Described by Lord Acton as the “most central figure in Germany,” Wilhelm von Humboldt began his public career in 1802 as the Prussian envoy to the papal court. He returned to Berlin in 1808 to accept his appointment as the Minister of Public Instruction. In this position, he became the architect of the Prussian educational system and the founder of the University of Berlin; he served in a variety of other governmental offices until his retirement from public service in 1819.
While Humboldt's public career was distinguished, he made his greatest impact through his varied contributions to political philosophy, history, literature, and linguistics. (For example, his political ideas anticipated and were drawn upon by John Stuart Mill in his On Liberty.) Humboldt's expansive humanism is evident in the high value he placed on personal development in the free society.
In his Limits of State Action, Humboldt described his concept of the human person as a social animal striving for cultivation and improvement in the context and with the support of society. Humboldt, therefore, was opposed to large states, believing they impeded the full development of citizens. In his words, “Reason cannot desire for man any condition other than that in which not only every individual enjoys the most absolute, unbounded freedom to develop himself out of himself, in true individuality, but in which physical nature, as well, need receive no other shaping by human hands than that which is given to her voluntarily by each individual, according to the measure of his wants and his inclinations, restricted only by the limits of his energy and his rights.”
In addition to this emphasis on the individuality of the human person, Humboldt maintained the person's necessary rootedness in society and community. This dual emphasis, according to one scholar, is Humboldt's unique contribution. Rather than seeing “the individual as essentially the proprietor of his own person and capacities, owing nothing for them,” in which “the individual was seen neither as a moral whole, nor as part of a larger social whole, but as an owner of himself,” Humboldt manifested an “Aristotelian sense of the ways in which human beings enrich each other's lives in society, together with a quite non-Aristotelian sense that one can neither predict nor set limits to human moral and cultural experimentation.”
Sources: The Limits of State Action by Wilhelm von Humboldt (Liberty Fund, 1993) and European Liberalism edited by Massimo Salvadori (John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1972).
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