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84 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 



LORD ACTON'S PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY 1 

CRANE BRINTON 
Harvard University 

"I have never had any contemporaries," said Lord 
Acton toward the close of his life; and, in the main, 
he was right. His broad cosmopolitanism made him 
impatient of English insularity. His belief in the neces- 
sity of freedom of conscience alienated him, in spirit if 
not in form, from the church of his birth. His insistence 
upon the absolute validity of the moral law as the final 
measure of all things isolated him in the midst of a century 
which seemed largely to have concluded that morality 
and success are synonymous. Certain it is that his own 
age did not estimate him over highly. At his death in 
1902 there were not a few who asserted that for all his 
depth of erudition, Acton had contributed nothing to 
the sum of human knowledge. He had been an omniv- 
orous reader and possessed a greater knowledge of the 
sources of modern history than any other man of his day. 
Yet all this store of learning had been of no avail to the 
world, for Acton had written nothing. At his death, a 
lecture in English, a letter in German, were all that rep- 
resented Acton on the shelves of the library of his own 
university, Cambridge. Even today, after his lectures, 
his letters, and his periodical writings have been collected 
and edited, his output remains small: two volumes of 
lectures, three of letters, two of historical essays con- 
tributed to the reviews of his time. Yet in spite of the 
scantiness of his written work, Acton must be numbered 
among the great historians of the last century. Great- 

1 Copyright, 1919, by Crane Brinton. 



LORD ACTON'S PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY 85 

ness is not susceptible to quantitative analysis. A his- 
torian's influence is not to be measured by the number 
of volumes in octavo he brings forth. Acton's few pages 
are sufficient to define his attitude toward history. His 
life shows how intimate for him was the bond between 
a knowledge of the past and a reasoned course of conduct 
in the present. What is important for the world in 
Acton is not the extent of his writings, but the depth of 
his thinking. We are interested, not so much in his 
broad erudition as in the living core of his thought, his 
philosophy of history. 

John Acton was born in Naples on the tenth of January, 
1834. His father, Sir Richard Acton, came from an old 
family of English country squires which had kept to the 
Catholic faith. His mother was a Dalberg, a member of 
a distinguished South German family. John was edu- 
cated first at Oscott, one of the leading Catholic colleges 
in England, and then at Munich under Dollinger. Acton 
is thus marked off from the majority of his countrymen 
by his religion and his cosmopolitanism. It is precisely 
these factors that determined his outlook on life, that 
served most to forge his character. He was a sincere 
Catholic. To this he owed his moral austerity, his sense 
of the gravity of history and its ethical import. The 
German element in Acton shows itself in a scientific 
thoroughness of research, in a fund of scholarship not 
wholly free from a sort of unwieldy bulkiness. He is 
at bottom, however, an Englishman. His ideal of lib- 
erty is determined by an English respect for law and 
custom, an English recognition of the principle of growth 
in political institutions. He had none of the blindly 
doctrinaire idealism of the continental liberal; rather, 
he follows the tradition of the Whigs. The cosmopolitan 
character of his interests, however, lifted him above the 
pettiness of partisan standards. His Whiggism is never 
the Whiggism of a Macaulay. Acton strives to draw 



86 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

from every historic occurrence its universal application, 
its truth; and this truth is an absolute, a principle whose 
distortion is crime. 

Acton's attitude toward history is thus blocked out 
in the circumstances of his birth and education. For 
those who would understand his position as a historian 
his later life marks but two important events — his strug- 
gle with ultramontanism and his professorship at Cam- 
bridge. On his return to England from Germany, Acton 
edited successively the Rambler and the Home and Foreign 
Review, journals through which, as some one has said, 
he set out "to convert the world to a synthesis of learning, 
liberalism, and Catholicism." Such ideals soon brought 
him into conflict with Rome. His journals were officially 
condemned and he was forced to suspend their publica- 
tion. His long struggle with ultramontanism culminated 
in the utter defeat of the Liberal Catholics at the Vatican 
Council of 1870. After the declaration of papal infalli- 
bility by the council, Acton withdrew from open ecclesi- 
astical controversy. Believing, however, that the decree 
of infallibility might be so mildly interpreted as to rob 
it of its dangers, he never took the decisive step of with- 
drawing from the Catholic communion. The conflict, 
however, had left a permanent impression upon him. It 
confirmed his conviction that absolute power, whether in 
church or in state, is an evil not to be endured; it gave 
him a motive for a searching inquiry into the past of 
his church, an inquiry which served to strengthen his 
hatred for religious persecution in all its forms. 

The next twenty years of Acton's life were passed in 
diligent reading in preparation for his projected History 
of Liberty. He welcomed his appointment as Regius 
Professor of Modern History at Cambridge in 1895 as an 
opportunity to carry out his plan. The Cambridge 
Modern History, as Acton originally conceived it, was 
but a fragment of a greater work which was to trace the 



LORD ACTON'S PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY 87 

slow progress of the human race toward freedom. But 
the task was too gigantic even for a scholar of Acton's 
calibre; and Acton himself pursued his passion for abso- 
lute certainty of evidence so far that most of his time 
was spent in investigation, and little left for creative 
work. Acton died with the History of Liberty still un- 
written. His Cambridge years, however, were by no 
means barren. In these few short years his personality 
stamped itself upon the historical thought of the univer- 
sity; and the two volumes of his lectures on modern 
history and on the French Revolution give us in their 
full ripeness the sum of his historical judgments. 

History was not to Acton a mere academic pursuit. 
With that view of history which considers it, beneath the 
dry light of science, as a series of phenomena capable of 
detachment from the present, susceptible to separate 
analysis, he had no sympathy. Still less did he consider 
history a mere form of literary exposition. The one 
justification for the study of history was to Acton its 
value as a guide in the affairs of the every-day world. 
The present is what it is because of what the past has 
been. Human development has been a continuous chain 
of cause and effect. Any course of action in the present 
must be based upon a knowledge of the way in which 
things we now do are hedged in, limited by what men 
have done before us. History thus becomes a great 
mentor, a schoolmaster of action. 

