The 2014 Acton Lecture Series took a dramatic turn last week as we welcomed G.K. Chesterton – or at least a quite remarkable facsimile of Chesterton in the form of Chuck Chalberg, who travels the country performing in character as Chesterton, among other notable historic figures. In this presentation, Chalberg’s Chesterton speaks about America, which he thought was the only country with the soul of a church. He also addresses the state of the family–and not just the American family–past and present. His starting point–and end point– is this: “Without the family we are helpless before the state.” We hope you enjoy the performance as much as we did!
This week on Radio Free Acton, Michael Matheson Miller takes the interviewer’s chair for a conversation with David Bromwich, Sterling Professor of English at Yale University, to discuss the thought of Edmund Burke in the wake of the release of Bromwich’s first volume of what will be a two-volume intellectual biography of Burke. This week’s conversation touches on Burke’s view of the human person, his thoughts on progress in the arts and sciences, and his role in the modern conservative movement. And like Bromwich’s biography, this podcast will come in two parts: the remainder of the conversation will be yours to enjoy next week.
To listen to Part 1 of Miller’s interview with Bromwich, use the audio player below.
Christian churches in the West have been focused on redistribution of income rather than the creation of wealth, says Brian Griffiths in this week’s Acton Commentary.
Through much of the post-war period in the West, the formation of economic policy was dominated by Keynesian activism on the part of governments seeking an increasing role in providing public services, reducing material poverty, and reshaping income redistribution.
In the United States, President John F. Kennedy launched the New Frontier program and his successor, President Lyndon Johnson, soon after embarked on what came to be called the Great Society. In both cases, emphasis was placed on increasing the role of the state in order to solve problems of poverty and destitution. In intellectual terms, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith made the case for trade unions and government becoming “countervailing powers” in capitalist economies in order to check the power of large corporations. In Britain, Harold Wilson nationalized various industries, developed a national plan, a comprehensive prices and incomes policy, and extended the scope of the welfare state. Across the Channel and Rhine, the Social Democrat Willy Brandt was a major influence in extending the role of government in social policy throughout West Germany.
I recently read Yuval Levin’s new book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, and found it remarkably rich and rewarding. Though the entire book is worthy of discussion, his chapter on choice vs. obligation is particularly helpful in illuminating one of the more elusive tensions in our social thought and action.
In the chapter, Levin provides a helpful summary of how the two men differed in their beliefs about social obligation and individual rights. How ought we to relate to our fellow man? What preexisting obligations do we have to our neighbors? How do those obligations come to be? What role ought the State to play in guiding or intervening in the social order?
For Paine, Levin explains, society is a “means to enable choice, or the freedom to shape our own future uncoerced—a means to the radical liberation of the individual from the burdens of his circumstances, his given nature, and his fellow man.” “The right to choose,” Levin paraphrases, is “the end toward which we aim in politics.” Or as Paine himself puts it: “The right which I enjoy becomes my duty to guarantee it to another, and he to me, and those who violate the duty justly incur a forfeiture of the right.” We choose our obligations, and y’all best let Paine choose his.
For Burke, however, this lopsided emphasis on choice amounts to “a fundamental misunderstanding of the human condition,” as Levin summarizes: “The most essential human obligations and relations—especially those involving the family but also many of those involving community, the nation, and one’s religious faith—are not chosen and could never really be chosen, and political and social life begins from these, not from an act of will.” We may think we can escape or subvert certain obligations, but for Burke, they are “nevertheless binding.” Therefore, in structuring our society and acting therein, we ought not pretend otherwise. (more…)
Creative destruction can be a painful thing, particularly when you’re the one being destroyed. I’ve been-there done-that, and when things hit, I can’t say that I cared too much about Joseph Schumpeter and his fancy ideas.
Alas, even when we have a firm understanding of the long-term social and economic benefits of such destruction — that whatever pain we’re experiencing is for the “greater good” of humanity — we can’t help but feel unappreciated, devalued, and cast aside. Our work is an expression of ourselves, something we offer to society and (hopefully) believe to be of considerable worth.
Thus, when we experience such rejection, it’s only natural to react bitterly and become cynical, resentful, or fatalistic, allowing our attitudes and behaviors to correspond in turn. We’re tempted to doubt ourselves or doubt others, to sit back or plod forward halfheartedly, to feel entitled, believing that our “service” deserves a place in the economic landscape, regardless of what the economic signals might say.
