Acton as an Historian of Freedom
- Lord Acton
- Subject Area: History
Source: From Acton's The History of Freedom and Other Essays, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907).
Introduction by Figgis and Vere Laurence
The two volumes here published contain but a small selection from the numerous writings of Acton on a variety of topics, which are to be found scattered through many periodicals of the last half-century. The result here displayed is therefore not complete. A further selection of nearly equal quantity might be made, and still much that is valuable in Acton’s work would remain buried. Here, for instance, we have extracted nothing from the Chronicle; and Acton’s gifts as a leader-writer remain without illustration. Yet they were remarkable. Rarely did he show to better advantage than in the articles and reviews he wrote in that short-lived rival of the Saturday Review. From the two bound volumes of that single weekly, there might be made a selection which would be of high interest to all who cared to learn what was passing in the minds of the most acute and enlightened members of the Roman Communion at one of the most critical epochs in the history of the papacy. But what could never be reproduced is the general impression of Acton’s many contributions to the Rambler, the Home and Foreign, and the North British Review. Perhaps none of his longer and more ceremonious writings can give to the reader so vivid a sense at once of the range of Acton’s erudition and the strength of his critical faculty as does the perusal of these short notices. Any one who wished to understand the personality of Acton could not do better than take the published Bibliography and read a few of the articles on “contemporary literature” furnished by him to the three Reviews. In no other way could the reader so clearly realise the complexity of his mind or the vast number of subjects which he could touch with the hand of a master. In a single number there are twenty-eight such notices. His writing before he was thirty years of age shows an intimate and detailed knowledge of documents and authorities which with most students is the “hard won and hardly won” achievement of a lifetime of labour. He always writes as the student, never as the littérateur. Even the memorable phrases which give point to his briefest articles are judicial, not journalistic. Yet he treats of matters which range from the dawn of history through the ancient empires down to subjects so essentially modern as the vast literature of revolutionary France or the leaders of the romantic movement which replaced it. In all these writings of Acton those qualities manifest themselves, which only grew stronger with time, and gave him a distinct and unique place among his contemporaries. Here is the same austere love of truth, the same resolve to dig to the bed-rock of fact, and to exhaust all sources of possible illumination, the same breadth of view and intensity of inquiring ardour, which stimulated his studies and limited his productive power. Above all, there is the same unwavering faith in principles, as affording the only criterion of judgment amid the everfluctuating welter of human passions, political manœuvring, and ecclesiastical intrigue. But this is not all. We note the same value for great books as the source of wisdom, combined with the same enthusiasm for immediate justice which made Acton the despair of the mere academic student, an enigma among men of the world, and a stumbling-block to the politician of the clubs Beyond this, we find that certainty and decision of judgment, that crisp concentration of phrase, that grave and deliberate irony and that mastery of subtlety, allusion, and wit, which make his interpretation an adventure and his judgment a sword.
A few instances may be given. In criticising a professor of history famous in every way rather than as a student, Acton says, “his Lectures are indeed not entirely unhistorical, for he has borrowed quite discriminatingly from Tocqueville.” Of another writer he says that “ideas, if they occur to him, he rejects like temptations to sin.” Of Ranke, thinking perhaps also of himself, he declares that “his intimate knowledge of all the contemporary history of Europe is a merit not suited to his insular readers.” Of a partisan French writer under Louis Napoleon he says that “he will have a fair grievance if he fails to obtain from a discriminating government some acknowledgment of the services which mere historical science will find it hard to appreciate.” Of Laurent he says, that “sometimes it even happens that his information is not second-hand, and there are some original authorities with which he is evidently familiar. The ardour of his opinions, so different from those which have usually distorted history, gives an interest even to his grossest errors. Mr. Buckle, if he had been able to distinguish a good book from a bad one, would have been a tolerable imitation of M. Laurent.” Perhaps, however, the most characteristic of these forgotten judgments is the description of Lord Liverpool and the class which supported him. Not even Disraeli painting the leader of that party which he was destined so strangely to “educate” could equal the austere and accurate irony with which Acton, writing as a student, not as a novelist, sums up the characteristics of the class of his birth.
Lord Liverpool governed England in the greatest crisis of the war, and for twelve troubled years of peace, chosen not by the nation, but by the owners of the land. The English gentry were well content with an order of things by which for a century and a quarter they had enjoyed so much prosperity and power. Desiring no change they wished for no ideas. They sympathised with the complacent respectability of Lord Liverpool’s character, and knew how to value the safe sterility of his mind. He distanced statesmen like Grenville, Wellesley, and Canning, not in spite of his inferiority, but by reason of it. His mediocrity was his merit. The secret of his policy was that he had none. For six years his administration outdid the Holy Alliance. For five years it led the liberal movement throughout the world. The Prime Minister hardly knew the difference. He it was who forced Canning on the King. In the same spirit he wished his government to include men who were in favour of the Catholic claims and men who were opposed to them. His career exemplifies, not the accidental combination but the natural affinity, between the love of conservatism and the fear of ideas.
The longer essays republished in these volumes exhibit in most of its characteristics a personality which even those who disagreed with his views must allow to have been one of the most remarkable products of European culture in the nineteenth century. They will show in some degree how Acton’s mind developed in the three chief periods of his activity, something of the influences which moulded it, a great deal of its preferences and its antipathies, and nearly all its directing ideals. During the first period—roughly to be dated from 1855 to 1863—he was hopefully striving, under the influence of Döllinger (his teacher from the age of seventeen), to educate his co-religionists in breadth and sympathy, and to place before his countrymen ideals of right in politics, which were to him bound up with the Catholic faith. The combination of scientific inquiry with true rules of political justice he claimed, in a letter to Döllinger, as the aim of the Home and Foreign Review. The result is to be seen in a quarterly, forgotten, like all such quarterlies to-day, but far surpassing, alike in knowledge, range, and certainty, any of the other quarterlies, political, or ecclesiastical, or specialist, which the nineteenth century produced. There is indeed no general periodical which comes near to it for thoroughness of erudition and strength of thought, if not for brilliance and ease; while it touches on topics contemporary and political in a way impossible to any specialist journal. A comparison with the British Critic in the religious sphere, with the Edinburgh in the political, will show how in all the weightier matters of learning and thought, the Home and Foreign (indeed the Rambler) was their superior, while it displayed a cosmopolitan interest foreign to most English journals.
