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Acton on Moral Judgements in History

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Source: John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Historical Essays and Studies, by John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, edited by John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907).APPENDIX Accessed from /title/2201/203934

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Editor's Note

We have presented here in the Forum the Appendix from a collection of Acton's essays which were published posthumously. In these letters to Bishop Creighton Acton expresses his moral philosophy which he believes it right and proper for the historian to carry over into his professional work, namely the condemnation of murder, theft, and violence whether committed by an individual, the state, or the Church. Here is a selection of these comments (the text is in bold in the original below):

No doubt the responsibility in such a case is shared by those who ask for a thing. But if the thing is criminal, if, for instance, it is a licence to commit adultery, the person who authorises the act shares the guilt of the person who commits it.

Here again what I have said is not in any way mysterious or esoteric. It appeals to no hidden code. It aims at no secret moral. It supposes nothing, and implies nothing but what is universally current and familiar. It is the common, even the vulgar, code I appeal to.

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

Here are the greatest names coupled with the greatest crimes; you would spare those criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice, still more, still higher for the sake of historical science.

Quite frankly, I think there is no greater error. The inflexible integrity of the moral code is, to me, the secret of the authority, the dignity, the utility of History.

If we may debase the currency for the sake of genius, or success, or rank, or reputation, we may debase it for the sake of a man’s influence, of his religion, of his party, of the good cause which prospers by his credit and suffers by his disgrace. Then History ceases to be a science, an arbiter of controversy, a guide of the Wanderer, the upholder of that moral standard which the powers of earth and religion itself tend constantly to depress. It serves where it ought to reign; and it serves the worst cause better than the purest. . . . My dogma is not the special wickedness of my own spiritual superiors, but the general wickedness of men in authority—of Luther and Zwingli, and Calvin, and Cranmer, and Knox, of Mary Stuart and Henry VIII., of Philip II. and Elizabeth, of Cromwell and Louis XIV., James and Charles and William, Bossuet and Ken.

The greatest crime is Homicide. The accomplice is no better than the assassin; the theorist is worse.

Of killing from private motives or from public, from political or from religious, eadem est ratio; morally the worst is the last. The source of crime is pars melior nostri, what ought to save, destroys; the sinner is hardened and proof against Repentance.

Crimes by constituted authorities worse than crimes by Madame Tussaud’s private malefactors.

Murder may be done by legal means, by plausible and profitable war, by calumny, as well as by dose or dagger.

 

APPENDIX

By the kindness of Mrs. Creighton we are enabled to publish the following extracts from Acton’s Letters to Creighton on the subject of the article on vols. iii. and iv. of the History of the Papacy contributed by Acton to the English Historical Review, reprinted here pp. 426-41. Acton’s curiously naïve view of the situation is disclosed in the original covering letter to Creighton as Editor in which he describes the article as “the work of an enemy.” We do not quote the letters in full but only such portions as serve to bring out more clearly perhaps than anything else which he wrote, the uncompromising rigidity of Acton’s canons of judgment. They mark the gulf which divided him alike from the sympathetic writer, who excuses everything by a facile reference to the moral atmosphere of the age he is representing, and on the other hand from the “scientific” historian, whose ideal is to state facts and observe causes, but never to pronounce sentence.

After arguing, first, that the high absolutist theory of the Papacy was the real cause of the breach with Luther, and, secondly, that the Popes were individually and collectively responsible for the policy of persecution in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Acton goes on as follows:—

The same thing is the case with Sixtus IV. and the Spanish Inquisition, what you say has been said by Hefele Gauss and others. They, at least, were, in a sort, avowed defenders of the Spanish Inquisition. Hefele speaks of Ximenes as one might speak of Andrewes or Taylor or Leighton. But in what sense is the Pope not responsible for the Constitution by which he established the new tribunal? If we passed a law giving Dufferin powers of that sort, when asked for, we should surely be responsible. No doubt the responsibility in such a case is shared by those who ask for a thing. But if the thing is criminal, if, for instance, it is a licence to commit adultery, the person who authorises the act shares the guilt of the person who commits it. Now the Liberals think Persecution a crime of a worse order than adultery, and the acts done by Ximenes considerably worse than the entertainment of Roman courtesans by Alexander VI. The responsibility exists whether the thing permitted be good or bad. If the thing be criminal then the authority permitting it bears the guilt. Whether Sixtus is infamous or not depends on our view of persecution and absolution, whether he is responsible or not depends simply on the ordinary evidence of history.

Here again what I have said is not in any way mysterious or esoteric. It appeals to no hidden code. It aims at no secret moral. It supposes nothing, and implies nothing but what is universally current and familiar. It is the common, even the vulgar, code I appeal to.

Upon these two points we differ widely, still more widely with regard to the principle by which you undertake to judge men. You say that people in authority are not to be snubbed or sneezed at from our pinnacle of conscious rectitude.

