Humboldt’s political classic The Limits of State Action was a great influence on John Stuart Mill who refers to it several times in On Liberty. It is just a small part of Humboldt’s achievements, which also includes foundational work in linguistics, and notable essays on aesthetics and history, amongst other things.
Alongside those intellectual achievements he was a diplomat and civil servant of the Prussian monarchy, who undertook a comprehensive reform of Prussian education which included founding the Humboldt University in Berlin. This came, when defeat in war against Napoleon opened up a relatively liberal reformist period in Prussia. That impetus did not survive the defeat of Napoleon, as can be see in the subsequent failure of Humboldt’s plans for a liberal constitution in the new German Confederation, and then just for Prussia.
Humboldt also had an extraordinary brother, Alexander, the distinguished scientist and explorer. Humboldt’s diplomatic career took him to France at the time of the French Revolution, where he was in contact with various significant figures including the liberal thinkers Madame de Stäel and Benjamin Constant. Diplomacy also took him to Rome, where the remains of antiquity apparently inspired him to work on translations of Greek literature, and essays on the Ancient world.
In Germany he was in contact with many of the literary and philosophical figures, in a great era for both fields. He was in particularly close contact with Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, literary figures who shared a sense of individualism, and individual expression, influential on liberal political thought. This brief sketch of Humboldt’s life is important for understanding The Limits of State Action, where he both absorbs earlier encounters and interests, and anticipates his later experiences. His encounters with other major figures of time was clearly mutually enriching.
The value of freely chosen, and varied, human relations in communication between individuals is part of his political thought. The literary, and aesthetic, individualism of the time is seen in The Limits of State Action, when he refers to the beauty of individuality, and of a society formed by the natural growth of many relations between free individuals. The interests in the Ancient world can be seen in The Limits of State Action, in the discussion of different threats, and advantages, to liberty in the ancient and modern worlds, ideas also explored by Constant.
Humboldt’s life of service to the autocratic Prussian state brings up a paradox. Humboldt argued for what is now called a nightwatchman state, or minarchism: that is a state which limits itself to defending national boundaries, and enforcing the laws necessary to individual freedom and private property. Humboldt only published a part of his political theory in his own lifetime, because he feared the reaction of the Prussian government. In his educational reforms he expanded the role of the state in some respects, though in the hope of educating citizens who would have the capacity for high level of individualism and self-reliance. This anticipates the compromises made by later Classical Liberals and Libertarians in positions of political power.
There are also at least two ways in which Humboldt seems like a true Prussian administrator, even in his pure political theory. He thought that war could have a good effect on character in promoting individual courage and strength of character; and he argued that a monarchy was less of a danger to liberty than a representative government intervening in society, and the economy, to meet the demands of various groups of voters. The former thought is a point of continuity between Ancient attitudes to war, and the culture of the Prussian and German aristocracy and officer class, up to Hitler’s would be assassin Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who was steeped in classical learning and German aesthetic romanticism.
Humboldt believed that war, along with the constant struggle with nature, promoted liberty in the Ancient world, as a counter to despotic powers of the state. This is a view which has some support in Ancient texts. Humboldt’s support for monarchy over democracy does anticipate an element in more recent libertarian and anarchist thought, which regards monarchy as the lesser evil compared with democracy, if less desirable than complete elimination of government. In Humboldt’s own time, it links him with the kind of monarchical and medieval nostalgia liberalism of Goethe, who advocated a Germany of small princely states, and a Europe of the old monarchies; in contrast to most liberals of the time, who like Mill advocated representative and constitutional government for unified nations.
In the modern era, Humboldt thought that increases in wealth, and decreases in war, meant that the greatest threats to liberty comes from government going beyond the limits of negative welfare (preventing threats to individual freedom) into attempts to promote positive welfare, that is economic interventionism and welfarism. Such measures destroy the growth of free relations between individuals and individual self-reliance, replacing it with the growth of a bureaucracy which stifles individual differences and character within itself, and which has a deep tendency to keep growing and reproducing itself.