We need not recapitulate the story so admirably told already by Doctor Gasquet of the beginning and end of the various journalistic enterprises with which Acton was connected. So far as he was concerned, however, the time may be regarded as that of youth and hope.
Next came what must be termed the “fighting period,” when he stood forth as the leader among laymen of the party opposed to that “insolent and aggressive faction” which achieved its imagined triumph at the Vatican Council. This period, which may perhaps be dated from the issue of the Syllabus by Pius IX. in 1864, may be considered to close with the reply to Mr. Gladstone’s pamphlet on “The Vatican Decrees,” and with the attempt of the famous Cardinal, in whose mind history was identified with heresy, to drive from the Roman communion its most illustrious English layman. Part of this story tells itself in the letters published by the Abbot Gasquet; and more will be known when those to Döllinger are given to the world.
We may date the third period of Acton’s life from the failure of Manning’s attempt, or indeed a little earlier. He had now given up all attempt to contend against the dominant influence of the Court of Rome, though feeling that loyalty to the Church of his Baptism, as a living body, was independent of the disastrous policy of its hierarchy. During this time he was occupied with the great unrealised project of the history of liberty or in movements of English politics and in the usual avocations of a student. In the earlier part of this period are to be placed some of the best things that Acton ever wrote, such as the lectures on Liberty, here republished. It is characterised by his discovery in the “eighties” that Döllinger and he were divided on the question of the severity of condemnation to be passed on persecutors and their approvers. Acton found to his dismay that Döllinger (like Creighton) was willing to accept pleas in arrest of judgment or at least mitigation of sentence, which the layman’s sterner code repudiated. Finding that he had misunderstood his master, Acton was for a time profoundly discouraged, declared himself isolated, and surrendered the outlook of literary work as vain. He found, in fact, that in ecclesiastical as in general politics he was alone, however much he might sympathise with others up to a certain point. On the other hand, these years witnessed a gradual mellowing of his judgment in regard to the prospects of the Church, and its capacity to absorb and interpret in a harmless sense the dogma against whose promulgation he had fought so eagerly. It might also be correct to say that the English element in Acton came out most strongly in this period, closing as it did with the Cambridge Professorship, and including the development of the friendship between himself and Mr. Gladstone.
We have spoken both of the English element in Acton and of his European importance. This is the only way in which it is possible to present or understand him. There were in him strains of many races. On his father’s side he was an English country squire, but foreign residence and the Neapolitan Court had largely affected the family, in addition to that flavour of cosmopolitan culture which belongs to the more highly placed Englishmen of the Roman Communion. On his mother’s side he was a member of one of the oldest and greatest families in Germany, which was only not princely. The Dalbergs, moreover, had intermarried with an Italian family, the Brignoli. Trained first at Oscott under Wiseman, and afterwards at Munich under Döllinger, in whose house he lived, Acton by education as well as birth was a cosmopolitan, while his marriage with the family of Arco-Valley introduced a further strain of Bavarian influence into his life. His mother’s second marriage with Lord Granville brought him into connection with the dominant influences of the great Whig Houses. For a brief period, like many another county magnate, he was a member of the House of Commons, but he never became accustomed to its atmosphere. For a longer time he lived at his house in Shropshire, and was a stately and sympathetic host, though without much taste for the avocations of country life. His English birth and Whig surroundings were largely responsible for that intense constitutionalism, which was to him a religion, and in regard both to ecclesiastical and civil politics formed his guiding criterion. This explains his detestation of all forms of absolutism on the one hand, and what he always called “the revolution” on the other.
It was not, however, the English strain that was most obvious in Acton, but the German. It was natural that he should become fired under Döllinger’s influence with the ideals of continental scholarship and exact and minute investigation. He had a good deal of the massive solidity of the German intellect. He liked, as in the “Letter to a German Bishop,” to make his judgment appear as the culmination of so much weighty evidence, that it seemed to speak for itself. He had, too, a little of the German habit of breaking a butterfly upon a wheel, and at times he makes reading difficult by a more than Teutonic allusiveness. It was not easy for Acton to bear in mind that the public is often ignorant of even the names of distinguished scholars, and that “a European reputation” is sometimes confined to the readers of specialist publications.
The Italian strain in Acton is apparent in another quality, which is perhaps his one point of kinship with Machiavelli, the absence of hesitation from his thought, and of mystery from his writing. Subtle and ironic as his style is, charged with allusion and weighted with passion, it is yet entirely devoid both of German sentiment and English vagueness. There was no haze in his mind. He judges, but does not paint pictures. It may have been this absence of half-tones in his vein of thought, and of chiaroscuro in his imagination that made Manning, an intelligent however hostile critic, speak of “the ruthless talk of undergraduates.”
But however much or little be allowed to the diverse strains of hereditary influence or outward circumstances, the interest of Acton to the student lies in his intense individuality. That austerity of moral judgment, that sense of the greatness of human affairs, and of the vast issues that lie in action and in thought, was no product of outside influences, and went beyond what he had learnt from his master Döllinger. To treat politics as a game, to play with truth or make it subservient to any cause other than itself, to take trivial views, was to Acton as deep a crime as to waste in pleasure or futility the hours so brief given for salvation of the soul would have seemed to Baxter or Bunyan; indeed, there was an element of Puritan severity in his attitude towards statesmen both ecclesiastical and civil. He was no “light half-believer of a casual creed,” but had a sense of reality more like Dante than many moderns.
