Posts tagged with: John Dalberg-Acton 1st Baron Acton

Today on the PowerBlog, we’re continuing our Radio Free Acton series featuring people who have attended Acton University and their experiences. As we close in on the deadline for registration for AU 2014, we hope that as you hear from people who have been impacted by the experience of Acton University, you’ll consider registering for AU 2014 and making the experience your own this year.

Today’s podcast features Father Hans Jacobse, an Orthodox priest and the founder of the American Orthodox Institute, who describes how he discovered Acton and came to be a participant at Acton University over the course of the last few years. He describes how the experience of Acton University gives him an opportunity to interact with people who are creatively engaged with culture all over the world – a “creative explosion,” as he calls it – and explains why those four days are so inspiring for him.

Have a listen via the audio player below, and be sure to check out this year’s course lineup for Acton University. Hope to see you there!

Blog author: dpahman
posted by on Monday, December 23, 2013

John Howard Yoder
Photo Credit: New York Times

Today at Ethika Politika, in my essay “Prefacing Yoder: On Preaching and Practice,” I look at the recent decision of MennoMedia to preface all of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder’s works with a disclaimer about his legacy of sexually abusive behavior:

Whatever one thinks of MennoMedia’s new policy or Yoder’s theology in particular (being Orthodox and not a pacifist I am relatively uninterested myself), this nevertheless raises an interesting concern: To what extent ought the character of a theologian matter to their readers and students?

While I am unsure whether MennoMedia has handled this rightly, I appreciate the effort on their part not to turn a blind eye to the complexity of this issue. When it comes to theologians and teachers of morality, personal character does matter, though certainly poor character does not justify dismissing off-hand all a theologian says.

Yet, as I note at Ethika Politika, “while one may be able to study all the mechanics of swimming, for example, and teach them to others from a purely technical point of view, people would naturally be skeptical about the value of this teaching if they discovered their teacher could not actually swim.” Thus, I do not find it surprising or unfounded to be skeptical of Yoder. But what caused this situation? As Lord Acton wrote, “Power tends to corrupt.” (more…)

Looking for a great opportunity to expand your intellectual capacity? We are still seeking applicants for two upcoming Liberty and Markets conferences: Religion and Liberty: Acton and Tocqueville and Evaluating the Idea of Social Justice.

Co-sponsored by the Acton Institute and Liberty Fund, Inc., these conferences offer an excellent opportunity for networking and discussion within a small group environment, with an average faculty/participant ratio of 1:3.

Both conferences are free and include single-occupancy lodging, meals, nightly hospitality, book gifts, and up to a $500 stipend for travel and participation. A mixture of lectures and Socratic discussions of primary texts (sent out in advance of the conference) engage participants and foster in-depth dialogue.

See below for more specific details:

Religion and Liberty: Acton and Tocqueville

September 12–15, 2013 in Grand Rapids, MI

Brief Summary: At this conference, graduate students will discuss religious freedom, the church-state relationship, and the role of religion in shaping the moral order of free societies. These issues will be examined through the lens of history, and readings and discussion will explore the relationship by illustrating how, at different points in history, Christianity has acted as a support for liberty and, at others, has failed to do so. The conference readings will focus on the writings of Lord Acton and Alexis de Tocqueville, two of the most insightful nineteenth-century liberal thinkers to write about the relationship between Christianity and liberty.

Last call for applications!

Intended Audience: Individuals currently enrolled in graduate school or have completed graduate-level studies in the last 6 years

Evaluating the Idea of Social Justice

October 10–13, 2013 in Grand Rapids, MI

Brief Summary: The purpose of this conference is to explore the idea of “social justice” and compare and evaluate it against the understanding this concept now evokes in contemporary debates about justice and political order. The all-encompassing claims made on behalf of social justice in these debates often translate into calls for the reduction of personal liberty and a concomitant increase in state power to distribute material goods and the resources of private enterprise in common.

Intended Audience: Clergy, Seminarians, Church and Parachurch workers

Visit the Acton Institute events webpage for more information and to apply.

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.”

John-Henry-NewmanThe 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).

More information on the digitization project is available from the National Institute for Newman Studies, and project updates are available here.

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). 

Blog author: ehilton
posted by on Wednesday, March 27, 2013

(March is Women’s History Month. Acton will be highlighting a number of women who have contributed significantly to the issue of liberty during this month.)

