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Kirk on Acton on Revolution

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Russell Kirk was a luminary of American Conservatism, philosopher, historian, and novelist of horror and suspense. In addition to being a true renaissance man he was, with his wife Annette, an early friend and supporter of the Acton Institute. It was at Acton that Kirk gave his last public lecture on the topic of ‘Lord Acton on Revolution’ on January 10, 1994. He would be called home to the Lord later that year.

Kirk pulls no punches in his lecture on Lord Acton and Revolution. Acton’s erudition, Kirk maintained, cannot be denied but he believed Acton’s appraisal  of the positive effects of revolution in history shortsighted. He rightly notes that early in life Acton’s thinking on revolution was more critical mirroring that of both himself and Edmund Burke. The later Acton was less critical and Kirk teases this development out in Acton’s public lectures, particularly his ‘Lectures on the French Revolution’, as well as in his private notes and correspondence. He emphasizes the need for order as well as liberty, a balance Kirk believed Acton did not maintain in his later writings. It is a credit to both his impeccable forthrightness and learning that Dr. Kirk felt confident criticizing Acton before an audience at the Acton Institute!

The Acton Institute recently republished this fascinating lecture along with eight other lectures and papers on Lord Acton in Lord Acton: Historian and Moralist edited by Samuel Gregg. The Institute has also recently made the audio available on its website. In addition to the lecture itself the audio recording includes a lively question and answer session in which Kirk addresses Acton’s views on the American Civil War, slavery, economics, and the growth of the state. Kirk also discusses his own views on papal infallibility, term limits, and if revolution is ever justified.

Acton was not hesitant to criticize revolution’s often violent excesses and as G.E. Fasnacht observed, “In almost every case Acton supplements the revolutionary principle by the constitutional… Conscience may spell revolution; but the developed conscience, the conscience developed by experience and knowledge, insists on constitutional government.” Kirk’s lecture is a welcome reminder of that constitutional principle and his devotion to its centrality is an excellent example of a truly conservative mind at work!

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

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