This, perhaps, it was that drew him ever closer to Mr. Gladstone, while it made the House of Commons and the daily doings of politicians uncongenial. There is no doubt that he had learned too well “the secret of intellectual detachment.” Early in his life his shrewd and kindly stepfather had pointed out to him the danger of losing influence by a too unrestrained desire to escape worshipping the idols of the market-place. There are, it is true, not wanting signs that his view of the true relations of States and Churches may become one day more dominant, for it appears as though once more the earlier Middle Ages will be justified, and religious bodies become the guardians of freedom, even in the political sphere. Still, a successful career in public life could hardly be predicted for one who felt at the beginning that “I agree with nobody, and nobody agrees with me,” and towards the close admitted that he “never had any contemporaries.” On the other hand, it may be questioned whether, in the chief of his self-imposed tasks, he failed so greatly as at first appeared. If he did not prevent “infallibility” being decreed, the action of the party of Strossmayer and Ketteler assuredly prevented the form of the decree being so dangerous as they at first feared. We can only hazard a guess that the mild and minimising terms of the dogma, especially as they have since been interpreted, were in reality no triumph to Veuillot and the Jesuits. In later life Acton seems to have felt that they need not have the dangerous consequences, both in regard to historical judgments or political principles, which he had feared from the registered victory of ultramontane reaction. However this may be, Acton’s whole career is evidence of his detachment of mind, and entire independence even of his closest associates. It was a matter to him not of taste but of principle. What mainly marked him out among men was the intense reality of his faith. This gave to all his studies their practical tone. He had none of the pedant’s contempt for ordinary life, none of the æsthete’s contempt for action as a “little vulgar,” and no desire 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. Thus his whole life was a unity. All his various interests were inspired by one unconquered resolve, the aim of securing universally, alike in Church and in State, the recognition of the paramountcy of principles over interests, of liberty over tyranny, of truth over all forms of evasion or equivocation. His ideal in the political world was, as he said, that of securing suum cuique to every individual or association of human life, and to prevent any institution, however holy its aims, acquiring more.
To understand the ardour of his efforts it is necessary to bear in mind the world into which he was born, and the crises intellectual, religious, and political which he lived to witness and sometimes to influence. Born in the early days of the July monarchy, when reform in England was a novelty, and Catholic freedom a late-won boon, Acton as he grew to manhood in Munich and in England had presented to his regard a series of scenes well calculated to arouse a thoughtful mind to consideration of the deepest problems, both of politics and religion. What must have been the “long, long thoughts” of a youth, naturally reflective and acutely observant, as he witnessed the break-up of the old order in ’48 and the years that followed. In the most impressionable age of life he was driven to contemplate a Europe in solution; the crash of the kingdoms; the Pope a Liberal, an exile, and a reactionary; the principle of nationality claiming to supersede all vested rights, and to absorb and complete the work of ’89; even socialism for once striving to reduce theory to practice, till there came the “saviour of society” with the coup d’état and a new era of authority and despotism. This was the outward aspect. In the world of thought he looked upon a period of moral and intellectual anarchy. Philosopher had succeeded philosopher, critic had followed critic, Strauss and Baur were names to conjure with, and Hegel was still unforgotten in the land of his birth. Materialistic science was in the very heyday of its parvenu and tawdry intolerance, and historical knowledge in the splendid dawn of that new world of knowledge, of which Ranke was the Columbus. Everywhere faith was shaken, and except for a few resolute and unconquered spirits, it seemed as though its defence were left to a class of men who thought the only refuge of religion was in obscurity, the sole bulwark of order was tyranny, and the one support of eternal truth plausible and convenient fiction. What wonder then that the pupil of Döllinger should exhaust the intellectual and moral energies of a lifetime, in preaching to those who direct the affairs of men the paramount supremacy of principle. The course of the plebiscitary Empire, and that gradual campaign in the United States by which the will of the majority became identified with that necessity which knows no law, contributed further to educate his sense of right in politics, and to augment the distrust of power natural to a pupil of the great Whigs, of Burke, of Montesquieu, of Madame de Staël. On the other hand, as a pupil of Döllinger, his religious faith was deeper than could be touched by the recognition of facts, of which too many were notorious to make it even good policy to deny the rest; and he demanded with passion that history should set the follies and the crimes of ecclesiastical authority in no better light than those of civil.
We cannot understand Acton aright, if we do not remember that he was an English Roman Catholic, to whom the penal laws and the exploitation of Ireland were a burning injustice. They were in his view as foul a blot on the Protestant establishment and the Whig aristocracy as was the St. Bartholomew’s medal on the memory of Gregory XIII., or the murder of the duc d’Enghien on the genius of Napoleon, or the burning of Servetus on the sanctity of Calvin, or the permission of bigamy on the character of Luther, or the September Massacres on Danton.
Two other tendencies dominant in Germany — tendencies which had and have a great power in the minds of scholars, yet to Acton, both as a Christian and a man, seemed corrupting—compelled him to a search for principles which might deliver him from slavery alike to traditions and to fashion, from the historian’s vice of condoning whatever has got itself allowed to exist, and from the politician’s habit of mere opportunist acquiescence in popular standards.
First of these is the famous maxim of Schiller, Die Welt-Geschichte ist das Welt-Gericht, which, as commonly interpreted, definitely identifies success with right, and is based, consciously or unconsciously, on a pantheistic philosophy. This tendency, especially when envisaged by an age passing through revolutionary nationalism back to Machiavelli’s ideals and real politik, is clearly subversive of any system of public law or morality, and indeed is generally recognised as such nowadays even by its adherents.
