Wilhelm von Humboldt

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If we glance at the most important revolutions in history, we are at no loss to perceive that the greatest number of these originated in the periodical revolutions of the human mind.

Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand Freiherr von Humboldt (22 June 17678 April 1835) was a government functionary, diplomat, philosopher, founder of Humboldt Universität in Berlin, a friend of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, and elder brother of naturalist Alexander von Humboldt who is especially remembered as a linguist who made important contributions to the philosophy of language and to the theory and practice of education.

Sourced[edit]

That government is best which makes itself unnecessary.
Man cannot approach this purely objective realm other than through his cognitive and sensory powers, that is, in a subjective manner.
I am more and more convinced that our happiness or our unhappiness depends far more on the way we meet the events of life than on the nature of those events themselves.
Coercion may prevent many transgressions; but it robs even actions which are legal of a portion of their beauty. Freedom may lead to many transgressions, but it lends even to vices a less ignoble form.
The incapacity for freedom can only arise from a want of moral and intellectual power; to elevate this power is the only way to counteract this want; but to do this presupposes the exercise of that power, and this exercise presupposes the freedom which awakens spontaneous activity.
Owing to the vigorous and elastic strength of man’s original power, necessity does not often require anything save the removal of oppressive bonds.
  • Diejenige Regierung ist die beste, die sich überflüssing macht.
    • That government is best which makes itself unnecessary.
      • As quoted in Dictionary of Quotations from Ancient and Modern English and Foreign Sources (1899) by James Wood
  • True enjoyment comes from activity of the mind and exercise of the body; the two are ever united.
    • As quoted in A Dictionary of Thoughts : Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors of the World, both Ancient and Modern (1908) edited by Tryon Edwards
  • Durch die gegenseitige Abhängigkeit des Gedankens, und des Wortes von einander leuchtet es klar ein, daß die Sprachen nicht eigentlich Mittel sind, die schonerkannte Welt darzustellen, sondern weit mehr, die vorher unerkannte zu entdecken. Ihre Verschiedenheit ist nicht eine von Schällen und Zeichen, sondern eine Verschiedenheit der Weltansichten selbst. Hierin ist der Grund, und der letzte Zweck aller Sprachuntersuchung enthalten. Die Summe des Erkennbaren liegt, als das von dem menschlichen Geiste zu bearbeitende Feld, zwischen allen Sprachen, und unabhängig von ihnen, in der Mitte; der Mensch kann sich diesem rein objectiven Gebiet nicht anders, als nach seiner Erkennungs- und Empfindungsweise, also auf einem subjectiven Wege, nähern.
    • The interdependence of word and idea shows clearly that languages are not actually means of representing a truth already known, but rather of discovering the previously unknown. Their diversity is not one of sounds and signs, but a diversity of world perspectives [Weltansichten]. … The sum of the knowable, as the field to be tilled by the human mind, lies among all languages, independent of them, in the middle. Man cannot approach this purely objective realm other than through his cognitive and sensory powers, that is, in a subjective manner.
      • As quoted in The Linguistic Relativity Principle and Humboldtian Ethnolinguistics : A History And Appraisal (1963) by Robert Lee Miller, and The Linguistic Turn in Hermeneutic Philosophy (2002) by Cristina Lafont
  • Governmental regulations all carry coercion to some degree, and even where they don't, they habituate man to expect teaching, guidance and help outside himself, instead of formulating his own.
    • As quoted in The Liberal Tradition in European Thought (1971) by David Sidorsky, p. 73
  • How a person masters his fate is more important than what his fate is.
    • As quoted in International Proverbs (2000) by Luzano Pancho Canlas, p. 40
  • I am more and more convinced that our happiness or our unhappiness depends far more on the way we meet the events of life than on the nature of those events themselves.
    • As quoted in Lightning Fast Enlightenment: A Journey to the Secrets of Happiness (2000) by Jordan S. Metzger, p. 9

The Limits of State Action (1792)[edit]

