Jeremy Bentham and Utilitarianism
Priestley and Richard Price
Thomas Paine concerning state and society
William Godwin's political justice
Libertarian tendencies in America
From Jefferson to Thoreau
Liberal ideas in German literature
Lessing on State and Church
Herder's philosophy of history
Schiller's esthetic of culture
Lichtenberg and Seume
The personality of Goethe
Wieland's Goldner Spiegel
Wilhelm Von Humboldt's ideen uber die grenzen der wirksamkeit des staates
Political radicalism in France
Diderot's conception of freedom
Montesquieu's spirit of the laws
Jeremy Bentham and Utilitarianism
It had become the custom to refer to liberalism as "political individualism," with the consequence that an entirely false concept was set up and the door thrown wide open for all sorts of misunderstandings. Still, the tendency arose from a thoroughly social idea: the principle of utility, which Jeremy Benthamone of the most distinguished representatives of this schoolreduced to the formula, "the greatest possible amount of happiness for the greatest possible number of the members of society." Thus the principle of utility became for him the natural criterion of right and wrong. Says Bentham:
The interest of the community is one of the most general expressions that can occur in the phraseology of morals: no wonder that the meaning of it is often lost. When it has a meaning, it is this. The community is a fictitious body, composed of the individual persons who are considered as constituting, as it were, its members. The interest of the community then is, what?the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it. It is vain to talk of the interest of the community without understanding what is the interest of the individual. A thing is said to promote the interest, or to be for the interest, of the individual, when it tends to add to the sum total of his pleasures: or, what comes to the same thing, to diminish the sum total of his pains.... A measure of government (which is but a particular kind of action, performed by a particular person or persons) may be said to be conformable to, or dictated by, the principle of utility, when in like manner the tendency which it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any which it has to diminish it. 1
Certainly these words give expression to the sentiment of social justice which in its immediate assumption proceeds, it is true, from the individual, but which nevertheless is to be taken as the result of a clearly marked feeling of solidarity and can in no wise be covered by the common designation "individualism," which may mean anything or nothing.
Although a large number of the celebrated supporters of political radicalism in England, in contrast to Bentham, proceeded from the principle of natural rights, they agreed with him in their final goal. The dissenting preacher, Joseph Priestley, who declared the unlimited perfectibility of man to be a law of God, would concede that government is right only to the extent that its instruments are engaged in furthering this law of the divine will. To assign to government any other purpose is a deadly sin against the right of the people, for the profit and happiness of the individual members of the community is the only standard by which to judge any transaction having to do with the state Influenced by this line of thought, Priestley defended the right of a people at any time to recall its government as one of the most elementary presuppositions of the state contract and from this arrived logically at the right of revolution which resides in every people when the government abandons the path which is indicated for it by these imperishable principles.
Richard Price, in contrast with Priestley, did not rest his ideas of right and wrong on grounds of pure utility; neither was he in very close agreement with him about the concepts attaching to philosophic materialism, and he believed in the freedom of the human will. He did, however, agree with the views of his friend about the relations of man to government in general, he even went somewhat further, valuing rather more highly the idea of personal freedom.
In every free state every man is his own legislator. All taxes are free gifts for public services. All laws are particular provisions or regulations established by COMMON CONSENT for gaining protection and safety. And all Magistrates are Trustees or Deputies for carrying these regulations into execution.
Liberty, therefore, is too imperfectly defined, when it is said to be "a Government by Laws, and not by Men." If the laws are made by one man, or a junta of men in a state, and not by COMMON CONSENT, a government by them does not differ from Slavery." 2
The pronouncement concerning laws is of especial importance if one recalls what a cult was made of the law in France at the time of the great Revolution. Of course Price recognised that a social status in which the laws arose from the free consent of all was possible only within the frame of a small community, but just for this reason the modern great state appeared to him one of the greatest dangers for the future of Europe.
In advance of all the representatives of political radicalism of that epoch was Thomas Paine, the enthusiastic pioneer fighter for the independence of the English colonies in North America, the man who understood how to give the clearest expression to those aspirations. Deserving of especial note is the manner in which he brought before the eyes of his contemporaries the difference between state and society. He writes:
Society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the latter is a punisher.
