The Limits of State Action

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1792)

Translated by Joseph Coulthard (1854)


Amelioration of Morals

The last means which States are wont to employ, in order to reform the moral condition of the nation correspondently with their design of maintaining security, is the influence of special laws and enactments. But as these cannot be made to induce any direct disposition towards virtue and morality, it manifestly follows that special provisions of this nature can do nothing more than prohibit particular actions of the citizens, or mark out those which, without directly infringing on the rights of others, are either positively immoral or are likely to lead to immorality.

To this class of institutions all sumptuary laws especially belong. For, it is evident, there is no such common and fruitful source of immoral, and even lawless actions, as an excessive propensity of the soul towards the sensual, or the disproportion subsisting between desires and impulses in general, and the powers of satisfaction which the external position affords. When there exists a general spirit of continence and moderation, which serves to reconcile men to their allotted sphere, they are not so strongly impelled to transgress its limits to the infraction of another’s rights, or, at least, to do anything likely to disturb their own happiness and contentment.

Hence it would seem to be strictly consistent with the true end of the State, to confine sensualism within due bounds, since it is the essential source from which all collisions between man and man proceed (for that in which the spiritual prevails can always, and in all cases, subsist in harmony); and further, because it would appear the simplest and easiest method of effecting that object, it might be argued that the State should endeavour, as far as possible, to suppress sensualism altogether.

Still, to adhere faithfully to the principle which has hitherto guided us in this investigation—viz. first of all to regard any proposed means of State agency in the light of man’s true and unmistakable interests,—it becomes us to inquire into the influence of sensualism on human life, development, activity, and happiness, so far as concerns our present purpose; and while such an investigation will naturally lead us to portray the innermost nature of the acting and enjoying man, it will serve at the same time to illustrate more graphically the hurtful or beneficial consequences which flow in general from restrictions imposed on freedom. It is only after such a radical inquiry that we can be in a position to decide as to the State’s competence to act positively on morals, and so arrive at the solution of this part of the general question we have proposed.

The impressions, inclinations, and passions which have their immediate source in the senses, are those which first and most violently manifest themselves in human nature. Wherever, before the refining influences of culture have imparted a new direction to the soul’s energies, these impressions, etc., do not show themselves, all seeds of power have perished, and nothing either good or great can take root and flourish. They constitute the great original source of all spontaneous activity, and first inspire a glowing, genial warmth in human nature. They infuse life and elastic vigour into the soul: when unsatisfied, they render it active, buoyant, ingenious in the invention of schemes, and courageous in their execution; when satisfied, they promote an easy and unhindered play of ideas. In general, they animate and quicken all conceptions with a greater and more varied activity, suggest new views, point out hitherto unnoticed aspects, and, according to the manner in which they are satisfied, intimately react on the physical organization, which in its turn acts upon the soul, although we only notice how from the results.

The influence, however, of these impressions and inclinations differs, not only in its intensity, but in the manner of its operation. This is, to a certain extent, owing to their strength or weakness; but it is also partly to be attributed to their degree of affinity with the spiritual element in human nature, or from the difficulty or facility of raising them from mere animal gratifications to human pleasures. Thus, for instance, the eye imparts to the substance of its impressions that outline of form which is so full of enjoyment and fertile in ideas; while the ear lends to sound the proportionate succession of tones in the order of time. The nature of these impressions readily suggests many interesting reflections, if this were the proper place for such a topic, but I will only pause to notice their different importance as regards the culture of the soul.

The eye supplies the reason, so to speak, with a more prepared substance; and the inner part of our nature, with its own form and that of other things which stand in a relation to it, is thus presented to us in a single and distinct situation. If we conceive of the ear merely as an organ of sense, and in so far as it does not receive and communicate words, it conveys far less distinctness of impression. And it is for this reason that Kant assigns the preference to the plastic arts when compared with music. But he observes that the culture secured to the soul by the several arts, (and I would add, directly secured,) is presupposed as a scale for determining this preference.