Quotations from the English edition titled: The Sphere and Duties of Government as translated by Joseph Coulthard (1854)
  • Freedom is but the possibility of a various and indefinite activity; while government, or the exercise of dominion, is a single, but yet real activity. The ardent desire for freedom, therefore, is at first only too frequently suggested by the deep-felt consciousness of its absence.
    • Ch. 1
  • The inquiry into the proper aims and limits of State agency must be of the highest importance—nay, that it is perhaps more vitally momentous than any other political question.
    • Ch. 1
  • The true end of Man, or that which is prescribed by the eternal and immutable dictates of reason, and not suggested by vague and transient desires, is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole.
  • 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.
    • Ch. 2
  • Wherever the citizen becomes indifferent to his fellows, so will the husband be to his wife, and the father of a family toward the members of his household.
    • Ch. 3
  • The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument hitherto unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity; but national education, since at least it presupposes the selection and appointment of some one instructor, must always promote a definite form of development, however careful to avoid such an error. And hence it is attended with all those disadvantages which we before observed to flow from such a positive policy; and it only remains to be added, that every restriction becomes more directly fatal, when it operates on the moral part of our nature,—that if there is one thing more than another which absolutely requires free activity on the part of the individual, it is precisely education, whose object it is to develop the individual.
    • Ch. 6
  • Only the actual conception of the divine nature changes 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 worshipped by our own earliest forefathers, were simply ideals of bodily strength and prowess. As the idea of sensuous beauty arose and gradually became refined, the sensuous personification of beauty was exalted to the throne of deity; and hence arose what we might call the religion of art. 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 object of their adoration, and religion became the province of philosophy.
    • Ch. 7
  • 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.
    • Ch. 8
  • 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.
    • Ch. 8
  • 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.
    • Ch. 8
  • 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.
    • Ch. 8
  • Man is naturally more disposed to beneficent than selfish actions. This we learn even from the history of savages. The domestic virtues have something in them so inviting and genial, and the public virtues of the citizen something so grand and inspiring, that even he who is barely uncorrupted, is seldom able to resist their charm.
    • Ch. 8
  • Freedom exalts power; and, as is always the collateral effect of increasing strength, tends to induce a spirit of liberality. Coercion stifles power, and engenders all selfish desires, and all the mean artifices of weakness. Coercion may prevent many transgressions; but it robs even actions which are legal of a portion of their beauty. Freedom may lead to many transgressions, but it lends even to vices a less ignoble form.
    • Ch. 8
  • All political arrangements, in that they have to bring a variety of widely-discordant interests into unity and harmony, necessarily occasion manifold collisions. From these collisions spring misproportions between men’s desires and their powers; and from these, transgressions. The more active the State is, the greater is the number of these.
    • Ch. 8
  • Every development of truths which relate to human nature, and more especially its active manifestations, is attended with a wish to see worked out in practice what theory has shown us to be just and good. To man, whose mind is seldom satisfied with the calmly beneficent influence of abstract ideas, this desire is perfectly natural, and it increases in liveliness with the spirit of benevolent sympathy in social happiness and well-being. But, however natural in itself, and however noble in its origin, this desire has not unfrequently led to hurtful consequences,—nay, often to greater evils than the colder indifference, or (as from the very opposite cause the same effect may follow) the glowing enthusiasm, which, comparatively heedless of reality, delights only in the pure beauty of ideas.
    • Ch. 16
  • In every remodelling of the present, the existing condition of things must be supplanted by a new one. Now every variety of circumstances in which men find themselves, every object which surrounds them, communicates a definite form and impress to their internal nature. This form is not such that it can change and adapt itself to any other a man may choose to receive; and the end is foiled, while the power is destroyed, when we attempt to impose upon that which is already stamped in the soul a form which disagrees with it.
    • Ch. 16
  • If we glance at the most important revolutions in history, we are at no loss to perceive that the greatest number of these originated in the periodical revolutions of the human mind.
    • Ch. 16
  • Now, without directly altering the existing condition of things, it is possible to work upon the human mind and character, and give them a direction no more correspondent with that condition; and this it is precisely which he who is wise will endeavour to do. Only in this way is it possible to reproduce the new system in reality, just as it has been conceived in idea; and in every other method (setting aside the evils which arise from disturbing the natural order of human development) it is changed, modified, disfigured by the remaining influence of preceding systems, in the actual state of circumstances as well as in the minds of men. But if this obstacle be removed,—if the new condition of things which is resolved upon can succeed in working out its full influence, unimpeded by what was previously existing and by the circumstances of the present on which this has acted,—then must nothing further be allowed to stand in the way of the contemplated reform.
    • Ch. 16
  • In order to bring about the transition from the condition of the present to another newly resolved on, every reform should be allowed to proceed as much as possible from men’s minds and thoughts.
    • Ch. 16
  • The incapacity for freedom can only arise from a want of moral and intellectual power; to elevate this power is the only way to counteract this want; but to do this presupposes the exercise of that power, and this exercise presupposes the freedom which awakens spontaneous activity. Only it is clear we cannot call it giving freedom, when fetters are unloosed which are not felt as such by him who wears them. But of no man on earth—however neglected by nature, and however degraded by circumstances—is this true of all the bonds which oppress and enthral him. Let us undo them one by one, as the feeling of freedom awakens in men’s hearts, and we shall hasten progress at every step. There may still be great difficulties in being able to recognize the symptoms of this awakening. But these do not lie in the theory so much as in its execution, which, it is evident, never admits of special rules, but in this case, as in every other, is the work of genius alone.
    • Ch. 16
  • The legislator should keep two things constantly before his eyes:—1. The pure theory developed to its minutest details; 2. The particular condition of actual things which he designs to reform.
    • Ch. 16
  • It is the principle of necessity towards which, as to their ultimate centre, all the ideas advanced in this essay immediately converge. In abstract theory the limits of this necessity are determined solely by considerations of man’s proper nature as a human being; but in the application we have to regard, in addition, the individuality of man as he actually exists. This principle of necessity should, I think, prescribe the grand fundamental rule to which every effort to act on human beings and their manifold relations should be invariably conformed. For it is the only thing which conducts to certain and unquestionable results. The consideration of the useful, which might be opposed to it, does not admit of any true and unswerving decision.
  • Owing to the vigorous and elastic strength of man’s original power, necessity does not often require anything save the removal of oppressive bonds. From all these reasons (to which a more detailed analysis of the subject might add many more) it will be seen, that there is no other principle than this so perfectly accordant with the reverence we owe to the individuality of spontaneous beings, and with the solicitude for freedom which that reverence inspires. Finally, the only infallible means of securing power and authority to laws, is to see that they originate in this principle alone.
  • To the yoke of necessity every one willingly bows the head. Still, wherever an actually complicated aspect of things presents itself, it is more difficult to discover exactly what is necessary; but by the very acknowledgment of the principle, the problem invariably becomes simpler and the solution easier.

