THE HISTORY OF FREEDOM AND OTHER ESSAYS
MACMILLAN AND CO., Limited
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THE MACMILLAN CO. OF CANADA LTD.
HISTORY OF FREEDOM
AND OTHER ESSAYS
JOHN EMERICH EDWARD DALBERG-ACTON
FIRST BARON ACTON
D.C.L., L.L.D., ETC. ETC. REGIUS PROFESSOR OF MODERN HISTORY IN THE UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE
EDITED WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY JOHN NEVILLE FIGGIS, Litt.D.
SOMETIME LECTURER IN ST. CATHARINE'S COLLEGE, CAMBRIDGE
REGINALD VERE LAURENCE, M.A.
FELLOW AND LECTURER OF TRINITY COLLEGE, CAMBRIDGE
MACMILLAN AND CO., LIMITED
ST. MARTIN'S STREET, LONDON
First Edition 1907
The Editors desire to thank the members of the Acton family for their help and advice during the preparation of this volume and of the volume of Historical Essays and Studies. They have had the advantage of access to many of Acton's letters, especially those to Doellinger and Lady Blennerhasset. They have thus been provided with valuable material for the Introduction. At the same time they wish to take the entire responsibility for the opinions expressed therein. They are again indebted to Professor Henry Jackson for valuable suggestions.
This volume consists of articles reprinted from the following journals: The Quarterly Review, The English Historical Review, The Nineteenth Century, The Rambler, The Home and Foreign Review, The North British Review, The Bridgnorth Journal. The Editors have to thank Mr. John Murray, Messrs. Longmans, Kegan Paul, Williams and Norgate, and the proprietors of The Bridgnorth Journal for their kind permission to republish these articles, and also the Delegacy of the Clarendon Press for allowing the reprint of the Introduction to Mr. Burd's edition of Il Principe. They desire to point out that in Lord Acton and his Circle the article on "The Protestant Theory of Persecution" is attributed to Simpson: this is an error.
August 24, 1907.
PAGE PORTRAIT OF LORD ACTON Frontispiece
I. THE HISTORY OF FREEDOM IN ANTIQUITY 1
II. THE HISTORY OF FREEDOM IN CHRISTIANITY 30
III. SIR ERSKINE MAY'S DEMOCRACY IN EUROPE 61
IV. THE MASSACRE OF ST. BARTHOLOMEW 101
V. THE PROTESTANT THEORY OF PERSECUTION 150
VI. POLITICAL THOUGHTS ON THE CHURCH 188
VII. INTRODUCTION TO L.A. BURD'S EDITION OF IL PRINCIPE BY MACHIAVELLI 212
VIII. MR. GOLDWIN SMITH'S IRISH HISTORY 232
IX. NATIONALITY 270
X. DOeLLINGER ON THE TEMPORAL POWER 301
XI. DOeLLINGER'S HISTORICAL WORK 375
XII. CARDINAL WISEMAN AND THE HOME AND FOREIGN REVIEW 436
XIII. CONFLICTS WITH ROME 461
XIV. THE VATICAN COUNCIL 492
XV. A HISTORY OF THE INQUISITION OF THE MIDDLE AGES. BY HENRY CHARLES LEA 551
XVI. THE AMERICAN COMMONWEALTH. BY JAMES BRYCE 575
XVII. HISTORICAL PHILOSOPHY IN FRANCE AND FRENCH BELGIUM AND SWITZERLAND. BY ROBERT FLINT 588
JOHN EMERICH EDWARD DALBERG-ACTON, born at Naples, 10th January 1834, son of Sir Ferdinand Richard Edward Dalberg-Acton and Marie de Dalberg, afterwards Countess Granville. French school near Paris. 1843-1848. Student at Oscott " " Edinburgh. 1848-1854. " " Munich University, living with Doellinger. 1855. Visits America in company with Lord Ellesmere. 1858-1862. Becomes editor of The Rambler. 1859-1865. M.P. for Carlow. 1862-1864. Founds, edits, and concludes The Home and Foreign Review. 1864. Pius IX. issued Quanta Cura, with appended Syllabus Errorum. 1865-1866. M.P. for Bridgnorth 1865. Marries Countess Marie Arco-Valley. 1867-1868. Writes for The Chronicle. 1869. Created Baron Acton. 1869-1871. Writes for North British Review. 1869-1870. Vatican Council. Acton at Rome. Writes "Letters of Quirinus" in alleging Zeitung. 1872. Honorary degree at Munich. 1874. Letters to The Times on "The Vatican Decrees." 1888. Honorary degree at Cambridge. 1889. " " Oxford. 1890. Honorary Fellow of All Souls'. 1892-1895. Lord-in-Waiting. 1895-1902. Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge Honorary Fellow of Trinity College. 19th June 1902. Died at Tegernsee.