The question, however, presents itself whether this scale of previous culture is the just standard of appreciation. Energy appears to me to be the first and chiefest of human virtues. Whatever exalts our energy is of greater worth than aught that merely puts materials into our hands for its exercise. Now, as it is characteristic of man’s nature to perceive only one thing at once, that will most affect it which represents only one object at one time; and as, in a series of successive sensations, each possesses a certain degree which is produced by all the preceding sensations, and acts upon all those which follow it, that series will have the greatest effect in which the single parts consist together in a perfectly similar relation. Now all this is true of music. The exact sequence of time, moreover, is its peculiar and essential property; this is all that is decided in it. The series which it presents but feebly impels us to any definite sensation. It gives us a theme, to which we can supply infinite texts; and that which the hearer really interweaves with this basis, in so far as he is, in general, congenially disposed, springs up freely and naturally from the very fulness of his soul; and the latter more readily and eagerly embraces it than anything else that is actually supplied or intruded on our sensations, which often engrosses us more from its being perceived rather than felt. As it does not belong to me to examine the nature and properties of music, I will not stay to observe its other striking characteristics, such as that it evokes tones from natural objects, and therein keeps closer to nature than painting, sculpture, or poetry. I only wished, in introducing it, to illustrate more clearly the different character of sensuous impressions.

But the manner of influence just described, is not peculiar to music alone. Kant[1] observes it to be possible with a union of shifting colours, and it characterizes still more remarkably the impressions we receive from the sense of touch. Even in taste it is unmistakable. In taste, also, there are different gradations of satisfaction, which, as it were, long to be resolved, and disappear, after the solution, in a series of diminishing vibrations. This influence may be least noticeable, perhaps, in the sense of smell. Now, as in the sensitive man it is the progress of sensation, its degree, its ranging increase and decrease, its pure and perfect harmony, which chiefly engage us, and indeed are more really attractive than the substance itself (forgetting, as we do, that the nature of the substance mainly determines the degree, and still more, the harmony of the progression); and further, as the sensitive man, like the image of spring teeming with blossoms, is the spectacle which is above all others the most fascinating; so also, in the fine arts, it is this image of his sensations which man especially strives to discover. And thus it is that painting and sculpture appropriate it to themselves. The eye of Guido Reni’s Madonna is not confined in its expression to the limits of a single, fleeting glance. The tense and straining muscles of the Borghisian Gladiator foretell the blow he is about to deal. In a still higher degree does poetry employ this image. And, to make my idea clearer, without wishing to direct especial attention to the comparative excellence of the fine arts, I would observe that they exercise their influence in two ways, and while these are shared by each, we find them combined in very different manner. They immediately convey ideas, or they excite sensations, thus attuning the soul to an internal harmony, and enriching and exalting its powers. Now, in proportion as one of these sources of influence borrows aid from the other, it weakens the force of its own peculiar impression. Poetry unites both in the highest degree, and it is therefore, in this respect, the most perfect of all the fine arts; but when we regard it in another light, it is also the most weak and imperfect. While it represents its objects less vividly than painting and sculpture, it does not address itself so impressively to sensation as song and music. But, not to speak of that many-sidedness which so especially characterizes poetry, we are ready to overlook this imperfection when we perceive that it is nearest to the true internal nature of man, since it clothes not only thought, but sensation, with the most delicate veil.

But to continue, the energizing sensuous impressions (for I only refer to the arts by way of illustrating these) act in different ways; this is partly owing to the fact that their progression is more rhythmically proportional, and partly that the elements of the impressions themselves, or their substance, as it were, more violently affects the soul. Thus it is that the human voice, of equal melodiousness and quality, affects us more powerfully than a lifeless instrument. For nothing is ever so near to us as the personal, physical feeling; and where this feeling is itself called into play, the effect produced is the greatest. But here, as always, the disproportionate power of the substance suppresses, as it were, the delicacy of the form; and there must always exist a just relation between these. Wherever there is such a misproportion, the proper equilibrium can be restored by increasing the power of the weaker, or diminishing that of the stronger element. But it is always wrong to effect anything by weakening or diminution, unless the power reduced be not natural, but artificial; only when this is the case should any limitation be imposed. It is better that it should destroy itself than slowly die away. But I may not dwell longer on this subject. I hope to have sufficiently elucidated my idea, although I would fain avow the embarrassment under which I necessarily labour in this inquiry; for, as the interesting nature of the subject, and the impossibility of borrowing from other writers just those results which were necessary (as I know of none who proceed exactly from the same point of view), invited me, on the one hand, to expatiate at somewhat greater length; on the other, the reflection that these considerations do not strictly belong to this subject, but are only subordinate lemmas, served to recall me within my appropriate limits. I have only to request that such a difficulty be not forgotten, in regard to my subsequent observations.