The second tendency against which Acton’s moral sense revolted, had arisen out of the laudable determination of historians to be sympathetic towards men of distant ages and of alien modes of thought. With the romantic movement the early nineteenth century placed a check upon the habit of despising mediæval ideals, which had been increasing from the days of the Renaissance and had culminated in Voltaire. Instead of this, there arose a sentiment of admiration for the past, while the general growth of historical methods of thinking supplied a sense of the relativity of moral principles, and led to a desire to condone if not to commend the crimes of other ages. It became almost a trick of style to talk of judging men by the standard of their day and to allege the spirit of the age in excuse for the Albigensian Crusade or the burning of Hus. Acton felt that this was to destroy the very bases of moral judgment and to open the way to a boundless scepticism. Anxious as he was to uphold the doctrine of growth in theology, he allowed nothing for it in the realm of morals, at any rate in the Christian era, since the thirteenth century. He demanded a code of moral judgment independent of place and time, and not merely relative to a particular civilisation. He also demanded that it should be independent of religion. His reverence for scholars knew no limits of creed or church, and he desired some body of rules which all might recognise, independently of such historical phenomena as religious institutions. At a time when such varied and contradictory opinions, both within and without the limits of Christian belief, were supported by some of the most powerful minds and distinguished investigators, it seemed idle to look for any basis of agreement beyond some simple moral principles. But he thought that all men might agree in admitting the sanctity of human life and judging accordingly every man or system which needlessly sacrificed it. It is this preaching in season and out of season against the reality of wickedness, and against every interference with the conscience, that is the real inspiration both of Acton’s life and of his writings.
It is related of Frederick Robertson of Brighton, that during one of his periods of intellectual perplexity he found that the only rope to hold fast by was the conviction, “it must be right to do right.” The whole of Lord Acton’s career might be summed up in a counterphrase, “it must be wrong to do wrong.” It was this conviction, universally and unwaveringly applied, and combined with an unalterable faith in Christ, which gave unity to all his efforts, sustained him in his struggle with ecclesiastical authority, accounted for all his sympathies, and accentuated his antipathies, while it at once expanded and limited his interests. It is this that made his personality so much greater a gift to the world than any book which he might have written—had he cared less for the end and more for the process of historical knowledge.
He was interested in knowledge — that it might diminish prejudice and break down barriers. To a world in which the very bases of civilisation seemed to be dissolving he preached the need of directing ideals.
Artistic interests were not strong in him, and the decadent pursuit of culture as a mere luxury had no stronger enemy. Intellectual activity, apart from moral purpose, was anathema to Acton. He has been censured for bidding the student of his hundred best books to steel his mind against the charm of literary beauty and style. Yet he was right. His list of books was expressly framed to be a guide, not a pleasure; it was intended to supply the place of University direction to those who could not afford a college life, and it throws light upon the various strands that mingled in Acton and the historical, scientific, and political influences which formed his mind. He felt the danger that lurks in the charm of literary beauty and style, for he had both as a writer and a reader a strong taste for rhetoric, and he knew how young minds are apt to be enchained rather by the persuasive spell of the manner than the living thought beneath it. Above all, he detested the modern journalistic craze for novelty, and despised the shallowness which rates cleverness above wisdom.
In the same way his eulogy of George Eliot has been censured far more than it has been understood. It was not as an artist superior to all others that he praised the author of Daniel Deronda and the translator of Strauss. It was because she supplied in her own person the solution of the problem nearest to his heart, and redeemed (so far as teaching went) infidelity in religion from immorality in ethics. It was, above all, as a constructive teacher of morals that he admired George Eliot, who might, in his view, save a daily increasing scepticism from its worst dangers, and preserve morals which a future age of faith might once more inspire with religious ideals. Here was a writer at the summit of modern culture, saturated with materialistic science, a convinced and unchanging atheist, who, in spite of this, proclaimed in all her work that moral law is binding, and upheld a code of ethics, Christian in content, though not in foundation.
In the same way his admiration for Mr. Gladstone is to be explained. It was not his successes so much as his failures that attracted Acton, and above all, his refusal to admit that nations, in their dealings with one another, are subject to no law but that of greed. Doubtless one who gave himself no credit for practical aptitude in public affairs, admired a man who had gifts that were not his own. But what Acton most admired was what many condemned. It was because he was not like Lord Palmerston, because Bismarck disliked him, because he gave back the Transvaal to the Boers, and tried to restore Ireland to its people, because his love of liberty never weaned him from loyalty to the Crown, and his politics were part of his religion, that Acton used of Gladstone language rarely used, and still more rarely applicable, to any statesman. For this very reason — his belief that political differences do, while religious differences do not, imply a different morality—he censured so severely the generous eulogy of Disraeli, just as in Döllinger’s case he blamed the praise of Dupanloup. For Acton was intolerant of all leniency towards methods and individuals whom he thought immoral. He could give quarter to the infidel more easily than to the Jesuit.
We may, of course, deny that Acton was right. But few intelligent observers can dispute the accuracy of his diagnosis, or deny that more than anything else the disease of Western civilisation is a general lack of directing ideals other than those which are included in the gospel of commercialism. It may surely be further admitted that even intellectual activity has too much of triviality about it to-day; that if people despise the schoolmen, it is rather owing to their virtues than their defects, because impressionism has taken the place of thought, and brilliancy that of labour. On the other hand, Acton’s dream of ethical agreement, apart from religion, seems further off from realisation than ever.