Society is in every state a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government which we should expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence. 3
Like Priestley, Paine believed in a constant upward advance of human culture and deduced from this that the higher a culture stands, the less is the need for government, because men must in this case look after their own affairs and also those of the government."
In his writings against Edmund Burke, who had himself once belonged among the most enthusiastic representatives of political radicalism but later became the most virulent advocate of modern state reaction, Paine developed again in splendid words his idea of the nature of government and especially emphasised most incisively that the men of today have no right to prescribe the path for the men of tomorrow. Covenants that have passed into history can never impose on new generations the duty of accepting as legal and binding on themselves limitations set by their forebears. Paine warned his contemporaries against delusive faith in the wisdom of a government in which he saw merely a "national administrative body upon which is imposed the duty of making effective the basic principles prescribed by society." 4 But Paine was also an opponent of that formal democracy which sees in the will of the majority the last word of wisdom, and whose supporters strive to prescribe every activity by established law. Thus he gave warning in his firebreathing series of essays, "The Crisis" (I776-I783), of a tyranny of the majority, a power often more oppressive than the despotism of one individual over all. It was as if he had foreseen intuitively what dangers must arise if men allowed themselves to erect into a fundamental principle of law, a method whose claim to validity is based on the fact that five is more than four.
The ideas of political radicalism were at that time widely disseminated in England and America and left their unmistakable imprint on the intellectual development of both countries. We encounter them again in John Stuart Mill, Thomas Buckle, E. H. Lecky and Herbert Spencer, to mention only four of the bestknown names. They found their way into poetical works and inspired men like Byron, Southey, Coleridge, Lamb, Wordsworth, and above all, Shelley, one of the greatest poets of all time, to reach at last their intellectual zenith in Godwin's Social Justice a work which powerfully stirred men's minds for a time, but fell later into forgetfulness because his bold conclusions went too far for most. 5
Godwin clearly recognised that the explanation of the evil was not to be found in the external form of the state, but was grounded in its very essence. For this reason he did not want to see the power of the state reduced to "a minimum"; he wanted to banish from the life of society every institution of force. Thus, the bold thinker arrived at the idea of a stateless society, where man is no longer subjected to the mental and physical compulsion of an earthly Providence, but finds room for the undisturbed development of his natural capacities, and himself manages all his relations with his fellowmen by the method of free agreement to meet existing needs.
But Godwin recognised also that a social development in this direction was not possible without a fundamental revolution in existing economic arrangements; for tyranny and exploitation grow on the same tree and are inseparably bound together. The freedom of the individual is secure only when it rests on the economic and social wellbeing of all; a fact for which the advocates of purely political radicalism have never had sufficient regard, wherefore they have always been compelled later to make new concessions to the state. The personality of the individual stands the higher, the more deeply it is rooted in the community, from which arise the richest sources of its moral strength. Only in freedom does there arise in man the consciousness of responsibility for his acts and regard for the rights of others; only in freedom can there unfold in its full strength that most precious social instinct: man's sympathy for the joys and sorrows of his fellow men and the resultant impulse toward mutual aid in which are rooted all social ethics, all ideas of social justice. Thus Godwin's work became at the same time the epilogue of that great intellectual movement which had inscribed on its banner the greatest possible limitation of the power of the state, and the starting point for the development of the ideas of libertarian socialism.
In America the modes of thought of political radicalism for a long time dominated the best minds, and with them public opinion. Even today they are not completely quenched there, although the all-crushing and levelling domination of capitalism and its monopoly economy have so far undermined the old traditions that they can now serve only as watchwords for business undertakings of a totally different sort. But this was not always so. Even so fundamentally conservative a character as George Washington, to whom Paine dedicated the first part of his Rights of Man (which did not prevent his later attacking the first President of the United States violently when he thought he saw him turning in a direction that led far from the paths of freedom) even Washington could declare: "Government is not reason, it is not eloquence -- it is force! Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master, never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action."
Thomas Jefferson, who was of the opinion that revolt against a government which had sinned against the freedom of the people was not merely the right but the duty of a good citizen, and that a little rebellion from time to time is good for the health of a government, put his idea about all governmental systems into the laconic words: "That government is best which governs least." An irreconcilable opponent of all political restrictions, Jefferson regarded every intrusion of the state into the sphere of the personal life of the citizen as despotism and brutal force.
