June 3rd, 2012 | Published in Philosophy of History
[Thoughts on the book Lord Acton by Roland Hill.]
Lord Acton was known as the most learned man in Europe. Certainly he possessed the largest private library, every book of which he was supposed to have perused. Yet he never wrote a single book or made a single really important contribution to historical writing. He wrote a lot of reviews and short articles, especially during his time as an editor of several literary journals. [At that time, journals of the sort Acton edited were like a combination of academic journals, The New Yorker, and the Economist all rolled into one mighty, influential publication with many readers.] He was also the architect — though he wrote none of — the momentous Cambridge Modern History — the editorship of which came to him after he was appointed Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, which was at that time the highest official position for an historian in Britain. But he never wrote a book. Never wrote anything by which he would be chiefly remembered. So his fame, such as it is, rests on his life, his influence, and a few well-known saying (such as that “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”).
So why did I read his biography and, more importantly, why should you care about him?
- A Famous Historian Who Never Wrote Any History (On Scholarship As a Way of Life)
- Vatican I and the Ethics of Truth
- The Historiography of Liberty (Machiavelli vs. Aquinas)
A Famous Historian Who Never Wrote Any History
Acton is the perfect pretext for me to discuss something important: one of the ways in which modern academics should be genuinely nostalgic for the past.
We shouldn’t be nostalgic for non-academic respect and support. Those who complain about governmental and popular sea changes with respect to intellectuals are silly and wasteful of their own rage. The only things an intellectual should genuinely mourn are things that she has genuinely lost, because she once genuinely possessed them: in this case an intra-academic appreciation for scholarship as a way of life rather than a form of labor which produces value but is not valuable in itself.
Acton never wrote anything worth mentioning. He had a lot of plans — often grandiose and requiring decades of diligent research in the archives of continental Europe which had just recently been opened to the perusal of historians. A frequent pen-pal, daughter of the famous Gladstone, mocked his unfulfilled ambitions by calling them his “madonnas of the future” (in reference to the short story by Henry James). His profound and lifelong teacher, Dr. Döllinger, prophesied that he if he hadn’t written a book by the time he was forty, he never would.
This is not the place to argue for a specific interpretation of Acton’s lack of publications. Certainly it had nothing to do with a paucity of material or lack of willingness to work — Acton left thousands upon thousands of detailed notes on all the many subjects that fell within his purview and his plans. The summary account of the complex reasons for his silence would be: too much perfectionism, a gradual loss of communities within which his work could be meaningfully received, and distractions from family and both ecclesial and national politics.
Despite this, however, Acton was appointed Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, from which vantage he was tremendously influential on the historical tradition of a whole nation. Why would the important friends who combined to secure him this appointed — Gladstone, the Earl of Rosebery, and the queen — consider him the cream of the crop of English historians, when he had written nothing?
Because, whatever the outstanding faults of the Oxbridge system — so eloquently and sharply pointed out in Mark Pattison’s autobiography, for instance — it valued scholarship as a way of life rather than merely a kind of production-oriented business.
This is what’s lacking in today’s academic world: a recognition of the value of scholarship as an activity in itself and not simply as a means. I’m not talking about knowledge for knowledge’s sake — a discussion which often begins from the old false presupposition that the important distinction is between two kinds of knowledge-production (the practical and the useless). Instead, I’m talking about the really important distinction between scholarship as knowledge-production and scholarship as an intrinsically worthful way of life. Studying Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics really helped me understand the difference. For him, happiness has to be an end, not a means, if its going to be the purpose of human life (as both he and his whole society acknowledged that it was); but nevertheless Aristotle defined happiness as a kind of activity. Ultimately a happy life was one characterized, throughout, by a certain kind of activity. (And this is no irrelevant analogy, because it turns out in the last chapters of the Ethics, that Aristotle thought the best form a happy life could take would be one of lifelong theorizing.)
Those who appointed Acton Regius Professor of History recognized that he deserved to honored for his life of scholarship even though he produced no books, and that he deserved to be set up as a model for historians-in-training. Can you even imagine someone (other than a politician finding a cushion in the ideologically slavish sectors of academia after a fall from power) being honored in that way in the contemporary world of academics? Absolutely not.
It is my belief that what we need today is not to convince governments to support universities better — which is what you hear so many academics urgently arguing — but that those committed to the via contemplativa need to found alternate, more self-supporting communities, where scholars are ranked by their scholarly lives rather than the volume of their production. It takes only a glance at history to demonstrate that this way of arranging things has generally led to an improvement in the quantity and quality of scholarship. Sometime I’ll go into that history on this blog.
