Lord Acton and the correct meaning of liberty

A very confused and overzealous friend believes that John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (Lord Acton, 1834-1902) was a libertarian by today’s standards. This confused friend also thinks my use of a quote from Acton’s writings about liberty being “the right of doing what we ought” is not only incorrect and out of context but not even a sentiment held by Acton.

Ideology, especially combined with youthful hubris, is a powerful narcotic. It makes people see only what they want to see. It makes facts out of fantasy. And it turns otherwise intelligent adults into juveniles.

But even for many seasoned scholars Lord Acton is an enigma at best, so my friend can be excused for his ignorance. While many books have been written about Acton, the best compilation of his writings, personal and public, are contained in three volumes, edited by J. Rufus Fears (a wonderful teacher and scholar), titled Essays in Religion, Politics and Morality: Selected Writings of Lord Acton.

In Volume III, in a prefatory section titled “The Essays in This Volume,” Fears writes,

Contemporaries confessed themselves puzzled by Lord Acton…Perhaps most of all, his English admirers failed to understand how a man of such decided political Liberalism could be a confirmed Roman Catholic…Acton was aware of the enigma which his personality and opinions seemed to pose for others, and he claimed to find difficulty in understanding their confusion. To him the matter seemed quite simple. In a letter to Lady Blennerhassett, Acton gave his confession as “a very simple, obvious, and not interesting story.” It was the “story of a man who started life believing himself a sincere Catholic and a sincere Liberal, who therefore renounced everything in Catholicism which was not compatible with Liberty, and everything in Politics which was not compatible with Catholicity.” In other words, Acton did not compartmentalize religion, morality and politics.

It seems many people were, and are, puzzled by Acton’s political philosophy in much the same way many people today are puzzled about the political orientations of LDS prophets Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. All three men were certainly products of their times, and all three men were inspired by the integration of religion, morality and politics. When Joseph Smith condemned other religions as false, he remained a man of orthodox faith. When Brigham Young condemned the United States Constitution as inadequate in the protection of religious liberty, he remained a patriot’s patriot and dedicated servant of constitutional government. Likewise, even when Lord Acton condemned the struggle Roman Catholicism had in the 18th and 19th centuries with modernity, he remained a Roman Catholic through and through.

If you are looking for reasons to suggest that Joseph Smith was an unmitigated utilitarian – through wonderful pronouncements such as “I teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves” – you can find isolated comments to twist to your liking. If you are looking for reasons to suggest that Brigham Young was a megalomaniac, self-styled dictator or enemy of constitutional government, you can find isolated quotes to prove your point. And if you seek desperately to reinvent Lord Acton as a modern-day libertarian, there are many of his ideas about the status of liberty in his day (living as a Roman Catholic minority in England) to argue that he was reincarnated as Ron Paul.

But if you are seeking truth about each of these men, you’ll find it in their resolute faith – the full context of everything they thought and did as men.

My friend claims, ironically, that I have lifted Acton out of context in using his words that liberty is “the right of doing what we ought.” But this concept of liberty was so central to Acton’s beliefs that Fears quotes those same words in his preface to Volume III:

In his essays “The Count de Montalembert” and “The Roman Question” Acton defined a distinctly Catholic concept of political authority and liberty and distinguished this sharply from the fundamental and erroneous idea underlying the modern state: “The Catholic notion, defining liberty not as the power of doing what we like, but the right of doing what we ought, denies that general interests can supersede individual rights. It condemns, therefore, the theory of the ancient as well as of the modern state.

Fears continues without a break in thought,

Acton believed that there was a philosophy of politics to be derived from a union of this true Catholic concept of liberty with the best principles of the English Constitution. His essay “Political Thoughts on the Church” represents the attempt to formulate such a Catholic theory of politics.

We have, then, three excellent references and recommendations from Fears in looking at Acton’s political philosophy. In “The Count de Montalembert,” and speaking of Catholicism, Acton writes,

It is not only an institution, but a system of ideas, in which all true principles of policy are rooted, and the guardian of that true liberty which is the privilege of Christian nations. And these ideas it is the duty of Catholics ever to proclaim; and they cannot be put to silence by the interference of police. The Church has to remind princes of their duties, and nations of their rights; and to keep alive the spirit of personal dignity and independence, without which the religious and political character of men are alike degraded. She is not less afflicted by the immorality of government than by that of individuals; and that is no position worthy of her in which she exercises no moralizing influence upon the State.

Continuing with this theme of the church’s role in public life in his essay “Political Thoughts on the Church,” Acton explains,

It was necessary not only to restore the image of God in man, but to establish the divine order in the world. Religion had to transform the public as well as the private life of nations, to effect a system of public right corresponding with private morality and without which it is imperfect and insecure. It was to exhibit and confirm its victory and to perpetuate its influence by calling into existence, not only works of private virtue, but institutions which are the product of the whole life of nations, and bear an unceasing testimony to their religious sentiments. The world, instead of being external to the Church, was to be adopted by her and imbued with her ideas.

Acton wrote frequently of “personal conscience” as a principle to hold sacred and to be protected by government and from government. Living as he did in England as a Catholic during the 19th century, he witnessed the heavy hand of government on his faith as well as a reactionary retrenchment by his church to fight against the inevitable advancement of modernity. He disdained both causes. He believed in the power of liberty to heal both church and state. But Acton’s liberty was integrated with his faith and morality.

The Christian notion of conscience imperatively demands a corresponding measure of personal liberty. The feeling of duty and responsibility to God is the only arbiter of a Christian’s actions. With this no human authority can be permitted to interfere. We are bound to extend to the utmost, and to guard from every encroachment, the sphere in which we can act in obedience to the sole voice of conscience, regardless of any other consideration. The Church cannot tolerate any species of government in which this right is not recognized.