Acton, however, wrote for a world which breathed in the atmosphere created by Kant. His position was something as follows: After the discovery of facts, a matter of honesty and industry independent of any opinions, history needs a criterion of judgment by which it may appraise men’s actions. This criterion cannot be afforded by religion, for religion is one part of the historic process of which we are tracing the flow. The principles on which all can combine are the inviolable sanctity of human life, and the unalterable principle of even justice and toleration. Wherever these are violated our course is clear. Neither custom nor convenience, neither distance of time nor difference of culture may excuse or even limit our condemnation. Murder is always murder, whether it be committed by populace or patricians, by councils or kings or popes. Had they had their dues, Paolo Sarpi would have been in Newgate and George I. would have died at Tyburn.
The unbending severity of his judgment, which is sometimes carried to an excess almost ludicrous, is further explained by another element in his experience. In his letters to Döllinger and others he more than once relates how in early life he had sought guidance in the difficult historical and ethical questions which beset the history of the papacy from many of the most eminent ultramontanes. Later on he was able to test their answers in the light of his constant study of original authorities and his careful investigation of archives. He found that the answers given him had been at the best but plausible evasions. The letters make it clear that the harshness with which Acton always regarded ultramontanes was due to that bitter feeling which arises in any reflecting mind on the discovery that it has been put off with explanations that did not explain, or left in ignorance of material facts.
Liberalism, we must remember, was a religion to Acton—i.e. liberalism as he understood it, by no means always what goes by the name. His conviction that ultramontane theories lead to immoral politics prompted his ecclesiastical antipathies. His anger was aroused, not by any feeling that Papal infallibility was a theological error, but by the belief that it enshrined in the Church monarchical autocracy, which could never maintain itself apart from crime committed or condoned. It was not intellectual error but moral obliquity that was to him here, as everywhere, the enemy. He could tolerate unbelief, he could not tolerate sin. Machiavelli represented to him the worst of political principles, because in the name of the public weal he destroyed the individual’s conscience. Yet he left a loophole in private life for religion, and a sinning statesman might one day become converted. But when the same principles are applied, as they have been applied by the Jesuit organisers of ultramontane reaction (also on occasion by Protestants), ad majorem dei gloriam, it is clear that the soul is corrupted at its highest point, and the very means of serving God are made the occasion of denying him. Because for Acton there was no comparison between goodness and knowledge, and because life was to him more than thought, because the passion of his life was to secure for all souls the freedom to live as God would have them live, he hated in the Church the politics of ultramontanism, and in the State the principles of Machiavelli. In the same way he denied the legitimacy of every form of government, every economic wrong, every party creed, which sacrificed to the pleasures or the safety of the few the righteousness and salvation of the many. His one belief was the right of every man not to have, but to be, his best.
This fact gives the key to what seems to many an unsolved contradiction, that the man who said what he did say and fought as he had fought should yet declare in private that it had never occurred to him to doubt any single dogma of his Church, and assert in public that communion with it was “dearer than life itself.” Yet all the evidence both of his writings and his most intimate associates confirms this view. His opposition to the doctrine of infallibility was ethical and political rather than theological. As he wrote to Döllinger, the evil lay deeper, and Vaticanism was but the last triumph of a policy that was centuries old. Unless he were turned out of her he would see no more reason to leave the Church of his baptism on account of the Vatican Decrees than on account of those of the Lateran Council. To the dogma of the Immaculate Conception he had no hostility, and could not understand Döllinger’s condemnation of it, or reconcile it with his previous utterances. He had great sympathy with the position of Liberal High Anglicans; but there is not the slightest reason to suppose that he ever desired to join the English Church. Even with the old Catholic movement he had no sympathy, and dissuaded his friends from joining it.1 All forms of Gallicanism were distasteful to Acton, and he looked to the future for the victory of his ideas. His position in the Roman Church symbolises in an acute form what may be called the soul’s tragedy of the whole nineteenth century, but Acton had not the smallest inclination to follow either Gavazzi or Lamennais. It was, in truth, the unwavering loyalty of his churchmanship and his far-reaching historical sense that enabled him to attack with such vehemence evils which he believed to be accidental and temporary, even though they might have endured for a millennium. Long searching of the vista of history preserved Acton from the common danger of confusing the eternal with what is merely lengthy. To such a mind as his, it no more occurred to leave the Church because he disapproved some of its official procedure, than it would to an Englishman to surrender his nationality when his political opponents came into office. He distinguished, as he said Froschammer ought to have done, between the authorities and the authority of the Church. He had a strong belief in the doctrine of development, and felt that it would prove impossible in the long run to bind the Christian community to any explanation of the faith which should have a non-Christian or immoral tendency. He left it to time and the common conscience to clear the dogma from association with dangerous political tendencies, for his loyalty to the institution was too deep to be affected by his dislike of the Camarilla in power. He not only did not desire to leave the Church, but took pains to make his confession and receive absolution immediately after his letters appeared in the Times. It must also be stated that so far from approving Mr. Gladstone’s attack on Vaticanism, he did his utmost to prevent its publication, which he regarded as neither fair nor wise.
It is true that Acton’s whole tendency was individualistic, and his inner respect for mere authority apart from knowledge and judgment was doubtless small. But here we must remember what he said once of the political sphere — that neither liberty nor authority is conceivable except in an ordered society, and that they are both relative to conditions remote alike from anarchy and tyranny. Doubtless he leaned away from those in power, and probably felt of Manning as strongly as the latter wrote of him. Yet his individualism was always active within the religious society, and never contemplated itself as outside. He showed no sympathy for any form of Protestantism, except the purely political side of the Independents and other sects which have promoted liberty of conscience.
