The Editors desire to thank the members of the Acton family for their help and advice during the preparation of this volume and of the volume of Historical Essays and Studies. They have thus been provided with valuable material for the Introduction. At the same time they wish to take the entire responsibility for the opinions expressed therein.
They are again indebted to Professor Henry Jackson for valuable suggestions. The Editors have to thank Mr. John Murray, Messrs.
Longmans, Kegan Paul, Williams and Norgate, and the proprietors of The Bridgnorth Journal for their kind permission to republish these articles, and also the Delegacy of the Clarendon Press for allowing the reprint of the Introduction to Mr.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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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 Edition: current; Page: [ xi ] 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. The ardour of his opinions, so different from those which have usually distorted history, gives an interest even to his grossest errors. Buckle, if he had been able to distinguish a good book from a bad one, would have been a tolerable imitation of M.
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. 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.
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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.
The result is to be seen Edition: current; Page: [ xiii ] 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.
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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. This period, which may perhaps be dated from the issue of the Syllabus by Pius IX. Edition: current; Page: [ xiv ] 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.
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. 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 Edition: current; Page: [ xv ] him.
There were in him strains of many races. The Dalbergs, moreover, had intermarried with an Italian family, the Brignoli. 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.
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It was not, however, the English strain that was most obvious in Acton, but the German. He had a good deal of the massive solidity of the German intellect. 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.
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. 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. 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 Edition: current; Page: [ xvii ] ecclesiastical and civil.
Online Library of Liberty
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 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.
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.
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.
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This gave to all his studies their practical tone. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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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 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.