“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This one sentence, from a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, not from some public document, has served to immortalize Lord Acton’s thought for posterity. And yet, like most short summaries, it hides so much of central importance to Lord Acton that it is almost misleading. What led Acton to such a conclusion, so totally at variance with Plato’s notion of a philosopher-king? The two lectures on The History of Freedom provide us a partial insight into Acton’s inner thoughts. It is entirely appropriate that this book be published by the Acton Institute, a non-profit organization set up to promote Classical Liberal ideas among clergy and other interested individuals, a goal close to Acton’s heart.
The text consists of two short essays of equal length: “Freedom in Antiquity” and “Freedom in Christianity.” The absence of dates and names gives each part a timeless air, making the essays readable, particularly by young students who have little background to appreciate the drama Acton writes about. I have used the essays for a short course on “Christianity and Capitalist Civilization” and was pleasantly surprised that students found many stimulating passages. One student was struck by the illiberal statement attributed to Aristotle that the mark of the worst governments is that “they leave men free to live as they please” (p. 40). Another was struck by the political transformation said to have overcome Christianity around AD 500: “Christianity which in earlier times had addressed itself to the masses, and relied on the principle of liberty, now made its appeal to the rulers, and threw its mighty influence into the scale of authority” (p. 60).
The brevity and style of these essays pique one’s curiosity. There are many passages that cry out for further detailed examination. Of Athenian democracy Acton wrote: “Their history furnishes the classic example of the peril of Democracy under conditions singularly favorable. For the Athenians were not only brave and patriotic and capable of generous sacrifice, but they were the most religious of the Greeks” (p. 32). No references, no guides, no further evidence supports such a sweeping claim. But if one knows about Acton, here is a clear guide to Acton’s own beliefs. The religiosity of the Athenians was the foundation of their liberty, Acton believes. But how can he persuade those who wish for more than just his authority?
The connecting thread between antiquity and Christianity is the statement of natural law by the Stoics. By appealing to an authority superior to the state, by urging the prior constraint of natural law upon all civil law, the Stoics broke with the political tradition of the Greeks. Acton is struck by the fact that Antiquity had provided the noblest precepts yet these truths did not save them from ruin.
“Freedom in Christianity” begins by crediting the Teutonic and Germanic tribes with the final ingredient—participatory institutions—that finally led to the growth of political liberty. No details are provided and in subsequent pages the tribes are forgotten. Instead, what emerges is the importance of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the period between AD 500 and 1500. It was from the conflict between church and state in this period that political liberty eventually took root. Acton is careful to point out that both institutions sought absolute control and it is striking to note how leading spokesmen of both the Guelphs and the Ghilbellines spoke almost the same language in deriving power from the welfare of the people. “Looking back over 1,000 years . . . this is what we find—Representative government, which was unknown to the ancients, was almost universal” (p. 67). A conclusion that shocks the modern ear! Most of Acton’s remaining space is devoted to the demise of such political liberty under the influence of Machiavelli and the subsequent return to more “moral” politics with the writings of Grotius. Acton has kind words for the United States and believes it provides the best example of a country that has been able to combine liberty with progress.
What are the weak points of Acton’s presentation? There is very little about the importance of the Crusades, the Italian Mercantile Renaissance, the Age of Discovery, or the Industrial Revolution. Acton cautions his readers at the outset that he is concerned with ideas, not institutions, and chronicles instances when despotic acts were undertaken by liberal institutions. It allows him to continue with little emphasis on the social and economic conditions which permit and encourage a free society. This is all the more surprising since Acton notes among the enemies of liberty “the perpetual struggle for existence” which actually leaves men “eager to sell their birthright for a pottage” (p. 21). If hungry men are so eager to surrender their liberty, is not economic subsistence a precondition for sustaining a free society?
With all his eagerness to establish religion as a fundamental prerequisite for liberty, Acton fails to note that Christianity is concerned with saving souls. Liberty is neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve this goal. He never quite considers the point that, under certain conditions, God’s work is furthered by accepting social evils such as slavery. Like most modern Christians who have discussed the rise of the West, Acton feels constrained to minimize the energy, intellectual force, and societal support provided by Christianity through the ages. Modern scholarship (e.g., Francis Oakley, The Medieval Experience) has provided us so many more reasons for appreciating the nurturing of Western civilization provided by Christianity. These lectures thus provide an eloquent minimalist argument for the Providential view of the growth of freedom. Acton’s essays are certainly worth reading but one must constantly keep in mind how unselfconsciously he is the product of the Victorian age.
Dr. Rashid is Professor of Economics at the University of Illinois.