The two volumes here published contain but a small selection from the numerous writings of Acton on a variety of topics, which are to be found scattered through many periodicals of the last half-century. The result here displayed is therefore not complete. A further selection of nearly equal quantity might be made, and still much that is valuable in Acton's work would remain buried. Here, for instance, we have extracted nothing from the Chronicle; and Acton's gifts as a leader-writer remain without illustration. Yet they were remarkable. Rarely did he show to better advantage than in the articles and reviews he wrote in that short-lived rival of the Saturday Review. From the two bound volumes of that single weekly, there might be made a selection which would be of high interest to all who cared to learn what was passing in the minds of the most acute and enlightened members of the Roman Communion at one of the most critical epochs in the history of the papacy. But what could never be reproduced is the general impression of Acton's many contributions to the Rambler, the Home and Foreign, and the North British Review. Perhaps none of his longer and more ceremonious writings can give to the reader so vivid a sense at once of the range of Acton's erudition and the strength of his critical faculty as does the perusal of these short notices. Any one who wished to understand the personality of Acton could not do better than take the published Bibliography and read a few of the articles on "contemporary literature" furnished by him to the three Reviews. In no other way could the reader so clearly realise the complexity of his mind or the vast number of subjects which he could touch with the hand of a master. In a single number there are twenty-eight such notices. His writing before he was thirty years of age shows an intimate and detailed knowledge of documents and authorities which with most students is the "hard won and hardly won" achievement of a lifetime of labour. He always writes as the student, never as the litterateur. Even the memorable phrases which give point to his briefest articles are judicial, not journalistic. Yet he treats of matters which range from the dawn of history through the ancient empires down to subjects so essentially modern as the vast literature of revolutionary France or the leaders of the romantic movement which replaced it. In all these writings of Acton those qualities manifest themselves, which only grew stronger with time, and gave him a distinct and unique place among his contemporaries. Here is the same austere love of truth, the same resolve to dig to the bed-rock of fact, and to exhaust all sources of possible illumination, the same breadth of view and intensity of inquiring ardour, which stimulated his studies and limited his productive power. Above all, there is the same unwavering faith in principles, as affording the only criterion of judgment amid the ever-fluctuating welter of human passions, political manoeuvring, and ecclesiastical intrigue. But this is not all. We note the same value for great books as the source of wisdom, combined with the same enthusiasm for immediate justice which made Acton the despair of the mere academic student, an enigma among men of the world, and a stumbling-block to the politician of the clubs. Beyond this, we find that certainty and decision of judgment, that crisp concentration of phrase, that grave and deliberate irony and that mastery of subtlety, allusion, and wit, which make his interpretation an adventure and his judgment a sword.
A few instances may be given. In criticising a professor of history famous in every way rather than as a student, Acton says, "his Lectures are indeed not entirely unhistorical, for he has borrowed quite discriminatingly from Tocqueville." Of another writer he says that "ideas, if they occur to him, he rejects like temptations to sin." Of Ranke, thinking perhaps also of himself, he declares that "his intimate knowledge of all the contemporary history of Europe is a merit not suited to his insular readers." Of a partisan French writer under Louis Napoleon he says that "he will have a fair grievance if he fails to obtain from a discriminating government some acknowledgment of the services which mere historical science will find it hard to appreciate." Of Laurent he says, that "sometimes it even happens that his information is not second-hand, and there are some original authorities with which he is evidently familiar. The ardour of his opinions, so different from those which have usually distorted history, gives an interest even to his grossest errors. Mr. Buckle, if he had been able to distinguish a good book from a bad one, would have been a tolerable imitation of M. Laurent." Perhaps, however, the most characteristic of these forgotten judgments is the description of Lord Liverpool and the class which supported him. Not even Disraeli painting the leader of that party which he was destined so strangely to "educate" could equal the austere and accurate irony with which Acton, writing as a student, not as a novelist, sums up the characteristics of the class of his birth.
Lord Liverpool governed England in the greatest crisis of the war, and for twelve troubled years of peace, chosen not by the nation, but by the owners of the land. The English gentry were well content with an order of things by which for a century and a quarter they had enjoyed so much prosperity and power. Desiring no change they wished for no ideas. They sympathised with the complacent respectability of Lord Liverpool's character, and knew how to value the safe sterility of his mind. He distanced statesmen like Grenville, Wellesley, and Canning, not in spite of his inferiority, but by reason of it. His mediocrity was his merit. The secret of his policy was that he had none. For six years his administration outdid the Holy Alliance. For five years it led the liberal movement throughout the world. The Prime Minister hardly knew the difference. He it was who forced Canning on the King. In the same spirit he wished his government to include men who were in favour of the Catholic claims and men who were opposed to them. His career exemplifies, not the accidental combination but the natural affinity, between the love of conservatism and the fear of ideas.
