The Sphere and Duties of Government/Chapter 6

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The Sphere and Duties of Government
by Wilhelm von Humboldt, translated by Joseph Coulthard
On the Solicitude of the State for the Mutual Security of the Citizens.—Means for Attaining this End.—Institutions for Reforming the Mind and Character of the Citizen.—National Education.
2550512The Sphere and Duties of Government — On the Solicitude of the State for the Mutual Security of the Citizens.—Means for Attaining this End.—Institutions for Reforming the Mind and Character of the Citizen.—National Education.Joseph CoulthardWilhelm von Humboldt



Having seen in a preceding chapter that it is not only a justifiable but necessary end of Government to provide for the mutual security of the citizens, it here becomes our duty to enter on a more profound and explicit investigation into the nature of such a solicitude, and the means through which it acts. For it does not seem enough merely to commit the care for security to the political power as a general and unconditional duty, but it further becomes us to define the especial limits of its activity in this respect; or, at least, should this general definition be difficult or wholly impossible, to exhibit the reasons for that impossibility, and discover the characteristics by which these limits may, in given cases, be recognized.

Even a very limited range of observation is sufficient to convince us that this care for preservation may either restrict its efforts to a very narrow sphere, or launch into bolder measures, and embrace wide and indefinite means of influence to reach its design. Confined sometimes to the reparation of irregularities actually committed and the infliction of appropriate punishment, it may embrace, at others, precautions for preventing their occurrence, or even suggest the policy of moulding the mind and character of the citizen after the fashion most suitable to its preconceived scheme of social order. This very extension even of the governmental plans, admits, so to speak, of different degrees. The violation of personal rights, for example, and any encroachment on the immediate rights of the State, maybe carefully investigated and duly reproved, or—by regarding the citizen as accountable to the State for the application of his powers, and therefore as one who robs it, as it were, of its rightful property when he does aught calculated to enfeeble them or disturb their harmonious action—a watchful surveillance may be exercised over those actions even which affect none but the agent himself. I have therefore found it expedient at present to comprise under one head all these varied manifestations of political solicitude, and must therefore be understood to speak of all State-institutions collectively which are dictated by the general design of promoting public security. Meanwhile, it is only necessary to add, that although the very nature of the subject precludes the possibility of any just and accurate division, all those institutions which refer to the moral welfare of the citizen will naturally present themselves in the order of this inquiry; for if they do not, in all cases, aim at security and tranquillity exclusively, these are in general the prominent objects of such institutions. In my manner of discussing the merits and demerits of these, I shall therefore adhere to the system I have hitherto adopted. It will be seen, from the preceding chapters, that I have set out with supposing the utmost extension of State agency conceivable, and then endeavoured, step by step, to ascertain the different provinces from which it should properly be withdrawn, until at length the concern for security is all that has remained to its appropriation. And now it becomes us to adopt, with regard to this general object of security, the same method of procedure; I will therefore begin by supposing the widest acceptation in which the efficient discharge of such a trust can be viewed, in order to arrive, by successive limitations, at those fundamental principles which enable us to determine its true extent. Should such a systematic investigation be regarded as somewhat lengthy and tedious, I am ready to admit that a dogmatic exposition would require a method of treatment exactly the reverse. But, by confining ourselves strictly to inquiry, we can at least be sure of having fully and honestly grappled with the essential subject, and of having omitted nothing of real importance, while unfolding its principles in their natural and consecutive order.

It has, of late, been usual to insist on the expediency and propriety of preventing illegal actions, and of calling in the aid of moral means to accomplish such a purpose; but I will not disguise that, when I hear such exhortations, I am satisfied to think such encroachments on freedom are becoming more rare among us, and in almost all modern constitutions daily less possible.