Acton does not mean by this that we are to become 
blind worshippers of the past. He dislikes that type of 
conservatism which obstinately faces backward to glue 
its eyes on the days of old as much as he does that doc- 
trinaire revolutionism of the French which would abolish 
history. History is a valuable guide, not only because 
it serves to delimit our field of action, but because it 
allows us to profit by the errors of our predecessors. As 
Acton says, "If the Past has been a burden, a knowledge 



88 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

of the Past is the safest and surest emancipation." More- 
over, a knowledge of history prevents us from confusing 
what is transitory and unimportant with the things that 
really count; it forces us to fasten on abiding issues. 
Only through historical insight can we separate in the 
maze of present-day politics selfish interests from social 
principles. In the highest sense, history is to Acton a 
philosophy. It is the sum of man's achievement; its 
proper interpretation affords the key to his destiny. 

To Acton, then, "history, the record of truths revealed 
by experience, is eminently practical, as an instrument 
of action and a power that goes to the making of the 
future." But to achieve this function it must not take 
the shape of a mass of uncoordinated details. The great 
bulk of historical data must be given an orderly shape, 
must be interpreted. The historian cannot, however, be 
content with the mere winnowing of patiently acquired 
data. He must appraise the place of events in the scheme 
of things. He must not read his own prejudices into 
events, nor must he seek in history an orderly system 
in which every item can be properly pigeon-holed. Acton 
gave an excellent summary of his own historical method 
in reply to a correspondent who had quoted Vinet's "II 
faut que l'historien ait un parti; amour de verite ab- 
straite, chimere." "Oui et non," wrote Acton. "Oui, 
l'historien doit avoir un parti . . . mais il doit faire aussi 
la part de ce qui est incertain, du cote faible, de la vertu, 
du talent et du merite des malfaiteurs. En l'histoire, 
tout est porte, limite, interprete par une masse d'antece- 
dents qui ne souffrent pas une designation exclusive." 

Acton believed that history could be rendered truly 
significant only by testing the conformity of its content 
with two fundamental principles: first, the right of every 
man to freedom of conscience; second, the unfailing 
authority of the moral law. These principles are not 
injected into the mass of historic detail in some esoteric 



LORD ACTON'S PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY 89 

manner, like the Kantian categories into the world of 
sensation. They are not metaphysical absolutes applied 
to history, not a priori rules to rationalize historic data. 
They are rather truths which result from a historic 
induction; they are to be inferred from a study of the 
course of history. Once recognized and applied to the 
course of events, these principles serve to give meaning 
to separate phenomena, as the laws of modern science 
serve to bring various physical activities into orderly 
connection. History thus gives us the account of the 
gradual and painful progress of the race toward freedom 
and morality. A given historical event, once every fact 
of evidence which can be known about it has been dis- 
covered by an impartial investigation, must be judged by 
its part in this upward progress, by its contribution to 
ethical freedom. The absolute paramountcy of these 
standards of freedom and morality was to Acton the les- 
son of history. That others, starting with a similar basis 
of historic evidence, should draw from it a teaching as 
diametrically opposed to his as "Die Weltgeschichte ist 
das Weltgericht" merely proved to him how strong were 
the forces of evil in this world. Acton was profoundly 
convinced of his own Tightness. His conception of the 
significance of history is undoubtedly the reflection of 
his character. However much he may seek for objectiv- 
ity of judgment, however much he may wish events 
themselves to mould his generalizations, we cannot but 
feel that in the end he is interpreting things in terms of 
his own personality. Hence there appears in his stand- 
ards of historic judgment a certain rigidity, a certain 
absoluteness, which removes them, in a way, from sub- 
jection to that historic growth which produced them. 
In brief, Acton does not wholly succeed in making his- 
tory a true induction; there remains in his categories of 
freedom and morality a suggestion of fixity and immuta- 
bility which divorces them from the every-day world. 



90 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

All this will appear more clearly in an examination of 
the precise nature of these standards. 

Acton's definition of liberty has become famous. "By 
liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be 
protected in doing what he believes to be his duty against 
the influence of authority and majorities, custom and 
opinion." Surely it is an ideal which does not lack in 
force of aspiration. Freedom of conscience is to Acton 
the highest ideal of human progress. Liberty, in this 
sense, is not a means of attaining a better political sys- 
tem; it is in itself the highest end of all political effort. 
It is just because liberty is the goal of the race that it 
forms a criterion for the judgment of history. Though 
this definition of liberty is perhaps a counsel of perfection, 
Acton does not mean it to be purely Utopian in char- 
acter. Liberty is something which operates here among 
us. It has never been completely realized; it has been 
subject to violation and abuse by those who did not under- 
stand it. But it has persisted, and all history records its 
increasing sway over the minds and action of men. 

Acton defines liberty in terms of the individual will; 
but that does not mean that the individual is free to act 
at his own caprice. Acton realizes that absolute free- 
dom, like absolute despotism, is an impossibility. No 
man can have complete control over another, even over 
his slave, for the slave always has the alternative of 
suicide. Similarly, no man can be unqualifiedly free as 
long as another human being exists and has relations 
with him. Acton saw the full truth of Aristotle's state- 
ment that man is a social animal. Hence he saw that 
an individual's liberty is always contingent upon the 
liberty of others. Freedom is in a sense merely the 
harmonious functioning of all parts of the social order. 
Because he considered social progress as necessarily 
evolutionary, Acton made respect for law and tradition 
an important factor in true freedom. Nothing is to be 



LORD ACTON'S PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY 91 

achieved by seeking to wipe out all that mankind has 
done and then attempting to make over the world com- 
pletely. Such a process is impossible, and founded upon 
a false reasoning, which seeks to remove man from his 
social and historical background and consider him as an 
abstract entity. In his respect for law and order, his 
doctrine of the gradual evolution of institutions, his dis- 
like for the political theory of the French Revolution, 
Acton is a lineal descendant of Burke. His notion of 
liberty is essentially English, a less partisan, less selfish, 
and less insular form of the doctrines of 1688. 

