Wilhelm von Humboldt

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Like his more illustrious younger brother Alexander von Humboldt, who distinguished himself as scientist and explorer, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) was a brilliant man of wide-ranging interests, including political philosophy, history, education, aesthetics, and linguistics. Paul Robinson Sweet’s careful and competent biography traces the development of this major figure of German intellectual history from his youth to the end of his term as Prussian emissary to the Vatican in 1808. From 1809 until 1819 Humboldt was to serve the Prussian state as envoy to the Congress of Vienna, founder of the University of Berlin, and Minister of Education. He was dismissed from state service in 1819—a year that signaled the victory of reaction in Prussia—but continued to develop his theories of history and language until his death in 1835. The year 1808 provides a reasonable breaking point for the first volume of Sweet’s biography.

This new study of Humboldt is thorough and well-balanced. It is primarily descriptive rather than critical. Some critical analyses of Humboldt’s ideas that are presented in secondary works are summarized in the long body of notes at the end of each chapter; they are not woven into the text itself. Sweet’s primary concern seems to be a combination of understanding Humboldt the man and explicating his ideas.

Wilhelm von Humboldt was a prolific writer of seventeen volumes of treatises and letters that ranged over many areas of the humanities; he was also a statesman for many years. Sweet compares his importance for the Germans with that of Thomas Jefferson for the Americans. This observation is not entirely accurate: Jefferson was a key founder of the American nation who as President helped guide the country through its formative period. Though Humboldt as scholar-statesman helped to liberalize the Prussian monarchy and influenced German thinking about education and the state, he remained the obedient servant of the monarchy. Moreover, he was not entirely typical of the German climate of ideas of the time. Georg Wilhelm Hegel and Johann Gottlieb Fichte proved to be even more influential than Humboldt on German politics and thought.

Humboldt was the product of a family that had served in the Prussian bureaucracy. Sweet raises the interesting point that the early death of Humboldt’s father and his loneliness as a youth helped lead Wilhelm to value stoic self-possession and seek self-perfection. His friendship with his brother encouraged a wide variety of interests. Humboldt was educated by tutors who were steeped in the progressive ideas of the Enlightenment. These views included religious toleration, intellectual freedom, and the cultural ideals of Ancient Greece. Wilhelm studied at the renowned University of Goettingen, which pioneered new methods in the study of history and philology.

By 1789 Humboldt had arrived at his most important idea, which was to be the cornerstone of his moral and cultural interpretation of man and the state. This was the notion of Bildung (individual self-cultivation toward perfection). The idea that all civilized humanity must aim for the self-perfection of the inner man had deep roots in German life and was ultimately rooted in Martin Luther’s emphasis on the integrity of the soul. Sweet is right to remark that Bildung could be a secular substitute for the older religious ideal of salvation. Gottfried von Leibnitz, the father of the German Enlightenment, had viewed the perfection of the individual (sometimes called the “monad”) as the true goal of the Enlightenment. Immanuel Kant, the founder of philosophical Idealism, had seen the development of the inner creative powers and moral ideas of the individual as the way to transcend the animal in man. It is no coincidence that Humboldt befriended the great dramatist Friedrich Schiller in the 1790’s. Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1798) had stressed the importance of self-cultivation in the arts and letters as the highest ideal of humanity (Humanitätsideal).

Humboldt was primarily a synthesizer. What was particularly significant about his achievement was his application of the goal of Bildung to the function of the state in the 1790’s and, later on, to education. Like most of his gifted contemporaries, he was greatly impressed by the tremendous changes wrought by the French Revolution. Like many Germans of his time, he first viewed the revolution as an important step in the direction of human liberty, but rejected the abstract goal of equality as dangerous to civilization. In the manner of the English conservative, Edmund Burke, Humboldt argued: “No nation is ever mature enough for a constitution which has been systematically drafted merely in accordance with rational principles.” Humboldt’s most important writing on the state was his Ideas on an Attempt To Define the Limits of the State’s Sphere of Action (1791). Sweet provides a detailed analysis of this work and even provides an appendix dealing with the immediate reception of this treatise and its influence on the nineteenth century. This work is usually considered a classic work on German liberalism that ranks with the writings of John Locke and John Stuart Mill. As a liberal, Humboldt did not view the state as an end in itself (as did Georg Wilhelm Hegel), but believed that the state exists to protect the freedom of the individual and should neither interfere in the private lives of individuals nor presume to regulate...

(The entire section is 2260 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Times Literary Supplement. October 20, 1978, p. 1190.