Introduction for Dan Hugger’s LORD ACTON: HISTORICAL AND MORAL ESSAYS (2017).
When scholars discuss the nineteenth century of western civilization, they automatically and reflexively conjure images of the three most profound and original minds of the period: Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud. Sometimes, depending on the scholar, one might list Friedrich Nietzsche as well. This is obvious in the massive and tedious surveys of western civilization as well as in the remaining and lingering canons of Great Books. None of this is false, of course, and the three (or four) men remembered certainly were among the greatest of minds to come into this world of sorrows.
One might, with equal accuracy and a bit more humanity and justice, create a different trinity. What about John Henry Newman, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Lord Acton? After all, as the great Russell Kirk once argued, “In every age, society has been relieved only by the endeavors of a few people moved by the grace of God.” With the possible exception of Darwin, neither the taken-for granted trinity nor their followers were wont to taint the men or their ideas with the airy notion of the “grace of God.”
With the newly-proposed trinity of nineteenth-century thinkers, though, the men and their followers would lovingly accept the grace of [g]od.
Even among these proposed three, however, Lord Acton—the author of the essays you now hold in hands–remains the least known, the least studied, and the least understood. True, every American with any education at all remembers his assertion that “power corrupts.” Other than this, though, he’s largely forgotten or dismissed. It’s as though his entire existence from 1843 through 1902 mattered only for that one sentence. Truly, this is to both our discredit and our loss. Thanks to the Acton Institute and Daniel Hugger, we can begin to rectify this massive error near the beginning of the twenty-first century.
A profound thinker and essayist, Acton argued in his seminal piece of 1862, “Nationality”: “Christianity rejoices at the mixture of races as Paganism, however, identifies itself with their differences, because truth is universal, errors various and particular.” The modern and rising nation-states, though, demand unity of thought, culture, and politics. In essence, Acton believed, the world was re-paganizing, returning to its worship of the state as god. After all, he wrote, “in the ancient world idolatry and nationality went together, and the same term is applied in Scripture to both.”
While this is just one of many profound arguments that Acton advanced during his writing career, it is critical to see him not only as important in his own day and age, but also as the critical link in the arguments about natural rights, liberty, and human dignity between Edmund Burke and Thomas Jefferson, a century earlier, and Friedrich Hayek and Christopher Dawson, a century later.
In his own day and age, though, Acton tapped into something rather deep in the currents and movements of the western tradition. Imagine for a moment the influence the original trinity mentioned above had on the West and on the World. When looking at the depth and intelligence and brilliance of their arguments, one can readily narrow down each to one fundamental element. For Darwin, all things were biological and adaptive. For Marx, they were economic. For Freud, they were psychological. As Acton would well understand, none of these things were untrue. The problem with each was not falsity, but lack of context. Man is biological, economic, and psychological, but not singularly. Rather man is all of these plus a million other things. As with Burke before and Dawson after, Acton knew that man’s greatness and his sin simultaneously resided in the immense complexity of each individual human person, made uniquely in the infinite image of God. With Socrates as well as Hayek, Acton knew that we knew very little and that, through humility, we recognized our limitations of knowledge.
Thus, one can readily picture Acton writing “Christianity rejoices at the mixture of and mysteries of human complexities as Darwinism, however, “identifies itself with their biological adaptation.” Or, as Marxism, however, “identifies itself with their economic base.” Or, as Freudianism, however, “identifies itself with their psychological urges.” To which, each can be answer, “yes, but there’s more.” Again, no matter how significant Darwin, Marx, and Freud were, Acton is more nuanced, broader, and, thus, in the long run, more accurate and insightful. Unlike the three more famous men, Acton never demanded any gnostic sureties in this world or the next. Faith is, after all, not fact.
Of course, this book you now are reading is much deeper than what I’ve just given. Hugger has ably and, indeed, lovingly crafted a book of some of the best arguments Acton made in his life. From a philosophy of history to the history of liberty, from specific personalities to the grand movement of ideas, Acton looked at all with a Catholic and classical wisdom so often lacking in his day. We would do well to remember Acton. In so doing, we remember not just the man, but the insight of one man into a much larger and unfathomably complicated world. True, in choosing Acton over Darwin, Marx, and Freud, we choose an ignorance and humility that the world hates. But, then, the world has generally hated what’s good for it. Have your ideologies if you must, but I’ll take truth, beauty, and goodness anytime.
Oh, and, by the way, power does corrupt.
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