Yet amidst theese competing emotions, we mustn’t forget that, in addition to concerns about productivity, efficiency, and economic progress, for the Christian, our work is ultimately service to others, and thus, to God. If someone has discovered new and better ways to meet our neighbors’ needs, it should tell us that it’s time to tweak our game and find new ways to contribute, as hard and uncomfortable as that may be. Our work is not a mere means to a paycheck, and neither are we mindless, powerless cogs in some grand machine, manufactured and predestined to spin mindlessly along only to be bypassed by the Next Big Thing and consigned to the city dump.
In her 1939 children’s book, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Virginia Lee Burton gets to the heart of all this, tapping into the deep and profound pain of creative destruction, while ultimately pointing the way forward — toward creativity, service, and authentic human flourishing. (more…)
The other night, I sat down with my kids to read one of my favorite Rudyard Kipling poems, “The Camel’s Hump,” a remarkable 19th-century takedown of 21st-century couch-potato culture.
With typical color and wit, Kipling takes aim at idleness, decrying “the hump we get from having too little to do” — “the hump that is black and blue.” Kipling proceeds to elevate labor, noting that hard work refreshes the soul and reinvigorates the spirit: “The cure for this ill is not to sit still / Or frowst with a book by the fire / But to take a large hoe and a shovel also / And dig till you gently perspire.”
The illustrations in my 1949 version of the poem offer additional flair to Kipling’s contrast, aptly showing what can happen, physically and spiritually, if we do or don’t get our hands dirty. But don’t let the boy’s youthfulness fool you: “We all get the hump / Cameelious hump / Kiddies and grown-ups, too!”
[The above pages are taken from Volume 2 of the 1949 Childcraft collection, Storytelling and Other Poems.]
One of the more famous quotes from the eminently quotable Lord Acton is his dictum, “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” Actually, this appears in his writings in a slightly different form, as is seen below.
It is clear from the quote itself that Acton is contrasting two different views of liberty. But from the larger context we can rightly describe these two views as corresponding to Acton’s conception of the Catholic view of liberty in contrast to the modern view. Thus he writes,
There is a wide divergence, an irreconcilable disagreement, between the political notions of the modern world and that which is essentially the system of the Catholic Church. It manifests itself particularly in their contradictory views of liberty, and of the functions of the civil power. The Catholic notion, defining liberty not as the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought, denies that general interests can supersede individual rights. It condemns, therefore, the theory of the ancient as well as of the modern state. It is founded on the divine origin and nature of authority. According to the prevailing doctrine, which derives power from the people, and deposits it ultimately in their hands, the state is omnipotent over the individual, whose only remnant of freedom is then the participation in the exercise of supreme power; while the general will is binding on him. Christian liberty is lost where this system prevails: whether in the form of the utmost diffusion of power, as in America, or of the utmost concentration of power, as in France; whether, that is to say, it is exercised by the majority, or by the delegate of the majority, — it is always a delusive freedom, founded on a servitude more or less disguised. (emphasis added)
The source of this quote is an essay on “The Roman Question” from The Rambler (January 1860), in which Acton considers the temporal power of the Roman pontiff in the context of modern revolutions.
One confirmation of the validity of Acton’s contrast, at least as regards the status of his definition of Catholic liberty, what we might identify as a basically Augustinian definition of liberty, is the appearance of this definition in an almost verbatim form in Pope John Paul II’s homily at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore in 1995: “Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”
The University of Manchester has announced plans to digitize the holdings of the Cardinal Newman archive. Among the roughly 200,000 items of handwritten and other unpublished materials are 171 files of letters to (and from) “particular individual correspondents.”
One such correspondent of particular interest is Lord Acton. A selection of Acton’s correspondence with Newman is available digitally courtesy of the Online Library of Liberty. Lord Acton’s periodical, The Rambler, is also the subject of seven separate files of Newman’s correspondence “concerned with various specific issues,” according to the checklist available from the national archives (PDF).
For more on liberalism and the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century, see The Acton-Newman Relations: The Dilemma of Christian Liberalism, by Hugh A. MacDougall (Fordham University Press, 1962).
On October 5, 2011, Acton welcomed John Blundell, Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs, to deliver a lecture as part of the 2011 Acton Lecture Series. His address was entitled “Lessons from Margaret Thatcher,” and provided insight into the Iron Lady from a man who had known Thatcher well before she became the Prime Minister of Great Britain. You can watch his lecture below.
As has been mentioned today on the PowerBlog, Margaret Thatcher was a recipient of Acton’s Faith and Freedom Award in 2011. Due to her declining health, she was unable to accept the award in person. Accepting the award in her place was John O’Sullivan, the Executive Editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and former senior aide in the Thatcher government. The comments of O’Sullivan on Margaret Thatcher, her government and her character are below.