Related Links in the Library:
Source: An essay in Toward
Liberty: Essays in Honor of Ludwig von Mises on the Occasion of his 90th
Birthday, September 29, 1971, vol.
2, ed. F.A. Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, Leonrad R. Read, Gustavo Velasco, and
F.A. Harper (Menlo Park: Institute for Humane Studies, 1971).
The Education of Lord Acton by Robert
The relevance of Lord Acton for the twentieth century, according to one of his editors, “comes from his prophetic preoccupation with the very questions with which the twentieth century has found itself preoccupied. The great objects of his studies in history were the moral ends of government, the relations of politics to morality, and these are the questions which bitter experience has forced our age to think about more urgently than the Victorians needed to do.”1
The great historian of liberty and educator of both Catholics and liberals was never in his life a stranger to the corridors of power, both sacred and profane. For over forty years he was a member of one or the other of the Houses of Parliament; the rough-and-tumble world of polemical journalism was not unknown to him; nor were the most merciless lists of all, the back-alleyways of academic and ecclesiastical intrigue.
He came from an aristocratic and cosmopolitan background. He had an Italian birthplace, an English father, a French-German-Italian mother, a supra-national religion and scores of relatives in high places in Church and State in most of the nations of Europe. His ideas came from many sources; his own philosophy of liberal Catholicism was drawn from traditional conservatism and the newer classical liberals of his own time. With Burke and Tocqueville he was convinced that a liberal and just government could not long exist unless it were founded on moral principles: on reverence for God and respect for the rights and dignity of men. “Liberalism,” he once wrote, “is ultimately founded on the idea of conscience.” Throughout his life, these were his two great concerns: freedom and morality. He was absolutely convinced one could not exist without the other and that both were required for the fulfillment of man's purpose on this earth.
By examining his early formal education we may see more clearly how the ideas of the great historian of liberty were formed. Lord Acton's schooling, in four countries (Saint Nicolas in France, Oscott in England, the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and the University of Munich in Bavaria) was fully as cosmopolitan as his family life. Following the movements of his parents, Sir Ferdinand and Lady Acton, between their homes in Aldenham, Paris, Naples, Herrnsheim and London, Acton soon learned to speak French fluently and was duly entered in the preparatory seminary of Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet in Paris in the year 1842.
Acton's first teacher was Monsignor Felix Dupanloup. Like the other two priests who were to influence his intellectual development, Cardinal Wisemar and Professor Dollinger, Dupanloup was also a prominent theologian, with ideas of his own on how Peter's bark should be piloted. As the clerical spokesman for the liberal wing of French Catholicism he was deeply involved in the attempt to reconcile the liberal state with the Catholic Church. At the Vatican Council he was to be part of the minority faction which held the definition of papal infallibility to be inopportune. Although liberal, his place in the Church seemed secure; he had been tutor to the royal princes and had received much acclaim for his part in the death-bed reconciliation of Talleyrand with Rome. (When the wiliest of diplomats was about to receive the last rites, he turned his palms downward and said, “Remember, I am a bishop.”)
In 1849, the liberal monsignor was to be elevated to the see of Orleans. A few years later Bishop Dupanloup was to be elected to the French Academy; at about the same time he helped to reorganize the liberal Catholic journal Le Correspondant. He had been a friend and confessor to both the Dalbergs and the Actons and had assisted at the death of Sir Ferdinand Acton. His mother's frequent visits to Paris, Acton later said, were for the dual purpose of visiting her dressmaker and going to confession to Fr. Dupanloup.
When Acton entered the school in 1842, Fr. Dupanloup as the new supervisor had just changed the rules to permit boys who did not intend to enter holy orders to be enrolled. Acton remained at St. Nicolas for only nine months, however. Since the boy was expected to matriculate at Cambridge, as his father and uncle had done before him, the family thought it more suitable that his preparatory education should be in England. Accordingly he was sent to St. Mary's, Oscott, an institution which liked to boast that it was now what Eton once was: “a school for Catholic gentlemen.” Their official announcement, in fact, promised to teach all those branches of learning “becoming either a scholar or a gentleman.” (Emphasis supplied.)
