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Acton’s Ideas as revealed by his Correspondence

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Source: John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Selections from the Correspondence of the First Lord Acton, edited with and Introduction by John Neville Figgis and Renald Vere Laurence. Vol. I Correspondence with Cardinal Newman, Lady Blennerhassett, W.E. Gladstone and Others (London: Longmans, Gree and Co., 1917). Chapter: INTRODUCTION.

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INTRODUCTION

Out of a large mass of letters we have chosen those which throw most light on Acton’s development. We do not offer them as affording a complete account. Indeed, two volumes of Acton’s letters have already appeared. Light is thrown on many of the topics here discussed in the letters to Mrs. Drew, and also in those to Richard Simpson and others, which Cardinal Gasquet has published in the volume, Lord Acton and his Circle.

This book begins, naturally, with the letters of early youth. Some of these were needed in order to show what were Acton’s surroundings and education. At Oscott he was not happy. Nor was his sojourn in Edinburgh with a few uncongenial companions much more satisfying. In later life he used to say, “I never had any contemporaries.” This lack we can trace at an early age. Always Acton suffered from want of the “give and take” of English school life. In all societies in which he moved he remained a somewhat aloof figure.

Döllinger captured him from the first. The friendship remained unbroken until the death of the elder man. Latterly, at least, Acton was aware of an increasing gulf between himself and his teacher. These letters take Acton to Munich. One letter, that to his stepfather, Lord Granville, sets out his own plans for the future. It will be useful to all who desire to appreciate the peculiar affinities and exclusions of Acton’s mental life.

Passing from these early letters, we were faced with the problem of arranging the material, which is very diverse, and does not represent all seasons equally. We thought it unwise to keep a purely chronological order. Instead, we have preferred an arrangement under topical headings. These are grouped into two main classes—ecclesiastical and general. Some overlapping has been inevitable. But we hope that something like a clear picture will impress itself. All this has been the more difficult, that letters of Acton appear in biographies previously published, more especially in Mr. Lathbury’s two volumes of the Ecclesiastical Correspondence of Mr. Gladstone, and in Wilfrid Ward’s Life of John Henry Newman.

Many readers will need no further introduction. Yet, since Acton has been often misunderstood, we may be pardoned for proceeding a little farther in the way of interpretation. These letters afford evidence of the mingling in Acton of political and religious interests with those of the enthusiastic scholar and with a certain flair for getting to know about people. Incidentally they witness to the beginning and the gradual growth of the intimacy with Gladstone. We see, too, how great and how long continued was his influence on him. We see Mr. Gladstone sending him writing after writing, in order to have the knowledge and judgment of the younger man at his disposal: and the minute and elaborate criticisms which resulted.

The key to the development and to some of the limitations of Acton lies in his association with Döllinger. The letter to Lord Granville, beginning on page 23, shows how deep and vital was that influence at the most impressionable period of a boy’s life. This influence did not cease when tutelage was over, but grew for a long time in intensity, waning a little after 1870. The same letter shows that thus early was Acton clear about his purpose. He would follow knowledge, but the pursuit must have a practical end. The notion of Acton as a dry-as-dust is ludicrous. Elsewhere he prides himself on his elaborate study of political thought. The principles which he had adopted at Munich form a criterion for all his later judgments, and determined his course alike in religious and in political controversies. This is not to say that he underwent no further development. Even in theology his critical bent developed more as years went by. There was a subtlety of mind which was reflected in the subtlety of his later style, so unlike the pedestrian English of his earlier days. It is possible that the Acton of the eighties and the nineties would not have seemed intelligible to the enthusiastic knight-errant of the Church, who thought in 1860 to win the whole world to a synthesis of learning, Liberalism, and Catholicism. This may or may not be. What is certain is the unity of the main thoughts which governed Acton.

That thought is the idea of freedom as an absolute end for all men. Freedom is not to Acton one among many human goods to be balanced with others by the politician. Rather it is the governing principle of true statesmanship, the determining element in political thought, the criterion of all constitutions. This sense that freedom is a spiritual principle made for Acton a religion of politics. He felt that he was divided by a gulf from men who might put wealth or social comfort, or power, or efficiency, or even intelligence, as of superior or even concurrent importance. With such principles, it was natural that Acton should dislike Bismarck, condemn Carlyle’s cult of strong men, and regard Prussian domination with something more than mistrust. “It is the greatest danger which remains to be encountered by the Anglo-Saxon race,” were his prophetic words at a Cambridge lecture.1 Yet we should get a one-sided picture if we think of Acton as mainly haunted by the dangers of monarchical militarism. Hardly less marked was his fear of State-absolutism in the form of a centralised democracy. “Liberty depends on the division of power” was his cry.