To the claim that the citizen must surrender to the state an essential part of his freedom as the price of the safety of his person, Benjamin Franklin replied in the incisive words: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
Wendell Phillips, the mighty champion against negro slavery, expressed the conviction that "government is the fundamental 'ism' of the soldier, bigot and priest", and he said in one of his speeches: "I think little of the direct influence of governments. I think, with Guizot, that 'it is a gross delusion to believe in the sovereign power of political machinery.' To hear some men talk of government, you would suppose that Congress was the law of gravitation and kept the planets in their place."
Abraham Lincoln warned the Americans against trusting a government to safeguard their human rights: "If there is anything that it is the duty of the whole people never to entrust to any hands but their own, that thing is the preservation and perpetuity of their own liberties and institutions."
From Lincoln come also these significant words: "I have always; thought that all men should be free, but if any should be slaves, it should be first those who desire it for themselves, and secondly those who desire it for others."
Ralph Waldo Emerson coined the wellknown words: "Every actual state is corrupt. Good men must not obey the laws too well." Emerson, America's poetphilosopher, had in general an outspoken aversion for the fetishism of the law and averred: "Our mutual distrust is very expensive. The money we spend for courts and prisons is very ill laid out. The law of self-preservation is a surer policy than any legislation can be."
This spirit permeates all the political literature of America of that day until the rising capitalism, which led to entirely new conditions of life, by its corrupting intellectual and spiritual influences forced the old traditions more and more into the background or made them over to suit its uses. And as the same currents of thought in England reached their culminating point in the Political Justice of William Godwin, so here they ripened to their highest perfection in the work of men like Henry D. Thoreau, Josiah Warren, Stephen Pearl Andrews and many others who courageously dared to take the last step and to say with Thoreau:
I heartily accept the motto "That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe that government is best which governs not at all.
But these ideas were not confined to England and America, even though in these countries they penetrated most deeply into the consciousness of the people. Everywhere in Europe where an intellectual life had revealed itself on the eve of the French Revolution, we come upon its traces. A longing for freedom had seized upon men and had brought under its spell many of the best minds of that time. These ambitions received a powerful impulse from the revolutionary occurrences in America and later in France. Into Germany, too, where a select body of outstanding thinkers was at that time striving to lay the foundations of a new intellectual culture, libertarian ideas found their way; and out of the misery and degradation of a reality ruled by a shameful despotism they rose like glittering horizons of a better future. Let one think of Lessing's Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts, of Ernst und Falk, and of the Gesprach uber die Soldaten und Monche. Lessing followed the same paths as, before and after him, the leaders of political radicalism in England and America. He, too, judged the relative perfection of the state according to the amount of happiness which it assured to the individual citizen. But he also recognised that the best state constitution, being a product of the human mind, was of necessity defective and perishable.
Suppose the best state constitution that can be conceived to be already invented; suppose that all the people in the world have accepted this constitution; do you not think that even from this best constitution there must arise things that will be most detrimental to human happiness and of which man in a state of nature would have known nothing at all?
In support of this view Lessing adduced various examples which reveal the utter futility of the striving after the best form of state. Aroused by his warfare with theology, the bold thinker always returned later to this question, of which apparently he never again for an instant let go. This is proved by the concluding sentences of his Gesprach uber die Soldaten und Monche, as brief as it is rich in content:
B. What are soldiers then?
A. Protectors of the state.
B. And monks are props of the church.
A. That for your church!
B. That for your state!
A. Are you dreaming? The state! The state! The happiness which the state guarantees to every individual member in this life!
B. The bliss which the church promises to every man after this life!
A. Promises !
B. Simpleton !
This is a deliberate shaking of the foundations of the old social order. Lessing divined the intimate connection between God and the state, between religion and politics. He divined at least that the inquiry about the best form of the state is just as meaningless as the inquiry about the best religion, since it carries its own contradiction. Lessing touched here on an idea which Proudhon later thought out logically to the end. Perhaps Lessing did so, too. The crystalclear form of his Gesprach indicates this. But he had the misfortune to drag out his days under the yoke of a miserable petty despot and perhaps could not venture to give publicity to his ultimate thoughts. That Lessing was perfectly clear as to the farreaching importance of these lines of thought is shown by the report of his friend Jacobi in 1781:
Lessing had the liveliest perception of the ridiculous and mischievous in all political machinery. In an interview he once became so excited that he declared that bourgeois society must yet be completely done away with, and as crazy as this sounds, just that close is it to the truth: Men will be well governed only when they no longer need government.
