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Gertrude Himmelfarb ‘Threads the Needle’ on Lord Acton Biography

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himmel_actonBiographers suffer from a myriad of temptations. Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her bibliography to the newly republished Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics, recalls how Acton’s first biographer, Ulrich Noack struggled mightily to reconcile contradictions and tensions in Acton’s thought and in doing so lost much of the man himself. Later, Monsignor David Mathew succumbed to the opposite temptation of frequently digressing into trivialities and going off on tangents and as a result losing Acton in the great sea of nineteenth century Catholicism. Himmelfarb’s Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics is one of those rare biographies which manage to thread the needle. It is an intellectual biography which limits itself to the main threads of Acton’s thought as a historian, a Catholic, and a Classical Liberal.

As a historian Acton is brilliant but his work is often inaccessible to the general public. It is buried in collections of lectures, obscure periodicals, personal correspondence, and unpublished notes. By the time he was 40 years old …

He had mastered a variety of disciplines related to the history of politics, culture, ideas and religion. His style combined the sharp, colourful writing, the sense of immediacy and timeliness, of the informal essay, with the precision (degenerating occasionally into pedantry) and the susceptibility for the ancient and the universal of academic history. In addition to some 400 reviews and short articles, he had already published or delivered in the form of lectures the equivalent of almost 1,000 pages of serious essays ranging in subject from the early Christian Church to the American Civil War and the Italian Revolution.

Himmelfarb brings together many of these disparate writings and unpacks for us Acton’s greatest historical contributions and controversies. Her sixth chapter, “The History of Liberty,” is a wondrous reconstruction of the main argument of what many have called the greatest book that never was.

Acton the Catholic was mired in theological and ecclesiastical controversy for much of his life. Himmelfarb touches on all of the major controversies between Acton and his colleagues at The Rambler and its successor publications against the Ultramontanists. Her retelling of Acton’s first audience with Pope Pius IX is the kind of anecdote which powers the narrative forward to the controversies of the First Vatican Council:

The one gratifying memory he retained from the audience was a reference to his mother’s piety. It is apparent, from a journal kept by him at the time, that the Pope preferred to regard him as a young seigneur, the grandson of the Minister of Naples and scion of the house of Acton and Dalberg, rather than as the gifted protégé of one of the great historians of the Church… His journal echoed [Ignaz von] Döllinger’s complaint that the officials of the Roman court were appallingly ignorant of the state of learning abroad, were hostile to German theology and philosophy, and were unable to appreciate the work of the best converts, including Newman. From his own experience, Acton concluded that the Roman hierarchy deliberately frustrated the work of foreign scholars. Nor was the Pope immune from his strictures. Pius IX, he noted, was the intellectual inferior of his predecessor, with no knowledge whatever of theological matters. ‘Now nobody feels that the Pope will think less of him because he knows nothing at all.’

This is the sort of insight that a great biography provides. When later we learn that, during the height of the controversies of the First Vatican Council, the Pope refused to bless Acton’s children his anxiety allows us to appreciate just how grave the stakes are for him. Himmelfarb explores Acton’s relationship to the church in all its complexity refusing to minimize the conflicts but also appreciating Acton as a man of faith:

The final word may rest with Lord Acton’s daughter, who observed, in obvious reference to her father, that the part played by the Pope and the hierarchy in the thoughts of lay Catholics could be much exaggerated, and that a man’s relationship to the Church is governed by his inner sentiments, his love for the sacraments and respect for the traditions.

Acton’s political evolution from self-styled Burkean conservative to Gladstonian classical liberal is chronicled ably by Himmelfarb who mines Acton’s early political essays, personal correspondence, and compares earlier and later lectures allowing the reader to see for themselves his development. His brief parliamentary career is also examined but strangely less revealing, and while, “there were more obvious ways to act politically than through the intermediary of abstruse, scholarly journals,” Himmelfarb has done a great service for the rest of us in excavating them. Having spent some time with Acton’s own writing I would have appreciated more on his economic thought, which is oftentimes less explicit and difficult for modern readers to extract without a familiarity with nineteenth century politics and economics. The moral core of his political convictions, however, is presented with style and force. Himmelfarb:

Man, he believed, for all his propensity to evil, was a free agent capable of choosing the good, and although original sin was always there to dog his steps, it did not always succeed in tripping him up. The forces of evil were ‘constant and invariable’, but so were ‘the truth and the Higher Purpose’ with which they had to contend. If the presumption of evil was in all good causes, the presumption of the good was in the very idea of evil. The Fall itself attested to the existence of God, and God attested to the source of goodness in man, his conscience. Power corrupted, conscience redeemed; history was a tug-of-war between the two, with tyranny and freedom as the stakes. With one last twist, Acton took the idea of conscience out of the reign of metaphysics and placed it within the province of politics. While conscience itself was the metaphysical warrant for liberty, the conflict of consciences was its empirical security: ‘Our conscience exists and acts for ourselves. It exists in each of us. It is limited by the consciences of others.… Therefore it tends to restrict authority and to enlarge liberty. It is the law of self-government.’

It is an unusually remarkable and accessible book about a truly remarkable and original thinker.

This 2015 edition from the Acton Institute is based on the original printing by the University of Chicago Press in 1953. This new edition has been set in a cleaner typeface and reindexed. In the original edition footnote numbering restarted on each page, while in this new edition footnote numbering restarts each chapter. The 241-page paperbound book is available through the Acton Book Shop for $14.95.

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Dan Hugger Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.

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