That is the origin of Acton’s sympathy with the South in the American Civil War, and also (it may be now admitted) with the Boers in 1899. Acton dreaded the all-devouring autocracy of State-absolutism whenever and wherever he found it. Needless to say, Acton had no sympathy with slavery. This he regarded not as the cause of the war, but as the reason of its failure. He saw, or thought he saw, in the assertion of State rights by the South the essential qualities of liberty in a state. In the North he discerned the principle of Imperial domination.

In this same sense of the paramountcy of the principle of liberty lay his admiration for Madame de Staël. Madame de Staël, in Acton’s view, stood really for liberty in itself, and not for the politics of expediency, nor the Jacobin and Girondin immoralities. Therefore he sets her high, and enters into minute detail about her history (p. 268). For the same reason Acton emphasised the importance of the American Revolution. This is brought out in an interesting letter to Lady Blennerhassett. In that letter he gives it as his opinion that the service of the revolting colonies to the cause of liberty was in inverse proportion to any practical grievance. They were not fighting for money (the taxes were a trifle), nor for historical precedents and legal rights (like the men of 1688), but for liberty, as a principle. They had this merit in Acton’s view, the recognition of liberty as an ideal, not as an expedient or as an heirloom, and the revolutionary, catastrophic nature of the claim, as against the doctrine of slow development.

This doctrine of inevitable progress and continuous amelioration Acton never held strongly. In this he was unlike many of the historical school of that day.

Precisely the same cause attracted Acton to Gladstone. Rightly or wrongly, Acton discerned in Gladstone a knight-errant of freedom. That is why he set him so high. For a similar reason, he used his influence with Gladstone on the side of Home Rule and Disestablishment. Acton seems to have believed that the Disestablishment of the Irish Church was a landmark in the history of liberty. He indicates this in the paper setting forth the aims of the North British Review, which we print at the close of this volume. Acton believed in Home Rule, because he thought that the form of government most favourable to liberty was Federalism. He did not hold the sanctity of the nationality principle, i.e. he did not desire to make racial unity the natural foundation of states, whether German, Italian, or Irish. Rather he desired a state in which several nationalities, each in a measure autonomous, should limit and control one another and check the tendency to centralised and concentrated authority.

Naturally, then, he held that infractions of liberty were the primal offence in a statesman. His interest was always predominantly ethical; but it was the ethics of the statesman as statesman, not as a private person, with which he was concerned. Thus he would have condoned the O’Shea divorce case, but would never pardon Disraeli. Even Lord Rosebery’s Pitt he regarded as dangerously heretical.

With this predominantly ethical interest, it is not a matter for wonder that Acton should desiderate a principle of historical judgment, independent of those religious organisations which form part of the historical process. That principle he thought that he had found in the sanctity of human life. (See the letter to Lady Blennerhassett, printed page 53.) Whoever violated this without just cause he regarded as supremely guilty. It is worthy of note that Acton was a strong opponent of capital punishment.

It is this principle of the sanctity of human life, and the rigid condemnation of those who transgress it, which help us to understand the ecclesiastical antipathies of Acton. To many people the hardest problem connected with the name of Acton is that aroused by the Vatican Decrees. In view of Acton’s relentless opposition to the ultramontane propaganda, and his horror at the idea of the proclamation of Papal Infallibility as a dogma, they deem it strange that he should have claimed to be a loyal Catholic, and, perhaps yet stranger, that he should have cared to continue in his own communion. His friend and revered teacher, Döllinger, had been insulted and excommunicated. Other friends, like the French historian Michaud, were for denying the name Catholic to the Infallibilists. The old Catholic movement was a definite attempt at a Church continuous with the ancient order and free of this calamitous innovation. Why did not Acton join that? Why at least—unless for family reasons—should he be so anxious not to be excommunicated, if he could help it. Why should he make that evasive answer which we have printed on pages 152-53, to Manning’s inquisitorial examination? Had not Acton, in the Sendschreiben, brought up against the Bishops their earlier and more uncompromising utterances, and implied his disgust at their fainéant policy, now that the enemy had triumphed? Yet was Acton in truth any better?

To answer these questions is beyond our province. The ethics of conformity is not an easy subject. It ill becomes those who are not subject to the Roman obedience, to judge of a delicate problem on this head, in regard to another communion. Yet grounds may be mentioned, based on the letters here printed, which demand a view somewhat different from the common.