At times — as in the 19th and 20th centuries — the public recognizes with wealth and land-grants and formal honor the role of intellectuals within it; but a dependence fostered by this support can only lead to the travesty we see in our own day, mewling academics who now think the life of the mind is on life-support because departments in the humanities are being shut-down and the money for scientific research for anything other than better ways of killing is drying up. But such departments and such money are not the lifeblood of the body of scholars.
Acton believed that the treatment of ideological minorities was one of the best tests of the liberty in a nation. Correspondingly, I would argue that one of the best tests of the healthiness of intellectual life in a society is the degree to which a scholarly life can be honored without reference to production.
Vatican 1 and the Ethics of Truth
Acton had a strained relationship to Roman Catholicism. He was from an old English Catholic family — that is, an aristocratic family who had maintained their Catholicism through the various persecutions of Catholics that took place in England after the establishment of the national church. He said at various times that the communion of the Catholic church was more important to him than life itself. Yet he was also a liberal. He had a very distinct and definite understanding of morality, which he applied in his role as an historian. For him, morality was essentially remaining true to conscience. (And liberty, correspondingly, was the state of society in which it was possible for one to do this.) Accordingly, he was willing to recognize Protestants, pagans, atheists, Jews, etc., as moral when they acted according to conscience, and he was willing to condemn Catholic heroes when they acted against it. As far as he was concerned the tendency within Catholicism to contravene conscience was summed up in the position known as “Ultramontanism.”
The etymology of the world indicates that it has to do with “the man beyond the mountains” — used in the Middle Ages to refer to non-Italian popes, or non-Italian students of theology as ultramontanes, then reversed after the Protestant Reformation to mean the Pope himself, the man across the mountains. Ultramontanism was a philosophy within Catholicism which wanted to invest much higher authority and power in Rome and the Pope than in the various far-flung national instances of the Catholic church. It was an old Protestant accusation against Catholics — for instance in England and France — that they would be liable to be bad citizens since they held an alternate temporal authority — the Pope — higher than their own government. Only by categorically denying this could the English Catholic bishops, for example, ease the way toward Catholic emancipation in Ireland and England.
But the strength of Ultramontanism in the 1800s led, inexorably it seems in retrospect, to the council of Vatican I at which it was declared to be a binding dogma of the church that the pope’s word, when issued ex cathedra (ie., in his capacity as pope) was infallible. It’s easy from our perspective to see this council as an instance in one polity of a trend occurring throughout Europe — that toward centralization, as seen, for example, in Bismark’s Germany.
To this larger trend of centralization, Acton was opposed as a liberal. For instance, he sided decisively with the south when considering the American civil war, though he deplored slavery, because he viewed it as essentially an argument between centralization and de-centralization. Likewise, in church matters, he valued the freedom of conscience maintained by a decentralized Catholic church in which the word of the Pope could not intervene in the religious conscience of all Catholics with infallible pronouncements.
Now Acton’s involvement with the Vatican I council is one of the most interesting parts of his life. He was there in no formal capacity, but he basically organized the “fallibilist” minority of bishops in their opposition to the rather dodgy and totalitarian tactics of the majority “infallbilist” party at the council. Moreover, while publicly engaging in this leadership, he was privately spying on these closed deliberations — which were obviously of momentous importance to every Catholic throughout the world — by sending long, nightly reports to his friend Döllinger in Germany, who compiled them under the pseudonym Quirinus, and published them in the Augsburg Allgemeine Zeitung. These publication caused a sensation throughout Europe. The circulation of the Zeitung rose by 10,000. No one could figure out who was supplying this German author with the information he was publishing — and believe me, Rome tried to find out. It was a fairly cloak-and-dagger time, and there were rumors of assassinations and covert surveillance. Acton’s role remained a secret for a very long time.
At any rate, he opposed the new dogma. Despite his efforts it was passed by the council. Then, one would think, he faced a decisive decision.
Would he leave the Catholic church in accordance with his conscience? Or would he announce that he had changed his mind in order to submit to the new dogma?
He did neither.
Others felt the choice to be this pointed. A group known as the “Old Catholics” broke away from Rome and started a separate community. Others, notable John Henry Newman, the famous and erudite convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism, wrote elaborate apologetics to massage the new dogma into a tolerable shape. Acton chose neither course.
Instead pursued a modus vivendi according to which he never denied his opposition to the dogma and also never left the Catholic church. This was not the first time he had acted in so subtle a way.
