Front Page Titles (by Subject) LORD ACTON 1 - The Collected Papers of Frederic William Maitland, vol. 3
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LORD ACTON 1 - Frederic William Maitland, The Collected Papers of Frederic William Maitland, vol. 3 
The Collected Papers of Frederic William Maitland, ed. H.A.L. Fisher (Cambridge University Press, 1911). 3 Vols. Vol. 3.
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It was from the first but a hopeless sort of hope that we had of Lord Acton’s return to Cambridge. And now it has passed away. Early in the vacation there came to us the news of his death. Since then we have had time to think of our irreparable loss. The more we think of it, the heavier it seems.
Of it I should not dare to say a word, were it not that when the Cambridge Modern History was hardly yet an embryo, I (being then one of the Syndics of the Press) was allowed the privilege of seeing the great project take shape in the hands of one, who, as I thought then, and think now, had at last found a long-sought opportunity of teaching the world some part of what he had learned in the course of a laborious life. Comparing what I then saw and heard with what has since been published in the newspapers, it seems to me that there is some little danger that an imperfect estimate of our misfortune may pass current even in Cambridge.
The learning we may take for granted. All who as yet have ventured to write of it have agreed that it was immense. Whether any other Englishman, whether any other human being, ever knew more of Universal History than Lord Acton knew—in truth it is some such question as this that we are prompted to ask, and the name of the man of whom we ought to ask it does not occur to us. If with a laudable wish to avoid extravagance we recall the giants of a past time, their wondrous memories, their encyclopaedic knowledge, we must remember also how much that Lord Acton knew was for them practically unknowable. This is a truth that he was fond of teaching by examples. “Where Hallam and Lingard were dependent on Barillon, their successors consult the diplomacy of ten governments.”
The immensity of the learning being unquestionable, some disposition to question the use that was—or was not—made of it was to be expected, and has in fact been observed. That “daily consumption of a German octavo,” did it benefit him and the world, or was it only a stupendous feat of intellectual voracity? Reference to the catalogue of the University Library might give point to the question. One lecture, an inaugural lecture, delivered in 1895, one letter written in 1870, a German letter written to a German bishop—these, so the inquirer might say, appear to be all the published works of John Emerich Edward Dalberg, first Lord Acton. He might also notice that this letter seems to have taken a quarter of a century or thereabouts in reaching our shelves, and might not be there now, had not Dr Hort acquired a copy. Some want of interest among the generality of Englishmen in a great historic event of their own time, some unwillingness to believe that a German letter to a German bishop could contain matters of importance, might thus be established incidentally; but the main question would not lose its edge. Was ever such disproportion between intake and output?
Now no one who heard him talk or read what he wrote or borrowed a book from the most generous of book-lenders would for one moment think of him as reading idly, for amusement, for distraction, to pass the time. It was serious work the reading of history, calling not only for a chair, but for a table, pencil, pen and abundant slips of paper. The day’s book was mastered. If it was of any value, certain facts had been ascertained from it, and they had been correlated with countless other facts. And the author had been judged: not vaguely consigned to a class, but judged in a reasoned judgment: often condemned. You had but to ask and you might hear the sentence, plain, decided, not what you had expected, for, though there was reticence, though there was irony, a plain question about book or man brought a plain answer and an unconventional. Once it happened that a solemn filler of many volumes, a German too and an historian, whom I supposed to be highly respected, was dismissed with “mountainous jackass.” Some years ago an adversary in high place, who feared Lord Acton and his then associates, charged them with “the ruthless talk of undergraduates.” In the accusation or the compliment there was, so it seems to me, some truth that we here can understand. He could speak straight out, from heart and head. Age, experience and erudition had not taught him to minish and mince. On the other hand, readers of anecdotes will do well to remember that he was by no means incapable of casting a pearl of irony in the way of those who would mistake it for pebbly fact.
