Stahl on the State as Ethical Kingdom

Here Stahl situates the state within the larger context of the ethical kingdom, rescuing it from various notions by which it either is divorced from the kingdom of God in various secular iterations, or made into a direct expression of the kingdom of God. The state is neither, but remains closely bound to that kingdom, in particular in terms of the ethical content it is called to answer to.

From Friedrich Julius Stahl, The Doctrine of State & the Principles of State Law (Aalten: WordBridge, 2009), pp. 81–89.

§36. The State as Ethical Kingdom 

The human community, in accordance with the large units in which it unfolds, the peoples, is to be an ethical (ethical-intellectual) kingdom: it is to govern its common condition in accordance with its commandments and purposes, and is to rule in the manner of personality as a single will and understanding, as a single acting subject. An institution [Anstalt] of governance is organized and ordained to this end, and this institution is the state. Thus, in accordance with the manner and form of its existence the state is the association of a people under a government (ruling authority). In terms of content and significance it is an ethical kingdom. It is quite simply the ethical world (Book I, §. 25), i.e., the ethical-reasonable shape of human community in itself in accordance with all its conditions, relations, and purposes, to the degree that these are its own work and vocation (apart from union with God – religion and the church). More deeply considered, it is the human order and regime through which human community maintains God’s world-order and is to serve His leading as instrument, in God’s empowerment and on His behalf, albeit in independent manner in accordance with its own free plan and according to its own regard, thereby as a [82] unity demonstrating both its obedience to God and its assumption of the high “godlike position of ethical steward, lawgiver and judge” (Book II, §. 1). There is an ethical kingdom of people that has a ground and purpose in, and an invisible connection to, the true ethical kingdom, the kingdom of God, which is to serve that kingdom, albeit in the infirmity and according to the limitations of earthly conditions (Book I, §. 48). As the ethical kingdom in all its stages and sorts has the threefold purpose: the welfare of people, the manifestation of the profusion of creative and form-giving thoughts, and the rule of holiness and justice, all three in inseparable unity and mutual permeation; just so does the state unfold an effectiveness according to three aspects: the protection and support of people – the completion [Vollendung] of national existence – the maintenance of a desirable order of life. It provides to people protection outwardly, peace inwardly, defense against natural damage, means of subsistence [Ernährung], education, civilization. It completes the national existence through the unfolding of all natural and ethical powers (armed forces, wealth, culture), through the manifestation of the innermost spiritual individuality of the nation, through its own completed construction with the manifold institutions of mechanical efficiency or ethical commitment. It maintains a desirable life-order: law and justice, punishment of criminals, discipline and honorableness, the ethical shape of the family, the validity and regard of religion and the church. And these various aspects of the action of the state are not separated, but mutually permeate each other everywhere. For instance, the administration of penal law is at the same time the protection of men, a manifestation of the nation’s justice, and a vindication of the God-ordained order. Self-preservation, life-satisfaction, the improvement of people and again the maintenance of people [83] under God’s commandments and the maintenance of God’s commandments and God’s tribunal over them, and finally the vivid completion and ethical glory of this human kingdom of the nation itself – all of this in particular is the act and the purpose (τέλος) of the state. Such a profusion of relations and such unfolding according to various, even contradictory directions which nevertheless merge back into one undivided great effect is precisely the specific essence of the ethical kingdom.

The state is therefore based not on the ethical vocation (ethos) of individual persons but on the ethical vocation of the human community (of the people) as a whole. Certainly, individuals everywhere pursue satisfaction in life and fulfilment of morals [Sitte]; both of these goods are the purpose of all human effort, and therefore they expect assistance from the state in this task, and the state must provide this. But this does not exhaust the nature of the state; it is not merely or primarily the means to satisfaction and morals of individuals, but it itself is a kingdom of morals and reasonable purposes through the shape and action which it has as a whole. The union of the many into one ordered common existence – the establishment of an ethical authority and power with its grandeur and majesty and the devotion of subjects – the life satisfaction which does not isolate individuals but vouchsafes the nation and the individuals in the nation, to wit, the consciousness and the elevating feeling of belonging to this ordered commonwealth and this nation with its spiritual significance – the characteristic ethos, that consists not in ethical life, in the fulfillment of commands, but in ethical rule, in the establishment and upholding of commands, in the realization of ethical ideas of rule, power, wisdom, justice – these are the characteristics which comprise the innermost essence of the state and which have their foundation not in individual life but in human [84] common existence.

