The Arc of Western Political Liberty

Characterizing the work and the significance of John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, Lord Acton (1834-1902), continues to be a complex project ( see, for example, John T. Noonan, Jr., “The Last Victorian,” The New York Times on the Web, October 22, 2000). He is, of course, the “famous English historian Lord Acton,” as one respected textbook on the history of Western Civilization puts it. He held the Regius Professorship of Modern History at Cambridge, was the founding editor of the Cambridge Modern History, and produced a substantial body of work on the history of the West, particularly Western modernity. He intended to publish a comprehensive history of Western political liberty but the project was left uncompleted at the time of his death.

Acton’s intellectual presence within the Victorian period went beyond his scholarship and the activities were varied and ambiguous. Politically, he was close to power, a confidante of Gladstone and, for a time, a member of Parliament. Yet Hugh Trevor-Roper has nonetheless described him as a “Victorian misfit”. He was a committed and active Catholic for all of his life, yet he also faced the possibility of excommunication for his courageous defense of the freedom of thought, religious and scientific, in the face of the Syllabus of Errors and his resistance to Pius IX’s doctrine of papal infallibility.

Acton is less commonly thought of as a political theorist. This is puzzling in light of Acton’s comment in his inaugural Regius Lecture that politics and history, though “not commensurable” are “interwoven” (Acton, “Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History,” Lectures on Modern History, ed Hugh Trevor-Roper, Meridian, 18). That this is an oversight needing correction and that Acton is, in fact, a political theorist of some importance is the argument of Christopher Lazarski’s book, Power Tends to Corrupt: Lord Acton’s Study of Liberty. A trained and accomplished historian of modern Russia, Lazarski was first drawn to Acton as a seminal figure in the development of History as a modern discipline. He eventually became convinced that the work of the “famous English historian” also needed to be read as a contribution to political theory. This book is the outcome.

Lazarski’s project is both ambitious and modest. Its ambition lies in its attempt to reconstruct Acton’s history of liberty (Power, x). Its modesty lies in Lazarski’s allowing Acton mostly to speak for himself. Power Tends to Corrupt builds upon careful and comprehensive readings of Acton’s publications, lectures, letters and notes. It then integrates them into a coherent Actonian narrative of political liberty’s inauguration and maturation, from its beginnings within early Hebrew society and the classical Athenian polis to its emergence as the cornerstone of liberalism in the late nineteenth century, particularly in England and the United States.

Acton via Lazarski tells us that political liberty’s impressive progress has been nonetheless unsteady and that its establishment continues to be fragile. In its mature form within a healthy liberal society, political liberty is a condition under which “every man shall be protected in doing what he believes to be his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion.” (Power, 8-9). As such, liberty is “not a means to a higher political end [but] is itself the highest political end” (see Acton, “The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” Essays in the History of Liberty, ed. J. Rufus Fears, Liberty Classics, 22; Lazarski, Power, 238). This is not simply the liberty of classical liberals such as Locke, but the liberty of citizens “who exercise their right to self- rule … and … enjoy a limited government” (Power, 10).

Acton’s political theory thus embraces both elements of Isaiah Berlin’s “two concepts of liberty” (Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford, chapter four). Yet Acton’s portrait of modern liberty’s maturation represents it as partnered with and threatened by an obsession with radical equality, translatable politically into a tyranny of the majority (Power, 256-7) whether exercised by populist or by bureaucratic power. Lazarki’s Acton thus writes as a defender of limited rather than “arbitrary” democracy (Power, 256).

As reconstructed by Lazarski, Acton’s historical methodology combines a commitment to detailed archival and documentary research (Power, 10, 263) with a sharp focus on a consistent trajectory within Western political development (Power, 7). Though a theme is traced continuously, Acton’s history is not a Hegelian exercise that “evolve[s] … out of the depths of … consciousness ” (Acton, “Review of Thomas Arnold’s Manual of English Literature, Fears, 141). Like his “tutor” (Power, 5) Burke, Acton is highly suspicious of abstractions, both as templates for historical investigation and as guides to political action (Power, 231). Yet he resolutely insists on the historical significance of ideas, “which are not the effect but the cause of public events” (Acton, “Inaugural,” 18, 32).

Though appreciating the breakthroughs allowed by the unlocking of archival resources (“Inaugural”, 29-30), Acton’s narrative is nonetheless broadly synoptic, offering “a remarkably thorough and complex theory of civic freedom and its development throughout history” (Power, 262). Lazarski respects that intention and his book constructs a cohesive and flowing story that relies on and never drifts too far away from Acton’s own voice. Only at the end does Lazarski offer his own formulations about the character of Acton’s “ideal polity” and Acton’s contributions to political thought, generally. “ Acton’s ideal regime would be a form of participatory democracy that has a well-balanced government , respects the power of various secondary authorities and protects the rights of minorities” (Power, 266).