Acton’s position as a churchman is made clearer by a view of his politics. At once an admirer and an adviser of Mr. Gladstone, he probably helped more than any other single friend to make his leader a Home Ruler. Yet he was anything but a modern Radical: for liberty was his goddess, not equality, and he dreaded any single power in a State, whether it was the King, or Parliament, or People. Neither popes nor princes, not even Protestant persecutors, did Acton condemn more deeply than the crimes of majorities and the fury of uncontrolled democracy. It was not the rule of one or many that was his ideal, but a balance of powers that might preserve freedom and keep every kind of authority subject to law. For, as he said, “liberty is not a means to a higher end, it is itself the highest political end.” His preference was, therefore, not for any sovereign one or number, such as formed the ideal of Rousseau or the absolutists; but for a monarchy of the English type, with due representation to the aristocratic and propertied classes, as well as adequate power to the people. He did not believe in the doctrine of numbers, and had no sympathy with the cry Vox populi Vox Dei; on the other hand, he felt strongly that the stake in the country argument really applied with fullest force to the poor, for while political error means mere discomfort to the rich, it means to the poor the loss of all that makes life noble and even of life itself. As he said in one of his already published letters:—
The men who pay wages ought not to be the political masters of those who earn them, for laws should be adapted to those who have the heaviest stake in the country, for whom misgovernment means not mortified pride or stinted luxury, but want and pain and degradation, and risk to their own lives and to their children’s souls.
While he felt the dangers of Rousseau’s doctrine of equality, declaring that in the end it would be destructive alike of liberty and religion, he was yet strongly imbued with the need of reconciling some of the socialists’ ideals with the regard due to the principles which he respected. He was anxious to promote the study of Roscher and the historical economists, and he seems to have thought that by their means some solution of the great economic evils of the modern world might be found, which should avoid injustice either to the capitalist or the wage-earner. He had a burning hatred of injustice and tyranny, which made him anxious to see the horrors of the modern proletariat system mitigated and destroyed: but combined with this there was a very deep sense of the need of acting on principles universally valid, and a distrust of any merely emotional enthusiasm which might, in the future, create more evils than it cured. Acton was, in truth, the incarnation of the “spirit of Whiggism,” although in a very different sense of the phrase from that in which it became the target for the arrows of Disraeli’s scorn and his mockery of the Venetian constitution. He was not the Conservative Whig of the “glorious revolution,” for to him the memory of William of Orange might be immortal but was certainly not pious: yet it was “revolution principles” of which he said that they were the great gift of England to the world. By this he meant the real principles by which the events of 1688 could be philosophically justified, when purged of all their vulgar and interested associations, raised above their connection with a territorial oligarchy, and based on reasoned and universal ideals. Acton’s liberalism was above all things historical, and rested on a consciousness of the past. He knew very well that the roots of modern constitutionalism were mediæval, and declared that it was the stolid conservatism of the English character, which had alone enabled it to preserve what other nations had lost in the passion for autocracy that characterised the men of the Renaissance and the Reformation. Constitutional government was for him the sole eternal truth in politics, the rare but the only guardian of freedom. He loved to trace the growth of the principle of power limiting itself and law triumphant alike over king, aristocracies, and majorities; and to show how it arose out of the cruel conflicts of the religious wars and rested upon the achievements of Constance and the efforts of Basle, and how it was influenced in expression by the thinkers of the ancient world and the theologians of the modern, by the politics of Aristotle, by the maxims of Ulpian and of Gaius, by the theology of St. Thomas and Ockham, and even by Suarez and Molina.
What Acton feared and hated was the claim of absolutism to crush the individuality and destroy the conscience of men. It was indifferent to him whether this claim was exercised by Church or State, by Pope or Council, or King or Parliament. He felt, however, that it was more dangerous because more absorbing when exercised in religious matters, and thus condemned the Protestant theory more deeply than the Catholic permission of persecution. He also felt that monarchy was more easily checked than pure democracy, and that the risk of tyranny was greater in the latter.
Provided that freedom was left to men to do their duty, Acton was not greatly careful of mere rights. He had no belief in the natural equality of men, and no dislike of the subordination of classes on the score of birth. His ideal of freedom as of the Church was in some respects that of the earlier Middle Ages. He did not object to serfdom, provided that it safeguarded the elementary rights of the serf to serve God as well as man. In the great struggle in America, he had no sympathy with the North, which seemed to him to make majority rule the only measure of right: and he wrote, if not in favour, at least in palliation, of slavery. It may be doubted how far he would have used the same language in later life, but his reasons were in accord with all his general views. Slavery might be rendered harmless by the State, and some form of compulsion might be the only way of dealing with child-races, indeed, it might be merely a form of education no more morally blameworthy than the legal disabilities of minors. But the absolute state recognising no limits but its own will, and bound by no rule either of human or Divine law, appeared to him definitely immoral.
Acton’s political conscience was also very broad on the side technically called moral. No one had higher ideals of purity. Yet he had little desire to pry into the private morality of kings or politicians. It was by the presence or absence of political principles that he judged them. He would have condemned Pope Paul the Fourth more than Rodrigo Borgia, and the inventor of the “dragonnades” more than his great-grandson. He did not view personal morality as relevant to political judgment.
In this, if in nothing else, he agreed with Creighton. His correspondence with the latter throws his principles into the strongest light, and forms the best material for a judgment. For it must, we think, be admitted that he applied these doctrines with a rigidity which human affairs will not admit, and assumed a knowledge beyond our capacity. To declare that no one could be in a state of grace who praised S. Carlo Borromeo, because the latter followed the evil principle of his day in the matter of persecution, “is not merely to make the historian a hanging judge,” but to ignore the great truth that if crime is always crime, degrees of temptation are widely variable. The fact is, Acton’s desire to maintain the view that “morality is not ambulatory,” led him at times to ignore the complementary doctrine that it certainly develops, and that the difficulties of statesmen or ecclesiastics, if they do not excuse, at least at times explain their less admirable courses. At the very close of his life Acton came to this view himself. In a pathetic conversation with his son, he lamented the harshness of some of his judgments, and hoped the example would not be followed.
