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

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” is the most famous quote by the English Catholic historian Sir John Dalberg-Acton. It also appers to be the overriding theme of the recent teaser-trailer for the movie Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

The quote is even stated directly in the trailer in a voiceover (by actress Holly Hunter). Is it applicable in this context? Would Lord Acton agree that absolute power has corrupted Superman? I think he would.

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:

Members of  the “Acton Club” of West Catholic High School

Members of the “Acton Club” of West Catholic High School

Culture has either an overly optimistic view of youth culture, or an overly dour and depressing one. However, neither view is entirely true, nor are such disparate opinions very helpful.  The unavoidable truth is this: younger generations will have to bear increasingly more difficult levels of financial, and societal responsibility in the coming years. To put it mildly their future will not be an easy walk in the park.

However, in my experiences at Acton, I am witnessing a renaissance, a flowering of maturity in which young men and women are not waiting for someone to offer them a free hand-out, but rather are seeking a better version and a more compelling vision for their future. Certainly the root of this renaissance has been occurring over the past ten years with college students at Acton University, but the flowering I am talking about is happening amongst high school students.

In the spring of 2014, a group of students from West Catholic High School in Grand Rapids made an appointment to tour our offices and to learn more about Acton’s work. After the tour, I expected the students to simply say, “thank you” and then depart, but the leader of this intrepid band said, “Mr. Cook, we have a core group that are serious about our Christian faith, and we want to be successful, ethical and virtuous business leaders. We want to learn how we can live our faith as Christian business leaders in our world today.” Then he said something really amazing.

“Do you think it’s possible for us to start an ‘Acton Club’ in our high school?’


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!

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).