Both sides co-exist in public opinion. Since truth and endless error are so directly united in it, neither one nor the other side is truly in earnest. Which one is in earnest, is difficult to decide—difficult, indeed, if one confines oneself to the direct expression of public opinion. But as the substantial principle is the inner character of public opinion, this alone is its truly earnest aspect; yet this insight cannot be obtained from public opinion itself, for a substantial principle can only be apprehended apart from public opinion and by a consideration of its own nature. No matter with what passion an opinion is invested, no matter with what earnestness a view is asserted, attacked, and defended, this is no criterion of its real essence. And least of all could public opinion be made to see that its seriousness is nothing serious at all.
A great mind has publicly raised the question whether it is permissible to deceive a people. The answer is that a people will not permit itself to be deceived concerning its substantial basis, the essence, and the definite character of its spirit, but it deceives itself about the way in which it knows this, and according to which it judges of its acts, events, etc.
Public opinion deserves, therefore, to be esteemed as much as to be despised; to be despised for its concrete consciousness and expression, to be esteemed for its essential fundamental principle, which only shines, more or less dimly, through its concrete expression. Since public opinion possesses within itself no standard of discrimination, no capacity to rise to a recognition of the substantial, independence of it is the first formal condition of any great and rational enterprise (in actuality as well as in science). Anything great and rational is eventually sure to please public opinion, to be espoused by it, and to be made one of its prepossessions.
In public opinion all is false and true, but to discover the truth in it is the business of the great man. The great man of his time is he who expresses the will and the meaning of that time, and then brings it to completion; he acts according to the inner spirit and essence of his time, which he realizes. And he who does not understand how to despise public opinion, as it makes itself heard here and there, will never accomplish anything great.
The freedom of public utterance (of which the press is one means, having advantage over speech in its more extended reach, though inferior to it in vivacity), the gratification of that prickling impulse to express and to have expressed one’s opinion, is directly controlled by the police and State laws and regulations, which partly hinder and partly punish its excesses. The indirect guarantee lies in its innocuousness, and this again is mainly based on the rationality of the constitution, the stability of the government, and also on the publicity given to the assemblies of the classes. Another security is offered by the indifference and contempt with which insipid and malicious words are, as a rule, quickly met.