The Reading Room

Acton on Doing History: To Judge or Understand

In July’s Liberty Matters Discussion of the Declaration of Independence, a main theme of our deliberations was on the role and purpose of history. A distinction was made between an older ethic of understanding the past in its own terms versus judging past actions for their moral or ethical content. The idea of understanding context is old only in relation to modern practices, however, which are increasingly seeing the reassertion of the view that the past can and should be judged.
Indeed, the notion that the task of history is first and foremost to understand, goes back only to the early 1800s, and it was a point very much in debate. 
Among the leading champions of the view that historians should be moral stewards, was Lord Acton himself. In this interesting exchange between Acton and Bishop Creighton , we find Acton’s famous lines about the corrupting nature of power. What is often missed, however, is the fact that both Creighton and Acton were historians deeply enmeshed in the earliest debates over the task and craft of history. Creighton, according to Acton, had dealt too leniently with the princes and prelates of the past, who should be more severely judged, he argued, for their evil deeds. Soon after the famous lines on power, Acton wrote, “The inflexible integrity of the moral code is, to me, the secret of the authority, the dignity, the utility of history.” 
Bishop Creighton, while not denying that the historian should exercise some degree of judgement, contended in his own defense, that what is often asserted to be known today about the consequences of past decisions, could not have been known when those actions were taken:  “I cannot follow the actions of contemporary statesmen with much moral satisfaction.” Creighton wrote, “In the past I find myself regarding them with pity—who am I that I should condemn them? Surely they knew not what they did.” 
Interestingly, Acton and Creighton both followed closely the developing concept of objectivity in historical research as it was being promulgated by Leopold von Ranke and others on the continent. Creighton again thought Acton judged the Germans too strenuously. But Acton rejoined, “The criticism of those who complained that I attacked the Germans without suggesting a better method seems to me undeserved. I was trying to indicate the progress and—partial—improvement of their historical writing; and when I disagreed I seldom said so, but rather tried to make out a possible case in favour of views I don’t share.” (See Acton-Creighton Correspondence, 1887).
Acton gave Ranke his due, but not without a slight back of the hand as you might notice: “Ranke is the representative of the age which instituted the modern study of History. He taught it to be critical, to be colourless, and to be new. We meet him at every step, and he has done more for us than any other man.” (Lectures on Modern History | Online Library of Liberty, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence, London: Macmillan, 1906).
In fact, Acton endorsed the critical approach to sources which Ranke had pioneered. History could be understood, but it was precisely because the terms of the past can be translated for our understanding in the present, that we could and should pass judgement on them as well.  What do you think?