Acton, it must be admitted, had been one of the leaders—so far as a layman could be—of the opposition to the party of the Curia. In no uncertain language he had descanted on the dangers that would ensue, alike in religion and politics, should the dogma of Papal Infallibility become authoritative. Further, his opposition was due to principle. It was not without a certain contempt that he acted with the Inopportunists, who based their opposition solely on expediency.

He was beaten. At first he felt the shock of this. In a sense he was never the same man. After a time he began to think things over, and to see that there was no occasion for him to desert the Church of his baptism, communion with which, he said truly enough, was dearer to him than life itself. He began to see—what many people have seen since—that the triumph of his adversaries was no more than partial. The dogma as defined (we print it on page 119) is very different in its implications from the kind of thing that W. G. Ward had talked of. Infallibility is there, it is true, and irreformability, but it is all very much qualified. These qualifications were analysed by Newman in his letter to the Duke of Norfolk, which is the ablest defence the doctrine has yet had in English. Acton was struck by this. In a letter here printed, he wrote that “Newman’s conditions would make it possible, technically, to accept the whole of the decrees.” Later on, when Newman was raised to the purple, Acton may well have thought that this minimising view of the doctrine was in favour even at Rome. Certainly, it has never been condemned.

Another point there is, hardly less important. Acton was a layman. He had no teaching office, and had not to ask himself whether he was prepared to commend the doctrine to others. All he need ask was this, Was this step (which in Acton’s view was calamitous) calamitous in such a way that he was bound in conscience to renounce his communion? Was this decision, in Acton’s view, the sole crux? He may have thought so for a brief time, but soon he saw that he was not so well satisfied with previous official action that this new dogma made much difference. Acton, in truth, was not finally staggered by the Vatican Decrees, for the very reason that he was radically opposed to the policy which had in them its latest triumph. As he said, he thought worse of the Church before the decision of July than did others, and therefore was less despairing of its recovery afterwards. The same causes which had largely nullified the worst aspects of authoritative evil in its official centre would continue to operate, as against the dangers inherent in the Vatican Decrees. “The great heart of the people,” the whole Christian people throughout the world, was right; and that would bring to naught the worst evils of officialism, That is the gist of his letters to the Times. He belonged, as he had once said, to the soul of the Catholic Church. With its official government he was not in sympathy. Nor would he have been so, save for brief intervals, since the days of Innocent iii. Yet this disagreement was to Acton no more a reason for renouncing communion, than dislike of His Majesty’s Government is a ground for a man throwing off the duties of an English citizen.

Acton may have reflected that this disagreement was not novel. From the time of his early struggles in regard to the Rambler and the Home and Foreign Review, he had done his best to secure prominence for his ethical doctrines and his intellectual ideas. Like all Liberal Catholics, he desired to bring his Church into living touch with the best knowledge and criticism of the day. In the interests of historical truth he was anxious for the facts to be known. In the interests of moral rectitude, he was concerned that blame should be given where blame was due, even though that might be to Popes and Saints. For years he had worked in the hope that he would win the educated members of his communion in this country, just as Döllinger and his Munich friends had hoped to win the educated Catholics of Germany. Indeed, he had thought that he had yoked Newman to his chariot. Acton never forgave the latter for refusing to be driven in the team.

In Acton’s view the supreme evil is the telling of lies and the shedding of blood in order to secure ecclesiastical power. The Papacy he condemned in so far as it organised persecution; but he condemned the same spirit wherever it was to be found. He wished to attack Ultramontanism, not in “the flowering top, but in the root and stem.”

The flowering top is the Vatican dogma. The root and stem are, in Acton’s view, a certain corruption of the conscience. Christianity to Acton is primarily a system of ethics; whatever violates that on principle is anti-Christian. What Acton felt to be the root of the evil was the notion that acts otherwise reprehensible could take on a different colour if they were done to promote religion, e.g. the notion that truth may be suppressed for the sake of edification. Out of this main root grows the notion that the Church in self-defence, as an organisation, may develop a machinery for putting assailants out of the way. Such machinery was developed under the aegis of the Papacy in the mediaeval Inquisition. This was what Acton meant when he spoke of the system of austere immorality established at Trent. Austere in the sense that it condemned sexual vice, and enjoined self-denial, the system of Trent was immoral in that it enjoined persecution and the suppression of inconvenient truth.