What does the Victorian era have to do with contemporary culture and society? Quite a bit, in the mind and work of Gertrude Himmelfarb, an American historian who called her own work “the history of ideas.” Himmelfarb has been criticized for her call to the return of traditional values (like shame, personal responsibility and self-reliance) by an academic community that prefers what they believe is a “value-neutral” method of teaching and research.

courtesy of www.superscholar.org

courtesy of www.superscholar.org


Himmelfarb wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on the British parliamentarian and historian Lord Acton, which she later published as Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (1952). Himmelfarb found Lord Acton’s ambivalent blend of liberalism and pessimism, ideas of progress, and notions of human sinfulness, as well as his advocacy of a “judicious mix of authority, tradition, and experience, to be highly relevant for the post World War II world.” Even in this early work, she discerned a connection between the modern neglect of personal moral character and the political catastrophes of the twentieth century, including the rise of fascism and totalitarianism.  (Gertrude Himmelfarb: Jewish Women’s Archive)

(more…)

Blog author: mbrandenburg
posted by on Thursday, April 12, 2012

Michael Miller, a Research Fellow and Director of Media at the Acton Institute, will be participating in an economy panel discussion held on April 17th at 7pm in the Wege Ballroom of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich. The focus of the discussion will be economic freedom and the proper role of the state and the individual in creating and preserving conditions necessary for human flourishing and prosperity.

As Lord Acton stated, “liberty is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.” A deep analysis of liberty within the economic context, among others, can aid in creating an understanding of how liberty can best be preserved and how various actors can work towards this goal.

Miller will be joined on the panel by Dr. Molly Patterson, a Professor of Political Science at Aquinas College, Jarrett Skorup, Research Associate for Online Engagement at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and Dr. Daniel Giedeman, a Professor of Economics at Grand Valley State University.

The event is free and open to the public. Following the discussion, audience members will have the opportunity to ask questions of the panel.  We welcome you to come witness intellectual dialogue on this very important topic, and have the opportunity to take part in the conversation as well.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Hunger Games TrilogyEric Teetsel, who runs the Values & Capitalism project over at AEI, invited me (among others) to pen some alternative endings to the Hunger Games trilogy. Eric is concerned that at the ending of the series, “Collins’s characters deteriorate into self-interested, cynical, vengeful creatures. The parallels of their behavior post-victory with the actions of their former dictators are made clear. Katniss even votes in support of another Hunger Games, this time featuring the children of the elites who have been overcome. It’s a Blue State ending to a Red State story.”

Although I don’t really write creative fiction (as you’ll quickly find out when you read my alternate ending), I’m not convinced that the general thrust of the books’ conclusion is quite so clearly at odds with the rest of the trilogy. What you’ll see is that I didn’t much like the kind of “happily ever after” ending that Katniss and Peeta experience.

But I did find that Collins’ basic point had to do with the corrupting power of politics, and in this vein I resonate much more with John Tanny’s recent piece for Forbes, “Suzanne Collins’ ‘The Hunger Games’ Illustrates the Horrors of Big Government,” than with the piece that helped inspire the V&C alternate endings project, “‘The Hunger Games is a blue-state ‘Harry Potter’” by Rebecca Cusey.

In an alternative ending sure to please neither Team Peeta nor Team Gale, my alternate ending picks up after Katniss has killed the head of the new Panem administration, Alma Coin. I tried to keep in mind a couple of things. First was Lord Acton’s dictum and the theme here at the Acton Institute PowerBlog: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Second was Augustine’s query, “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Thomas Babington MacaulayLooking through my back stacks of periodicals the other day I ran across a review in Books & Culture by David Bebbington, “Macaulay in the Dock,” of a recent biography of Thomas Babington Macaulay. The essay takes its point of departure in Lord Acton’s characterization of Macaulay as “one of the greatest of all writers and masters, although I think him utterly base, contemptible and odious.”

As Bebbington writes, “Acton, a towering intellectual of the later 19th century, was at once a strongly ideological Liberal and an entirely faithful Catholic. He considered Macaulay insufficiently liberal, and Acton, as somebody aware of the eternal law of God, felt bound to censure the historian.” It is one of the marks of Lord Acton’s historical approach that he was unwilling to bracket the question of morality from his historical judgment. As Acton contended, “Moral precepts are constant through the ages and not obedient to circumstances.” The historian could not thus proceed as if such a moral order did not exist, or was irrelevant, to the events and actions of the past. In an essay on Acton’s view of the historian, Joseph Altholtz describes Acton’s “ideal of the historian as judge, as the upholder of the moral standard.”

The biography of Macaulay at issue is by Robert E. Sullivan, who Bebbington describes as “also of liberal inclinations; and he, too, is a loyal Catholic with a firm moral outlook. The result is a biography treating Macaulay as base, contemptible, and odious.” So in one sense, argues Bebbington, what we have in Sullivan’s work is an Acton-esque biography of Macaulay, which takes into account and, indeed, passes severe moral judgment on Macaulay.