It is not even in the promotion and development of common human existence for which the essence of the state alone exists; the improvement of human conditions is only one side of this essence. Rather, the essence of the state is likewise, in fact primarily, the maintenance of commands established by a higher power (God) over human conditions. So for example it is certainly not the mere promotion or perfection of human existence for which the state maintains the holy ordinance of marriage (prohibition of incest, divorce) and obedience of children to parents, for which it punishes criminals, exercises discipline against immorality and disrespect, but the viewpoint of an inviolable command assigned to it; and it is a deep decline when consciousness of this has been lost sight of and it is considered a matter of mere human statesmanlike consideration as to whether it is beneficial or not. The state, the ruling authorities, is not merely the promoter of corporeal and spiritual goods but is also the guardian of holy ordinances. This is its first and noblest meaning.

The state being the fulfillment of the life-task of the nation [Lebensaufgabe der Nation] and not the fulfillment of the life-task of individual people, its rule is restricted to the common condition; the ordering and determination of one’s innermost individual life is ever God’s affair, not that of human rule. Even so, its rule of the common condition must, in terms of its idea, be of a truly ethical sort – it must require complete ethical character of actions, to the degree that they affect the common condition – the ethical shape of the common condition and individual morality must mesh with each other without limit and as being homogeneous (Book I, §. 45). This is what the most ancient state formations [Staatenbildungen] strove after, each according to its conception of ethics; so did the first scientific doctrine of state, as sketched by Plato; so did [85] even the fractions of the Protestant church, which melded state and church into one undivided, life-ruling theocracy. If in this manner, however, the rule of the state is to be of an ethical kind, its fulfillment by people, in line with this, must be no less of an ethical sort, i.e., it must everywhere result from free will and inward motivation. But under the given conditions of the human situation, according to which on the one hand one does not everywhere voluntarily achieve the good but has a choice between good and evil, and by the back-and-forth between the two within him, in his innermost being, he is to be strengthened unto the certain grasp of the good (Book I, §. 40), and on the other hand the rule of the state is conducted with anything but pure will and unerring intelligence, there would be the danger, even the suppression of the freedom and personality of men; but this latter is by no means to be restricted, but rather confirmed and elevated, in order for the community to be elevated to an ethical kingdom and even in a certain sense to a personality.

For this reason the rule exercised by the community is to be only external, i.e., only of a legal sort.  Accordingly, the state is of course an ethical kingdom, in that it realizes ethical ideas – justice, public decency [Ehrbarkeit], purity of the family bond (e.g., prohibition of incest), etc. – in fact its existence itself, this union of the nation and founding of a higher regard, is an ethical idea, it being borne by an ethical conviction [Gesinnung]. However, it realizes these ethical ideas only in the manner of law, to wit, through external, in the end coercible commands and institutions [Anstalten], and precisely for this reason in restricted, only negative extent (Book II, §. 6), whereas the full and positive realization of ethical ideas is an affair of the freedom of individuals and the ethical common conviction. This latter is the work of a higher aspiration [eines höheres Hauches]; the state cannot make it, but even so it [86] cannot afford to leave it to life, nor can its existence as an ongoing institution be maintained by or be dependent upon this ever changing, and to that degree arbitrary, unity of conviction. Moreover, the innermost life and will of the individual is already in fact removed from the community [der Gemeinschaft], both the knowledge of it and its effect, and should the community attempt to intervene in this sphere, the nature of which is only to be the result of inner impulse, then it builds on unknown conditions and realizes uncertain results which often run entirely counter to the intention. Therefore the state is the mere institution for the sake of external order and the promotion of social life. Even so, as it, in accordance with its eternal notions, must be a true and complete ethical kingdom – that it is also to realize the ethical ideas in terms of sort and extent – that kingdom remains the purpose over it, which it is to fulfill in ever closer approximation, i.e., not itself to be such a kingdom but uninterruptedly to give rise to it as its fruit, as its spiritual emanation in human common life.

Accordingly it lies in the essence of the state to be both, a kingdom of law, “law-state” [Rechtsstaat], and a kingdom of ethics, an ethical community, which by virtue of the deeper unity of law and morality (Book II, §. 6) is not in contradiction.