The college at the time was under the presidency of the Right Reverend Nicholas Wiseman, titular bishop of Melipotamus, and destined to wear a Cardinal's hat. Dr. Henry Weedall, his predecessor, who was largely responsible for the growth of the college, was now in charge of the preparatory school. Through a series of moves in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, in which Acton's uncle (then Monsignor Acton) was involved, Dr. Weedall found himself, in his last years, in this relatively humble office. He was an old Catholic gentleman who belonged to the old world when Catholics desired nothing more than to be left in peace. He was thought to be too unassuming and lacking in aggressiveness. This was definitely not the mood of the militant Bishop Wiseman, who felt that “We are like the Jews returned to Jerusalem or like the first family after the Flood - we have to reconstruct everything.”2
The future Cardinal had arrived at Oscott shortly after the beginning of the Oxford Movement. Wiseman looked upon this intellectual faction within the Church of England as the foothold upon which he and his Church would build in order gradually to re-convert Britain to the orthodox faith. As things turned out, many of the leaders of the Oxford Movement, which had its origins in the publication of the famous “Tracts of the Times” in 1833, remained High Church Anglicans and did not go over to the Roman communion, despite their sympathies with the ancient church. John Keble and Dr. Edward Pusey, for instance, though they did much to widen the understanding of Anglicans of the Church of Rome, did not make the final break. John Henry Newman, of course, did take the Roman sacraments and was received into the Church at Oscott while Acton was still a student there in October of 1845. The most distinguished of English converts took up residence in the old college buildings, renamed Maryvale.
Encouraged by the small but steady trickle of converts who moved from Oxford to Oscott, Wiseman was convinced that Britain would soon be a Catholic nation once again and that Oscott, strategically placed as it was, was to be the prime mover in this turning point in history. Acton later recalled that Wiseman seemed to take personal satisfaction at each new “conquest” for Rome; “The converts used to appear among us and he seemed to exhibit their scalps,” Acton wrote.3
Some of the less far-sighted of the Catholic parents and neighboring clergy sometimes thought that the good Bishop wasn't giving enough of his attention to the job he was being paid for, namely the education of his young charges. To these men of little faith, Wiseman haughtily replied: “Among the providential agencies that seemed justly timed, and even necessary for it (the re-conversion of England) appeared to me the erection of this noble college, in the very heart of England. Often in my darkest days and hours, feeling as if alone in my hopes, have I walked in front of it, and casting my eyes toward it, exclaimed to myself, ‘No, it was not to educate a few boys that this was erected, but to the rallying point of the yet silent but vast movement toward the Catholic Church, which has commenced and must prosper.' I felt as assured of this as if the word of prophecy had spoken it.”4
Through the outer-directed efforts of its president, a continual train of distinguished men visited Oscott, English nobility, French royalty, famous statesmen both sacred and profane, philosophers and theologians. As Acton later recalled, “We used to see Wiseman with Lord Shrewsbury, with O'Connell, with Father Mathew, with a Mesopotamian patriarch, with Newman ... and we had a feeling that Oscott, next to Pekin, was a centre of the World.”5
The faculty of Oscott was by no means provincial, but was drawn from a wide variety of sources. There were, of course, many Oxford converts, some earlier Cambridge converts (including the vice-president, Henry Logan, a Scotsman by birth), Irish Catholics, local midland clergy and some others whom Wiseman had brought with him from Rome. Acton thought later that Wiseman failed to integrate properly these diverse elements or inspire them in any one direction. “The point is,” Acton wrote, “that he was an all-round person, and we did not clearly see his drift.”6 Wiseman himself was an Ultramontane: that is, he belonged to that party in the Church which favored centralization of power in the papacy. However, he sometimes had visitors to Oscott who would lecture on both points of view within the Church; for instance, he once invited Vincenzo Gioberti, well-known for his belief in the separation of Church and State, and on another occasion invited one of Gioberti's principal opponents, Antonio Rosmini. In later life, Acton was to be critical of his old school; he once wrote to his co-editor, Richard Simpson, that he had recently sent a letter to a friend on the students and divines of Oscott “compared to which X.Y.Z. is a panegyrist, and in February (the friend) told me that things were a good deal worse than I described.”7 While he was there, however, he seems to have been perfectly content and making great progress academically. He once sent the following letter to his mother, written at the age of ten.