The surest test for the existence of liberty in a society 
is for Acton the amount of security enjoyed by minorities. 
In the Oriental despotism there are no minorities — and 
no freedom. It is through the existence of a variety of 
opinion within a state, such as is afforded by the freedom 
of minorities, that men's minds are kept open to the 
possibility of progress. Acton is at base an individualist, 
and he has no respect for authority apart from knowl- 
edge. He dreaded an absolute power in the state as the 
possible — nay, the inevitable — enthronement of error. 
Only by a recognition of the rights of minorities can there 
prevail that open-mindedness essential to the reign of 
truth. From the very fact that he founds his whole 
philosophy on the duty of the individual to base his 
conduct on the dictates of his conscience, Acton denies 
the right of the state to absorb completely the personal- 
ity of its citizens. The Hegelian concept of the good of 
the state as the highest goal of human endeavor is to 
him as dangerous as the blunter absolutism of the Roman 
Empire. Modern democracy, in so far as it stands for 
the tyranny of the majority, is equally harmful to true 
liberty. For what assurance have we that the majority 
will be right? True liberty can exist only when the state 
is recognized as possessing a limited competence. The 
state cannot, for instance, transgress upon the domain of 



92 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

religious bodies, unless the practice of those bodies prove 
injurious to the welfare of society as a whole. Each one 
of these bodies has a life, a purpose, a will, just as does 
the state. Where their purposes do not conflict with the 
higher end of the state, the law of freedom forbids 
the state to interfere with them. This is the real signifi- 
cance of the security of minorities. It means that no 
power stifles the free play of conscience, that within the 
state various other social groups may work out in free- 
dom their contribution to the good of humanity. 

Recognition of the evolutionary character of social 
progress, respect for law and order and our whole historic 
inheritance, security of minorities — all this is for Acton 
implicit in the definition of liberty as freedom of con- 
science. Because he was a man of profound religious 
conviction, Acton could base everything on the indi- 
vidual's sense of right and wrong. If a man is truly 
moral — and for Acton morality is not purely intuitional 
with the individual, but a reasoned obedience to a per- 
fectly definite code of laws — he will make his liberty 
founded upon an appreciation of his obligations to so- 
ciety. Liberty of conscience does not imply a state of 
anarchy where each one will go his own way regardless 
of his fellows. On the contrary, its perfect realization 
would mean the attainment of that mean between anarchy 
and despotism which is the aim of political endeavor. 
Freedom of conscience would attain this result because 
it would subject all to the moral law; and the moral law 
is a given norm, uniform and unchanging, recognizable 
by all. Ideally, all consciences are thus guided by the 
same force. This conception of the moral law is the key 
to Acton's thought. Once the precise meaning he gives 
to morality is known, and his philosophy of history 
becomes clear. 

The value of a historical event in moulding our 
conduct is measured by its ethical teaching. It is the 



LORD ACTON'S PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY 93 

office of the historian to see that everything that has 
occurred in the past is appraised for its moral content. 
He must see to it that no shams live to perpetuate them- 
selves. He must first of all investigate thoroughly the 
facts of a given case. But his function is not merely one 
of research; he must judge. He has as the basis of his 
judgments the moral law, perfect and unalterable. 
"Opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fall, 
but the moral law is written on the tablets of eternity." 
Acton is able to conceive of the moral law as absolute 
because, for him, ethics is a religion. Christianity meant 
to him primarily the Golden Rule, and for its more 
strictly theological aspects he cared little. He once 
wrote to Creighton: "You would imply that Christian- 
ity is a mere system of metaphysics which borrowed some 
ethics from elsewhere. It is rather a system of ethics 
which borrowed its metaphysics elsewhere." Since the 
moral law is thus a matter of religion and finds its source 
in inspiration, Acton is able to give it a character of 
fixity and oneness. 

With all the austere majesty in which Acton clothes 
his ethics, the good life yet remains something we can all 
recognize, strive for, and in a measure obtain. Only the 
most opinionated of pragmatists can accuse him of hav- 
ing failed to give us a system of ethics which will get down 
into the dirt of every-day life and help clean up that 
dirt. Acton's moral code is simple. "It is the common, 
even vulgar code that I appeal to," he once said. The 
distinction between good and bad does not involve fine- 
spun philosophical arguments. It is to a certain extent 
intuitional. We can all agree on certain things that are 
good and others that are bad. For Acton, the Christian 
code of morals summed up all that was best in human 
nature. It formed an eternal truth of religion and just 
for that reason it was eminently practical, something 
that could be a real part of our lives. Acton believed 



94 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

that he had found the heart of the moral law in the prin- 
ciple that human life is a sacred gift, and that it must be 
treated as sacred. It is the greatest of crimes to take 
human life without reason. Around this central princi- 
ple Acton groups the rest of his ethical teachings, as a 
whole very simple, and summed up in the teachings of 
Christ. 

With this conception of the nature of morality and its 
function in the interpretation of history, Acton was 
naturally bitterly opposed to many of the tendencies of 
his age. He combated with all his strength the notion 
that history shows that the capable is always the moral, 
and that therefore what has been has of necessity been 
right. Viewed in the light of a superior law of right and 
wrong, history shows countless incidents in which wrong 
has triumphed, but remained wrong. It is the duty of 
the historian, in Acton's mind, to point out these inci- 
dents, to hold them up for condemnation, to exhibit them 
as errors to avoid. Wrong is in itself a thing of evil, 
even though it may be victorious. The distinction 
between good and evil is based upon a law which is prior, 
superior to the happenings of the day; it does not 
consist in the result of those happenings. Acton's view 
of the moral law likewise caused him to condemn the 
inclination to excuse the sins of a period as due to the 
"spirit of the time." Different ages cannot have dif- 
ferent moral standards; what is wrong in one age must 
be wrong in another, for the moral law is timeless. 