Still, Acton, if he erred here, erred on the nobler side. The doctrine of moral relativity had been overdone by historians, and the principles of Machiavelli had become so common a cry of politicians, that severe protest was necessary. The ethics of Nietzsche are the logical expansion of Machiavelli, and his influence is proof that, in the long-run, men cannot separate their international code from their private one. We must remember that Acton lived in a time when, as he said, the course of history had been “twenty-five times diverted by actual or attempted crime,” and when the old ideals of liberty seemed swallowed up by the pursuit of gain. To all those who reflect on history or politics, it was a gain of the highest order that at the very summit of historical scholarship and profound political knowledge there should be placed a leader who erred on the unfashionable side, who denied the statesmen’s claim to subject justice to expediency, and opposed the partisan’s attempt to palter with facts in the interest of his creed.
It is these principles which both explain Acton’s work as a student, and make it so difficult to understand. He believed, that as an investigator of facts the historian must know no passion, save that of a desire to sift evidence; and his notion of this sifting was of the remorseless scientific school of Germany, which sometimes, perhaps, expects more in the way of testimony than human life affords. At any rate, Acton demanded that the historian must never misconceive the case of the adversaries of his views, or leave in shade the faults of his own side. But on the other hand, when he comes to interpret facts or to trace their relation, his views and even his temperament will affect the result. It is only the barest outline that can be quite objective. In Acton’s view the historian as investigator is one thing, the historian as judge another. In an early essay on Döllinger he makes a distinction of this kind. The reader must bear it in mind in considering Acton’s own writing. Some of the essays here printed, and still more the lectures, are anything but colourless; they show very distinctly the predilections of the writer, and it is hardly conceivable that they should have been written by a defender of absolutism, or even by an old-fashioned Tory. What Acton really demanded was not the academic aloofness of the pedant who stands apart from the strife of principles, but the honesty of purpose which “throws itself into the mind of one’s opponents, and accounts for their mistakes,” giving their case the best possible colouring. For, to be sure of one’s ground, one must meet one’s adversaries’ strongest arguments, and not be content with merely picking holes in his armour. Otherwise one’s own belief may be at the mercy of the next clever opponent. The reader may doubt how far Acton succeeded in his own aim, for there was a touch of intolerance in his hatred of absolutism, and he believed himself to be divided from his ecclesiastical and political foes by no mere intellectual difference but by a moral cleavage. Further, his writing is never half-hearted. His convictions were certitudes based on continual reading and reflection, and admitting in his mind of no qualification. He was eminently a Victorian in his confidence that he was right. He had none of the invertebrate tendency of mind which thinks it is impartial, merely because it is undecided, and regards the judicial attitude as that which refrains from judging. Acton’s was not a doubting mind. If he now and then suspended his judgment, it was as an act of deliberate choice, because he had made up his mind that the matter could not be decided, not because he could not decide to make up his mind. Whether he was right or wrong, he always knew what he thought, and his language was as exact an expression of his meaning as he could make it. It was true that his subtle and far-sighted intelligence makes his style now and then like a boomerang, as when he says of Ranke’s method “it is a discipline we shall all do well to adopt, and also do well to relinquish.” Indeed, it is hardly possible to read a single essay without observing this marked characteristic. He has been called a “Meredith turned historian,” and that there is truth in this judgment, any one who sees at once the difficulty and the suggestiveness of his reviews can bear witness. He could hardly write the briefest note without stamping his personality upon it and exhibiting the marks of a very complex culture. But the main characteristic of his style is that it represents the ideals of a man to whom every word was sacred. Its analogies are rather in sculpture than painting. Each paragraph, almost every sentence is a perfectly chiselled whole, impressive by no brilliance or outside polish, so much as by the inward intensity of which it is the symbol. Thus his writing is never fluent or easy, but it has a moral dignity rare and unfashionable.
Acton, indeed, was by no means without a gift of rhetoric, and in the “Lecture on Mexico,” here republished, there is ample evidence of a power of handling words which should impress a popular audience. It is in gravity of judgment and in the light he can draw from small details that his power is most plainly shown. On the other hand, he had a little of the scholar’s love of clinging to the bank, and, as the notes to his “Inaugural” show, he seems at times too much disposed to use the crutches of quotation to prop up positions which need no such support. It was of course the same habit—the desire not to speak before he had read everything that was relevant, whether in print or manuscript—that hindered so severely his output. His projected History of Liberty was, from the first, impossible of achievement. It would have required the intellects of Napoleon and Julius Cæsar combined, and the lifetime of the patriarchs, to have executed that project as Acton appears to have planned it. A History of Liberty, beginning with the ancient world and carried down to our own day, to be based entirely upon original sources, treating both of the institutions which secured it, the persons who fought for it, and the ideas which expressed it, and taking note of all that scholars had written about every several portion of the subject, was and is beyond the reach of a single man. Probably towards the close of his life Acton had felt this. The Cambridge Modern History, which required the co-operation of so many specialists, was to him really but a fragment of this great project.
Two other causes limited Acton’s output. Towards the close of the seventies he began to suspect, and eventually discovered, that he and Döllinger were not so close together as he had believed. That is to say, he found that in regard to the crimes of the past, Döllinger’s position was more like that of Creighton than his own—that, while he was willing to say persecution was always wrong, he was not willing to go so far as Acton in rejecting every kind of mitigating plea and with mediæval certainty consigning the persecutors to perdition. Acton, who had, as he thought, learnt all this from Döllinger, was distressed at what seemed to him the weakness and the sacerdotal prejudice of his master, felt that he was now indeed alone, and for the time surrendered, as he said, all views of literary work. This was the time when he had been gathering materials for a History of the Council of Trent. That this cleavage, coming when it did, had a paralysing effect on Acton’s productive energy is most probable, for it made him feel that he was no longer one of a school, and was without sympathy and support in the things that lay nearest his heart.