Although it is impossible to abstract the subject completely, I have endeavoured hitherto to confine my remarks to sensuous impressions only as such. But the sensual and spiritual are linked together by a mysterious bond, of which our hearts are distinctly conscious, though it remains hidden from our eyes. To this double nature of the visible and invisible world—to the deep-implanted longing for the latter, coupled with the feeling of the sweet necessity of the former, we owe all sound and logical systems of philosophy, truly based on the immutable principles of our nature, just as to the same source we are able to trace the most visionary and incoherent reveries. A constant endeavour to unite these two elements, so that each may rob as little as possible from the other, has always seemed to me the true end of wisdom. This æsthetic feeling, in virtue of which the sensuous is to us a veil of the spiritual, and the spiritual the living principle of the world of sense, is everywhere unmistakable. The continual contemplation of this “physiognomy” of nature forms the true man. For nothing exercises such a vast influence on the whole character, as the expression of the spiritual in the sensuous,—of the sublime, the simple, the beautiful in all the works of nature and products of art which surround us. Here, too, we find the difference manifested between the energizing and other sensuous impressions. If the ultimate object of all our mortal striving is solely to discover, nourish, and re-create what truly exists in ourselves and others, although in its original for ever invisible,—if it is the intuitive anticipation of this which so endears and consecrates each of its symbols in our eyes, then the nearer do we approach to this original essence in contemplating the image of its restlessly-impellent energy. We commune with it in a language which is indeed difficult, and often misinterpreted, but which often startles us with the surest gleams and premonitions of truth, whilst the form and image of that energy are still more remote from that truth which we thus guess at.

This is the peculiar soil, moreover, on which the beautiful springs up and flourishes, and still more especially the sublime, which brings us yet nearer to Deity. The necessity for some purer satisfaction, far removed in its objects from all preconceived design and without conception, points out to man his descent from the invisible; and the feeling of his utter inadequateness to the surpassing fulness of the object, blends together, in a union at once the most human and divine, infinite greatness with the most devoted humility. Were it not for his feeling for the beautiful, man would cease to love things for their own sake; were it not for the sublime, he would lose that sense of dutiful submission which disdains every recompense, and ignores unworthy fear. The study of the beautiful bestows taste; that of the sublime (if it also may be studied, and the feeling and representation of it is not the fruit of genius) brings justly-balanced greatness. But taste alone, which must always repose on greatness as its basis (since it is only the great which requires measure, and only the powerful, composure), blends all the tones of a perfectly-adjusted being into exquisite harmony. It induces in all our impressions, even those which are purely spiritual, something so concordant, so composed, so concentrated into one focal point. Where taste is wanting, sensual desire is rude and unrestrained; and although without it, scientific inquiries may be both acute and profound, there is no refinement, no polish, nothing fruitful in their application. In general, where there is no taste, the greatest depth of thought and the noblest treasures of wisdom are barren and lifeless, and even the sublime strength of the moral will is shorn of all its graceful and genial blessing.

To inquire and to create;—these are the grand centres around which all human pursuits revolve, or at least to these objects do they all more or less directly refer. Before inquiry can fathom the very essence of things, or penetrate to the limits of reason, it presupposes, in addition to profundity, a rich diversity and genial warmth of soul—the harmonious exertion of all the human faculties combined. It is the analytical philosopher alone, perhaps, who is able to arrive at his results through the calm, but cold processes of reason. But real depth of thought and a mind which has found means to cultivate all its powers to an equal degree of perfection, are essentially necessary to discover the link which unites synthetical principles. Thus Kant, who, it may be truly said, was never surpassed in profoundness, will often be charged with a kind of dreamy enthusiasm when treating of morals or æsthetics, and has indeed been so accused; but while I am willing to confess that there are passages (as, for example, his interpretation of the prismatic colours[2]) which, though rare, appear to indicate something of this nature, I am only led to deplore my own want of intellectual depth. To follow these ideas out, would naturally lead us to that difficult but interesting inquiry into the essential difference between the metaphysician and the poet. And if a thorough re-investigation of this were not to reverse, perhaps, my previous conclusions, I would limit my definition of the difference to this, that the philosopher concerns himself with perceptions alone, and the poet, on the contrary, with sensations; while both require the same measure and cultivation of mental power. But to establish this would lead me too far astray from my immediate subject, and I trust to have shown already, by my previous arguments, that, even to form the calmest thinker, the pleasures of sense and fancy must have often played around the soul. But to pass from transcendental to psychological inquiries (where man as he appears is the object of our studies), would not he explore most deeply the genus which is richest in forms, and represent it most truly and vividly, to whose own sensations the fewest of these forms are strange?