Acton would not for a moment admit the possibility 
of a divorce between politics and ethics. Statesman and 
private citizen are alike subject to the demands of moral- 
ity. Indeed, the transgressions of the statesman are the 
more serious, for they affect the policy of whole peoples. 
"I cannot accept the canon that we are to judge Pope 
or King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption 
that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption, 



LORD ACTON'S PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY 95 

it is the other way, against the holders of power, increas- 
ing as the power increases. Power tends to corrupt, and 
absolute power corrupts absolutely. . . . The inflexible 
integrity of the moral code is to me the secret of the 
authority, the dignity, the utility of history." The 
activities of states are in Acton's view equally bound by 
the demands of morality. He saw clearly the danger 
to civilization which lies in the doctrine that the state 
is above all restraint, that only the dictates of its own 
convenience or advantage govern its relation with other 
states. 

History, then, is a practical guide to action, the lesson 
taught us by the experience of the race. It is easily 
intelligible because through its complicated course run 
two inseparable truths: the right of every man to give 
unhindered obedience to the voice of his conscience, and 
the eternally binding force of that unalterable moral law 
which governs his conscience. In broad outlines, this is 
Acton's historical philosophy. It will gain in meaning 
if we consider its application to specific historical prob- 
lems. 

Acton's estimate of our Civil War is an illustration at 
once of the strength and weakness of his attitude toward 
history. The American state, he says, was founded on 
the federative principle; that is, certain smaller bodies 
surrendered to a larger one created by their own union 
definite rights, while each contracting body retained other 
definite rights for itself. Through the effectiveness of 
this distribution of power, America prospered for several 
generations. Gradually, however, the Jeffersonian idea 
that the will of the majority is law and that no one can 
have rights over against the majority began to take root. 
Opposed to his was the theory that the principles of law 
and order and morality are superior to the popular will, 
and that minorities too have positive rights. Those 
who held to the first view naturally supported the power 



96 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

of the federal government over the states, for through the 
federal government could best be secured that uniform- 
ity which was the goal of democratic absolutism. The 
other party maintained the doctrine of states' rights. 
The North and South went to war not because of slavery 
— this was but the match that kindled the fire — but 
because absolute power and restrictions upon its exercise 
cannot exist together. The whole position of the South 
is "a repudiation of the doctrine that men can enforce 
no rights, and that the majority can do no wrong." 

Acton's main thesis, that the American government 
has been tending toward a deification of the will of the 
majority and that the Civil War was a great step toward 
centralization, is undoubtedly correct. The victory of 
the North was primarily a blow at the doctrine of states' 
rights. Just here, however, can be distinguished the 
limitations of a historical method which, like Acton's, 
judges everything by wholly inelastic standards. He 
picks out some one aspect of things which best serves 
him to set off or expound his standards and neglects 
other equally important aspects. His desire to make 
the moral lesson of history clear cut causes him to over- 
simplify the content of historic fact. He admitted that 
in history no sharpness of outline must be sought, that 
everything is qualified, limited. But in his own work he 
failed to carry out this method. Granted that on the 
whole the political philosophy of the North can be em- 
bodied in the statement that the will of the majority is 
law; might not the temporary ascendancy of this doctrine 
be less damaging to the good of America and persistence 
of freedom than that of the theory that the union is merely 
one of convenience? In other words, if Northern cen- 
tralization tended to tyranny, did not Southern particu- 
larism tend to anarchy? Acton, as a true liberal, ought 
surely to have looked with apprehension at the narrow 
utilitarianism which lay behind the doctrines of nullifi- 



LORD ACTON'S PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY 97 

cation and secession. Moreover had Acton applied com- 
pletely his own principle, that a historical event is to 
be judged by its moral effect, his conclusion must have 
been different. A community which subjects some of 
its members to bodily enslavement is obviously trans- 
gressing the spirit of Christian morals. The effect of 
the institution of slavery upon a people is to render it 
callous to human rights and to introduce the very prin- 
ciple of absolute power which was the chief object of 
Acton's hatred. It would seem that in regard to the 
Civil War the problem is this: given the circumstances 
of the case, which would prove less disastrous to the 
attainment of ethical good, the Northern doctrine of the 
divine right of the majority or the Southern institution of 
slavery, coupled with the Southern doctrine of secession? 
Viewed in the light of the consequences which are implied 
in the opposing principles, moral justification must be 
given the North. Had Acton been less intent on finding 
in the federal victory a regrettable success of Jefferson- 
ian democracy over true liberalism, he must have seen 
that there were elements of right and wrong on both sides, 
and that the final result must be measured by the balance 
of ethical values. 

Acton lived in the midst of the period which witnessed 
the rise of nationalism and the unification of Italy and 
Germany. His attitude on the nationalist movement 
affords an excellent example of how he sought to apply 
a knowledge of history to the solution of the problems of 
his own day. Furthermore, his conclusions have a living 
value as bearing upon a problem which confronts us im- 
peratively at this moment. His essay on "Nationality," 
published in 1862, soon after the virtual completion of 
Italian unity under Cavour, embodies the practical appli- 
cation of his philosophy to contemporary problems. 

Acton finds the source of the national movement, like 
that of the liberal movement, in a protest against the 



98 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

abuses of the old regime. Nationalism, as the feeling 
of "a community which imposes upon its members a 
consistent similarity of character, interest, and opinion," 
had been throughout history a normal characteristic of 
many European race groups. The absolutist dynasties of 
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had waged wars 
and cut up kingdoms wholly for their own selfish inter- 
ests, without considering the character and interests of 
the population. This state of affairs came to a head in 
the partitions of Poland, and it was these partitions which 
awoke the Polish people to a sense that they were really 
one and united them against their oppressors. Then 
came the French Revolution, and the doctrine of nation- 
alism was grafted upon its other precepts. The state 
was brought into being to register the general will. But 
the general will is one and all-compelling, and the state 
must therefore be one and absolute. The logical applica- 
tion of Rousseau's doctrines meant the unlimited power 
of the state as expressed through popular sovereignty. If 
the state is to be one, it cannot permit the existence of 
community interests within it; hence, racial, Ungual, pro- 
vincial, and national differences within it must be abol- 
ished. Several nationalities cannot form a state, for state 
and nation must be coextensive. In pursuance of this 
theory the Convention proceeded to attempt to eradicate 
all traces of local differences in France and sought to 
make of France a perfect ethnographic unit. This spirit 
is characteristic of the nationalist movements of the nine- 
teenth century. They are not so much movements for 
national liberty as for national unity. Harsh intolerance 
of other races inhabiting the same state is an invariable 
accompaniment. In many cases the dominant race for- 
cibly imposes its language and civilization on the weaker 
ones. Acton lived to see this practice in its worst form 
in the Magyarization of Hungary and the Germanization 
of Alsace-Lorraine and Posen. 



