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

(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

courtesy of

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)


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.

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?”

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.

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.”

There’s still time to register for tomorrow’s opening lecture of the 2011 Acton Lecture Series (click here to reserve your seat for Rev. Robert A. Sirico’s “Christian Poverty in the Age of Prosperity”), and while we’re anticipating the start of the 2011 series we’ll continue our blog recap of the 2010 series. Today, we highlight one of my favorite lectures from last year: Joseph Morris’ “Alinsky for Dummies: His Persistent Influence and Its Meaning for American Society and Politics.”

Saul Alinsky might be called the “anti-Acton”. As Lord Acton warned that power corrupts, Saul Alinsky — the father of modern “community organizing” — rejoiced that corruption empowers. Decades after Alinsky’s death his ideas and teaching continue to shape the American political and social landscape. Barack Obama’s first job in Chicago was as an “organizer” for an Alinsky group; Hillary Clinton’s undergraduate thesis was written on Alinsky’s precepts; contemporary organizations from the notorious ACORN to the Catholic-Church-supported United for Power and Justice are among Alinsky’s progeny. Morris’ lecture supplies an overview of Alinksy’s thinking and shows its application in current events.

News from the Acton Institute:

The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty is joining forces with Refo500, a project that aims to bring international attention to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Leading up to the anniversary in 2017 of Martin Luther’s posting of his Ninety-Five Theses, Refo500 is engaging with a variety of partner organizations to promote the importance of the Reformation period and its relevance for today’s world.

“Refo500 has the potential to help Acton bring its message about the relationship between faith and freedom to a broad and diverse audience around the globe,” said Dr. Stephen J. Grabill, director of programs at the Acton Institute. “The ecumenical vision of Refo500, which broadly encompasses the time period and is not merely a narrow confessional project, shows why the Reformation was so important in the shaping of the modern world.” He points to, for instance, the important contributions of the Roman Catholic School of Salamanca to the development of modern economic thought, as well as the legacies of the Protestant Reformers on doctrinal, political, and ethical matters.

The themes of the Refo500 project, which include “Money and Power,” “Art and Culture,” and “Freedom and Preaching,” resonate with the Acton Institute’s mission to promote a society characterized by freedom and virtue. The aims of Refo500 are also consistent with the institute’s work in creating The Birth of Freedom documentary and curriculum products for the importance of communicating the roots of freedom in Western civilization.

Lord Acton, the nineteenth-century British historian for whom the institute is named, was particularly clear about the significance of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for the development of limits on political power. “From that time it became possible to make politics a matter of principle and of conscience, so that men and nations differing in all other things could live in peace together, under the sanctions of a common law,” he wrote in his essay, “The History of Freedom in Christianity.”

“Refo500 is excited to welcome the Acton Institute into partnership,” said Refo500 project director Dr. Herman Selderhuis. “Acton’s significant achievements on a variety of levels, from academic publications, to popular writings, to film and social media, connect well with the comprehensive vision of the Refo500 project.”

Next year Refo500 will be involved in observing the 450th anniversary of the publication of the Heidelberg Catechism, including a conference held in the Johannes a Lasco Library Emden (Germany), March 3-5, 2011. The Acton Institute will also be publishing a translation of a section of Abraham Kuyper’s commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism in its Journal of Markets & Morality later in the year. There are also plans for Acton Institute scholars to take an active role in participating in the Reformation Research Group (RefoRG), the academic section of Refo500. RefoRG will hold its first conference June 8-10, 2011, in Zurich and will be hosted by the Institut für Schweizerische Reformationsgeschichte on the theme, “The Myth of the Reformation.”

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