“Dearest Mamma,—I received your letter this morning and shall tell you what you told me—nothing but good news.... I am now happier here than I have ever been. I am very much liked by the boys, and excell in two principal things: I am the best chess player of all the boys except four, and I am the best pick-pocket (of pocket handkerchiefs) ever known.... I am a perfect linguist, knowing perfectly—that is, so as to be able to speak them—English, French, German, and can almost speak Latin. I can speak a few words of Italian, Chinese, Greek, Italian, Spanish and Irish. I also know Chemistry, Astronomy, Mechanics, and many other sciences, but do not know botany. I am very happy here and perfectly reconciled to the thoughts of stopping here seven more years.—I am in a hurry, therefore good-bye,
Caesar Agamemnon John Dalberg Acton”8
In 1848, at the age of fourteen, Acton left Oscott, and spent the next two years at the University of Edinburgh under the tutelage of Henry Logan, former vice-president of Oscott. It was the fashion among young English gentlemen of this period, especially those with an interest in scholarship, to spend a year or two at one of the Scottish universities either before or after Oxford or Cambridge. In Acton's case, we may presume that he was taking his Scottish interlude in preparation for his entrance into Cambridge. He applied in 1849 and again in 1850 to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where both his father and uncle had been undergraduates. Magdalene, however, was probably worried about the rash of converts to Catholicism which had been unsettling its common-room at the very time Acton applied; accordingly the future Regius Professor of Modern History was refused admission as a student. Two other Cambridge colleges gave the same answer and, in what for a Cambridge family must have been a last gamble, two Oxford colleges received Acton's application. The answer was everywhere the same.9 It was hoped that at least he would learn Greek while at Edinburgh, but after two years he left, dissatisfied with his progress and knowing no more than 500 words of the language.10 The home of the Edinburgh Review, however, must have had some effect on his thought and since he later told a friend that he left Scotland stuffed with Macaulay and raw Whiggery we may assume that that citadel of liberalism had done its work.
Acton's intellectual journey next took him to Munich where in June 1850 he came to live at the house of Professor Johann Ignaz von Dollinger. Munich was chosen as the place for him to continue his studies for several reasons; not only was it a seat of Catholic learning at the time, but it was also the home of his mother's relatives, the Arco-Valleys. Count Arco-Valley (whose daughter Acton later married) had known Dollinger for years; accordingly arrangements were made for him to stay with the Professor in Munich and to visit the Arco-Valley country house at Tergensee on weekends.
Although a priest, Dr. Dollinger was primarily concerned with the life of the mind; he had refused the archbishopric of Salzburg because it would have interfered with his scholarship. Generally considered to be one of the greatest historical scholars in Europe, he was to be more influential than any other single individual on Acton's intellectual development. In the opinion of Miss Gertrude Himmelfarb, “The most decisive fact of Acton's life was his apprenticeship under Dollinger.”11 The priest-scholar was a humble man with the simple tastes and standards of the German bourgeoisie. He was himself the son of a professor of anatomy at the University of Wurzburg. “His personal appearance,” Acton wrote to his stepfather, “is certainly not prepossessing. His forehead is not particularly large, and a somewhat malevolent grin seems constantly to reside about his wide, low mouth.”12
Despite the minimum of flattery in Acton's description (which is perhaps the inevitable student-teacher relationship on the first day of class) the young Englishman had great respect for the scholar's enormous capacity for work and his austere manner of life. He seemed to be the personification of the cold, dispassionate scholar, interested in nothing but the plain search for truth for its own sake.
Catholic scholarship throughout most of the world in the nineteenth century was in a lethargic condition. The University of Munich by contrast was in the midst of intellectual ferment. At the beginning of the century Protestant scholarship had taken the lead in the German universities. Men such as Ferdinand Baur and David Strauss broke new ground in Biblical criticism, B.G. Niebuhr and Leopold von Ranke were developing whole new schools of history and Friedrich von Schelling and Friedrich Schleiermacher were attracting international attention for their work in the philosophy of religion. The Catholic scholars of Tubingen and Munich took it upon themselves to explore such problems as the relationship of science and religion or the historical analysis of the Old Testament. Their goal was to make Catholicism intellectually respectable by the standards of the most rigorous secular philosopher or historian. They succeeded so well in this task that for decades Munich was the intellectual center of world Catholicism.
