Commentary Magazine

Lord Acton, by Gertrude Himmelfarb

A Liberal Pessimist
Lord Acton.
by Gertrude Himmelfarb.
University of Chicago Press. 260 pp. $3.75.


Why should anybody wish to read about a scholarly but relatively obscure member of the Dalberg family who is known as Lord Acton? His reputation rests primarily on his editorship of a voluminous compendium of historical knowledge, the Cambridge Modern History, and on a maxim, “. . . power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But there is much more to say about him, and several scholars have tried to do so. It is not often that one comes upon an erudite book which possesses so much merit as Miss Himmelfarb’s study manifests on nearly every page. She writes with fidelity to the recondite information she has gathered, but has verve and aptness of expression to spare. Nobody can write such a study unless respect and affection have gone into its making. And I can only suppose that Miss Himmelfarb, like many other people, has come to the conclusion that Acton is made to order for our time. If the remembrance of any prophet can rescue the concept of liberal thought from the low estate into which it has nearly everywhere fallen, it may well be that of this unusual English Catholic who was the most learned man of his time as well as its most unproductive scholar. Acton was so continuously immersed in intellectual controversy that he completed little which was to remain a permanent topic of debate.

The subject he had assigned himself for treatment during his most mature years was liberty. But his projected history of this always absorbing and difficult topic never got farther than two lectures and an essay—fragments of such depth, pertinence, and brilliance that they are now being read with ever increasing esteem. Miss Himmelfarb comments on nearly every aspect of Acton’s thought on this subject. He held that liberty confers dignity on history because it alone crowns the history of man with dignity. Maintaining freedom, he said, is the essence of heroism; and suppressing it is criminal. He did not concede that there could exist any valid reason for persecuting men because of their ideas, and inquisitorial deaths were anathema to him. On the other hand, he held that it was equally wrong to do violence for the sake of freedom. Therewith Acton made the historian the arbiter of history. The fact that his moral standards were so inflexible and in their way anticipatory of the totalitarian disaster through which we are painfully living is what makes his writing so vitally interesting at the moment.

Of course Acton was not a twister of historical fact into moralistic patterns. He scanned the record with complete openness of mind and meticulous respect for the evidence. He spread every event on the page with as much care as a poor man uses in smoothing the butter on his bread. The extent of his knowledge was staggering to his contemporaries and may well fill us, too, with awe. He helped to give to many books by others their pith; and when he finally became Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University, England saw how virtually impossible it was to lay claim to some really intensive understanding of the past. No doubt younger men were more in awe of than in love with him. But many of them came to see that while his judgment was stern, no verdict was handed down that did not reflect an unimpeachable thirst for justice.



Miss Himmelfarb’s study, which moves with consummate dexterity through a maze of theological and political discussion, begins by showing Acton entering the lists at the time of the Vatican Council, which in 1870 proclaimed the dogma of papal infallibility. This doctrine does not now raise goose pimples on the average citizen’s flesh, but at the time it not only engendered turmoil in the Catholic Church but it also disturbed, amused, or angered the entire Western world. For it seemed to leave far behind the most recalcitrant versions of Divine Right. Was not everything a Sovereign Pontiff said henceforth to be looked upon as inspired from on high?

Acton had studied in Munich under Ignaz Doellinger, the ablest ecclesiastical historian of his time. From this first-rate teacher he learned respect for the information upon which any reputable study of past events must be based, and for the moral probity with which a historian must be equipped if he is to express a judgment. No doubt Doellinger had his meed of professorial quirks, but to the English boy he seemed the incarnation of academic dedication. It was no rashly formed opinion. The Bavarian savant symbolized by his fidelity to his own monarch the homage he paid to scholarship. And he recognized in his pupil a kindred spirit.

When the Vatican Council was convened, Acton became the center of English opposition to the doctrine of papal infallibility even as Doellinger was its most vigorous critic in Germany. Miss Himmelfarb naturally tells the story from the point of view of Acton and his friends. Possibly she does not take sufficiently into account the fact that the final text of the Vatican decree (entitled De Fide) was by some near-miracle written by a French prelate, Monsignor Dupanloup, whom Acton was to consider a traitor to the cause, so that the dogma as eventually defined did not abrogate but rather reaffirmed Catholic tradition, even though it assigned to the Papacy a role which Acton and his friends deemed unwarranted. It has been argued that the principal effect was virtually to compel the Church to elect popes who would be able to live up to the parts in which they were now perforce cast. And it would indeed seem that there had never previously been a succession of Sovereign Pontiffs of the quality of those who succeeded Pius IX.

Doellinger appears to have surmised that this might well prove to be the case, despite the ban of excommunication which lay heavily upon him. But Acton did not, and as a result the feeling of being isolated from his most intimate friend lay heavily on his spirit. This mood Miss Himmelfarb appreciates. Her task was not an easy one. She sketches the various conflicts in which Acton was involved with imagination and care. I am persuaded that she might have been still more successful if she had said a little more about the intimate personal history of her hero. There can be no doubt that many would be interested. Bavarian admirers now pay visits to Acton’s grave beside the Tegernsee.

At the close of her study, Miss Himmelfarb undertakes to make an appraisal of the philosophic position on which Acton elected to take his stand. It is a very astute one. She calls him “a pessimist who never broke faith with his own exalted vision of what man should be.” It is easy to be told to do the goose step if you think that is manifest human destiny. Simple also is the surmisal that progress is on the side of those who talk most about the proletariat—simple of mind always and unfortunately sometimes simple of heart. But to be profoundly convinced that man could be great if he really wanted to be, that is something to shout, laugh, and weep about. Mostly weep. The tears in Acton’s legacy are now become the pearls beyond price.



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