Hence it is that the man who is thus developed displays the full beauty of his character when he enters into practical life—when, externally and internally, he enriches with a thousand new creations that which he has received. The analogy between the laws of plastic nature and those of intellectual creation, has been already noticed by a mind[3] of singular power of penetration, and established by striking proofs. But perhaps his exposition would have been still more interesting, and psychology enriched with the results of a more extended knowledge, if, instead of inquiring into the inscrutable development of the germ, the process of intellectual creation had been shown to be, as it were, the more exquisite flower and ethereal beauty of the corporeal.

To extend our remarks:—with respect to the moral life, to that which seems to be the especial province of cold, abstract reason, we would observe that the idea of the sublime alone enables us to obey absolute and unconditional laws, at once humanly, through the medium of feeling, and divinely and disinterestedly, through the utter absence of all ulterior reference to happiness or misfortune. The feeling of the insufficiency of human strength to the full performance of the moral law, the profound consciousness that the most virtuous is he only who feels most inly how unattainably high the law is exalted above him, tend to inspire awe—a sensation which seems to be no more shrouded in a corporeal veil than is necessary not to dazzle our eyes by the full and immediate splendour. Now, when the moral law obliges us to regard every man as an end to himself, it becomes blended with that feeling for the beautiful which loves to animate the merest clay, that even in it, it may rejoice in an individual existence, and which receives and enfolds man all the more completely and lovingly in that it is independent of conception, and is not therefore limited to the few characteristics, which, though separate and single, are yet all that conception can embrace.

The union with the feeling for the beautiful seems as if it would impair the purity of the moral will, and it might, and indeed would, have this effect, if this feeling itself were to become the sole motive to morality. But it will only claim the duty of discovering those more varied applications of the moral law which would otherwise escape the cold, and hence in such cases, ruder processes of reason; and since we are not forbidden to receive happiness in such intimate union with virtue, but only to barter virtue for this happiness, it will also enjoy the privilege of bestowing on human nature its sweetest and dearest feelings. In general, the more I reflect on this subject, the less does this difference to which I refer appear to be either subtle or fanciful. However eagerly man may strive to grasp at enjoyment—however he may try to represent to himself a constant union subsisting between happiness and virtue, even under the most unfavourable circumstances, his soul still remains alive to the grandeur of the moral law. He cannot screen himself from the influence and authority of this imposing grandeur over his actions, and it is only from being penetrated with a sense of it, that he acts without reference to enjoyment; for he never loses the consciousness that no misfortune whatever would compel him to adopt another behaviour.

It is, however, true that the soul only acquires this strength in a way similar to that we before described—only by a mighty internal pressure, and a manifold external struggle. But strength properly branches out, like its substance, from man’s sensuous nature; and however seemingly remote, still reposes on that as its central stem. Now he who ceaselessly strives to exalt his faculties, and to infuse into them new youth and vigour by frequent enjoyment; who often calls in his strength of character to aid him in asserting his independence of sensualism, while he endeavours to combine this independence with the most exquisite susceptibility; whose deep unerring sense unweariedly searches after the truth; whose just and delicate feeling for the beautiful leaves no attractive form unnoticed; whose impulse to receive into himself his external perceptions, and to impregnate them with new issues—to transform all shapes of beauty into his own individuality, and fuse into each his entire being,—strives to generate new forms of beauty;—such a one may cherish the consoling consciousness that he is in the true path to approach that ideal which even the boldest flight of fancy has ventured to point out to human aspirations.

I have in this brief sketch endeavoured to show how intimately sensualism, with all its beneficial consequences, is interwoven with the whole tissue of human life and pursuits. Although such a topic is in itself somewhat foreign to a political essay, it was appropriate and even necessary in the order of ideas adopted in this inquiry; and in these remarks on sensualism, I designed to advocate the justice of extending an ampler degree of freedom towards its manifestations, and of regarding its important influences with greater respect. Still, I would not blind myself to the fact that sensualism is also the immediate source of innumerable physical and moral evils. Even morally speaking, it is only beneficial in its operation when it subsists in a just relationship with the exercise of the mental faculties; it acquires a hurtful preponderance with a dangerous facility. When once the equilibrium is destroyed, human pleasure becomes degraded to mere animal gratification, and taste disappears, or becomes distorted into unnatural directions. At the same time, I would make the reservation with regard to this last expression, and chiefly with reference to certain one-sided opinions, that we are not to condemn anything as unnatural which does not exactly fulfil this or that purpose of nature, but only whatever frustrates its general ultimate design with regard to man. Now this is, that his nature should always be developing itself to higher degrees of perfection, and hence, especially, that his thinking and susceptive powers should always be indissolubly united in just and proportionate degrees of strength. But again, a misrelation may arise between the process and order in which a man developes and manifests his powers, and the means of action and enjoyment afforded by his peculiar position; and this misrelation is a fresh source of evil. Now, according to our former principles, the State may not attempt to act upon the citizen’s peculiar condition with any reference to positive ends. Under such a negative policy, therefore, this condition of the citizen would not acquire so definite and constrained a form, and its greater freedom (coupled with the fact that it would be chiefly influenced and directed in that freedom by the citizen’s own ways of thinking and acting) would already operate to lessen and remove that misrelation. Still, the fact that, even under such a supposition, the original danger would remain—a danger which is far from being unimportant or imaginary—might suggest the necessity of checking and opposing the corruption of morals by laws and State institutions.

