The Warm Liberalism of Erik Gustaf Geijer

The Warm Liberalism of Erik Gustaf Geijer


The name Erik Gustaf Geijer (1783–1847) is little known outside of Sweden. But a book called The 100 Greatest Swedes assigns the 39th place to Geijer.[1] That Geijer should be behind tennis legend Björn Borg we rather doubt. On the other hand, Geijer is ahead of Gustavus Adolphus, who changed the course of the Thirty Years War before dying on the battlefield. You know how Swedes today downplay their old boisterous days.

Geijer was a very big deal, not only in his day, but right through the 1960s. After his death in 1847, for more than 100 years, schoolchildren learned Geijer’s poems and songs about ancient Vikings and the glorious days of Sweden, but also about the freedom-loving yeoman farmers, their property, and their proud independence. In his prime and after, Geijer was a celebrated poet, musician, composer, as well as leading thinker and public intellectual. For 30 years students flocked to his history lectures at Uppsala University. He enjoyed rock-star celebrity. He became Chancellor of the University, member of parliament, and member of several Royal Scientific Academies. He did it all.

Geijer often tied his philosophy to the character and evolution of Christianity (“With Christianity the concept of human personality first arose,” p. 356*), and he often tied his analysis to Christianity as a cultural force in history—for example in ending slavery (“all human beings were God’s children,” p. 336). In his mature years his voice is that of kindly Uncle Erik Gustaf, sharing with fellow Swedes rich and remarkable reflections on what it means to be Swedish, to be European, to be Christian, to be good. And what it means to be free.

From the start, his philosophy was moderate and reasonable, but always warm and popular. His writing communicates sentiment openly and credibly. His early period was one of building up Swedish patriotism, painting the character of the nation’s people and history. In 1803 the Swedish Academy awarded Geijer, age 19, the first prize, for his romantic and tacitly anti-Napoleonic essay on the 15th-century regent Sten Sture the Elder. In the first paragraph Geijer writes:

It is only when a country has reached a general level of prosperity, when general industriousness among its citizens sustains that prosperity which it has provided, when an enlightened and just government protects it, when inner strength has produced external security, when the storm of raw passions has subsided over the ages, when the state respects the citizen, because the citizen begins to be worthy of respect, when the wild willfulness of nature has been tamed and it has been given a more pleasant appearance by human hands; it is only in such a land that the quiet flame of mankind, like the heavenly fire that gave life to Prometheus’ perfect statue, will set the hearts of humanity alight, be nourished in them, warm them and develop in them a full and rich character. (pp. 83–84)

Sweden in 1460 was not such a land: “It is your bright image, Sten Sture, that emerges from the background of that dark picture; it is a noble youth, the hope of Sweden, soon its support and its honour, who goes into battle to free his native country from a foreign [i.e., Danish] yoke” (p. 87). After the defense of Stockholm against external enemies, Sten Sture “makes use of that precious calm to turn his efforts towards the internal ones. It was a difficult enterprise to bring together interests…, to unite minds…, to first create the state whose regent he had become” (p. 94).

In much of Europe in 1803 nationhood was rather hypothetical. Few countries had what Britain had, comparatively speaking: defined frontiers, security against invasion, a stable political system, an integrated if geographically differentiated legal system, a common language, a national identity, and an administration of government institutions that was neither very dishonest nor very incompetent. Geijer wanted for Sweden what Britain had.

Geijer has long been regarded as a nationalist influenced by German idealism and romanticism, and with good reason.[2] G. W. F. Hegel, F. W. J. Schelling, and others from the German idealistic tradition were among his influences. After age 50, Geijer’s liberalism became more pronounced, for example in a set of essays on the poor and the poor laws, which was one of the two works translated into English during his lifetime.[3] In 1838 Geijer announced to his public that he had revised his thinking and worldview and had gone over to liberalism. Swedish society took note. Several of his colleagues and friends erupted publicly with dissatisfaction.

Geijer’s new liberal stance has generally been regarded as a substantive change of mind. We suggest, however, that it was perhaps as much a coming out of the closet as a change of political persuasion. We do not see conflict between the early and late writings. There are good reasons to think that Geijer favored liberalism all along.

Geijer came from a prominent industrial family, producing iron and shipping it to markets domestic and international, notably Britain. He learned to view the world through commercial and enterprising eyes, and he was expected to take over the family business. He never revolted against his bourgeois industrial background, and always had the deepest love and pride in his family. His decision to pursue learning and letters might even be seen as answering a calling to explain to others why and how the world should be seen through liberal commercial eyes. He spent a year in England in 1809–1810 as tutor to a wealthy Stockholm merchant’s son, conducted business investigations for his family, reported on prices and the trade policies of the main trading partners, admired Britain, improved his English, and learned about British intellectual and political life.[4] He continued to read the Edinburgh Review, Quarterly Journal, and other British journals throughout his life. In historical writings of 1818–1819 he treats Britain as central, copiously citing David Hume and William Robertson, and referring to Adam Smith (pp. 248–280). He also pays high tribute to Hugo Grotius (pp. 235–236).

