More on Liberty and Homer: Tacitus, Montesquieu, and Humboldt

As I have discussed before here, there is a way of writing about liberty in a conscious focus on political thought, which finds liberty to be emulated in some respect, going back at least to the first century Roman historian Tacitus. He was referring to the condition of the ancient Britons, within the Roman Empire, but rebelling against it, and the ancient Germans who could not be incorporated into the Empire.

The latter situation may have been at least as much for economic reasons as for the German fighting spirit, but they were certainly difficult to overcome and inflicted one of the great defeats on the Roman legions, at the height of Roman power in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 25CE.

The image of barbarian liberty in Tacitus was certainly in some part shaped by Homer given the deep impact of Greek culture on the Romans, and most relevantly in this instance through the continuation of Homer in the greatest latin epic, Aeneid, which links Rome with the Trojan prince Aeneas. As I pointed out before here, Tacitus’ idea of barbarian liberty strongly influenced Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748, a work I will be posting on in future), whose view of liberty in modern Europe, in brutal but meaningful summary, was of a combination of Roman law and Germanic individualism.

Montesquieu was of course a great part of Classical Liberalism and we can follow up his interest in barbaric liberty with reference to other classical liberals. David Hume and Adam Smith, who were writing after Montesquieu, tended to write on ‘barbarism’ and a related idea of ‘savagery’ with some anxiety regarding the possibility that such societies, or societies closer to that stage than those European nations where civil society had advanced the most, might overwhelm commercial legalistic nations with their unrestrained force.

However, some element of respect for liberty in the most simple societies does manifest itself at times, but mostly through an interest in the earliest stages of the Roman and Greek republics of antiquity, which in Montesquieu’s thinking come between the Germanic individualism and the late Roman legalism. Tacitus was thinking of the ‘virtue’ (in the sense of patriotic courage and love of law) of the early Romans when addressing the courage, rough individuality, and fierce independence of the Britons and Germans.

The most interesting way of linking back from Enlightenment liberalism of the Eighteenth century, for me at least, is via Wilhelm von Humboldt, a thinker I will address in at least one dedicated post in future. Humboldt’s major contribution to political thought, The Limits of State Action, was written in the 1790s, so another generation on from Montesquieu, just after Smith and Hume.

At this point, we might think of a movement from Enlightenment to Romanticism in European thought. While we should be very careful about such general distinctions, and amongst other things not engage in simplistic oppositions, it is appropriate to think of Humboldt as belonging to a phase of interest in the history and current meaning of aesthetics, literature, culture, and language as part of the study of political ideas.

He was in fact a major thinker about language and the infinite capacities inherent in the combinatory nature of language, which was part of his thinking about individual human capacity and the power of voluntary co-operation.

It is the interest in aesthetics, language, culture, historical existence, and the capacity of the inner human which makes him ‘Romantic’ rather than ‘Enlightened’, though again we should avoid stereotype and simple opposition here. Humboldt was very much not against Enlightenment respect for reasons, and some of these ‘Romantic’ themes are in ‘Enlightenment’ texts.

One of the earlier big classics of Enlightenment, The New Science (1725, 1744) by Giambattista Vico, is a good example and that is a book giving great importance to Homer. Vico is someone else who merits at least one dedicated post, so there will be more about him at some point. I am not aware of any evidence that Humboldt read Vico, but he certainly made an impression on German thinkers of the time.

Anyway, Humboldt was a learned classicist from a philological and literary way, which has an impact on his idea of how liberty was strengthened in antiquity, which compensated for the tendency of the ancient state to interfere in the soul, as Humboldt thinks of antique laws and institutions to promote moral and religious traditions.

What compensates for this pressure on liberty is the struggle in the lives of ancient humans, which has two main aspects. First the struggle with nature to have enough food and shelter to preserve life. Second the military struggle with rival states and communities, which was a very frequent experience in antiquity, and was an aspect of the history of the early Greek and Roman republics.

The best place to look for that in antique sources is Homer, because of the breadth of the Homeric world, as well as its poetic qualities, as well as its enormous influence on Greek and Roman culture. I had meant to address how the kind of struggle which can promote some kinds of liberty does appear in Homer, but this post is already long enough, and the best thing is to address Homer directly in the next post.

In the meantime, careful reading of any of the translations in books and post on websites, of The Iliad and The Odyssey (or indeed the original Greek for those fortunate enough to have that linguistic capacity), should I hope provide material to confirm what I’m suggesting.

Hume and Humboldt

Divergent dichotomies are not unusual to be found in Hayek’s writings. Besides the essay “Two Types of Mind”, we have his 1945 lecture “Individualism: True and False” on the difference between the British Enlightenment and the Continental Rationalism. Grounded in Edmund Burke’s Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, Hayek traces the origin of true individualism to Bernard Mandeville, David Hume, Josiah Tucker, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke himself. The XIX Century adds Lord Acton and Alexis de Tocqueville to the list. On the other hand, Hayek states that Jean Jacques Rousseau exemplifies the Rationalist individualism, which postulates isolated and self-contained individuals –whereas, for the former, the individual is determined by his existence in society. The “true variant” of individualism is the notion of “subject” of Hume’s philosophy: the outcome of repetitions, expectancies and habits. Finally, Hayek concludes his lecture with the censure to the German type of individualism, rooted in Wolfgang v. Goethe and Wilhelm v. Humboldt: the individualism expressed in the original development of the personality and defended in J. S. Mill’s On Liberty.

Notwithstanding in this 1945 lecture Hayek claims that this German individualism of self-development has nothing to do with what he regards as true individualism and it is “an obstacle to the smooth working of an individualistic system,” much later, in Law, Legislation, and Liberty, he will restate his opinion on Wilhelm v. Humboldt’s legacy.

This reconsideration of the value of liberty as the development of the unique and particular character of an individual will be acknowledge not only regarding legal theory but as well in his 1976 proposal of denationalization of currency. In his late writings, Hayek will endorse the development of the originality of character as an important trait for the competition to work as a discovery process.

The key to understand his shift onto this new type of individualism is closely related to Hayek’s involvement into the ideas of cultural evolution. The “true individualism” was important to state how a society can achieve certain order. The “Humboldt’s individualism” is needed to explain the dynamic of the evolution of that order. Hume’s notion of subject is related to the ideas of integration and convergence, to how an order may emerge. Humboldt’s ideal of self-development of the unique and original character of each individual implies differentiation and divergence. These two traits are the key to the adaptation to the changes in the environment that defines the notion of blind evolution. A social and political system that assures the development of differences has keen aptitudes to survive to the changes in its environment. At the level of the “true individualism”, individuals are made of institutions, repetitions and expectancies. But at the level “Humboldt´s individualism”, successful institutions are made of differences, divergent series of facts and adaptation.

(Originally published in

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