LORD ACTON'S PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY 99 

The evil results of this theory of nationality, continues 
Acton, are many. The perfect nation-state is an ideal 
entity, an abstraction, a body founded without regard for 
historic growth and racial diversity. It shares the doc- 
trinaire character of the other tenets of the Jacobin 
Revolution. Put to the test of contact with the world, 
such a theory leads to absolutism of the worst kind. 
There is nothing between the individual and the state, 
and there can thus be no guarantee of private rights. 
Acton's own words on the subject are well worth quot- 
ing: "Whenever a single definite object is made the 
supreme end of the state, be it the advantage of a class, 
the safety or power of the country, the greatest happi- 
ness of the greatest number, or the support of any specu- 
lative idea, the state becomes for the time inevitably 
absolute. Liberty alone demands for its realization the 
limitation of public authority." 

In contrast to this theory Acton brings forward an- 
other theory of nationality, based not on national unity, 
but on national union. It is quite obvious that the aspi- 
rations of every European nationality to sovereign state- 
hood cannot be realized. Sufficient testimony to this 
fact is afforded by the mixture of races in Austria- 
Hungary and the Balkans. Moreover, even if nation 
and state might always be coextensive, such a condition 
would not be desirable. The existence of several na- 
tional groups under one government forms a positive 
guarantee of liberty. These groups resist the tendencies 
of centralization and absolutism in the state; they form 
associations which help give expression to diverse inter- 
ests, make political life richer by preventing dire uni- 
formity, insure progress through healthy rivalry, balance 
group interests for the good of the whole. 

For still another reason state and nation ought not to 
coincide. Patriotic attachment to one's racial nation 
is largely physical, primitive, while allegiance to the 



100 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

political nation is ethical. The first is founded upon 
instincts which, like love of family, are primarily selfish. 
Race feeling is merely an extension of tribal feeling, and 
is based on the instinct of self-preservation. Only in 
the political order is self-preservation transformed into 
a higher moral purpose which may involve self-sacrifice, 
for the state is organized for public interests which tran- 
scend those of private individuals. In no case, however, 
must the individual allow love for his nation or obedi- 
ence to his state to transcend every moral consideration. 
Here, as everywhere, the individual must appeal to his 
conscience. "The man who prefers his country before 
every other duty shows the same spirit as the man who 
surrenders every right to the state. They both deny 
that right is superior to authority." 

State and nation, then, are fundamentally different, 
and the only guarantee of true liberty is the existence of 
several nationalities in federal organization under one 
government. The theory that nation and state must 
be one inevitably leads to absolutism and to this extent 
it is a retrograde step in history. It has, however, suc- 
cessfully carried out its function, the destruction of the 
old regime. The democratic movement alone, without 
the aid of nationalist enthusiasm, could never have ac- 
complished this end. Moreover, the nationalist theory 
marks the culmination and hence the exhaustion of the 
revolutionary principle. It aims neither at liberty, as 
did the early French revolutionists, nor at prosperity, 
as did the socialists of 1848. It sacrifices everything to 
the sterile purpose of national interests. The individual 
will is submerged in the collective will, which is guided, 
not by law and reason, but by the mere accident of race. 
In this very excess the nationalist theory carries the germ 
of its own dissolution. 

Acton's treatment of nationalism thus brings out very 
clearly how his theory of liberty is one of balance of 



LORD ACTON'S PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY 101 

interests, how much it is a protest against sweeping 
denials of historic forces in favor of a single doctrine. His 
conclusions on the historical purport of the movement 
seem borne out by the course of recent events. That 
national feeling can become the invaluable auxiliary of 
state despotism of the worst kind is shown in the rise of 
the German Empire. The present war is largely the 
outcome of the doctrine of the absolute nation-state, 
supreme within its own borders, bound in its relations 
to other states by no law, because itself above all law. 
Acton's own theory of nationalism is of value in its bear- 
ing upon the reconstruction which must follow the war. 
It is becoming increasingly evident that the only possible 
solution of the national difficulties in Europe is the recog- 
nition of an authority higher than national interests. 
A really federative organization in which each nationality 
would possess self-government and local independence 
seems the only way out of the complicated racial tangles 
of eastern and central Europe. 

Acton's political philosophy is, as we have seen, basic- 
ally individualistic, in that he believes that every man 
must appeal to his own conscience for the ultimate sanc- 
tion for all action. The conscience of mankind is deter- 
mined by a common ethical inheritance, by a distinction 
between right and wrong which is clear and valid in all 
cases. Along with this insistence upon absolute freedom 
of conscience Acton maintains that deep respect for the 
forces of law and historic tradition which forms the 
essence of Whiggism. Obviously, we have here a form 
of the eternal antithesis — liberty and authority. Shall 
the individual always obey the dictates of his conscience, 
or shall he sometimes, aware of the futility of protest, 
find it expedient to yield to an authority which he knows 
to be wrong? Given his belief in the supremacy of the 
moral law, Acton could but answer that right alone is 
expedient. The difficulty here arises that most of us 