Geijer’s historical work makes clear that he saw modern freedom as something dependent on broad constitutional conditions—political, legal, moral, cultural. Like Hume and Smith, Geijer shows great awareness of paradoxes (“the highest justice would be the highest injustice,” p. 229; “The centralization was a manifestation of the unity of the state,” p. 393). Yet Britain provided lessons about how a good measure of liberty is arrived at and sustained:

For if you want a measure of the real benefits of a state system, as of the individual state, do not ask the powerful, the wealthy! Ask the humble, the poor man, if his cottage, his plot of land, his mite [small coin] are as protected and secure as the palace and possessions of the powerful one! And if you have found that in a single state system, in a single state, there is respect for something as sacred as the right of the weaker, then boldly say or praise with tears that justice has not yet fled the earth! (p. 238)

From the beginning, it seems, Geijer was favorable to free commerce, freedom of association, and commercial society. His romanticism and nationalism never meant to encroach on such principles but were complementary. His nationalist romanticism in the 1810s–20s had some of the style and language that in Hegel and Schelling expressed ambivalence towards liberal principles and commercial society, and in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, J. G. Fichte, and Thomas Carlyle, antipathy. But Geijer never denounced freedom of trade and commercial life as such. His main concern was the social effects of a liberalized society. Geijer looked to achieve some measure of spiritual cohesion in idea and culture, but without undue governmentalization of social affairs; he hoped for a liberal nation-state, a people confident in itself, free internally, freely trading with the world, and proud of its public allegiance to freedom. The state was more of an eternal and ever-evolving organism than an instrument for action and reform, in Geijer’s view, in this respect perhaps like Hegel’s.

Geijer saw clearly that the liberal order was new and disruptive: “What we have experienced is a more unrestricted rule of wealth or property than the world has hitherto seen, and that rule is also decidedly the rule of movable property over its fixed form. It is the first time that property positions itself at the forefront of society, namely as merely private property, for it has previously been linked to wider personal relationships” (p. 375).

As liberalism brought individuality to the fore in the development of societies, Geijer saw clearly that liberal arrangements presented challenges to social cohesion. In 1818 he asked: “how are the elements of the complete human being, which are split apart as it were by the division of labour, again reunited in the case of each individual?” But its discohesion tendencies did not leave liberalism beyond recall:

[Y]et it is as a whole, complete human being that everyone wishes to be regarded, to know oneself in the full capacity of one’s humanity and personality, and therefore also demands a complementing in that regard, if one has been obliged to develop only a certain portion of that capacity.  The answer is that every individual capacity can only achieve that complementarity in so far as it is aware of itself within the whole.  But that sense, which, in permeating every individual, makes him even in the most reduced condition a participant in the wealth and security of the whole, is what we call public spirit.  That therefore represents the role of money at a higher level or is indeed itself the highest, invisible money in society, by means of which even the material aspect first becomes assured and can fulfil its purpose. (pp. 201–202)

As with Adam Smith, the candid recognition of problems does not amount to a rejection, or even a relaxation, of liberal principles. Geijer, rather, seems to counsel his readers on how they can rediscover the whole through liberal reflection, and revitalize community in voluntary association. In an 1844 lecture he said: “[T]he principle of association is a means of salvation in our time, but surely not only in the industrial context. That requires the principle of association gaining a higher, nobler life, that it be animated by the same social spirit of which we have spoken” (p. 385). With such words Geijer allowed himself to be interpreted in diverse ways, but we interpret him as meaning to advance a public spiritedness within the framework of liberal arrangements.

By the beginning of 1847 it was known that Geijer was sickly and not long for this world. He composed and published his final essay, “An Economic Dream,” which makes quite clear the nature of his vision, expressing it in the form of a dream had while sleeping. “It is a dream of national economy,” a dream of “that which is happening in the world now… the liberation of labour—a true incarnation of the so-often odious principle of personality, which is increasingly encroaching upon reality.” Appearing in the dream are the resentment, antipathy, and even violence at the trend, as well as the cultural opposition (“What is a conservatism that rejects this gift of God?,” p. 443).