Acton the conservative (by today’s standards) displayed authentic conservatism’s breadth and depth of ultimate objectives for life, the connectivity between religion and liberty and the transcendent nature of liberty. Unlike philosophical anarchists who believe “Libertarianism per se does not offer a comprehensive way of life or system of ethics,” Acton knew that liberty is not merely political – it is in everything. It has little to do with forms and everything to do with substance.

It is equally clear that, in insisting upon one definite principle in all government, the Church has at no time understood that it could be obtained only by particular political forms. She attends to the substance, not to the form, in politics. At various times she has successfully promoted monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy; and at various times she has been betrayed by each. The three fundamental forms of government are founded on the nature of things. Sovereignty must reside with an individual, or with a minority or with the majority. But there are circumstances where one or the other is impossible, where one or the other is necessary; and in a growing nation they cannot always remain in the same relative proportions. Christianity could neither produce nor abolish them. They are all compatible with liberty and religion, and are all liable to diverge into tyranny by the exclusive exaggeration of their principle. It is this exaggeration that has ever been the great danger to religion and to liberty, and the object of constant resistance, the source of constant suffering for the Church.

Acton’s focus on substantive liberty, not forms of political authority, is what confounds modern libertarians. It also confounds Latter-day Saints who call themselves libertarians faced with the realities of the 12th Article of Faith – for how can a free man be subject to kings? Acton understood how.

In “The Roman Question,” where Acton famously states, “Indeed, the state cannot forego the aid of religion in preserving social virtue,” he has little difficulty balancing the complementarity of religion and liberty – hardly a libertarian strong suit.

Acton was a quote machine. Nearly everyone has heard his expression “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And Acton has many quotes that can be singled out in championing personal liberty, for, once again, Acton was a Roman Catholic living in a very oppressive Protestant England. But it would be a massive misjudgment to accuse Acton of libertarianism for his defense of minority rights and “independence” in behalf of his religious liberty.

Not to belabor this argument, but to put a bow on it, Acton wrote extensively on many things, including his feelings about conservative Edmund Burke and “libertarian” Adam Smith. (I place that description of Adam Smith in quotes because he’s not here to defend himself against such accusations – and well he might.)

In a letter to Mary Gladstone, dated Dec. 27, 1880, Acton wrote of Burke,

You can hardly imagine what Burke is for all of us who think about politics, and are not wrapped in the blaze and the whirlwind of Rousseau. Systems of scientific thought have been built up by famous scholars on the fragments that fell from his table. Great literary fortunes have been made by men who traded on the hundredth part of him. Brougham and Lowe lived by the vitality of his ideas. Mackintosh and Macaulay are only Burke trimmed and stripped of all that touched the skies. Montalembert [greatly admired by Acton], borrowing a hint from Dollinger [Acton’s German mentor], says that Burke and Shakespeare were the two greatest Englishmen.

Writing that Burke was “the supreme teacher of conservatism” and “right in rejecting the [French] Revolution – [it being] an enemy to liberty” and, regarding his Speeches from 1790 to 1795, that “they are the law and the prophets,” and that he was “the most American of all English statesmen,” Acton also wrote admiringly of Burke,

Burke looked after principles but would not be ruled by them without regard to circumstances. There was room in his capacious mind for opposite principles, subject to different conditions. He would not allow general principles to be absolute and override all considerations. He examined what circumstances required one principle and what another. This is the source of apparent discrepancies. His mind was historical, not systematic. He never forsook theory, but admitted it only in solution, in combination with the facts. He studied philosophy but never showed any aptitude for abstract thought. He was rooted in the English system, but in his hands it became a philosophy. He generalized its truth…He had no system, independent of realities, and never reasoned like Spinoza, Kant, Riccardo [or] Bentham.

Those qualities Acton so honors describe authentic conservatism, not libertarianism.

Contrast that reverence with his descriptions of Adam Smith, a hero among modern libertarians,

Adam Smith’s political ideas: Essentially liberal, because [they were] directed against despotic state. But not ultimately liberal, for it teaches only what makes a country rich. That wealth must be sacrificed to liberty, that the moral purpose of liberty is superior to the material purpose of wealth, he cannot admit. He would be glad of an absolute government like Turgot, a liberal and intelligent minister of absolute monarchy, strong enough to overcome prejudices and interests in the way, rather than one which presented no guarantee for wealth except liberty.

Adam Smith disregarded actual facts – history – and made his science universal, general, abstract. Yet he was not thinking of man in general, but of men as he saw them, as circumstances that made them. He shared the common idea of Liberalism: Disinterested state; No care for religion, morality, education, poor relief, health; Laissez-faire. We have been correcting this extreme ever since then. (emphasis added)

My friend grasps at straws to convince himself and justify spending so much time defending the idea that any person of true faith can really be a doctrinaire libertarian. It cannot be. The two beliefs are incompatible, whether you are the Roman Catholic Lord Acton or the LDS prophet Joseph Smith. An honest intellect and person of faith cannot isolate liberty as something merely political when the essence of liberty is eternal and part and parcel of what it means to be a human being.

Authentic conservatism is the basis for political philosophy among champions of freedom precisely because it permits people of faith to integrate the temporal and the eternal, the moment with the distant and the past with the future. It is the embodiment of reality through a lens of humanity – of basing freedom on what it means to be a human being. But I’ll let Lord Acton make my case,

The moral foundation of political economy is not the satisfaction of appetite, but the fulfillment of duties. Labor, patience, justice, peace and self-denial are the mainsprings of economical production, and the metaphysical basis of the science is not in a philosophy which reduces religion and science to mere satisfaction of an appetite, like eating or drinking, but in the verification of the promise, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His justice and all these things” – the necessaries of life – “shall be added unto you.”