulness of all positive promotion of religiousness by the State. If those injurious consequences of restriction were confined merely to the results of the inquiries—if they occasioned nothing more than incompleteness or inexactness in our scientific knowledge, we might proceed, with some show of reason, to estimate the advantages which might perhaps be justly expected to flow from such a policy. But, as it is, the danger is far more serious. The importance of free inquiry extends to our whole manner of thinking, and even acting. He who is accustomed to judge of truth and error without regard to external relations, either as affecting himself or others, and to hear them so discussed, is able to realize principles of action more calmly and consistently, and with more exclusive reference to loftier points of view, than one whose reflections are constantly influenced by a variety of circumstances not essential to the subject under investigation. Inquiry, as well as conviction, the result to which it leads, is spontaneity; while belief is reliance on some foreign power, some external perfection, moral or intellectual. Hence it is that firmness and self-dependence are such striking characteristics of the thoughtful inquirer, while a corresponding weakness and inaction seem to mark the confiding believer. It is true, that where belief has stifled every form of doubt and gained the supreme mastery, it often creates a far more irresistible courage and extraordinary spirit of defiant endurance, as we see in the history of all enthusiasts; but this kind of energy is never desirable except when some definite external result is in question, which requires such a machine-like activity for its accomplishment; and it is wholly inapplicable in cases which imply individual decision, deliberate actions grounded on principles of reason, and, above all, internal perfection. Of this we shall be convinced when we remember, that the strength which supports such enthusiasm is wholly dependent on the suppression of all activity in the powers of reason. To continue: doubt is torture to the believer only, and not to him who follows the results of his own inquiries; for, to the latter, results are in general far less important. During the process of inquiry, he becomes conscious of his soul’s activity, its inherent strength; he feels that his perfection, his happiness, depend upon this strength; and instead of being oppressed by his doubts concerning the principles he conceived to be true, he congratulates himself that his increasing force of thought enables him to see clearly through errors that had till now remained hidden. The believer, on the contrary, is only interested in the result itself, for, the truth once perceived, there is nothing further to be sought for. The doubts which reason arouses afflict and depress him, for they are no longer, as in the case of one who thinks for himself, new means for arriving at the truth; they only serve to rob him of certainty without revealing any other method of recovering it. If we were to follow out these suggestive considerations, we should be led to observe that it is in general wrong to attribute so much importance to single inferences or results, and to suppose that either so many other truths, or so many useful consequences, internal and external, are necessarily dependent on their implicit acceptance. It is from such a fatal misconception that the course of inquiry so often comes to a stand-still, and that the most free and enlightened conclusions seem to react against the very basis on which alone they have arisen. Hence it is that freedom of thought assumes such vital importance, and anything that tends to limit or repress its natural exercise is so fatally injurious.

Again, if we regard the question in another aspect, the State has no want of means for enforcing the authority of its laws, and preventing the commission of crime. Let the governing power do its best to close up such sources of immoral actions as are to be found in the State constitution itself; let it quicken the vigilant activity of the police with regard to crimes actually perpetrated; let it attend to the judicious infliction of punishment, and the desired end will be effectually secured. It cannot surely be forgotten, that freedom of thought, and the enlightenment which never flourishes but beneath its shelter, are the most efficient of all means for promoting security. While all other methods are confined to the mere suppression of actual outbreaks, free inquiry acts immediately on the very dispositions and sentiments; and while those only serve to maintain due order and propriety in external actions, this creates an internal harmony between the will and the endeavour. When shall we learn, moreover, to set less value on the mere visible results of actions, than on the temper and disposition of soul from which they flow? When will one arise to accomplish for legislation what Rousseau gained for education, and draw our attention from mere external, physical results, to the internal life and development of the soul?

In estimating the advantages arising from increased freedom of thought and the consequent wide diffusion of enlightenment, we should moreover especially guard against presuming that they would be confined to a small proportion of the people only;—that to the majority, whose energies are exhausted by cares for the physical necessaries of life, such opportunities would be useless or even positively hurtful, and that the only way to influence the masses is to promulgate some definite points of belief—to restrict the freedom of thought. There is something degrading to human nature in the idea of refusing to any man, the right to be a man. There are none so hopelessly low on the scale of culture and refinement as to be incapable of rising higher; and even though the more pure and lofty views of philosophy and religion could not at once be entertained by a large portion of the community—though it should be necessary to array truth in some different garb before it could find admission to their convictions—should we have to appeal rather to their feeling and imagination than to the cold decision of reason, still, the diffusiveness imparted to all scientific knowledge by freedom and enlightenment spreads gradually downward even to them; and the happy results of perfect liberty of thought on the mind and character of the entire nation, extend their influence even to its humblest individuals.