Upon Acton's arrival in Munich he threw himself into a course of study as broad and as demanding as the Professor's own schedule. During his first few enthusiastic weeks, Acton later recalled, he read the whole of the Biographie Universelle - a work of some fifty-five volumes. “My day,” he wrote to his stepfather, now Earl Granville, “is portioned out something in this manner - I breakfast at 8 - then two hours of German - an hour of Plutarch and an hour of Tacitus. This proportion was recommended by the Professor. We dine a little before 2 - I see him then for the first time in the day. At 3 my German tutor master comes. From 4 till 7 I am out - I read modern history for an hour - having had an hour's ancient history just before dinner. I have some tea at 8 and study English literature and composition till 10 - when the curtain falls.”13
A few years later Acton, as a more mature scholar, explained his personal philosophy of education to Lord Granville. He admitted that his studies at first glance seemed to be useless or unrelated. There was, however, definite unity in his method. He studied English history, the classics, the history of the Middle Ages and of the Church, theology and the history of philosophy in order to prepare himself both for a role in public life and to lay the foundation for an academic career as a serious writer, not as a dilettante. The common theme that united all his studies, he said, was history; his academic goal was to become an original historian and to teach others of his countrymen to become the same.14 His political goal was to promote in both Church and State the supremacy of principles over interests, of liberty over despotism (whether from above or below), and of plain truth over evasion and rationalization. “He had no desire,” two of his editors note, “to make of intellectual pursuits an end in themselves. His scholarship was to him as practical as his politics, and his politics as ethical as his faith.”15
In the 1850's both Dollinger and his young student grew out of some of their intellectual shells and both changed their minds on a number of important issues. Almost on his arrival Acton was told to read Burke in order to broaden his mind and as an antidote to Macaulay; Dollinger had an aversion to Macaulay but recommended Bacon, Newman and especially Burke's Letters on a Regicide Peace, which the Professor called “the literary starting point of Legitimism.”16 At the beginning of Acton's stay in Munich, Dollinger, like most of the Munich faculty, was an Ultramontane and monarchist who saw little wrong with the status quo. He was comfortable in his life and derived satisfaction from being an industrious scholar, a loyal subject of the king and a devoted servant of the pope.
Dollinger's first serious quarrel with Rome was in 1854 over the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Although there was a long tradition in the Church which maintained that Mary was herself conceived without original sin, Dollinger opposed the intended proclamation on three main grounds. First, he asserted that historically it was not held to be a divinely revealed truth and that many leading Catholic scholars, including St. Thomas Aquinas, had demurred to it. Secondly, it was to be decreed by Pope Pius IX on his own authority without the confirmation of a council of the Church. Thirdly he believed that unnecessary additions to the creed would serve only to make the Catholic Church more isolated and further divide it from the Protestants. After the new dogma was officially proclaimed, however, Dollinger accepted it and consoled himself with the thought that he had fought it as long as possible. Pius XI's early exercise of papal infallibility in this matter foreshadowed the more serious struggle that was to come in 1870 when papal infallibility in faith and morals was itself to be proclaimed by the same Pope as binding on all Catholics.
The latter doctrine was to be ratified by a council of the Church, which presumably vitiated at least one of Dollinger's procedural objections. At that time, however, Dollinger was not to submit; he and a small minority left the Roman Catholic communion and called themselves Old Catholics, continuing to venerate every dogma of the Catholic Church but the last.
The basic transformation of Dollinger's intellectual outlook which ultimately led to his excommunication took place in those years when he and Acton lived together in Munich. On Acton's side there is little doubt that he acquired his lifelong distrust of ecclesiastical power largely as a result of his participation in these early battles in the ‘50s.
The old Dollinger would have, in fact did, join in condeming any Catholic philosopher or theologian who inquired too deeply into matters which earned him the wrath of Rome. In 1835 a leading German theologian, Georg Hermes, was officially condemned by the Church for over-emphasizing natural reason and nationalistic religion in the tradition of Kant. At that time Dollinger saw nothing improper in this proceeding. Two decades later, however, a similar controversy erupted over the theological works of Anton von Gunther and Jakob Frohschammer. The first philosopher maintained that science and religion were co-equal in the area of scholarship and that science could assert its own truths independent of the teachings of religion. The second writer, Frohschammer, went farther than this and claimed that science must take precedence over religion. In this case, Dollinger reversed his earlier position and came to the defence of the alleged heretics. If Rome were to silence every serious thinker who attempted to explore problems such as the relationship of religion and science, he insisted, Catholic scholarship would be reduced to sterile servility. There must be at least a reasonable amount of freedom of thought for Catholic intellectuals, he said, if the universities were not to become centers of stagnation. Dollinger's efforts met with a cold rebuff, however, and the two scholars were duly condemned.
