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Wilhelm von Humboldt – Some ideas should never be put into practice

September 1, 2014

“Every development of truths which apply to human nature, and more especially to human activity, leads to a wish to see worked out in practice what theory has shown us to be right. To man, who is seldom satisfied with the calmly beneficent influence of abstract ideas, this desire is perfectly natural, and it is quickened by benevolent sympathy with the well-being of society. But, however natural in itself, and however noble in its origin, this desire has not infrequently led to harmful consequences, indeed, often to greater evils than the colder indifference, or – for the same effects can follow from opposite causes – the burning enthusiasm, which comparatively heedless of reality, delights only in the pure beauty of ideas. For as soon as truth strikes deep roots in human nature, if only in a single man, it slowly and silently spreads its beneficial influence into practical life, while on the other hand, if it is put directly into practice, it often changes character as a result and does not react on men’s ideas. Hence there are some ideas which the wise man would never attempt to put into practice. Indeed, reality, in any period, is never ripe for the ripest and finest fruit of the spirit; the ideal must always float before the soul of the artist, whatever the art he practices, only as an unattainable standard.”

(from The Limits of State Action, translated by J. W. Burrow, starting from the original translation by Joseph Coulthard [1854])

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