I really don’t know whether you exempt them because of their rank, or of their success and power, or of their date. The chronological plea may have some little value in a limited sphere of instances. It does not allow of our saying that such a man did not know right from wrong, unless we are able to say that he lived before Columbus, before Copernicus, and could not know right from wrong. It can scarcely apply to the centre of Christendom 1500 after the birth of our Lord. That would imply that Christianity is a mere system of metaphysics which borrowed some ethics from elsewhere. It is rather a system of ethics which borrowed its metaphysics elsewhere. Progress in ethics means a constant turning of white into black, and burning what one has adored. There is little of that between St. John and the Victorian era. But if we might discuss this point until we found that we nearly agreed, and if we do agree thoroughly about the impropriety of Carlylese denunciations and Pharisaism in history, I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means. You would hang a man of no position like Ravaillac; but if what one hears is true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III. ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan. Here are the greatest names coupled with the greatest crimes; you would spare those criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice, still more, still higher for the sake of historical science.

The standard having been lowered in consideration of date is to be still further lowered out of deference to station, whilst the heroes of history become examples of morality, the historians who praise them, Froude, Macaulay, Carlyle, become teachers of morality and honest men. Quite frankly, I think there is no greater error. The inflexible integrity of the moral code is, to me, the secret of the authority, the dignity, the utility of History.

If we may debase the currency for the sake of genius, or success, or rank, or reputation, we may debase it for the sake of a man’s influence, of his religion, of his party, of the good cause which prospers by his credit and suffers by his disgrace. Then History ceases to be a science, an arbiter of controversy, a guide of the Wanderer, the upholder of that moral standard which the powers of earth and religion itself tend constantly to depress. It serves where it ought to reign; and it serves the worst cause better than the purest. . . . My dogma is not the special wickedness of my own spiritual superiors, but the general wickedness of men in authority—of Luther and Zwingli, and Calvin, and Cranmer, and Knox, of Mary Stuart and Henry VIII., of Philip II. and Elizabeth, of Cromwell and Louis XIV., James and Charles and William, Bossuet and Ken.

The following series of canons formed a postscript to the letter:—

ADVICE TO PERSONS ABOUT TO WRITE HISTORY—DON’T

In the Moral Sciences Prejudice is Dishonesty.

A Historian has to fight against temptations special to his mode of life, temptations from Country, Class, Church, College, Party, Authority of talents, solicitation of friends.

The most respectable of these influences are the most dangerous.

The historian who neglects to root them out is exactly like a juror who votes according to his personal likes or dislikes.

In judging men and things Ethics go before Dogma, Politics or Nationality. The Ethics of History cannot be denominational.

Judge not according to the orthodox standard of a system religious, philosophical, political, but according as things promote, or fail to promote the delicacy, integrity, and authority of Conscience.

Put conscience above both system and success.

History provides neither compensation for suffering nor penalties for wrong.

The moral code, in its main lines, is not new, it has long been known, it is not universally accepted in Europe even now, the difference in moral insight between past and present is not very large.

But the notion and analysis of conscience is scarcely older than 1700; and the notion and analysis of veracity is scarcely older than our time, barring sacred writings of East and West.

In Christendom time and place do not excuse—if the Apostles’ Code sufficed for salvation. Strong minds think things out, complete the circle of their thinking, and must not be interpreted by types. Good men and great men are exvitermini, aloof from the action of surroundings. But goodness generally appeared in unison with authority, sustained by environment, and rarely manifested the force and sufficiency of the isolated will and conscience.

The Reign of Sin is more universal, the influence of unconscious error is less, than historians tell us.

Good and evil lie close together. Seek no artistic unity in character.

History teaches a Psychology which is not that of private experience and domestic biography.

The principles of public morality are as definite as those of the morality of private life; but they are not identical.

A good cause proves less in a man’s favour than a bad cause against him. The final judgment depends on the worst action.

Character is tested by true sentiments more than by conduct. A man is seldom better than his word. History is better written from letters than from histories; let a man criminate himself.

No public character has ever stood the revelation of private utterances and correspondence.

Be prepared to find that the best gives way under closer scrutiny.

In public life, the domain of History, vice is less than crime. Active, transitive sins count for more than others.

The greatest crime is Homicide. The accomplice is no better than the assassin; the theorist is worse.

Of killing from private motives or from public, from political or from religious, eadem est ratio; morally the worst is the last. The source of crime is pars melior nostri, what ought to save, destroys; the sinner is hardened and proof against Repentance.

Faith must be sincere, when defended by sin it is not sincere; theologically it is not Faith.

God’s grace does not operate by sin. Transpose the nominative and the accusative, and see how things look then.

History deals with Life, Religion with Death, much of its works and spirit escapes our ken.

The systems of Barrow, Baxter, Bossuet higher spiritually, constructively, scientifically, than Perrin.

In our scales his high morality outweighs them. Crimes by constituted authorities worse than crimes by Madame Tussaud’s private malefactors.

Murder may be done by legal means, by plausible and profitable war, by calumny, as well as by dose or dagger.

Last modified April 10, 2014