Kosmos (1847)[edit]

Quotations of Wilhelm in Kosmos (1845 -1847), by his brother Alexander von Humboldt
If we would indicate an idea which, throughout the whole course of history, has ever more and more widely extended its empire, or which, more than any other, testifies to the much-contested and still more decidedly misunderstood perfectibility of the whole human race, it is that of establishing our common humanity — of striving to remove the barriers which prejudice and limited views of every kind have erected among men...
  • If we would indicate an idea which, throughout the whole course of history, has ever more and more widely extended its empire, or which, more than any other, testifies to the much-contested and still more decidedly misunderstood perfectibility of the whole human race, it is that of establishing our common humanity — of striving to remove the barriers which prejudice and limited views of every kind have erected among men, and to treat all mankind, without reference to religion, nation, or color, as one fraternity, one great community, fitted for the attainment of one object, the unrestrained development of the physical powers. This is the ultimate and highest aim of society, identical with the direction implanted by nature in the mind of man toward the indefinite extension of his existence. He regards the earth in all its limits, and the heavens as far as his eye can scan their bright and starry depths, as inwardly his own, given to him as the objects of his contemplation, and as a field for the development of his energies. Even the child longs to pass the hills or the seas which inclose his narrow home; yet, when his eager steps have borne him beyond those limits, he pines, like the plant, for his native soil; and it is by this touching and beautiful attribute of man — this longing for that which is unknown, and this fond remembrance of that which is lost — that he is spared from an exclusive attachment to the present. Thus deeply rooted in the innermost nature of man, and even enjoined upon him by his highest tendencies, the recognition of the bond of humanity becomes one of the noblest leading principles in the history of mankind.
  • The impetuous conquests of Alexander, the more politic and premeditated extension of territory made by the Romans, the wild and cruel incursions of the Mexicans, and the despotic acquisitions of the incas, have in both hemispheres contributed to put an end to the separate existence of many tribes as independent nations, and tended at the same time to establish more extended international amalgamation. Men of great and strong minds, as well as whole nations, acted under the influence of one idea, the purity of which was, however, utterly unknown to them. It was Christianity which first promulgated the truth of its exalted charity, although the seed sown yielded but a slow and scanty harvest. Before the religion of Christ manifested its form, its existence was only revealed by a faint foreshadowing presentiment. In recent times, the idea of civilization has acquired additional intensity, and has given rise to a desire of extending more widely the relations of national intercourse and of intellectual cultivation; even selfishness begins to learn that by such a course its interests will be better served than by violent and forced isolation. Language more than any other attribute of mankind, binds together the whole human race. By its idiomatic properties it certainly seems to separate nations, but the reciprocal understanding of foreign languages connects men together on the other hand without injuring individual national characteristics.


Misattributed[edit]

  • Erst erfreuen, dann belehren.
    • First delight, then instruct.
      • Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Gustav Friedrich Waagen in "On the Purpose of the Berlin Gallery" [Über die Aufgabe der Berliner Galerie] (1828); occasionally attributed to von Humboldt, who had quoted Schinkel and Waagen in a report.

External links[edit]

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