Here we see the causes of Acton’s amazing hostility to those whose principles in this matter he disliked. Owing to this predominantly ethical interest, he treated persons who took different views on the matter of persecution as belonging to different religions. Some of the letters about Döllinger here printed serve to illustrate this. An even better instance is the controversy about Dupanloup.

In the year 1879 Lady Blennerhassett wrote an article on Dupanloup, which was published in the Nineteenth Century, together with an introductory note by Döllinger. The article was kindly, though not panegyric. Acton was shocked. Dupanloup, though an inopportunist and one of the leaders of the opposition during the Vatican Council, was far from being animated by that hostility to Ultramontanism which consumed Acton. It was natural that at difficult moments such a man should defend the syllabus of Pio Nono. To Acton Liberalism was an article of faith, and every truckling to the persecuting spirit seemed an unpardonable sin. One letter in this group (p. 52) marks his displeasure. The article was the occasion for a more entire exposition of his whole doctrine than any he had yet put on paper. What, however, disturbed him most acutely was the attitude of his master, Dr. Döllinger. Acton had imbibed from Döllinger the principles of toleration, and supposed that they were entirely at one in the matter. This, however, was not so. Döllinger was not prepared to go all those lengths which Acton desired to go in condemning not merely the principle of persecution, but every one who said a word in its favour or allowed sanctity in its supporters. Thus to praise Dupanloup, or even to refuse to condemn him, appeared to Acton a breach of moral order. There was revealed a gulf hitherto unsuspected between himself and his old master. This division remained a topic of frequent discussion between the two friends. Acton, who knew that very few persons accepted his doctrine, was now driven back on himself, and felt, as he said, without an object and completely isolated.

Acton was not a Gallican. No ultramontane could have more strongly repudiated these claims of the supremacy of the civil power, which had come to be the main purport of Gallicanism. It was in opposition to these claims that had been developed, the earlier movements of the nineteenth-century Ultramontanism, as represented by Lamennais, Lacordaire, and Montalembert. But not only was Acton opposed to Gallicanism in its political aspects. He set no special store on its ecclesiastical polity. He had no more faith in the infallibility of Councils than in that of Popes. The burning of John Hus by the Council of Constance was no less a crime in his eyes than that of Giordano Bruno.

This evil, which springs from the love of power, he had seen in all ages and in all polities. What he saw in the State, he saw in its most developed form in the Church, for if the springs of religious action be tainted, there is no place for repentance. Yet in spite of politicians, he despaired not of politics, and in spite of Churchmen he despaired not of religion. His political doctrine he called the theory of liberty. This was by no means identical with modern Liberalism in any of its forms. Party Liberalism had some aims which he disapproved, especially its attitude to religion, and it leaned often to a democratic tyranny, which he detested. Yet faute de mieux he stood with the Liberal party. It was the nearest thing he could get to his ideal. For the same reason he desired to maintain the leadership of Mr. Gladstone, whom he deemed to be much of his own way of thinking, both in politics and religion.

Somewhat like this was Acton’s feeling in regard to the Church. The faults he saw at Rome he could see in every other organised Christian society. It may have been that, as a result of the débâcle of 1870, he subjected all the theology that he had learnt systematically, to a more disinterested test. Letters here printed, and some of those in Mr. Lathbury’s book, show how completely he was aware of all the trend of modern critical inquiries. Such testing, however, had result in a conviction of the supreme need of sacramental religion. He had no mind for Quakerism, which is its logical antithesis. Despite his quarrels with authority, which were never in the strict sense theological, he did not believe in a subjective religion, or desire an unorganised mass of competing sects. Grateful to the sects for their influence on civil liberty, he displays no sign of attraction for their religious systems. Essentially a cosmopolitan, he was more at home in a cosmopolitan religious body than any other.

In his inaugural lecture at Cambridge he had gone out of his way to use these words: “The action of Christ who has risen on the world which He redeemed fails not, but increases.” These words represent not the enthusiastic religionism of growth and temperament, nor the mere acquiescent submission in an inherited system, but the trained and tested conviction of a mature man. Acton was more than sixty when he spoke thus. A man of such intellectual power would not have said this without grounds. As we said, he tried and tested all this, and did not take things merely on authority. But having tested them, and being still convinced of the Incarnation, his adhesion to his own communion was to him a thing of course.

J. N. F.

R. V. L.

[1 ]Lectures on Modern History, p. 289. The whole passage should be consulted for its prescient judgment of the danger involved in the rise of Prussia.

Last modified April 10, 2014