This post was written as part of CULA’s “Liberal Icons” essay competition; the winner and runner-up will be announced once all entries have been posted.
In the 21st century it is difficult to have icons. Finding historical figures who didn’t engage in problematic behaviour when viewed in the light of today is a challenge in and of itself. Even figures such as Gandhi who previously enjoyed Christ-like reputations are now coming under increased scrutiny for views they expressed. Being able to stand the test of time and maintain or even enhance one’s reputation, then, is a great feat. Born to conservative Prussian nobility, Alexander von Humboldt was an unlikely candidate to achieve this feat. Yet over 160 years after his death, both his views on the environment and on liberalism are more pertinent than ever.
Alexander von Humboldt was the most famous man of his time, supposedly more famous than even Napoleon. Sadly, much of this fame has been lost to time, though he remains immortalised through the many geographic and biological features that bear his name. Whilst his heroic five-year-long South American expedition—encompassing modern day Mexico, Panama, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru—and his romantic writings about nature inspired many (including Charles Darwin and Henry David Thoreau), Humboldt’s true modern legacy is his championing of both environmental and progressive, liberal causes. Humboldt was the first person to properly appreciate the impact of human activity on the environment and the wide-reaching and unintended ramifications such actions can cause. While visiting the Venezuelan Lake Valencia in 1800, Humboldt documented in his diary the effects of deforestation and overirrigation on the declining water levels of the lake. This experience helped further develop his Weltanschauung rooted in the interconnectedness and unity of nature, leading to a prototheory of anthropogenic climate change. This would eventually be supplanted by an inspired Darwin’s theory of natural selection as the preeminent biological Weltanschauung; it would only be some 150 years later that the true significance of Humboldt’s science could be appreciated. His discovery at Lake Valencia also furthered his opposition to the “immoral idea of a colony”. The exploitation of land, natural resources, and people for cash crops was a fundamentally immoral and unsustainable practice that European powers pursued at their peril. Humboldt would be vindicated 20 years later when his friend, Simón Bolívar, overthrew Spanish colonial rule and established an independent Colombia. Of all the colonial institutions, Humboldt most strongly opposed those which were intrinsically racist, namely slavery and Catholic missions. Humboldt was repulsed by the chattel slavery he found across the Americas, strongly condemning the institution and its racist justifications in his diary. He felt similarly regarding the Spanish missionaries and their treatment of the indigenous population, seeing little difference between their treatment of indigenous peoples and slave owners’ treatment of slaves. Whilst Humboldt was reluctant to openly criticise these powerful institutions outside of his personal diaries, lest it prevent him from conducting his work, all his published work on anthropology and race is consistently anti-racist. In his magnum opus, Cosmos, published long after his South American expedition, Humboldt writes about race that “all are alike designed for freedom” and “the principle of individual and political freedom is implanted in the ineradicable conviction of the equal rights of one sole human race”. A robust, liberal rebuke—one that would not be out of place today—of contemporary racist and pseudoscientific ideas.
Despite his deeply held liberal beliefs, Humboldt is still a somewhat contradictory figure. Despite his clear dislike for them, he was still complicit in aiding colonial and imperialist regimes. Information gathered from his South American expedition was shared with the colonial government, and Humboldt’s “Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain” shied away from outright criticism of the government. Humboldt had to tread a narrow path. He was one of very few non-Spanish citizens to be granted authorisation to go on an expedition through South America; if he wanted to be able to go on such expedition again, he would have to prove himself a reliable subject. His later 1829 expedition to Russia was already viewed with suspicion by Russian authorities, with limits being imposed on his movement through Russia, proving his cautious approach to political writings was both necessary and useful to his career.
Humboldt also had to take financial matters into consideration; the inheritance he received from his mother was substantial but by the end of his expedition in South America he had burned through much of it. This combined with possibly romance-fueled generosity shown toward many promising younger scientists left Humboldt’s financial situation wanting. Humboldt was forced to depend on stipend from the Prussian monarchy, received in exchange for his work as a courtier. Whilst this provided a steady source of income for little work, it did drag Humboldt away from his beloved Paris. Paris had great appeal to Humboldt, with the secular reforms implemented by the Revolutionary French government staying largely intact despite Napoleon’s ascent to the throne. Humboldt and other scientists of his time could work unhindered without worrying about the clergy involving themselves in their work. Additionally, the Napoleonic code decriminalized homosexuality, which no doubt allowed Humboldt to pursue his romances with a greater degree of freedom than back in Prussia. Despite Humboldt’s liberal republican tendencies, his relationship with the Prussian monarchy was friendly. Frederick William IV held Humboldt in particularly high regard, enjoying much of the day in his company. Humboldt tried to use the leverage gained to garner sympathy for liberal causes, successfully campaigning for progressive anti-slavery legislation to be implemented in Prussia. During the liberal revolutions of 1848, Humboldt was allegedly behind Frederick William’s reconciliatory approach. The King famously dressed in the black, red and gold colours of the revolution as he addressed a crowd of revolutionaries. Unfortunately, the revolutions of 1848 amounted to very little of historical significance; Frederick William refused to accept the Pan-German “gutter crown”, making Germany wait until 1871 for its unification.
Humboldt’s resurgence in recent years should be welcomed with open arms. Whilst his prescient views on the environment are the focus of this resurgence, his approach toward political matters should not be lost. Humboldt was a revolutionary at heart who strove for the freedom of all, yet he would not let dogmatic radicalism hinder his ability to work with the establishment to better the world. This ability to achieve compromise without surrendering to the establishment is sorely missed in today’s world of childish extremism and bland centrism.
Sam also recommends The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf as an excellent biography if anyone is interested in learning more about Humboldt.