102 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

take our ethics upon authority and that for the average 
man no such sharp division exists between the two as 
Acton would create. It has been the function of the 
church to disseminate its ethical teachings among its 
members. The Christian believer looks to his church 
for his moral standards — that is, he bases his ethics on 
authority. The church then has a peculiarly sacred 
position as guardian of public morality. The slightest 
deviation from right on the part of the clergy may thus 
prove most detrimental to the good of the community. 
Evil committed by the clergy can least of all be condoned, 
for it is the most penetrating of all evil. The general 
principles of morality are eternal and immutable, superior 
to narrow sectarian interests. If the governing powers 
of any church violate the moral law, the individual who 
is truly moral will refuse to abide by their action. This is 
precisely the conclusion to which Acton is led. It might 
be urged against him that, in view of the lofty purpose 
of the church, some slight debasement of the moral coin 
might be countenanced if only good resulted in the end. 
If opposition to a course not strictly moral would lead to 
disruption of the church and its failure to carry out its 
mission, would it not be better to acquiesce in the wrong, 
especially if it may be glossed over and its consequences 
minimized? Briefly, the problem is this: Given a moral 
code which absolutely separates right and wrong, can the 
commission of a wrong be justified on the ground that it 
will lead to a greater right? Acton's relations to his own 
church serve as his final answer to this, the crucial problem 
of his philosophy. 

Acton's faith in his religion was profound and un- 
questioning; it was not for that reason narrow and 
intolerant. He once wrote of himself as a man "who 
started in life believing himself a sincere Catholic and a 
sincere Liberal; who therefore renounced everything in 
Catholicism that was not compatible with liberty and 



LORD ACTON'S PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY 103 

everything in Politics that was not compatible with 
Catholicism." It was no light task. As Acton viewed 
the historic career of the Catholic Church, he could not 
but see that many of her acts were wholly incompatible 
with his own convictions. We have seen that his religion 
was primarily an ethical system. In so far as those who 
controlled the policy of the Catholic Church violated 
those ethical precepts upon which the Catholic religion 
is founded, Acton would repudiate their acts. If the body 
of the Church consented to the immoral acts of its rulers, 
it had ceased to be perfectly Catholic. In other words, 
Catholicity and the policy of the Catholic Church have 
not been identical save when church policy has been in 
accordance with that moral law which forms the heart of 
the Catholic faith. 

Acton found that the history of his church disclosed 
many offences against the principle of liberty and the 
moral law. Church organization made the pope an 
absolute sovereign. But absolutism in the church is open 
to the same objections which make absolutism in the state 
intolerable. It is bound to lead to arbitrariness, subjects 
the ruler to the temptations of misuse of power, and 
affords no guarantee that the moral law will be respected. 
It becomes inevitably immoral. The history of the pa- 
pacy bears this out. The boundless and unattainable 
claims of Boniface were the result of lack of limitation 
on papal power. Luther came largely as a protest against 
papal tyranny and misgovernment. On the other hand, 
it is not sufficient that the Conciliar movement attempted 
the limitation of papal absolutism to gain Acton's ap- 
proval for the movement . He finds the Councils imbued 
with purely worldly motives. They wished to restrict 
the papacy partly for their own aggrandizement, partly 
in the interests of the secular states of Europe. Gerson 
and the rest of the reformers were first of all promoting 
their own selfish ends. Then too, the Councils carried out 



104 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

a vigorous policy of persecution. To Acton, the burning 
of Hus alone suffices to condemn the whole Conciliar 
movement. 

Religious persecution, along with papal absolutism, 
have been the chief crimes of the Church against liberty. 
Persecution is always a useless thing, for belief is a spirit- 
ual force, and can never come from the outside, from sheer 
physical pressure. Moreover, persecution is immoral 
not only because it reacts upon the persecutor and makes 
him careless of law, brutal, bigoted, but because it may 
result in the suppression of truth. Toleration is vindi- 
cated by the fact that truth can never suffer in open con- 
flict with falsity. Give truth free rein and it will by its 
very nature emerge victorious. Falsity, however, must 
always depend not on moral but on physical force. The 
danger in persecution lies in the fact that it may be em- 
ployed on the side of the false. Indeed, as soon as any 
great and good principle enlists the aid of persecution it 
falsifies itself. Liberty of conscience is the only guarantee 
for the triumph of moral principles in the life of a com- 
munity. When the Catholic Church made use of perse- 
cution to stamp out heresy it was acting contrary to the 
spirit of Catholicism. 

The most serious offence of the rulers of the Church 
has been their failure to adhere to the moral law. The 
stamping out of heresy, the extension of papal influence 
in European courts, papal acquisition of worldly wealth, 
all were achieved by methods distinctly at variance with 
the Golden Rule. Jesuit possibilism, which comes down 
in practice to the profession that the end justifies the 
means, seemed to Acton the highest degree of immorality. 
If the means is immoral, it incorporates itself in the end 
attained, and taints that end. He has best expressed 
this attitude in a letter written in German: "Die Un- 
sittlichkeit besteht darin, dass man glaubt, die Stinde 
hore auf, Sunde zu sein, wenn sie fiir die Zwecke der 



LORD ACTON'S PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY 105 

Kirche begangen wird. Raub ist nicht Raub, Liige nicht 
Luge, Mord nicht Mord, wenn sie durch religiose Autori- 
taten oder Interessen sanktionirt wird. . . . Eine solche 
Lehre is nicht Irrtum, sondern Siinde, nicht gefahrlich, 
sondern totlieh. . . . Solche Manner scheinen mir nur 
fluchwiirdig im hochsten Grad, mehr als die gemeinen 
Verbrecher, weil sie die Religion selbst verwenden, um die 
Seelen zu verderben." 