Along similar paths travelled Herder, who especially in his Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit made the attempt to understand historically the origin of the state. He regarded the state as a product of later times, traceable to quite different assumptions from those giving rise to social combinations in the natural state of humanity. In that condition man knew only a "natural government," which was based neither on overlordship nor on the separation of society into various ranks and castes, and which, therefore, pursued quite different aims from those of the state, with its artificial structure.
As long as a father ruled over his family he was a father and permitted his sons to become fathers, too, and sought to control them by counsel. As long as several families by free deliberation chose judges and leaders for a particular matter, so long were these officeholders just servants of the common purpose, chosen leaders of the assembly; the names lord, king, absolute, arbitrary, hereditary despot, were to the people with this organization a thing unheard of.
But this changed, as Herder thought, when "barbarian hordes" fell upon other peoples, seized upon their dwelling places and enslaved the inhabitants. With this, according to his notion, arose the first state of compulsion, and there developed the beginnings of the present governments in Europe. Principalities, nobility, feudalism and serfdom are the results of this new status and supplant the natural law of past times. For war is the introduction to all later enslavement and tyranny among men.
History proceeds along this kingly path, and facts of history are not to be denied. What brought the world under Rome? Greece and the Orient under Alexander? What set up the great monarchies back to Sesostris and the legendary Semiramis and then overthrew them? War. Conquest by violence thus took the place of right, and later by the lapse of years or, as our state theorists say, by silent contract, became law. The silent contract in this case, however, means nothing more than that the strong takes what he wants, and the weaker gives and endures, because he can do nothing else.
Thus there arose, according to Herder, a new structure of society and with it a new conception of law. The political government of the conqueror supplants the "natural government" of the freely formed alliances; natural law yields to the positive law of the legislator. The era of the state begins, the era of the nations or statepeoples. According to Herder's notion the state is a coercive institution. Its origin can, it is true, be explained historically, but it cannot be justified morally; least of all where an alien ruling caste of conquerors holds an oppressed people under Its yoke.
Herder's whole conception shows plainly the influence of Hume, Shaftesbury, Leibnitz, and especially of Diderot, whom Herder respected highly and whose personal acquaintance he had made in Paris. Herder recognised in the state a thing that had arisen historically, but he felt also that by its standardising of human personality it could but become a cancer on the cultural development of mankind. Therefore the "simple happiness of individual men" seemed to him more desirable than the "expensive statemachines" which made their appearance with the larger societies welded together by conquest and brute force.
Schiller also, despite his being strongly influenced by Kant, in his conception of the state followed the views of the natural rights school, which would acknowledge the propriety of any activity of the state only in so far as it furthered the happiness of the individual. In his Briefe uber die aesthetische Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts he puts his attitude toward man and the state in these words:
And I believe that any single human soul developing its powers is more than the great human society, when I regard this as a whole. The state is a matter of chance, but man is a necessary being, and through what else is a state great and venerable except through the strength of its individuals. The state is only a product of human strength, but man is the source of the strength and the creator of the idea.
Also characteristic of Schiller's view is the aphorism, "The Best State" in the votive tablets:
How do I recognise the best state? Just as you recognise the best woman -- just, my friend, because no one speaks of either.
In its meaning this is merely a paraphrase of the Jeffersonian idea: "That government is best which governs least." A similar idea underlies also the aphorism, "The Best State Constitution":
I can recognise as such only that one which each can easily think good, but which never requires that he shall think so.
This innate resistance to the idea of a state which could prescribe for men the manner of their thinking, even when the thoughts could be called good, is characteristic of the intellectual attitude of the best minds of that time. People then would not have understood the patent model citizen of the state advanced today by the supporters of "nationalism" as a patriotic ideal which, they believe, can be artificially created by "genuinely national legislation" or a "strictly national education."