But even granting that such laws and institutions were effectual, their hurtfulness would keep pace with their activity. A State, in which the citizens were compelled or actuated by such means to obey even the best of laws, might be a tranquil, peaceable, prosperous State; but it would always seem to me a multitude of well cared-for slaves, rather than a nation of free and independent men, with no restraint save such as was required to prevent any infringements on right. There are, doubtless, many methods of producing given actions and sentiments only; but none of these lead to true moral perfection. Sensual impulses, urging to the commission of certain actions, or the continuing necessity of refraining from these, gradually come to engender a habit; through the force of habit the satisfaction which was at first connected with these impulses alone, is transferred to the action itself; the inclination, which at first only slumbered under the pressure of necessity, becomes wholly stifled; and thus man may be led to keep his actions within the limits of virtue, and to a certain extent to entertain virtuous sentiments. But neither is his spiritual energy exalted by such a process, nor his views of his destination and his own worth made clearer, nor does his will gain greater power to conquer the dictates of his rebellious desires; and hence, he does not advance a single step towards true, actual perfection. They, therefore, who would pursue the task of developing man without any reference to external ends will never make use of such inadequate means. For, setting aside the fact that coercion and guidance can never succeed in producing virtue, they manifestly tend to weaken power; and what are tranquil order and outward morality without true moral strength and virtue? Moreover, however great an evil immorality may be, we must not forget that it is not without its beneficial consequences. It is only through extremes that men can arrive at the middle path of wisdom and virtue. Extremes, like large masses shining afar off, must operate at a distance. In order that blood be supplied to the most delicate ramifications of the arteries, there must be copious sources in the larger vessels. To wish to disturb the order of nature in these respects, is to acquiesce in a moral, in order to prevent a physical evil.

Moreover, I think we err in supposing that the danger of immorality is either so great or so urgent; and while much that I have said tends more or less to establish this, the following conclusions may serve to give it additional confirmation:—

I have now sufficiently shown, according to my views, how questionable is every effort of the State to oppose or even to prevent any dissoluteness of morals (in so far as it does not imply injury to individual rights); how few are the beneficial results to be expected from such attempts, as regards morality; and how the exercise of such an influence on the character of a nation, is not even necessary for the preservation of security.

If now, in addition to this, we bring forward the principles before unfolded, which disapprove of all State agency directed to positive aims, and which apply here with especial force, since it is precisely the moral man who feels every restriction most deeply; reflecting, further, that if there is one aspect of development more than any other which owes its highest beauty to freedom, this is precisely the culture of character and morals; then the justice of the following principle will be sufficiently manifest, viz. that the State must wholly refrain from every attempt to operate directly or indirectly on the morals and character of the nation, otherwise than as such a policy may become inevitable as a natural consequence of its other absolutely necessary measures; and that everything calculated to promote such a design, and particularly all special supervision of education, religion, sumptuary laws, etc., lies wholly outside the limits of its legitimate activity.



[1] Kritik der Urtheilskraft, p. 211 ff.

[2] 2nd Edit. (Berlin, 1793) p. 172. Kant calls the modifications of light in colour a language which nature addresses to us, and which seems to have some deeper significance. “Thus the spotless whiteness of the lily seems to dispose the heart to ideas of innocence, and the other colours in their order from red to violet:—1. To the idea of sublimity; 2. Of courage; 3. Of sincerity; 4. Of kindliness; 5. Of humility; 6. Of firmness; 7. Of tenderness.”

[3] F. v. Dalberg: vom Bilden und Erfinden.

 Writings of Wilhelm Von Humboldt

 Classical Liberals