But, lo, in the landscape surveyed by the dreamer, a different attitude emerges, and it then spreads throughout the nation:

This liberty is tantamount with disorder, a thousand voices shout. On the contrary, she is a new, self-evolving order; so do others comfort themselves, the more industrious, the wiser. That liberty, even if she brings disorder for a passing while, follows her own rules and develops from within, implanted in her by the Creator, her own law: that is the full faith of liberalism and it leads to salvation. (p. 443)

What is the new order of things? With each day, its law evolves more clearly; its substance is already so apparent that one can thereof judge its nature and the spirit of progress. This substance is the day-by-day, constantly evolving, all-encompassing fellowship and interaction of human powers and needs. This new, but actually ancient law of labour is that of intelligence, which works in expanding circles. From there comes the dependency, from there the interaction in all occupations, equally familiar and acknowledged, and which, to the extent of this increasingly ardent acknowledgement, communicates ever more directly with its own essence and from this[,] new, greater powers emerge, day-by-day and without surcease. Therefore, every seeming defeat is a true victory for it. It needs hardly touch the earth to feel at home and rise again with renewed vigour.

One needs only to regard this immortal principle in detail in its effects to find oneself in the field of an infinite project that reaches in all directions and returns from all directions to its centre. — How could any occupation, any area of human enterprise, now be able to isolate itself? In so doing, it cuts itself off from its very breath of life, withers and inevitably dies. It thrives, flourishes, feels happy and promotes happiness utterly to the same extent that it both communicates and receives based on an enlivening influence.

And so, the separated groups of industries and trades finally flowed together before my eye. The artisan, not merely with his bodily strength, but with his intelligence, was the foundation of it all, for an enterprise that the factory owner used and distributed, that the merchant spread across the earth. I saw a new day ascend above it. It was the rising sun; and the Dancing Hours moving around the sun, in measured heavenly-harmonious orbits, were the beautiful performance at which I wakened from my dream. (pp. 444–446)

Here Geijer evokes an allegory that has been vital to liberal economics, namely, that of a spontaneous order, with pricing and profit-and-loss so central, as a system of intelligence and communication. To our knowledge, it would not be until Friedrich Hayek, in 1945, that the communication allegory would again be used to understand the price system.[5] Hayek’s piece is justly famous, and for that illuminating allegory. Almost 100 years prior to Hayek, Geijer provided the same allegory, with less elaboration and illustration, but comparable expression of its significance.

In the history of liberalism, Geijer stands as one of the theological-cum-allegorical writers, more typical of the 18th century moralists such as Joseph Butler, Francis Hutcheson, Hume, and Smith, and of the liberal statesman Edmund Burke. Geijer’s sweeping purview and liberal themes reminds one of Alexis de Tocqueville, though Geijer is warmer and more familiar. We believe that something was lost as liberal authors in the 19th and 20th centuries sought to jettison allegory, in the aim to be more precise and accurate—supposedly, more scientific.

Geijer himself complained of the tendency to reduce social understanding to something “mechanical” (pp. 273–276), and characterized Thomas Malthus’s famous work of 1798, with its mathematical proof of deterministic overpopulation, as a “sophism,” as not seeing the full potential of social developments. Something was lost when liberal writers grew increasingly anxious about their professional authority and pretensions of expertise.

An appreciation of Geijer is valuable, also, for understanding the sturdy liberal thread in Swedish society and culture. Geijer sought to establish a worthy Swedish patriotism. To do so, he embellished Sweden itself, to enhance its worthiness as object of such patriotism. He wove liberal themes into his art, teaching, and scholarship, but, shrewdly, not too early or too pronouncedly as might have prevented his compatriots from celebrating him.

Geijer told Swedes that the name Sten Sture “can be forgotten, though not before posterity has forgotten to care for its own culture” (p. 97). For Swedes today, the name Erik Gustaf Geijer can be forgotten, in like manner.



* Reference for all page-number citations: Geijer, Erik Gustaf. 2017. Freedom in Sweden: Selected Works of Erik Gustaf Geijer, ed. Björn Hasselgren, trans. P. C. Hogg. Stockholm: Timbro.

[1] Ekdal, Niklas, and Petter Karlsson. 2009. Historiens 100 viktigaste svenskar. Stockholm: Bokförlaget Forum.

[2] Landquist, J. 1924. Erik Gustav Geijer: Hans Levnad och Verk. Stockholm: Norstedt.

[3] Geijer, Erik Gustaf. 1842. The Poor Laws and Their Bearing on Society: A Series of Political and Historical Essays, trans. E. B. Hale Lewin. London: J. Hatchard and Son.

[4] Pilkington, Roger. 1975. A Swedish Visitor to England, 1809–1810. History Today 25(4): 246–254.

[5] Hayek, Friedrich A. 1945. The Use of Knowledge in Society. American Economic Review 35(4): 519­–530.


A podcast about Geijer by the authors can be found here.

Featured image is a portrait of Geijer by Carl Wilhelm Nordgren (Skokloster Castle / Olav Nyhus / CC BY-SA).