No, if the reading had been idler, less purposeful, more might have been written and published. “Everybody has felt. . . that he knew too much to write.” These are words that he applied to Döllinger, his friend and master, and in some sort they were true of himself. But the obstacle did not consist merely in the enormous weight of the mass that was to be moved. Huge it was, but in his hands not unwieldly. There was also an acute, an almost overwhelming sense of the gravity, the sanctity of history. He was not the man wearily to preach upon this or any other text. A little irony, a little raillery would do more good than the set sermon. Yet read the reviews that he signed, and beneath the playful, witty, enigmatic phrases, you see the solemnity of the historian’s task. Lord Acton’s favourite metaphors came, not from the laboratory, but from the court of justice. It is judicial work to be done without fear or favour in the midst of the subtlest temptations. Not merely is it the historian’s duty to see that individual rogues shall not escape, more especially the rogues of his own nation, his own party, his own creed, but there is the universe—nothing less—at the bar of the court, called upon to give an account of its behaviour before an inexorable judge. Even to the verge of paradox—and some would say a little further—he bore the standard of high morality. Once he spoke a light word of “that rigid liberalism which, by repressing the time test and applying the main rules of morality all round, converts history into a frightful monument of sin.” But with some theoretical concessions to a “sliding scale” to be established hereafter by a science “that is yet in its teens,” and with some (not very much) leniency in the Middle Age, his own precept and practice hardly fell short of this “rigid liberalism.” “It is,” he said, “the office of historical science to maintain morality as the sole impartial criterion of men and things.” We have had other definitions of the historian’s duty. This was Lord Acton’s.
It may seem to some a plain untruth that he was more deeply interested in certain great problems of a philosophical kind than in any concrete presentment of particular facts. They may well have thought of him as the man who with wonderful exactitude knew and enjoyed all the bye-play in the great drama:—at home, no doubt, upon the front-stairs, but supreme upon the back-stairs, and (as he once said) getting his meals in the kitchen: acquainted with the use of cupboards and with the skeletons that lie therein; especially familiar with the laundry where the dirty linen is washed; an analyst of all the various soaps that have been employed for that purpose in all ages and all climes. Disclaiming all esoteric knowledge and reading only what all may read I cannot think of him thus. When he was observing, recording, appreciating the incidents, the bye-play, he was intent on a main plot difficult to apprehend: “fatalism and retribution, race and nationality, the test of success and of duration, heredity and the reign of the invincible dead, the widening circle, the emancipation of the individual, the gradual triumph of the soul over the body, of mind over matter, reason over will, knowledge over ignorance, truth over error, right over might, liberty over authority, the law of progress and perfectibility, the constant intervention of providence, the sovereignty of the developed conscience.” Plenty of men are troubled about these matters; plenty of men make theories, “alluring theories,” about them; but then they are not the men who know the backstairs or get their meals in the kitchen; not the men who have toiled in the archives, hunting the little fact that makes the difference. For Lord Acton, so it seems to me, nothing was too small because nothing was too large. The whole lay in every part and particle: there and there only to be discovered, there and there only to be judged. A conception of history so abstract and so concrete, so unitary and so manifold, so bold and so minute, would have paralysed a weaker man. It did not paralyse him. He worked while the light lasted. But to “seek a little thing to do, find it and do it,” to give all his thought to a century, a nation, a fragment—“no, that’s the world’s way.”
Of this, however, I am very sure, that when all has been collected that can be collected, and all has been told that ought to be told, it will be clear to the world that the acquisition of knowledge was for Lord Acton not end but mean. The late, the very late, arrival upon our shelves of that open letter to a German bishop—an “open letter” in more senses than one—should remind us that few indeed are the men in Cambridge or in England who have even a rudimentary acquaintance with what was no episode but perhaps the chief theme of his earnest life. Some day the story may be told. His friends have no cause to fear the truth. If there was failure, surely it was heroic failure; and the end is not yet. Really one must live in Little Pedlington and never transgress the parish boundary if one is to inform the British public that Lord Acton and his “hoarded knowledge” counted for nothing in the Europe and Christendom of the nineteenth century1 . That was not the judgment of those who had crossed swords with him in a world-wide arena and had felt the strength of his wrist. Deeply convinced that the history of religion lies near the heart of all history, he was isolated from the bulk of his fellow-countrymen by religious and from the residue, or the bulk of the residue, by historical convictions, and, this being so, he was not likely to find or to seek an audience in the market-place. Nor was it given to him to beat the big drum outside the patriotic show and call that historiography. Moreover he had home-truths to tell, and they could best be sent home by a few words written for the few. But it is safe to say that there are, for example, some forty pages in the English Historical Review for 1890 which will still be shining when most of our justly applauded histories have sunk beneath the horizon.