As Bebbington concludes, the biography “is less history than indictment. Macaulay stands charged with being corrupted by power—not so much his own power, even though he sat in parliament and was twice a government minister, as the power wielded by Victorian Britain.” Macaulay was captured by the triumphalism of an empire at the height of its powers, and thus propagated an imperialistic ethic:

Macaulay pandered to his country’s taste for self-aggrandizement when it was unequivocally the most powerful nation on earth. Most crucially, he sanctioned genocide: “it is in truth more merciful,” wrote Macaulay in an essay of 1838, “to extirpate a hundred thousand human beings at once, and to fill the void with a well-governed population, than to misgovern millions through a long succession of centuries.” Sullivan returns to this judgment again and again, clearly deeply troubled by it. He is outraged that Macaulay has benefited over the intervening period from silence about his “imperial ethic of extermination.” Sullivan will not remain silent.

In this way, Sullivan is seen as taking up Acton’s mantle. For as Bebbington writes, Sullivan’s critical attitude

is very much what Acton might have adopted. Acton famously remarked that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Sullivan, who alludes to a version of the dictum at one point without naming Acton, holds it to be true. He also maintains Acton’s principle that the historian must make rigorous moral judgments. For Acton, persecution was an unpardonable crime. In the same way, Sullivan believes that mass murder must be condemned as an execrable evil.

Lord ActonBebbington proceeds to outline many of the potential pitfalls of such an approach, and how they actually come to fruition in Sullivan’s work: “We do not know what allowance has to be made for conditions in the past.” In Bebbington’s view, Sullivan brings a kind of persecuting zeal to his indictment of Macaulay that “turns his book into a pursuit of his quarry for almost every imaginable misdeed.” Bebbington thus concludes, “Macaulay may have shared in the corruption that Acton attributed to any who exercise power, but he was not as black as he is painted here. He was not base, contemptible, and odious.”

Now it must also be said that Lord Acton characterized Macaulay as such in a letter, and not in a work of historical biography. The application of moral critique need not be pressed to the extreme to become relevant to historical judgment. Even if Sullivan’s work applies such moralizing into excess, however, it is not necessarily an indictment of Lord Acton’s approach, for the abuse of a thing is no argument against its proper use.

Indeed, a more thoroughgoing application of Lord Acton’s dictum about the corrupting tendency of power would apply it to the power the historian exerts as well. This stance of sitting in judgment on the far side of history can turn into a kind of self-righteousness, which corrupts the reliability and the veracity of the historian’s work. This is perhaps why Altholtz describes Acton’s view as “the most noble ideal ever proposed for the historian,” but goes on to say that “it is an ideal that has been rejected, perhaps with grudging respect, by all historians, including myself.” As Scripture makes clear, God is the only one who impeccably judges the hearts and deeds of men: “At the set time that I appoint I will judge with equity,” says the Lord (Psalm 75:2 ESV).

The power of the historian in exercising moral judgments may well tend to corrupt and therefore need to be circumscribed. But this is not an argument against all exercise of such power. It does mean, however, that Lord Acton’s twin ideals of moral judgment and objectivity must be held together, or ultimately not at all.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, May 9, 2011

David Lohmeyer turned up this excellent clip from the original Star Trek series:
Kirk opens the clip by referencing the Nazi “leader principle” (das Führerprinzip). Soon after Hitler’s election as chancellor in 1933, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a (partial) radio address and later lectured publicly on the topic of the “leader principle” and its meaning for the younger generation. These texts are important for a number of reasons, not least of which is that Bonhoeffer compares the office of “leader” to a kind of inherent law of life (or natural law) that determines whether or not the leader is actually meeting his responsibilities and obligations. Thus the leader is not beyond the law, as the Nazi version of the principle held.

 

For “men seeking absolute power,” as Spock puts it, this rule of law must be denied. Therefore the reason that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” is that it arrogates power to a creature that is beyond its inherent nature as creature and distinct from and beholden to a creator. It makes a man into a god.

Thus, writes Bonhoeffer,

People and especially youth will feel the need to give a leader authority over them as long as they do not feel themselves to be mature, strong, responsible enough to themselves fulfill the demands placed in this authority. The leader will have to be responsibly aware of this clear restriction of his authority. If the leader understands his function differently from that thus established, if the leader does not repeatedly provide the led with clear details on the limited nature of the task and on their own responsibility, if the leader tries to become the idol the led are looking for–something the led always hope from their leader–then the image of the leader shifts to one of a misleader, then the leader is acting improperly both toward the led as well as toward himself.

The leader’s function must be balanced, Bonhoeffer continues, with the other orders of the world: “The leader must lead the led into responsibility toward the social structures of life, toward father, teacher, judge, state. The leader must radically reject the temptation to become an idol, that is, the ultimate authority of the led.”

This is, as Bonhoeffer notes, the perennial temptation of those with political power, and it follows from the basic fallenness of humanity. Spock says rightly, “Your whole earth history is made up of men seeking absolute power.” We are, as fallen creatures, constantly creating idols, out of ourselves and our surroundings. As Bones McCoy puts it, when “a man holds that much power, even with the best intentions, [he] just can’t resist the urge to play God.”

It is comforting, I think, that Lord Acton’s wisdom survives into the 23rd century: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”