It is obvious that the Catholic Church has contravened 
the moral law as Acton understood it. Acton did not 
hesitate to apply the unfailing canon of morality to church 
history with even more rigor than to secular history. 
His essay on "The Massacre of St. Bartholomew" is an 
unanswerable indictment of religious persecution. The 
loftiness of the papal position, the greatness of the prin- 
ciples at stake, did not cause him to soften a whit the 
severity of his judgments upon the popes. Much of the er- 
ror of centuries past still encumbered the Church as he 
found it. Acton determined to obliterate that error, 
to liberalize the Church and to bring it back to true 
Catholicism. Within the Church, however, the current 
was flowing in quite the opposite direction. The Ultra- 
montanes were fast gaining for the pope an even more 
complete absolutism, and were turning the Church away 
from the life and thought of the time, back to the days 
of the Schoolmen. The Syllabus of 1864 came as a chal- 
lenge to all who hoped to reconcile the Church with the 
progress of the century and to make it a living force for 
moral improvement. Acton accepted the challenge and 
put all his strength into the struggle. The declaration of 
papal infallibility shattered once and for all his hopes of 
liberalizing the Church. The pope's word was to be 
supreme and unquestioned. But was not this, judged by 
Acton's canons, immoral? Must not the man who is 
truly moral repudiate the decree? Acquiescence here 
would mean the worst of sins, the putting of authority 



106 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

above right. It would seem that Acton, like Dollinger, 
Tyrrell, and Lamennais, must turn away, as a true Cath- 
olic, from a church which had ceased to be Catholic. 
Some years before, Acton had written in answer to the 
question, "Is it better to renounce the papacy out of 
horror for its acts or to condone the acts out of reverence 
for the papacy?" that only the former alternative was 
possible. Yet now, at the moment of crisis, he did not 
hesitate to accept the latter. 

We have seen how he accepted defeat, remained faith- 
ful to the papacy, and strove to minimize the danger of 
the doctrine of infallibility. It is precisely in this act 
that his own ethical system breaks down. His choice 
was simple. The inexorable force of the moral law con- 
demned the papal stand. Acton himself had repeatedly 
insisted that the true Catholic must maintain the moral 
law unsullied, that the clergy cease to be God's ministers 
when they do wrong. He did not, however, choose to 
repudiate the action of the pope. The reason is simple. 
Acton must have felt that the disruption of the Church 
meant a greater moral loss than the admission of papal 
infallibility. Against the absolutist evil a campaign of 
education and enlightenment could make real headway. 
The decree itself, moreover, was so qualified as to deprive 
it of most of its sting. On the other hand, active oppo- 
sition meant a schism in the ranks of the Church, the 
weakening and perhaps the destruction of its power for 
good. Acton's faith was bound up in the Catholic Church, 
as such, and he never lost sight of the sacredness of its 
mission of universality. Better incur a temporary loss 
of part of its moral strength than wholly abandon that 
mission. The commission of a wrong may be justified on 
the ground that it will lead to a greater right. Acton had 
thus introduced into his moral life that very principle of 
relativity which he had so sternly rejected from his ethical 
theory. 



LORD ACTON'S PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY 107 

As a whole, Acton's philosophy of history is relatively 
free from complexity and subtlety. It stands out clear- 
cut, embodied in the cardinal principles of liberty and 
morality. This simplicity makes it more readily under- 
stood, and at the same time more susceptible to critical 
attack than a system more broadened by qualification. 
Three general criticisms suggest themselves in an esti- 
mate of the value of Acton's work as a historian. 

In the first place, it is not always clear that Acton main- 
tains an attitude of impartiality in his judgments of 
history. It is true that he did not desire impartiality in 
the sense of scientific aloofness; he did, however, insist 
on the impartiality of the judge who administers the moral 
law. "In judging men and things," he said, "ethics go 
before dogma, politics, or nationality. The ethics of 
history cannot be denominational." Yet in the greatest 
crisis of his own life he put dogma before ethics, and we 
cannot but feel that a man who in private life preferred 
Catholic unity to moral consistency must have seen 
history through glasses tinted, if ever so slightly, with 
doctrinal prejudice. Acton is assuredly harsh enough 
with sinners in his own church. The man who could 
write of the popes of the Inquisition that "they were not 
only wholesale assassins, but they made the principle of 
assassination a law of the Christian Church and a con- 
dition of salvation," was certainly no papal apologist. 
Save in a vague feeling that the Middle Ages, when one 
faith ruled all Europe, were a sort of Golden Age, Acton's 
bias does not appear in his treatment of his own church. 
When it comes to the services of Protestant statesmen, 
however, he fails to give the full meed of credit. William 
the Silent is to him a selfish adventurer, a man who turned 
lightly from Catholicism to Lutheranism and from Luther- 
anism to Calvinism as the interest of the moment dic- 
tated; in William's case, assassination was almost jus- 
tifiable. This seems a narrow estimate of a man who 



108 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

did so much for European liberty and religious toleration 
as did William. Similarly, Acton's dislike for Cavour is 
occasioned at bottom by the attacks of the Piedmontese 
minister upon the Catholic Church. Even his use of the 
word "infidel" as applied to Protestants, though perhaps 
natural enough from a Catholic pen, sounds harsh and 
discordant from a man who held as sacred the principle 
of toleration. 

Moreover, Acton's desire to bring everything under his 
standards of historical judgment caused him, as in his 
estimate of the American Civil War, to pick out only 
the element of a situation which best fitted into those 
standards. He tends toward sweeping condemnations 
and equally unrestrained praises. There is a failure to 
recognize the diversity of life, the nature of the purposes 
and cross-purposes which actuate man. The mass of 
historic data is treated as though it can be sorted out into 
definite piles, the good and the bad. Acton wishes to 
maintain a definitely scientific attitude toward history in 
the sense that it must be a true induction. As a matter 
of fact, he tends to categorize the matter of history, and 
falls into that very a priorism he seeks to avoid. 

In the second place, Acton's insistence upon the place 
of law and tradition at times borders upon an unthinking 
veneration of what has already grown up. He desires 
above all things to avoid the futilities and impracticali- 
ties of the French Revolution. He accordingly tends to 
subject everything to the test of conformity with English 
Whiggism, without considering whether the circum- 
stances of the case made such a conformity desirable. 
Authority and tradition are emphasized to such an extent 
as to outweigh the other term in the balance, the ideals 
and demands of the present. We have a feeling that 
Acton's liberty after all would only transfer the individual 
from the authority of external political power to that of 
a historically determined conscience. There is a lack 



LORD ACTON'S PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY 109 

of growth in the system. In our anxiety to subject 
revolution, we seem to have thrown evolution too by 
the board. 