Goethe viewed the political problems of his time with apparent indifference, perhaps because he had recognised that "liberties" do not constitute the essence of liberty, and that liberty cannot be reduced to a political formula. As privy councillor, courtier, minister, Goethe was often shockingly narrowminded and guilty of shameful meanness. This may be attributed in no small measure to the distressing restraints of the German social life of the day. No one felt the gulf between himself and his people as deeply as did Goethe himself, he never got close to that people, and remains to this very day on the whole a stranger to them. Just because his view of the world was so manysided and allembracing he was of necessity all the more painfully aware of the complete repressiveness of the social life in which he was enmeshed. Goethe's roots were not in his people. "Among the German people there prevails a sort of spiritual exaltation that is alien to my nature," he said to the Russian Count Stroganoff. "Art and philosophy stand divorced from life, abstract in character, remote from the natural springs which should feed them."
In these words is reflected the gap that divided Goethe from his German contemporaries; he merely sunk his roots deeper into the first cause of everything human. The silly twaddle about the "inner harmony of soul of the great Olympian" has long been recognised as a conventional lie. A cleft ran through Goethe's whole nature, and the vain effort to master this cleavage was perhaps the most heroic side of this strange life.
But Goethe the poet and seer, who in the farreaching vision of his genius embraced the culture of centuries, the man who roared at the world in his "Prometheus""the greatest revolutionary poem that was ever written," as Brandes justly saidwas too great an admirer of human personality to be willing to surrender himself to the dead gearing of an alllevelling machine.
Folk and conqueror and thrall,
These in every age we see:
Best fortune to Earth's child can fall
Is just his personality.
At the very bottom of his being Goethe was always faithful to this view. In the first part of the Faust he had penned the impressive lines:
All rights and laws are still transmitted
Like an eternal sickness of the race
From generation unto generation fitted
And shifted round from place to place.
Reason becomes a sham, beneficence a worry.
Thou art a grandchild; therefore woe to thee!
The right born with us, ours in verity,
This to consult, alas! there is no hurry.
As an old man he still proclaimed:
Yes, I am altogether of that mind;
That is wisdom's final view:
Freedom and life that man alone should find
Who daily conquers them anew.
And so, while dangers round them rage,
They fight through childhood, manhood and old age.
Such a throng I'd like to see
Stand on free soil amid a people free.
In hardly any other sense than this can we understand the saying in the Maximen: "Which government is the best? That one which teaches us to govern ourselves."
The political radicalism of the English, and the French literature of enlightenment, had a strong influence also upon Wieland, whose conception of the relation of men to the state rested entirely upon natural right. This finds expression especially in his Der Goldene Spiegel and Nachlass des Diogenes von Sinope. That Wieland chose just this ancient sage of Corinth as the spokesman for his ideas is in itself highly indicative of the school of thought that he followed.
We shall mention here also G. Ch. Lichtenberg, whose intellectual attitude derived from Swift, Fielding, and Sterne, and who was therefore keenly sensitive to the misery of German conditions; likewise, J. G. Seume; and above all, Jean Paul, that firm defender of freedom who, like Herder, traced the origin of the state to conquest and slavery, and whose works had such a compelling influence on the best of his contemporaries. The manly words which he shouted into the ears of the Germans in his Declaration of War Against War are, alas, forgotten in Germany today; but are not, for that, the less true.
No book will conquer the conqueror or persuade him, but one must speak out against the poisonous admiration of him. Schelling speaks of "an almost divine right of the conqueror"; but he has against him the highwaymen, who in this matter may make the same claim for themselves in the face of an Alexander or a Caesar, and who, moreover, have on their side, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who had the robbers he conquered in Dalmatia enlisted as soldiers.
And Holderlin, the unhappy poet who in his Hyperion flung such frightful truths into the faces of the Germans, wrote these pregnant words:
You attribute to the state quite too much power. It cannot demand what it cannot compel. What comes as the gift of love or of intellect cannot be compelled. That, it may let alone, or it may take its laws and set it in the pillory! By Heaven! He knows not what a sin he commits who seeks to make the state a school for morals. The state has always made a hell out of that which man wanted it to make into a heaven. The state is the rough husk on the kernel of life, and it is nothing else. It is the wall around the garden of human fruits and flowers. But what is the use of a wall around a garden if the soil lies dry? The only thing that assists vegetation is rain from heaven.
