Today, January 10, 2022, is Lord Acton’s 188th birthday. This difficult era of a global pandemic, a crisis in institutions, and civil unrest seems a strange time to look back on the life and legacy of a Victorian historian of ideas—but, as Lord Acton himself remarked, “if the Past has been an obstacle and a burden, knowledge of the past is the safest and surest emancipation.” The freedom of the historian is the freedom to look beyond our own times to see the root causes of our current crises. The historian of ideas in particular is uniquely positioned to show us a path forward through a crisis of institutions. “The history of institutions is often a history of deception and illusions; for their virtue depends on the ideas that produce and the spirit that preserves them, and the form may remain unaltered when the substance has passed away,” he wrote.
Many of the most contested and contentious questions of our social life are centered on the nature of liberty, a problem Lord Acton spent his life as a historian seeking to understand. He believed that “no obstacle has been so constant, or so difficult to overcome, as uncertainty and confusion touching on the nature of liberty.”
Questions of the proper response to the COVID-19 pandemic, civil upheaval, burgeoning public debt, corruption, and resurgent socialism and nationalism can only be answered in the context of a proper view of freedom and responsibility. This proper view is at the center of Lord Acton’s definition of liberty: “By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty, against the influence of authority and majorities, customs and opinion.”
This notion of liberty as the unfolding of the idea of the dignity of the human person and his rights of conscience in history and politics is deeply Christian. With roots in the Hebrew prophets of old and the classical tradition, it is revealed in its fullness in Jesus Christ:
The Stoics could only advise the wise man to hold aloof from politics, keeping the unwritten law in his heart. But when Christ said: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” those words, spoken on His last visit to the Temple, three days before His death, gave to the civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness it had never enjoyed, and bounds it had never acknowledged; and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of freedom.
This is what I like to call the liberal tradition, a tradition that locates ultimate sovereignty in people created in the image of God and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. It puts people, particularly individual consciences, at the center of our conception of the social order:
Our conscience exists and acts for ourselves. It exists in each of us. It is limited by the conscience of others. It is enough for oneself, not for another. It respects the conscience of others, Therefore it tends to restrict authority and enlarge liberty. It is the law of self government.
Acton draws out the political implications of this view beautifully:
The more conscience comes to the front, the more we consider not what the state accomplishes, but what it allows to be accomplished. Not the action of the state—its powers of action, and its use of them, but the limitation and division of those powers. The Society that is beyond the state—the individual souls that are above it.
This is not simply a naive individualism. Power is limited, but that does not mean there is no place for institutions and community in shaping the consciences of individuals:
Conscience: Do I decide or the community? If I, there is not authority. If they, there is no liberty. Some mediator wanted. That is the Church. Sustains alike liberty and authority.
We see Lord Acton’s vision in the guiding principles of the Acton Institute, whose mission statement reads, “The Acton Institute is a think tank whose mission is to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.” We are a think tank dedicated, like Lord Acton, to the proposition that ideas are fundamental. We promote freedom, as Lord Acton argued, as the highest political good. We realize that freedom is central, because it is necessary to virtue, to people fulfilling their duties of conscience. In this sense, when we speak of individual liberty, we are speaking of the reign of conscience. Authority, best embodied in religion, is necessary to form consciences, sustain liberty, and promote the common good.
We often think of Europe from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the beginning of the First World War as the age of liberalism, and in many ways it was. But these liberal ideas were contested in Acton’s day as well as our own. The twin horrors of nationalism and communism that dominated the greater part of the 20th century had their seeds sown in Acton’s own 19th century. The 21st century—which many, following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, believed to be the end of history and the beginning of a neoliberal order—has seen the reemergence of statist ideas in the forms of nationalism and socialism. These old and yet new challenges are ones the Acton Institute looks forward to engaging in 2022 and beyond.
We must realize that distinctions between church and state, as well as power and authority, are important. If those distinctions collapse, it will inevitably crush those unique individuals who bear the image of God beneath them. God created man, and no state can re-create him better. It can only twist, distort, and destroy human nature. Acton’s vision is the liberal vision, a vision of a society that is beyond the state. It sees individual souls above the state and that God rules it all through his providence. Acton’s vision is still worth defending and offers hope to us now in these polarized and troubled times. Take and read!