It is not uncommon to appeal to the history of Greece and Rome in support of such a policy; but a clearer insight into the nature of the constitutions of those ancient nations would at once betray the inconclusiveness of such comparisons. Those States were essentially republics; and such kindred institutions as we find in them were pillars of the free constitution, and were regarded by the citizens with an enthusiasm which rendered their hurtful restrictions on private freedom less deeply felt, and their energetic character less pernicious. They enjoyed, moreover, a much wider range of freedom than is usual among modern States, and anything that was sacrificed was only given up to another form of activity, viz. participation in the affairs of government. Now, in our States, which are in general monarchical, all this is necessarily changed ; and whatever moral means the ancients might employ, as national education, religion, moral laws, would under present systems be less fruitful of good results, and productive of far greater injury. We ought not to forget, moreover, in our admiration of antiquity, that what we are so apt to consider the results of wisdom in the ancient legislators, was mostly nothing more than the effect of popular custom, which, only when decaying, required the authority and support of legal sanction. The remarkable correspondency that exists between the laws of Lycurgus and the manners and habits of most uncultivated nations, has already been clearly and forcibly illustrated by Ferguson;[1] and when we are led to trace the national growth in culture and refinement, we only discern the faint shadow of such early popular institutions. Lastly, I would observe, that men have now arrived at a far higher pitch of civilization, beyond which it seems they cannot aspire to still loftier heights save through the development of individuals; and hence it is to be inferred that all institutions which act in any way to obstruct or thwart this development, and compress men together into vast uniform masses, are now far more hurtful than in earlier ages of the world.

When we regard the working of those moral means which admit of more large and indefinite application, it seems to follow, even from these few and general reflections, that national education—or that which is organized or enforced by the State—is at least in many respects very questionable. 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 develope the individual. It cannot be denied that the happiest results, both as regards the State and the individual, flow from this relation between them,—that the citizen becomes spontaneously active in the State itself, in the form assigned him by his peculiar lot and circumstances, and that by the very contrast or antagonism between the position pointed out to him by the State, and that which he has spontaneously chosen, he is not only himself modified, but the State constitution also is subject to a reciprocal influence; and although the extent and operation of such influences are not of course immediately evident, they are still distinctly traceable in the history of all States, when we keep in view the modifications to which they are subject from the difference of national character. Now this salutary interaction always diminishes in proportion to the efforts made to fashion the citizen's character beforehand, and to train him up from childhood with the express view of becoming a citizen. The happiest result must follow, it is true, when the relations of man and citizen coincide as far as possible; but this coincidence is only to be realized when those of the citizen pre-suppose so few distinct peculiarities that the man may preserve his natural form without any sacrifice; and it is to the expediency of securing this perfect harmony between the requirements of man and citizen that all the ideas I have in view in this inquiry directly converge. For, although the immediately hurtful consequences of such a misrelation as that to which we have referred would be removed when the citizens of a State were expressly trained up with a view to their political character, still the very object would be sacrificed which the association of human beings in a community was designed to secure. Whence I conclude, that the freest development of human nature, directed as little as possible to ulterior civil relations, should always be regarded as paramount in importance with respect to the culture of man in society. He who has been thus freely developed should then attach himself to the State; and the State should test and compare itself, as it were, in him. It is only with such a contrast and conflict of relations, that I could confidently anticipate a real improvement of the national constitution, and banish all apprehension with regard to the injurious influence of the civil institutions on human nature. For even although these were very imperfect, we could imagine how the force of human energies, struggling against the opposing barriers, and asserting, in spite of them, its own inherent greatness, would ultimately prove superior in the conflict. Still, such a result could only be expected when those energies had been allowed to unfold themselves in all their natural freedom. For how extraordinary must those efforts be which were adequate to maintain and exalt those energies, when even from the period of youth they were bound down and enfeebled by such oppressive fetters! Now all systems of national education, inasmuch as they afford room for the manifestation of a governmental spirit, tend to impose a definite form on civic development, and therefore to repress those vital energies of the nation.

When such a prevailing form of development is definite in itself, and still beautiful, although one-sided, as we find it to be in the ancient constitutions and even yet observe it perhaps in many a republic, there is not only more facility in its actual working, but it is attended with far less hurtful consequences. But in our monarchical constitutions, happily enough for human development, such a definite form as that which we describe does not at all exist. It clearly belongs to their advantages, however numerous may be the concomitant evils, that inasmuch as the State union is strictly regarded as the means requisite for the desired end, individual power is not necessarily sacrificed to its accomplishment, as is the case with republics. So long as the citizen conducts himself in conformity with the laws, and maintains himself and those dependent on him in comfort, without doing anything calculated to prejudice the interests of the State, the latter does not trouble itself about the particular manner of his existence. Here therefore national education,—which, as such, still keeps in view, however imperceptibly, the culture of the citizen in his capacity of subject, and not, as is the case in private education, the development of the individual man,—would not be directed to the encouragement of any particular virtue or disposition; it would, on the contrary, be designed to realize a balance of all opposing impulses, since nothing tends so much as this to produce and maintain tranquillity, which is precisely the object most ardently desired by States so constituted. But such an artificial equilibrium, as I have before taken occasion to observe, leads at once to utter torpidity and stagnation, or a depression and deficiency of energy; while, on the other hand, the greater regard for single objects which is peculiarly characteristic of private education, operates to produce that equipoise more surely and effectually, by a life of different relations and combinations, and that without any attendant sacrifice of energy.