Such ideas were almost universal among the men to whom Germany owes the rebirth of its intellectual life, although, because of the sad disorganisation of German affairs and the unrestrained caprice of the typical German petty despotism, it was not always and everywhere set forth with the same vigour and consistency as in England and France. We do find, however, in all these men a strong leaning toward worldcitizenship. Their minds were not limited by national ideas, but embraced the whole of mankind. Herder's Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschhest and his ingenious Briefe zur Beforderung der Humanitat ("Letters for the Advancement of Humanity") are splendid evidence of this spirit, which was striking deep into the best minds until it was restricted for a time by the socalled "wars of liberation" g the intellectual precipitate from the ideas of Kant, Fichte, and Hegel; and the Romantics' concept of the state.
Lessing revealed in his letters to Gleim his utter lack of the prescribed patriotic sentiment: "It is true that perhaps even in me the patriot is not completely smothered, although the reputation of a zealous patriot is, according to my way of thinking, the last for which I should be at all greedy; that patriot, that is, who would teach me to forget that I ought to be a citizen of the world." In another place he says: "I have no conception at all of the love of the Fatherland (I am sorry that I must, perhaps to my shame, confess it), and it seems to me at best a heroic weakness which I am right glad to be without."
Schiller also, whom the staunch German of today noisily hails as the great herald of national interests (in support of which he usually cites a quotation from Wilhelm Tell, scornfully styled by Friedrich IV as "a piece for Jews and revolutionaries"; and the wellknown saying from the Jungfrau von Orleans: "The nation is contemptible that will not gladly risk everything for its honour!" which, torn from its context, is made to convey a totally different meaning from that intended)Schiller also declares, with the assurance of the citizen of the world:
We moderns have at our command an interest that was not known to the Greeks or the Romans and which patriotic interest does not measure up to by far. The latter is important, anyhow, only for immature nations, for the youth of the world. It is a quite different interest to represent forcefully to man every noteworthy event that has happened to men. It is a pitiful, petty ideal to write for one nation; to a man of philosophical mind this limitation is utterly intolerable. He cannot rest content with such a changeable, accidental, and arbitrary form of humanity, with a fragment (and what else is the most important nation?). He can warm himself to enthusiasm for the nation only so far as the nation, or national event, is an important condition for the progress of the race.
Of Goethe, who had asserted of himself: "The sense and significance of my writings and my life is the triumph of the purely human," and whose lack of patriotic sentiment at the time of the "wars of liberation" has not yet been forgotten, nothing more need be said.
The industrious heralds of the Third Reich today proclaim in thunderous tones that liberalism is "an un-German product" and, like Herr Moeller van den Bruck, keep repeating with gramophonic persistence: "Liberalism is the freedom to have no convictions and at the same time to claim that even this is a conviction." One can only reply that this "un-German product" was once the common intellectual property of those who made Germany into a cultural community again after political and social barbarism had smothered the intellectual life of the country for centuries. It was out of that "lack of conviction" that Germany was born anew.
In his essay, Some Ideas for an Attempt to Determine the Limits of the Effectiveness of the State, Wilhelm von Humboldt presented a social-philosophical summary of what moved the refounders of German literature and poesy most deeply. This ingenious work was written in 1792 under the immediate influence of the revolutionary events in France though only separate extracts appeared in print at that time in various German periodicals; it was not published as a whole until 1851, after the death of the author. Concerning the purpose of his effort Humboldt wrote, in June of 1792, to the intellectually sympathetic Georg Forster: "I have tried to combat the lust to govern and have everywhere drawn more closely the limits of the activity of the state."
Humboldt attacked first of all the baseless idea that the state could give to men anything which it had not first received from men. Especially repugnant to him was the idea that the state was called to uplift the moral qualities of man, a delusion which later, under the influence of Hegel, befogged the best minds in Germany. As a sworn opponent of any uniformity of thought Humboldt rejected fundamentally any standardising of moral concepts and boldly declared: "The highest and final purpose of every human being is the development of his powers in their personal peculiarity." Freedom, therefore, seems to him the only guarantee of man's cultural and intellectual advance and the unfolding of his best moral and social possibilities. He wished to protect men against the dead gearwork of the political machine into whose unfeeling grasp we have fallen; hence his opposition to everything that is mechanical and forced; that is susceptible of no intellectual vitalising. For he holds that automatic consistency stifles every breath of life.
