In this edition of Radio Free Acton, we speak with cultural historian and author Victoria Coates on the capacity of democracy to inspire great works of art. Coates is the author of David’s Sling: The History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art, and spoke on the topic as part of the 2016 Acton Lecture Series. You can listen to the podcast via the audio player below, and her full Acton Lecture Series presentation is available here.
In today’s Acton Commentary, I offer a brief reflection on the results of Election Day in the United States, “Politics, Character, and Competition.”
I’ve heard a lot of wisdom and a lot of foolishness in the hours since the final results were announced. The initial speeches have now been made, and we are in that in-between time, the pause of sorts between the election and the inauguration of a new president.
It’s a good chance to take a breath and exhale, to get away from the helter-skelter of a truly historic and dizzying campaign. But it is also a good chance to think hard about where we are and how we got here. Once we have an idea about those things, then maybe we can have a better idea of where we ought to be going.
What happened yesterday was important, but it is easy to exaggerate its importance in the heat of the moment. Politics remains downstream from culture even as there are feedback loops. Reform is certainly necessary, but all true reform begins with ourselves.
On November 3rd, Acton welcomed Victoria C. G. Coates, cultural historian and Ph.D, to talk about her argument that democracy has had a unique capacity to inspire some of the greatest artistic achievements of western civilization. She lays out this thesis in her latest book, David’s Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art. In her Acton Lecture Series address, Coates takes as her case studies Michelangelo’s “David” and Albert Bierstadt’s “Rocky Mountains: Lander’s Peak“, describing the roles each played in their respective civilizations as well as the underlying political meanings of each piece.
You can watch Victoria Coates’ lecture via the video player below.
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” is the most famous quote by the English Catholic historian Sir John Dalberg-Acton. But what exactly did he mean by it?
That particular quote comes from a letter to Bishop Creighton in which Lord Acton explains that historians should condemn murder, theft, and violence whether committed by an individual, the state, or the Church. Here is the context:
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. s, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.
Here are the greatest names coupled with the greatest crimes; you would spare those criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice, still more, still higher for the sake of historical science.
Lord Acton is saying that rather than excuse “great men” because of the burdens placed upon them by their office or authority, we should judge them even more harshly than we would actions of the common man or woman. It’s ironic that Acton had to tell this to a bishop since the Bible has quite a lot to say about abuse of power. Yet even Christian tend to think that we are immune to the temptations of power and that if we were give more authority we wouldn’t abuse it.
On October 27, 2016, Acton Institute President Rev. Robert A. Sirico addressed the audience at the Acton Institute’s 26th Anniversary Dinner in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In his remarks, he reflected on the state of American politics and culture, the societal crisis we find ourselves in, and proposed a way forward based on a vision of a free and virtuous society.
You can view his entire address below.
On June 17th, Acton Institute President and Co-founder Rev. Robert A. Sirico delivered the final evening plenary address of Acton University 2016. We’re pleased to present the video of his address here on the PowerBlog.
“Money has not only the character of money,” says Samuel Gregg in this week’s Acton Commentary, “but it also has a productive character which we commonly call capital.”
Like all medieval clergy, Olivi and Bernardine fiercely opposed usury. “Usury,” Bernardine wrote, “concentrates the money of the community in the hands of a few, just as if all the blood in a man’s body ran to his heart and left his other organs depleted.” Yet the same Bernardine also invested time in explaining why it was legitimate for creditors to charge interest on loans to compensate themselves for relinquishing the opportunity to invest their money elsewhere. In such circumstances, the lender had a right to be compensated for what amounted to foregone profits. “What,” Bernardine maintained, “in the firm purpose of its owner is ordained to some probable profit has not only the character of mere money or a mere thing, but also beyond this, a certain seminal character of something profitable, which we commonly call capital.”