While Lazarski is primarily concerned to get Acton right rather than to claim that Acton necessarily gets it right, he believes that there are elements of Acton’s contributions that we need to take seriously. First, Acton’s treatment of democracy offers an important caution against democracy’s abuses; as a form of government, democracy has both potentials and hazards (Power 256). Here, Acton can be read as warning that assessments of democracy offered in quantitative language (stronger democracy rather than weaker, more democracy rather than less, etc) need to be complemented by qualitative judgments (better democracy rather than worse) and thus also as underscoring that calls for such qualitative judgments are not in themselves “anti-democratic”.

Second, Acton focuses on the mutually supportive contributions of political and religious liberty. In Acton’s reading, political liberty in the West was fostered significantly, though not always intentionally, by the Medieval Church’s resistance against aggrandizements of secular political power (Power, 73) and by the “revolutionary energy” of the post Reformation Protestant sects (Power, 106). Consequently, religious liberty rather than mere secularism is a crucial requirement for preserving political liberty and for buttressing a political liberalism that might otherwise be shattered by materialistic egoism (Power, 269).

Finally, Lazarski appreciates Acton’s insistence that history and social science generally cannot be neutral; to be accurate, and thus scientific, such narratives or explanations must include evaluations as central components. Yet such evaluations cannot, for Acton, simply reflect personal judgments or replicate the moral standards of the time (Power, 31; “Inaugural,” 40-1). Instead, they must be supported by “a divinely ordered natural law which endows men and women with a dignity and liberty that no one may challenge” (Power, 268).

For a political theorist being introduced to Acton some questions inevitably emerge. In keeping with his modesty, Lazarski doesn’t make these questions central. To his credit he gently points to some of them and implicitly provokes others.

First, we need to ask about the influence of Acton’s metanarrative on both his historical research and his historical judgments. Does political liberty become an abstraction of its own? For Lazarski, Acton’s “liberalism …. is nearly a religion” (Power, 228). The emphasis on the importance of religious ideas and institutions within the development of Western liberty often slides into claims that such a development is “providential” (Power, 8-9). This may ground Acton’s strong commitment to moral historical evaluation but it also threatens to limit that evaluative project in problematic ways. Lazarski implies this in his acutely critical comments on Acton’s judgments about the conscience of the abolitionists in the American Civil War (Power, 166).

Second, the Actonian metanarrative is informed heavily by a teleology of civilizational development modeled on a kind of organic growth. As anthropologist, Acton is not a Victorian misfit. In light of summary judgments about “earlier” and “higher” states of civilization (Power, 163), constraints may be imposed on both empirical history and evaluative judgment.

Finally, one might ask if Acton’s appeal to a higher law supportive of political liberty can stand comfortably alongside his endorsement of “organically” growing cultures. Should the question that Leo Strauss asks about Burke in Natural Right and History be asked about Acton as well? Does the encounter with history signal the crisis rather than the maturation of modern defenses of freedom?

Perhaps Acton’s contributions are therefore more valuable as critical resources rather than as magisterial pronouncements (Power, 12). Here, though, one would need to compare Acton with those modern critical theorists who would surely see the categories of “limited” versus “arbitrary” democracy as incomplete.

Considered judgments on Acton’s significance and contributions naturally require some deeper comparisons between Acton and other voices within the so-called tradition. This is difficult to execute on the basis of Acton’s work alone because all of these other voices occupy set positions within his synoptic history. In spite of his concern to retain a focus on ideas as causes, Acton rarely attempts to understand historical authors as they understood themselves. There is no suggestion that Machiavelli offers anything but an amoral blueprint for “efficient and intelligent government” (Power,87-9) or that the historical agent Pericles is also a controversial figure represented within complex Thucydidean, Platonic and Aristotelian texts.

In assessing Acton’s importance, Lazarski might have pushed a bit beyond, even while staying within, the Actonian archive. For example, Burke rejects appeals to political abstractions within his own engagements with particular political controversies. Acton does so from a vantage point surveying the “Unity of Modern History” (“Inaugural”, 17). This may be one basis for their different assessments of the French Revolution (Power, 5, 220). Does this comparison lead us to suspect that Burke, in spite of himself, offers a general political theorization? Or would this lead to an implicit Burkean critique of Acton? Is it so obvious that every difference between Acton and Burke is non-essential? (Power 270)

Though Lazarski does not raise these questions explicitly, his lucid reconstruction of Acton allows us to ask them. One need not agree with all of Lazarski’s conclusions about Acton’s virtues in order to appreciate the virtues of Lazarski’s book. Its particular blend of ambition and modesty offers both an introduction and an invitation, encouraging an engagement with Acton on Acton’s own terms as readers informed by both the respect and the skepticism that his work elicits.