Lastly, this same fixity appears in Acton's ethics. 
The moral law is given out en bloc, as something rigid 
and immutable. It is the eternal Right Which is set up 
in contrast with mere Authority. Now a more realistic 
view of morality would see in it the product of social 
life, a set of rules which man has worked out for himself 
in his social experience. If this is so, morality has grown 
and will grow in the future. If the main outlines of the 
moral law seem permanently established, it is only because 
man's experience has since the earliest time centred 
around a few fundamental principles which have proved 
indispensable guides in life. "Honesty is the best policy " 
gives expression to one of these principles which have 
become part of our moral tradition. Around this core 
there is, so to speak, a margin of morality which is not 
static, but shifting, growing. The moral law has not 
had the same content throughout the ages. Primitive 
man had of necessity views upon the sacredness of human 
life very different from those of Acton. Bodily slavery 
is now, among Christian nations, held to be an immoral 
thing; yet Plato based his ideal state upon the institution 
of slavery. In other words, our notions of what is right 
and what is wrong depend upon the specific problems 
we have to solve, upon all the varied factors of our en- 
vironment. 

In solving these problems, however, we must bring to 
our aid precisely those results of historic experience which 
have hardened into the moral law. We must not seek to 
cut ourselves loose from prevailing notions of right and 
wrong, to overturn completely the moral law. We can- 
not, if we would, divorce the present from the past. It 
was Acton's great service to recall to us, alike in politics 
and in ethics, the existence of this heritage of past cen- 



110 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

turies in the shape of the abiding principles which must 
govern our conduct. In ethics, even more than in poli- 
tics, he errs by making these principles not abiding, but 
eternal; not general, but absolute. 

Acton's relations with his church show that even he 
could not apply this austere moral code to his life, and 
that he could not label everything as specifically and solely 
good or bad. In the confusion and turmoil of life, we 
must denominate as good that which seems most likely 
to result in right; and that right we must identify with 
harmony, with success. But it is not success in the 
vulgar sense of mere prevailing, becoming accepted. 
It is rather a success in conformity with those principles 
which form our moral inheritance. It is a harmony which 
developes out of past conflicts through compromises 
and readjustments governed by the moral law. To 
Acton, however, the moral law is a static absolute. For 
this very reason, his system does not at bottom contain 
that spirit of meliorism which actuated his life, and which 
caused him to turn to the study of history. The moral 
law is perfect, and for that very reason we have no way 
of attaching ourselves to it, no assurance of ethical 
progress. 

Acton's whole philosophy of history thus tends, in the 
last analysis, toward the setness of a completed system 
in which there is no room for growth. The great problem 
of all thinking and all action seems to be the achievement 
of a proper mean. The problem is everywhere and per- 
vades all problems. We must respect historic rights; 
yet the exaggeration of this duty leads to Chinese an- 
cestor-worship. We must provide for progress, we must 
change outworn things; yet the exaggeration of this 
principle leads straight to the excesses of the Jacobin. 
In ethics we perceive the same dependence on past 
standards and the same desire to create new ones. Suc- 
cess can only come through a balance of forces. Acton 



LORD ACTON'S PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY 111 

errs in overemphasizing the element of permanence; 
his moral law becomes not so much our guide as our 
jailer. 

As a matter of fact, Acton never hunted down his 
ideas to their logical conclusion. His life shows an 
appreciation of the evolutionary character of change, 
a recognition of the place of the novel in the order of 
things. It is only a matter of emphasis that permits us 
to believe that he held rather more with things established 
than with things that are seeking to establish themselves, 
rather more with the past than with the present — in 
short, that if he was a liberal, he was a very conservative 
one indeed. 

In spite of this implied attitude of conservatism, 
Acton's salient ideas are essentially forward-looking. 
It is because he had something to teach the world that 
his name will live. His influence was not confined to his 
written work. Small in volume though this proved to 
be, it contains the kernel of his thought and serves to 
render it accessible to the world. His most potent in- 
fluence has been felt through the men who studied under 
him at Cambridge. Though only a few college genera- 
tions came in contact with him, these few sufficed to take 
up the thread of his thought and carry it on. That 
from among his former pupils a considerable school of 
historians has arisen bears evidence to his power as a 
teacher. These men look at the world from different 
points of view. In many cases, they have profoundly 
modified Acton's teachings. To his fundamental idea, 
upon which rests the value of his contribution to the world, 
they have faithfully adhered. 

"We have no thread through the enormous intricacies 
of modern politics except the idea of progress toward 
more perfect and assured freedom and the divine right 
of free men." This is the lesson which Acton sought to 
teach. It is easy to pass into rhapsodic emptiness over 



112 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

this "divine right of free men." As Acton has said, 
men have throughout history included under liberty 
many and conflicting ideals. Yet if history is to mean 
anything beyond the purposeless conflict of blind desires 
or the equally purposeless game which the Absolute of 
Hegel chooses to play with itself, it must be interpreted 
as the gradual advancement of the individual to the 
complete and untrammelled expression of his moral self. 
It was Acton's service that he never ceased to insist upon 
the true meaning of history in an age which seemed to 
have forgotten it. The minds of men have not always 
been proof against the subtle poison of the doctrine that 
"Der Gang der Weltgeschichte steht ausserhalb der 
Tugend, des Lasters, und der Gerechtigkeit." The 
discoveries of Darwin, misunderstood and misapplied, 
served the nineteenth century as proof of the fact that 
success alone counts, no matter how attained. Against 
that dangerous philosophy which, from the Sophists to 
Nietzsche, has asserted that might is right, Acton main- 
tained that there is a right beyond the mere exigencies 
of the moment, that there is a jural principle of ethics 
by which we may judge an action, and that it is the 
mission of history to teach that principle. "I exhort 
you," he said to his pupils at Cambridge, "never to de- 
base the moral currency, but to try others by the final 
maxim that governs your own lives, and to suffer no man 
and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history 
has the power to inflict on wrong." He could have no 
finer epitaph.