Another cause retarded production—his determination to know all about the work of others. Acton desired to be in touch with university life all over Europe, to be aware, if possible through personal knowledge, of the trend of investigation and thought of scholars working in all the cognate branches of his subject. To keep up thoroughly with other people’s work, and do much original writing of one’s own, is rarely possible. At any rate we may say that the same man could not have produced the essay on German schools of history, and written a magnum opus of his own.
His life marks what, in an age of minute specialism, must always be at once the crown and the catastrophe of those who take all knowledge for their province. His achievement is something different from any book. Acton’s life-work was, in fact, himself. Those who lament what he might have written as a historian would do well to reflect on the unique position which he held in the world of letters, and to ask themselves how far he could have wielded the influence that was his, or held the standard so high, had his own achievement been greater. Men such as Acton and Hort give to the world, by their example and disposition, more than any written volume could convey. In both cases a great part of their published writings has had, at least in book form, to be posthumous. But their influence on other workers is incalculable, and has not yet determined.
To an age doubting on all things, and with the moral basis of its action largely undermined, Acton gave the spectacle of a career which was as moving as it was rare. He stood for a spirit of unwavering and even childlike faith united to a passion for scientific inquiry, and a scorn of consequences, which at times made him almost an iconoclast. His whole life was dedicated to one high end, the aim of preaching the need of principles based on the widest induction and the most penetrating thought, as the only refuge amid the storm and welter of sophistical philosophies and ecclesiastical intrigues. The union of faith with knowledge, and the eternal supremacy of righteousness, this was the message of Acton to mankind. It may be thought that he sometimes exaggerated his thesis, that he preached it out of season, that he laid himself open to the charge of being doctrinaire, and that in fighting for it he failed to utter the resources of his vast learning. Enough, however, is left to enable the world to judge what he was. No books ever do more than that for any man. Those who are nice in comparisons may weigh against the book lost the man gained. Those who loved him will know no doubt.
The following document was found among Lord Acton’s Papers. It records in an imaginative form the ideals which he set before him. Perhaps it forms the most fitting conclusion to this Introduction.
This day’s post informed me of the death of Adrian, who was the best of all men I have known. He loved retirement, and avoided company, but you might sometimes meet him coming from scenes of sorrow, silent and appalled, as if he had seen a ghost, or in the darkest corner of churches, his dim eyes radiant with light from another world. In youth he had gone through much anxiety and contention; but he lived to be trusted and honoured. At last he dropped out of notice and the memory of men, and that part of his life was the happiest.
Years ago, when I saw much of him, most people had not found him out. There was something in his best qualities themselves that baffled observation, and fell short of decided excellence. He looked absent and preoccupied, as if thinking of things he cared not to speak of, and seemed but little interested in the cares and events of the day. Often it was hard to decide whether he had an opinion, and when he showed it, he would defend it with more eagerness and obstinacy than we liked. He did not mingle readily with others or co-operate in any common undertaking, so that one could not rely on him socially, or for practical objects. As he never spoke harshly of persons, so he seldom praised them warmly, and there was some apparent indifference and want of feeling. Ill success did not depress, but happy prospects did not elate him, and though never impatient, he was not actively hopeful. Facetious friends called him the weather-cock, or Mr. Facingbothways, because there was no heartiness in his judgments, and he satisfied nobody, and said things that were at first sight grossly inconsistent, without attempting to reconcile them. He was reserved about himself, and gave no explanations, so that he was constantly misunderstood, and there was a sense of failure, of disappointment, of perplexity about him.
These things struck me, as well as others, and at first repelled me. I could see indeed, at the same time, that his conduct was remarkably methodical, and was guided at every step by an inexhaustible provision of maxims. He had meditated on every contingency in life, and was prepared with rules and precepts, which he never disobeyed. But I doubted whether all this was not artificial,—a contrivance to satisfy the pride of intellect and establish a cold superiority. In time I discovered that it was the perfection of a developed character. He had disciplined his soul with such wisdom and energy as to make it the obedient and spontaneous instrument of God’s will, and he moved in an orbit of thoughts beyond our reach.
It was part of his religion to live much in the past, to realise every phase of thought, every crisis of controversy, every stage of progress the Church has gone through. So that the events and ideas of his own day lost much of their importance in comparison, were old friends with new faces, and impressed him less than the multitude of those that went before. This caused him to seem absent and indifferent, rarely given to admire, or to expect. He respected other men’s opinions, fearing to give pain, or to tempt with anger by contradiction, and when forced to defend his own he felt bound to assume that every one would look sincerely for the truth, and would gladly recognise it. But he could not easily enter into their motives when they were mixed, and finding them generally mixed, he avoided contention by holding much aloof. Being quite sincere, he was quite impartial, and pleaded with equal zeal for what seemed true, whether it was on one side or on the other. He would have felt dishonest if he had unduly favoured people of his own country, his own religion, or his own party, or if he had entertained the shadow of a prejudice against those who were against them, and when he was asked why he did not try to clear himself from misrepresentation, he said that he was silent both from humility and pride.
At last I understood that what we had disliked in him was his virtue itself.
J. N. F.
R. V. L.
[1 ]There is no foundation for the statement of Canon Meyrick in his Reminiscences, that Acton, had he lived on the Continent, would have undoubtedly become an Old Catholic. He did very largely live on the Continent. Nor did even Döllinger, of whom Dr. Meyrick also asserts it, ever become an adherent of that movement.
- Acton as a Professor
- Acton as an Historian of Freedom
- Acton on Machiavelli
- Acton on Moral Judgements in History
- Acton’s Education
- Acton’s Ideas as revealed by his Correspondence
- Acton’s Inaugural Lecture on History
- Acton, The History of Freedom in Antiquity
- Acton, The History of Freedom in Christianity
- Acton-Creighton Correspondence (1887)
- Acton: A Biographical Memoir