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LETTER III. - John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Acton-Creighton Correspondence 
Acton-Creighton Correspondence (1887)
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The College, Worcester [April 9, 1887]
My dear Lord Acton,
Your letter is an act of true friendliness, and I am very grateful to you for it, more grateful than I can say. It is a rare encouragement to have such a standard set up as you have put before me. Judged by it I have nothing to say except to submit: efficaci do manus scientiae. Before such an ideal I can only confess that I am shallow and frivolous, limited alike in my views and in my knowledge. You conceive of History as an Architectonic, for the writing of which a man needs the severest and largest training. And it is impossible not to agree with you: so it ought to be.
I can only admit that I fall far short of the equipment necessary for the task that I have undertaken. I was engaged in reading quietly for the purpose, and the beginning of writing lay in the remote distance in my mind, when I received a letter asking me to look through the papers of an old gentleman whom I slightly knew, who on his deathbed had made me his literary executor. I came across him at Oxford in the Bodleian, where he came to read for a history of the rise of Universities. He died at the age of seventy-four, possessor of a vast number of notes, out of which all that I could piece together was an article on Wyclifs Oxford life. This filled me with a horror of notebooks and urged me to begin definitely to write. I thought that I had best frankly do what I could; anything would serve as a step for my successors. So I wrote.
I entirely agree with your principles of historical judgments: but apparently I admit casuistry to a larger extent than you approve. I remember that in 1880 I met John Bright at dinner: he was very cross, apparently a cabinet meeting had disagreed with him. Amongst other things he said: “If the people knew what sort of men statesmen were, they would rise and hang the whole lot of them.” Next day I met a young man who had been talking to Gladstone, who urged him to parliamentary life, saying: “Statesmanship is the noblest way to serve mankind.”
I am sufficient of a Hegelian to be able to combine both judgments; but the results of my combination cannot be expressed in the terms of the logic of Aristotle. In studying history the question of the salvability of an archdeacon becomes indefinitely extended to all officials, kings and popes included. What I meant in my offending sentence in my preface was that anyone engaged in great affairs occupied a representative position, which required special consideration. Selfishness, even wrongdoing, for an idea, an institution, the maintenance of an accepted view of the basis of society, does not cease to be wrongdoing: but it is not quite the same as personal wrongdoing. It is more difficult to prove, and it does not equally shock the moral sense of others or disturb the moral sense of the doer. The acts of men in power are determined by the effective force behind them of which they are the exponents: their morality is almost always lower than the morality of the mass of men: but there is generally a point fixed below which they cannot sink with impunity. Homicide is always homicide: but there is a difference between that of a murderer for his own gain, and that of a careless doctor called in to see a patient who would probably have died anyhow; and the carelessness of the doctor is a difficult thing to prove.
What is tolerance nowadays? Is it a moral virtue in the possessor, or is it a recognition of a necessity arising from an equilibrium of parties? It often seems to me that we speak as if it was the first, when actually it is the second. My liberalism admits to everyone the right to his own opinion and imposes on me the duty of teaching him what is best; but I am by no means sure that that is the genuine conviction of all my liberal friends. French liberalism does not convince me that it is universal. I am not quite sure how Frederick Harrison or Cotter Morrison would deal with me if they were in a majority. The possession of a clear and definite ideal of society seems to me dangerous to its possessors. The Mediaeval Church had such an ideal: the result was the Inquisition, which was generally approved by the common consciousness. In the period of the end of the fifteenth century the Papacy seemed to me to have wearied of the Inquisition which was not much supported. The Popes were comparatively tolerant to Jews, Marrani, Turks; they did not attack the humanists; they did not furbish up the old weapons and apply them to new cases—except in the recognition of the Spanish Inquisition by Sixtus IV, about whom I have probably expressed myself loosely, but I have not my volumes here and I do not exactly [recall] what I said. What I meant was that to Sixtus IV this recognition was a matter of official routine. To have refused it he would have had to enunciate a new principle and make a new departure in ecclesiastical jurisdiction. I should have honoured him if he had done so; but I do not think him exceptionally persecuting because he did not do so. He accepted what he found. My purpose was not to justify him, but to put him in rank with the rest. I think, however, that I was wrong, and that you are right: his responsibility was graver than I have admitted. I think he knew better.
You judge the whole question of persecution more rigorously than I do. Society is an organism and its laws are an expression of the conditions which it considers necessary for its own preservation. When men were hanged in England for sheep stealing it was because people thought that sheep stealing was a crime and ought to be severely put down. We still think it a crime, but we think it can be checked more effectively by less stringent punishments. Nowadays people are not agreed about what heresy is; they do not think it a menace to society; hence they do not ask for its punishment. But the men who conscientiously thought heresy a crime may be accused of an intellectual mistake, not necessarily of a moral crime. The immediate results of the Reformation were not to favour free thought, and the error of Calvin, who knew that ecclesiastical unity was abolished, was a far greater one than that of Innocent III who struggled to maintain it. I am hopelessly tempted to admit degrees of criminality, otherwise history becomes a dreary record of wickedness.
I go so far with you that it supplies me with few heroes, and records few good actions; but the actors were men like myself, sorely tempted by the possession of power, trammeled by holding a representative position (none were more trammeled than popes), and in the sixteenth century especially looking at things in a very abstract way. I suppose statesmen rarely regard questions in the concrete. I cannot follow the actions of contemporary statesmen with much moral satisfaction. In the past I find myself regarding them with pity—who am I that I should condemn them? Surely they knew not what they did.
This is no reason for not saying what they did; but what they did was not always what they tried to do or thought that they were doing.
Moral progress has indeed been slow; it still is powerless to affect international relations. If Bright’s remedy were adopted and every statesman in Europe were hanged, would that mend matters?
In return for your wisdom I have written enough to show my foolishness. Your letter will give me much food for meditation, and may in time lead to an amendment of my ways. That you should have written shows that you think me capable of doing better. I will only promise that if I can I will; but the labours of practical life multiply, and I have less time for work at my subject now than I had in the country. For a period coming on I ought to spend years in Archives: which is impossible. . . .
My jottings bear traces of the incoherence of one who has preached five sermons this week, and has two more to preach tomorrow. I have not had time to think over your letter: but I wanted to thank you. Perhaps the effort to rid myself of prejudice has left me cold and abstract in my mode of expression and thinking. If so it is an error to be amended and corrected.
Will you not someday write an article in the Historical Review on the Ethics of History? I have no objection to find my place among the shocking examples. Believe me that I am genuinely grateful to you.
Yours most sincerely