But really, freedom is the necessary condition without which the most soulful undertaking can produce no wholesome effects of this sort. A thing which man has not chosen for himself, a thing in which he is merely constrained and guided can never become a part of his nature; it always remains alien to him; he does not really carry it out with human vigour, merely with mechanical skill.
Therefore Humboldt wanted to see the activity of the state restricted to the actually indispensable and to entrust to it only those fields that were concerned with the personal safety of the individual and of society as a whole. Whatever went beyond this seemed to him evil and a forcible invasion of the rights of the personality, which could only work out injuriously. Prussia gave him in this regard the most instructive example for in no other country had state guardianship assumed such monstrous forms as there, where under the arbitrary dominion of soulless despots the sceptre had become a corporal's baton in civil affairs. This went so far that under Friedrich Wilhelm even the actors in the royal theatre in Berlin were subjected to military discipline and a peculiar special order was put in force "according to which the artists, of whatever rank or sex, were to be treated for any violation of the regulations like soldiers or rebels." 6
The same spirit which saw in the abject debasement of man to a lifeless machine the highest wisdom of all statecraft and lauded the blindest dead obedience as the highest virtue, celebrates in Germany today its shameless resurrection, poisoning the heart of youth, deadening its conscience and throwing to the dogs its humanity.
In France also the great renewers of intellectual life before the revolution were inspired in many ways by the ideas of political radicalism in England. Montesquieu, Voltaire, Helvetius, Holbach, Diderot, Condorcet and many others went to school to the English. Of course, the adopted ideas took on among the Frenchmen a special coloration, which can be in large part attributed to the peculiar social conditions in the country, which differed essentially from those prevailing in England. With the exception of Diderot and Condorcet most of the political innovators in France were closer to a democracy in their line of thought than to genuine liberalism and, despite their sharp attacks on absolutism, contributed materially to strengthen the power of the state by feeding that blind faith in the omnipotence of legislative bodies and written laws which was to be so disastrous in its consequences.
With Voltaire, who was concerned chiefly about the most widely conceived "freedom of thought," the question of the form of government played a rather subordinate part. An enlightened monarch surrounded by the intellectual elite of the country would have satisfied his demands completely. Voltaire was, it is true, a combative spirit, always ready in individual instances to enter the lists against traditional prejudice and perpetrated injustice; but a revolutionary in the proper sense he was not. Nothing lay further from his thought than a social upheaval, although he is counted among the most important of the minds that made the intellectual preparation for the great revolution in France. Least of all was he the supporter of any definite political system; therefore he could not exert the influence of Rousseau or Montesquieu on the socialpolitical structure of the approaching revolution.
The same holds good for Diderot, who was certainly the most comprehensive mind of his time, and just for that reason the least adapted for a political party program. And yet Diderot went much farther than any of his contemporaries in his socialcritical conclusions. In him is found the purest embodiment of the liberal mind in France. An enthusiastic adherent of the rising natural science, he revolted against that artificial thinking which, with innate hostility, blocked the way to a natural arrangement of the forms of social life. Consequently, freedom seemed to him the beginning and the end of all things; freedom was, however, for Diderot "the possibility of an action's beginning quite of itself, independent of everything past," as he so cleverly defined it in his "Conversation with d'Alembert." The whole of nature, in his view, existed to demonstrate the occurrence of phenomena of themselves. Without freedom, the history of humanity would have had no meaning at all, for it was freedom that effected every reconstruction of society and cleared the way for every original thought.
With such a conception the French thinker could not fail to arrive at conclusions similar to those reached later by William Godwin. He did not, like Godwin, assemble his ideas in a special work; but strewn all through his writings are clear evidences that his utterance to d'Alembert was not just a chance remark, of the deeper meaning of which he was himself unaware. No. It was the innermost core of his own being that compelled him to speak thus. Whichever of his works we pick up, we find in it the expression of a genuinely free mind that had never committed itself to any dogma and had, therefore, never surrendered its unlimited power of development. Let one read his Pensees sur l'interpretation de la Nature) and one feels at once that this wonderful hymn to nature and all life could have been written only by a man who had freed himself from every inner bondage. It was this innermost essential core of Diderot's personality which called forth from the pen of Goethe, to whom Diderot was closely related intellectually, the wellknown words in his letter to Zelter: "Diderot is Diderot, a unique individual; whoever carps at him and his concerns is a Philistine, and there are legions of them. But men do not know enough to accept gratefully from God, or from nature, or from their own kind, what is above price."