Dollinger's work in the theory of development, that is, the notion that moral truths and religious dogmas were not fixed for eternity but instead changed and developed as man's civilization and understanding advanced, was eventually to lead the Professor into irreconcilable conflict with the Church. Miss Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her masterly biography Lord Acton: A Study of Conscience in Politics, asserts that it was from Dollinger and not from Newman that Acton adopted his own theory of development. “The theory....” Miss Himmelfarb notes, “is more popularly known in the form given it by Newman in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine of 1845 ... Newman was unfamiliar with German theology, with the work of Brey, Mohler or Dollinger, and it appears that he arrived at the theory independently.”17 The fundamental idea is of course not new; its origins go back at least as far as the efforts of such men as Gottfried Leibniz, Jean Mabillon, John Robinson and Petavius.18 Inherent in this way of studying religion are implications which eventually took both Acton and Dollinger to the very limits of the orthodoxy of the nineteenth-century church. Ironically enough, it was the influence of this same theory that led Dollinger to leave the Church after the Vatican Council had persuaded Acton to remain in it. Just because Acton never in his life doubted a dogma of the Church19 he had nothing to fear from the most rigorous historical criticism of church history or doctrine.
He was convinced, for example, that the Resurrection was an historical fact in the same sense as the Battle of Waterloo was a fact and could be documented by all the usual rules of historical evidence. He had little patience with historians who refused, for one reason or another, to deal with facts. Of F.C. von Baur he once wrote, “According to Baur, the business of history is not so much with facts as with ideas; and the idea, not the fact, of the Resurrection is the basis of the Christian faith. Doctrines are developed out of notions, not out of events. Whether or not the belief is true, he refuses to inquire. In the most characteristic passage ever written by a German historian, he declares that it is a question beyond the scope of history.”20
In Acton's interpretation, the theory of development meant that “the action of Christ who is risen on mankind ... fails not, but increases; that the wisdom of divine rule appears not in the perfection but in the improvement of the world; and that achieved liberty is the one ethical result that rests on the converging and combined conditions of advancing civilization ... History is the true demonstration of Religion.”21 This view, that God will ultimately make clear in his own good time what may appear to us now to be wrong or unjust, enabled Acton to reconcile his submission to the Vatican Decrees with his conscience. As will be seen, Acton believed that God would not allow his Church to remain for long in a grossly imperfect state; that time would “perfect” the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. As we also know, Dollinger did not agree with this interpretation of his former student and left the Catholic Church shortly after the Council.
Once a year, during Acton's residence at the University from 1850 to 1858, he and Dollinger set off on a tour of Italy, England, Austria or Switzerland or Germany, stopping to see old friends or to meet new ones or to attend scholarly conferences. These tours were an important part of Acton's education. Together they explored libraries and bookstores voraciously; they applied at first hand the modern historical techniques of manuscript research learned from von Ranke's lectures on the “new” history at Munich. These journeys revolutionized the attitudes of both Dollinger and Acton to history as well as to the Church. For Dollinger it meant that the work of decades was suddenly obsolete. For Acton, however, it meant that the young historian had found his purpose in life: to aid in that “full exposition of truth which is the great object for which the existence of man is prolonged on earth.”22
Looking back on his Munich experiences after many years of independent scholarship, Acton was inclined to revise his original estimate of the university and even of Dollinger. The Munich faculty, he wrote, was “not remarkable for originality or freshness, or warmth, or play of mind.” He thought them too committed to “defending a settled cause” to start a voyage of discovery. Dollinger, Acton thought, was overly interested in the Romantic school of historical writing and in criticizing Protestant versions of history.23 Apparently Dollinger was successful in teaching Acton many important aspects of the historian's craft; he was not, however, able to impart to his student the attitudes and techniques needed for sustained work. Dollinger himself predicted that if Acton did not write a major book before he was forty he never would.24 In later life Acton was to feel that Munich, like Oscott, had somehow let him down.
Although he spent eight years attending lectures and studying at the University of Munich, he never took a degree. (This oversight was corrected in 1872 when the faculty of Munich awarded Acton an honorary doctorate.) It is doubtful, however, if this changed his attitude toward German universities. In 1867, almost ten years after leaving Munich, Acton wrote an essay on German education which might well have been written about one of the many “multi-versities” of our own century. The function of the German universities, he wrote, “was to prepare candidates for public employment and to teach things necessary to be known in order to obtain a salary under government or in the Church, as a doctor or a schoolmaster. They existed to promote certain public objects of society, not to promote the independent ends of literature and science. They suffer alike from the want of liberty and the want of discipline. They are subject to the patronage of the State and they exert no effective restraint over the lives of the students. The very theory to which they owe their fame and influence has done harm, by the utter sacrifice of educational to scientific purposes; for it supplies a more perfect machinery for the production of good books than of good men.”25
In 1858, his formal education at the University of Munich completed, Acton returned to England to employ his wealth and education as best he could in order to bring liberalism to his fellow-Catholics, Catholicism to his fellow-liberals and the discoveries and techniques of German historical research to both.