Ideas by Wilhelm Humboldt 1833

Wilhelm Humboldt wrote letters to “a female friend” whom he addessed as Charlotte, between 1814 and 1835. He called her “a friend forsaken by fortune” and she kept all his letters.  They were published by Therese von Bacheracht 1804-1852 under the title Letters to a Friend after her death. The friend’s name was Charlotte Diede (Hildebrand) 1769-1846. Humboldt was a Prussian dipolomat and linguist and brother of Alexander Humboldt.

The letter below concerns ideas. It was writtten March 8, 1833concerns ideas. It .   She might have been his one and only true love.

You ask me what I mean, when I say respecting ideas that they are all that remain to man, and that they alone serve to occupy life. The question is not easily answered, but I will endeavour to make myself understood.

In the first place, ideas stand opposed to transitory, external objects, and consequently to emotions, desires, and sufferings derived from these.

All that relates to selfish views and transitory enjoyments is necessarily antagonistic, and can never be brought into unison with a spiritual idea.

But many higher and more noble emotions and deeds, as benevolence, the care of those who are near to us, and many other equally praiseworthy actions, are not to be reckoned in the number; and he whose life depends upon ideas will only be influenced by them in so far as the external action is a manifestation of the inward principle. Such a man rests upon an idea; and this is the case with individuals of a vivid imagination.

This idea is that of universal beneficence, and the want of this is a discord, or a hindrance to our union with higher and more perfect spirits, and with the benevolent Mind which exhibits itself in Nature, and animates her every manifestation.

But these actions may also spring from a sense of duty; and this sense of duty, when it arises from a feeling of obligation without any consideration of inclination or even of a divine reward, must be classed amongst the most elevated ideas.

But we must be careful to separate the exercises of the intellect and memory from these ideas; for though such may lead to them, they do not themselves deserve the name. You thus see that the Idea arises from something infinite from an ultimate connection from something that would enrich the soul if it could set itself free from all earthly ties. All great and important truths are of this nature.

But there are many things which cannot be measured and comprehended by thought, which yet are not the less true. Into our estimate of some of these an artistic imagination enters eagerly; for it possesses the power of exhibiting the sentient and finite, for example, corporeal beauty, independently of the countenance and its spiritual expression, as if it were something infinite.

The art of poetry is a means of transforming much into ideas which cannot originally be considered in reference to them. Even truth, if it lie chiefly in the thoughts, requires such an addition for its completion. For as we have contemplated the Idea in reference to its object, we may also describe it in reference to the temper of mind which it requires. As it is now a conclusion of the connection, it demands, in order to comprehend it, an entireness of soul a united working of all the powers of mind; thought and feeling must be in unison, and as feeling, even when most full of soul, has always a reference to something material, the imagination of an artist alone is able to effect a union with thought which stands opposed to all that is material.

One who possesses no taste for art, and does not care for poetry or music, will generally find a difficulty in comprehending ideas, and will in no case truly understand and feel what the Idea is. Such differences in men arise from the varieties of their original spiritual temperaments. Cultivation does nothing. It may improve, but it can never create; and there are hundreds of men who cultivate the arts and sciences, who yet plainly show by every word that the natural disposition which is the all important thing is wanting.

The great value of ideas is known especially by the following consideration: Man, when he quits this world, leaves behind him all which does not, exclusively and independently of earthly relations, belong to his spiritual nature. But this is the case with ideas alone, and it is their most marked characteristic. That which has no power to occupy the soul when it feels the necessity of resigning all earthly objects, cannot be reckoned amongst the number. To arrive at this moment of departure with the mind enriched by the possession of purified ideas, is a noble aim, worthy of every faculty of heart and soul.

It was with this reference and for this reason that I called Ideas the only possession that remains to man, because they alone are retained when the world itself disappears.

You will perhaps instance love and friendship; but these are themselves only ideas. Of friendship this is clear. Of love you must excuse my speaking. It may be a weakness, but I utter the word reluctantly, and do not like to hear it from the lips of others.

Men have often singular views of love. They imagine they can love more than once, yet only once the right object. They deceive themselves, or have been deceived. I dispute no one’s feelings. But what I call love, is quite another thing: it can occur but once in a lifetime, can never deceive, or be itself deceived, and depends entirely upon ideas.

Humboldt wrote an essay on the Theory and Practice of Government in 1799.


Letters of William von Humboldt to a female friend by Wilhelm, Freiherr von Humboldt, 1767-1835; Diede, Charlotte (Hildebrand) 1769-1846; Couper, Catharine M. A.  Publication date 1849 LETTER XLI. TEGEL, March 8, 1833. p. 156-158

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