The libertarian character of Diderot's thought finds most striking expression in his shorter writings, such as Entretiens d'un pere avec ses enfants, which contains much material from Diderot's own youth; and very particularly the Supplement au voyage de Bougainville and the poem, Les Eleutheromanes ou abdication d'un roi de la feve. 7
Also in numerous articles in the monumental Encyclopedia, which owed its completion entirely to the tenacious energy of Diderot (to it, he alone made over a thousand contributions), the fundamental ideas of his philosophy are often clearly revealed, although the publisher had to employ all his cunning to deceive the watchful eyes of the royal censorship. Thus, in the article, "Authority," which he contributed, he declares that "Nature gave no man the right to rule over others"; and traces every instance of power to forcible subjugation, which endures just so long as the masters are stronger than the slaves and disappears as soon as the situation is reversed. In which case the previously downtrodden have the same right their former masters enjoyed of subjecting them in turn to the arbitrary whim of their tyranny.
Montesquieu, like Voltaire, was strongly influenced by the English constitution and the ideas which had brought it to its existing structure. But, in contrast to Locke and his successors, he did not take as his basis the principle of natural right, the weak points of which did not escape him; rather he tried to explain the origin of the state historically. In this attempt he took the standpoint that the search for an ideal form of state which should be equally valid for all peoples was an illusion, because every political structure grows out of definite natural conditions and must, in every country, assume the forms determined by the local environment. Thus he argues very cleverly in his principal work, L'esprit des lois, that the residents of a fruitful district which is much exposed to the danger of conquest by military attack from without, will as a rule value their freedom less highly than the inhabitants of an infertile region surrounded by mountains, and will more readily submit to a despot who will guarantee them protection against invasion. And he supports his view by various interesting examples from history.
Montesquieu's own political ideal was a constitutional monarchy after the English pattern, based on the representative system, and with separation of powers, so that the rights of the citizens and the stability of the state should not be endangered by the concentration of all the instruments of power in the same hands. The French thinker distinguished between despotisms, where every activity of the state is determined by the arbitrary decision of the ruler; and true monarchies, or even republics, where all questions of public life are settled by laws. Laws are for Montesquieu not products of arbitrary will, but adjustments of things to one another and to man. Although he himself argued that the importance of the law is to be sought not in its external compulsory power, but in man's belief in its usefulness, it must still be recognised that his ideas, which had great influence on the thought of his time, contributed greatly to develop that blind faith in law which was so characteristic of the time of the great revolution and of the struggles for democracy in the nineteenth century. Montesquieu presented, so to say, the transition from liberalism to democracy, which was to find its most influential advocate in the person of Rousseau.
- 1J. Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789.
- 2Richard Price, Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty and the justice and Policy of the War with America, 1776.
- 3Thomas Paine, Common Sense. Philadelphia, 1776.
- 4Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man; being an answer to Mr. Burke's Attack on the French Revolution. London, 1791. The second part of the work, appearing in 1792, led to an accusation of high treason against Paine. He was able to escape the consequences only by a timely flight to France.
Burke's earlier essay, "A Vindication of Natural Society," which appeared in 1756, is justly regarded as one of the earliest written contributions of modern anarchism, its author anticipated many of Godwin's conclusions.
- 5William Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and it's Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, London, 1793.
- 6Eduard Vrehse, Geschichte des preussischen Hofes. Hamburg, 1851.
- 7This poem owes its origin to a happy event. In a little company of men and women Diderot was chosen as socalled "Twelfth Night King," and, as chance would have it, for three successive years the bakedin bean turned up in his piece of the cake. The first time, following Rabelais, he laid down for his subjects the single law: "Each of you be happy in his own way!" In the third year, however, he sets forth in the poem, "Les Eleutheromanes," how he had grown tired of his kingship and resigned the crown and, in doing so expresses most beautifully his love of freedom. The following verses best show this:
Jamais au public avantage
L'homme n'a franchement sacrifie ses droits!
La nature n'a fait ni serviteur ni maitre.
Je ne veux ni donner ni recevoir de lois!
Et scs mains couiraient les entrailles du pretre
Au defaut d'un cordon, pour etrangler les rois.