In order to give a more general character to this reasoning (mainly directed, as it is, to political solicitude for the propagation of certain religious doctrines), I have yet to adduce the principle before established, that all influence of religion on morality depends especially, if not entirely, on the form in which the religious sentiment exists in the individual man, and not on the peculiar tenour of the doctrines which make it sacred in his eyes. Now, all State institutions, as I also before maintained, act solely on the substance of the doctrines in a greater or less degree; whilst as regards the form of their acceptance by the individual, the channels of influence are wholly closed to any political agency. The way in which religion springs up in the human heart, and the way in which it is received in each case, depend entirely on the whole manner of the man’s existence—the whole system of his thoughts and sensations. But, if the State were able to remodel these according to its views (a possibility which we can hardly conceive), I must have been very unfortunate in the exposition of my principles if it were necessary to re-establish the conclusion which meets this remote possibility, viz., that the State may not make man an instrument to subserve its arbitrary designs, and induce him to neglect for these his proper individual ends. And that there is no absolute necessity, such as would perhaps alone justify an exception in this instance, is apparent from that perfect independence of morality on religion which I have already sought to establish, but which will receive a stronger confirmation when I show that the preservation of a State’s internal security, does not at all require that a proper and distinct direction should be given to the national morals in general. Now, if there is one thing more calculated than another to prepare a fertile soil for religion in the minds of the citizens,—if there is anything to cause that religion which has been infused into the system of thought and sensation to react beneficially on morality, it is freedom, which always (even though it be in the slightest degree) suffers from the exercise of a positive solicitude on the part of the State. For the greater the diversity and characteristic peculiarity of man’s development, and the more sublime his feeling, the more easily does he recall his gaze from the narrow, changing circle that surrounds him, and turn to that whose infinity and unity include the reason of those limits and the method of that change,—whether he may hope to realize such a conception of Divinity or not. The greater a man’s freedom, the more does he become dependent on himself, and well-disposed towards others. Now, nothing leads us so directly to Deity as benevolent love; and nothing renders the absence of a living belief in God so harmless as self-reliant power—self-sufficing and self-contained. Finally, the higher the feeling of power in man, and the more free and unimpeded its manifestation, the more willingly does he seek to discover some internal bond to lead and direct him; and thus he remains attached to morality, whether this bond is to him a feeling of reverence and love for the Divinity, or the earnest and recompense of his own self-consciousness.

The difference, then, appears to me to be this:—the citizen who is wholly left to himself in matters of religion will, or will not, interweave religious feelings with his inner life, according to his individual character; but, in either case, his system of ideas will be more coherent, and his impressions deeper; there will be more perfect oneness in his being, and so he will be more uniformly disposed to morality and obedience to the laws. On the other hand, he who is fettered by various restrictive institutions will, despite of these, entertain different religious ideas or not, subject to the same modifying influences; but, in either case, he will possess less sequence of ideas, less depth and sincerity of feeling, less harmony and oneness of being, and so will have less regard for morality, and wish more frequently to evade the operation of the laws.

Hence, then, without adducing any further reasons, I may safely proceed to lay down the principle, by no means a novel one, that all which concerns religion lies beyond the sphere of the State’s activity; and that the choice of ministers, as well as all that relates to religious worship in general, should be left to the free judgment of the communities, without any special supervision on the part of the State.



[1] Humboldt appears to refer to the Essay “Ueber das Dasein Gottes,” in Garve’s ‘Versuche über verschiedene Gegenstände aus der Moral, der Literatur, und dem gesellschaftlichen Leben.’ (Breslau, 1792–1800. 5 vols. 8vo.)

[2] “Hast du nicht alles selbst vollendet,
       Heilig, glühend Herz?”
      —Goethe, Prometheus, II. 63.

 Writings of Wilhelm Von Humboldt

 Classical Liberals