The state is to be a law-state: this is the solution as well as the truth in the development-urge of recent times. It is precisely to determine and unshakeably to ensure the paths and limits of its activity as well as the free spheres of its citizens, and it is not to develop (coerce) the ethical ideas by authority of the state, thus directly, further than is appropriate to the sphere of law, i.e., only up until the most necessary boundary. This is the concept of the law-state: by no means that the state merely maintain the legal order without administrative purposes, or, finally, merely protect the rights of individuals; it does not signify the purpose and content of the state at all, but [87] only the manner and character by which the latter are to be realized. The law-state therefore above all is contrary to the patriarchal, the patrimonial, the sheer provider [Polizey-] state, in which the ruling authority seeks to realize the ethical ideas and the purposes of utility in their full extent, in terms of a moral and thus arbitrary valuation of each individual case; it is no less contrary to the popular state (Rousseau, Robes­pierre), as I call it, in which by authority of the state the people expects complete and positive political virtue from every citizen and recognizes no legal restriction on its own particular ethical appraisal – conditions the first of which is a natural beginning that only later is to be superseded, the last however an absolute error.

But the state is no less to be an ethical community. The legal order is to have its ethical idea as principle for all life relations and public endeavors, e.g., for family, church, school, and is to be borne by the ethical common conviction, ­which for its part, beyond the limits of the legal order, is to rule life in a spiritual manner. In this manner the mind [Sinn] of the nation is to recognize in the state and its action, in the maintenance of law and public order [Zucht], no mere external establishment for security and utility, but the deeper ethical and God-ordained order, albeit within the limits of what pertains to law. Power is to reside not merely in the legal authorities but, each in its way, also in the ethical or [bez.] political common conviction. The obedience of subjects is to rest not merely on lawful duty but on piety and faithfulness respecting the prince and on devotion to the community. The moral life of individuals, which is not to be determined by the state as institution, yet is to be determined by the development of public moral judgement. Such power of the ethical spirit, although it cannot be effectuated directly, still remains the supreme purpose and gauge for all institutions and measures, ­far more than material utility; and its existence or lack thereof is the supreme standard [88] for passing judgement over the prosperity of a state. The opposite of the state as ethical community is formed by the mechanical state, whether it has a monarchical, constitutional, or democratic form, in fact even whether it has absorbed a few ethical impulses – for instance regarding political freedom – yet beyond that having closed itself to the remaining ones, such as purity of the family bond, public decency, regard for the monarchy or of any other given ruling authority. The notion of the law-state and the notion of the state as ethical kingdom accordingly are not in conflict with each other; on the contrary, they condition each other. The mechanical state cannot be the true law-state, and the patrimonial state, like the popular state in the above-mentioned sense, cannot truly realize the notions of an ethical kingdom. The steady improvement in the ethical and religious content of the state institutions and yet the unshakeable legal order and the inviolable law and life-sphere of individuals which for the sake of religion or morality cannot be intervened in using external force – these are two purposes which should be and can be pursued jointly.

Earlier natural-law theory divested the state, as indeed the law itself, of ethical ideas, viewing both as mere protection of the individual will. Hegel’s great achievement is that he, following Schelling, asserted the ethical content of the state. But Hegel ignored the bare legal character of its activity, and therefore conceived it absolutely “as the realization of the ethical idea.” This is the untruth, or at least the unclarity, of his concept over against the Kantian, against which even the simple understanding immediate takes umbrage.1 From this therefore [89] arises that apotheosis of the state which one finds already with Hegel himself but in much greater degree with many of his followers.

1Moreover, should one delve deeper into the context [Zusammen­hang] of the Hegelian doctrine, one discovers that Hegel finds the ethical content of the state to lie not so much in its ordering of conditions in accordance with ethical ideas but much rather in its being the unity of the substantial and the subjective will; and therefore its mere existence as state is the realization (reality) of the ethical idea, i.e., the logical unity of the aspects of universality and particularity. “Considered abstractly, reasonableness in general consists in the mutually permeating unity of universality and particularity, and here concretely in terms of content in the unity of objective freedom, i.e., the general substantial will and subjective freedom as the individual will and its particular-purpose-seeking will” (Philosophy of Law, §. 258).