But even though we were to deny to national education all positive furtherance of particular systems of culture—if we were to represent it as an essential duty that it should simply encourage the spontaneous development of faculties, this would still prove impracticable, since whatever is pervaded by a unity of organization, invariably begets a corresponding uniformity in the actual result, and thus, even when based on such liberal principles, the utility of national education is still inconceivable. If it is only designed to prevent the possibility of children remaining uninstructed, it is much more expedient and less hurtful to appoint guardians where parents are remiss, and extend assistance where they are in indigent circumstances. Further, it is not to be forgotten, that national education fails in accomplishing the object proposed by it, viz. the reformation of morals according to the model which the State considers most conducive to its designs. However great the influence of education may be, and however it may extend to the whole course of a man's actions, still, the circumstances which surround him throughout his whole life are yet far more important. And hence, if all these do not harmonize with its influences, education cannot succeed in effecting its object.

In fine, if education is only to develope a man's faculties, without regard to any definite civil forms to be collaterally imparted to his nature, there is no need of the State's interference. Among men who are really free, every form of industry becomes more rapidly improved,—all the arts flourish more gracefully,—all sciences become more largely enriched and expanded. In such a community, too, domestic bonds become closer and sweeter; the parents are more eagerly devoted to the care of their children, and, in a higher state of welfare, are better able to follow out their desires with regard to them. Among such men emulation naturally arises; and tutors better befit themselves, when their fortunes depend upon their own efforts, than when their chances of promotion rest on what they are led to expect from the State. There would, therefore, be no want of careful family training, nor of those common educational establishments which are so useful and indispensable.[2] But if national education is to impose some definite form on human nature, it is perfectly certain that there is actually nothing done towards preventing transgressions of law, or establishing and maintaining security. For virtue and vice do not depend on any particular form of being, nor are necessarily connected with any particular aspect of character; in regard to these, much more depends on the harmony or discordancy of all the different features of a man's character—on the proportion that exists between power and the sum of inclinations, etc. Every distinct development of character is capable of its peculiar excess, and to this it constantly tends to degenerate. If then an entire nation has adhered to some certain variety of development, it comes in time to lose all power of resisting the preponderant bias to this one peculiarity, and along with it all power of regaining its equilibrium. Perhaps it is in this that we discover the reason of such frequent changes in the constitution of ancient States. Every fresh constitution exercised an undue influence on the national character, and this, definitely developed, degenerated in turn and necessitated a new one.

Lastly, even if we admit that national education may succeed in the accomplishment of all that it proposes, it effects too much. For in order to maintain the security it contemplates, the reformation of the national morals themselves is not at all necessary. But as my reasons for this position refer to the whole solicitude for morality on the part of the State, I reserve them for the after part of this inquiry, and proceed meanwhile to consider some single means which are often suggested by that solicitude. I have only to conclude from what has been argued here, that national education seems to me to lie wholly beyond the limits within which political agency should properly be confined."[3]

  1. An Essay on the History of Civil Society: Of Rude Nations prior to the Establishment of Property.
  2. "Dans une société bien ordonnée, au contraire, tout invite les homines à cultiver leurs moyens naturels: sans qu'on s'en mêle, l'éducation sera bonne; elle sera même d'autant meilleure, qu'on aura plus laissé à l'industrie des maîtres et à l'émulation des élèves."—Mirabeau, s. l'Educ. Publ. p. 12.
  3. "Ainsi c'est peut-être un probleme de savoir, si les législateurs Français doivent s'occuper de l'éducation publique autrement que pour en protéger les progrès, et si la constitution la plus favorable au développement du moi humain, et les lois les plus propres à mettre chacun à sa place, ne sont pas la seule éducation que le peuple doive attendre d'eux," l.c. p. 11. "D'après cela, les principes rigoureux sombleraient exiger que l'Assemblée Nationale ne s'occupât de l'éducation que pour l'enlever à des pouvoirs ou à des corps qui peuvent en dépraver l'influence," l.c. p. 12.