Opportunities were taken when they were offered. Friends were lavishly helped. This man who has been called “a miser” was in truth a very spendthrift of his hard-earned treasure and ready to give away in half an hour the substance of an unwritten book. A journal was edited; it was dreaded and denounced. A great deal of reviewing was done, and reviewing of so admirable a kind that the review has become, for all wise readers of the book, an indispensable appendix. And at last came the great opportunity: at last and too late. We saw with wonder how eagerly it was seized, and how a project that might have been pedestrian took horse, took wings and soared. All modern history—the scheme was large enough. Twelve stout volumes—there would be room enough for minutely truthful work. Stored knowledge, big thoughts, an acknowledged primacy, polyglot correspondence, ramifying friendships, the tact of a diplomatist, the ardour of a scholar, all were to be subservient in a noble cause, to the greater glory of truth and right: to the greater glory, be it added, of a Cambridge that he had learned to love. It was Napoleonic. I know no other word, and yet it is not adequate. I felt as if I had been permitted to look over the shoulder of a general who was planning a campaign that was to last for five centuries and extend throughout the civilised world. No doubt there was some overestimate of health and endurance and mere physical force, some forgetfulness of the weight of accumulating years. We feared it then; we know it now. But of such mistakes, if mistakes they be, the brave will be guilty. And about mental power there was no mistake. With whatever doubts I had gone to his rooms, I came away saying to myself that if contributors failed, if the worst came to the worst, or perhaps the best to the best, Lord Acton could write the twelve volumes from beginning to end, and (as the phrase goes) never turn a hair. But it was too late: too late by ten or fifteen years.
The execution of his project in his large spirit is the memorial that he would have desired. Our best have undertaken the task. At this moment it would not be right to say more than that we are deeply grateful to them.
Another memorial might be thought of. Those who sat or stood in the crowded Divinity School can never forget the majestic act of pardon and oblivion which was the preface of the inaugural lecture. “At three colleges I applied for admission, and, as things then were, I was refused by all. Here, from the first, I vainly fixed my hopes, and here in a happier hour, after five and forty years, they are at last fulfilled.” As it is written, Lapidem quem reprobaverunt adificantes, hic factus est caput in angulo. Those who most revere these words will be the last to say that they teach no practical lesson. Well, intolerance is a foolish thing, and an apology based upon unintended consequences is an apology of just the sort that aroused Lord Acton’s indignation. Still to some of his hearers must have occurred the thought:—“Were you not the gainer by our churlishness? Had Cambridge then received you, no doubt you would have been a very learned man and by this time Regius Professor. But would you have been quite such a master of contemporary history, quite such an impartial judge of modern England, so European, so supernational, so catholic, so liberal, so wise, so Olympian, so serene?” And even now, so I cannot but think, the pride and sorrow with which Cambridge writes Acton’s name on the roll of her illustrious dead is not unalloyed by an uncomfortable suspicion that just those qualities that were most distinctive of his work and most admirable, are but exotic flowers in our Cambridge garland. An effective resolve that never hereafter shall there be cause for such an abatement of our pride is the debt that we owe to his memory. Meanwhile a little remorse will do us no harm. The pardon was freely granted. We have yet to earn it.
The Cambridge Review, Oct. 16th, 1902.
See a letter in the Daily News of July 8th, 1902.