Earlier in his life, Acton was the editor of several Catholic journals, which operated with the intent of enlarging the mind of British Catholics, who had lapsed into a sort of fundamentalist, dogmatic attitude due to their long national persecution. Their siege-mentality made it easy for them to commit the sort of contraventions of conscience that Acton deplored: to whitewash the the disgusting valleys of Catholic history, witch-burning, the Inquisition, the tactics of the Borgia popes, etc. So in the journals he edited, he allowed a scholarly honesty and freedom — always coupled with an unshakable commitment to the Catholic Church and its beliefs — that scared and troubled the English Catholic hierarchy. Eventually, with his last review, he was told to change the content of the publication. He could have continued as he had been going, and received Catholic condemnation, thereby losing his review’s status as an organ of Catholic opinion and scholarship, or he could have changed its methods of operation and maintained the church’s good will.
In this case, as in the later one, he did neither.
He stopped publishing the review altogether, neither revoking its past methods and writings, nor provoking the outraged hierarchs.
In both cases, Acton’s solution arose from what I call his Ethics of Truth (I think the particular flavor of such an ethics is even more evident in the autobiography of Mahatama Ghandi, A History of My Experiments With Truth, which I will write about in the near future). The basic principle of such an ethics, is that honesty — in Acton’s case, under the specific form of adherence to conscience, of opposition to hypocrisy, of unwillingness to approve any means to a good end — remains its highest priority. But this means refusing to resolve apparent paradoxes, where one is firmly convinced of both sides, just as much as it means openly coming down on one side of issues which one’s diplomatic compatriots would not address.
In Acton’s case, he both believed in the absolute authority of the Catholic church over Catholics, and he also believed that one of its dogmas — papal infallbility — was wrong.
Was he immobilized by these beliefs? Or can his actions be accounted for by a construction like an Ethics of Truth? I leave this for my readers to chew on, though I mean to return to the idea of an Ethics of Truth in future posts.
Historiography of Liberty (Machiavelli vs. Aquinas)
Finally, Acton was notable for the historiography he espoused — something that must be gleaned from his published lectures, his letters, and the incredible volume of notes he left, rather than any published books (since he published none).
What’s interesting about this is its oddness. The modern status quo, if I may speak of such a thing, is to view the effects of the historical revolution — the revolution in historical method, something else I mean to talk about in future posts, because I believe it to have been as important as the scientific revolution — as having rendered all associated sciences — say, that of politics, political economy, etc. — thoroughly empirical. Empirical in distinction, say, from what was understood to be Aristotle’s view (though it wasn’t, quite) that any science must be organized as a deductive system from self-evident axioms.
Now one of the things which tended to reinforce this view in Acton’s time, was the enormous and important access which historians had received to Continental archives. The work of Ranke, in particular, basically molded history into its modern form, where the distinction, for instance, between primary and secondary sources is more important than between degrees of authority in past historians or degrees of eminence in historical sources. A humble cleric who saw a battle and wrote about it, was more authoritative on the subject than a famous general who heard about it later and then wrote about it. Acton thoroughly agreed with this view. Toward the end of his life he wrote to his wife that Ranke had opened history to him by opening him to the archives.
Yet Acton’s over-riding interest in history was what he called, varyingly, the history of liberty or the history of freedom of conscience. This was essentially a political history, so the science of political theory was naturally of interest to him. In fact, he set up the basic alternatives in one’s philosophy of history as being between Machiavelli and Aquinas.
That distinction has more significance for political theory than for the writing of history proper, since neither Machiavelli nor Aquinas was really a historian in the strict sense. The difference Acton had in mind can be seen if you compare Machiavelli’s The Prince with the treatise on laws in the Summa Theologica. For Machiavelli (in The Prince, anyway) politics is the science of getting and keeping power. For Aquinas it is the science of the common good, requiring the intellectual habit of synderesis.
Without getting into the nitty-gritty of it, Acton is worth studying because he tried nobly to combine an understanding of normative politics with a thoroughly empirical history. This led to some of his more controversial views — such as that historians should be moral judges about their subjects. (In his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, he famously said “we must not debase the moral currency of history.”) He disliked it when historians apologized for the heinous actions of their subjects by saying that such and such an act was socially acceptable at the time, or that a person’s background absolved them of a certain amount of responsibility.
(However, I think we can make sense of such a position if we consider his opponents: Catholics who wanted to apologize for the Inquisition, or for various popes whom Acton believed had gone so far as to order assassinations and had praised the murder of Protestants at, for example, the Bartholomew Massacre. Ironically, the only way to make Acton’s position palatable is to treat it as polemic — in other words, to apologize for it using that very same kind of contextual reasoning that he wished to abjure!)
I personally don’t find Acton’s resolution of the problem of normative politics and the empirical nature of history satisfying. But then I don’t have it thoroughly down yet. It deserves to be studied, however, because I think what it’s trying to do has important analogies to what really needs to be done in our time.
Lord Acton. You’ve probably never heard of him, but if any of the above three topics interest you, you might want to look into him.