The longer essays republished in these volumes exhibit in most of its characteristics a personality which even those who disagreed with his views must allow to have been one of the most remarkable products of European culture in the nineteenth century. They will show in some degree how Acton's mind developed in the three chief periods of his activity, something of the influences which moulded it, a great deal of its preferences and its antipathies, and nearly all its directing ideals. During the first period—roughly to be dated from 1855 to 1863—he was hopefully striving, under the influence of Doellinger (his teacher from the age of seventeen), to educate his co-religionists in breadth and sympathy, and to place before his countrymen ideals of right in politics, which were to him bound up with the Catholic faith. The combination of scientific inquiry with true rules of political justice he claimed, in a letter to Doellinger, as the aim of the Home and Foreign Review. The result is to be seen in a quarterly, forgotten, like all such quarterlies to-day, but far surpassing, alike in knowledge, range, and certainty, any of the other quarterlies, political, or ecclesiastical, or specialist, which the nineteenth century produced. There is indeed no general periodical which comes near to it for thoroughness of erudition and strength of thought, if not for brilliance and ease; while it touches on topics contemporary and political in a way impossible to any specialist journal. A comparison with the British Critic in the religious sphere, with the Edinburgh in the political, will show how in all the weightier matters of learning and thought, the Home and Foreign (indeed the Rambler) was their superior, while it displayed a cosmopolitan interest foreign to most English journals.
We need not recapitulate the story so admirably told already by Doctor Gasquet of the beginning and end of the various journalistic enterprises with which Acton was connected. So far as he was concerned, however, the time may be regarded as that of youth and hope.
Next came what must be termed the "fighting period," when he stood forth as the leader among laymen of the party opposed to that "insolent and aggressive faction" which achieved its imagined triumph at the Vatican Council. This period, which may perhaps be dated from the issue of the Syllabus by Pius IX. in 1864, may be considered to close with the reply to Mr. Gladstone's pamphlet on "The Vatican Decrees," and with the attempt of the famous Cardinal, in whose mind history was identified with heresy, to drive from the Roman communion its most illustrious English layman. Part of this story tells itself in the letters published by the Abbot Gasquet; and more will be known when those to Doellinger are given to the world.
We may date the third period of Acton's life from the failure of Manning's attempt, or indeed a little earlier. He had now given up all attempt to contend against the dominant influence of the Court of Rome, though feeling that loyalty to the Church of his Baptism, as a living body, was independent of the disastrous policy of its hierarchy. During this time he was occupied with the great unrealised project of the history of liberty or in movements of English politics and in the usual avocations of a student. In the earlier part of this period are to be placed some of the best things that Acton ever wrote, such as the lectures on Liberty, here republished. It is characterised by his discovery in the "eighties" that Doellinger and he were divided on the question of the severity of condemnation to be passed on persecutors and their approvers. Acton found to his dismay that Doellinger (like Creighton) was willing to accept pleas in arrest of judgment or at least mitigation of sentence, which the layman's sterner code repudiated. Finding that he had misunderstood his master, Acton was for a time profoundly discouraged, declared himself isolated, and surrendered the outlook of literary work as vain. He found, in fact, that in ecclesiastical as in general politics he was alone, however much he might sympathise with others up to a certain point. On the other hand, these years witnessed a gradual mellowing of his judgment in regard to the prospects of the Church, and its capacity to absorb and interpret in a harmless sense the dogma against whose promulgation he had fought so eagerly. It might also be correct to say that the English element in Acton came out most strongly in this period, closing as it did with the Cambridge Professorship, and including the development of the friendship between himself and Mr. Gladstone.
We have spoken both of the English element in Acton and of his European importance. This is the only way in which it is possible to present or understand him. There were in him strains of many races. On his father's side he was an English country squire, but foreign residence and the Neapolitan Court had largely affected the family, in addition to that flavour of cosmopolitan culture which belongs to the more highly placed Englishmen of the Roman Communion. On his mother's side he was a member of one of the oldest and greatest families in Germany, which was only not princely. The Dalbergs, moreover, had intermarried with an Italian family, the Brignoli. Trained first at Oscott under Wiseman, and afterwards at Munich under Doellinger, in whose house he lived, Acton by education as well as birth was a cosmopolitan, while his marriage with the family of Arco-Valley introduced a further strain of Bavarian influence into his life. His mother's second marriage with Lord Granville brought him into connection with the dominant influences of the great Whig Houses. For a brief period, like many another county magnate, he was a member of the House of Commons, but he never became accustomed to its atmosphere. For a longer time he lived at his house in Shropshire, and was a stately and sympathetic host, though without much taste for the avocations of country life. His English birth and Whig surroundings were largely responsible for that intense constitutionalism, which was to him a religion, and in regard both to ecclesiastical and civil politics formed his guiding criterion. This explains his detestation of all forms of absolutism on the one hand, and what he always called "the revolution" on the other.
It was not, however, the English strain that was most obvious in Acton, but the German. It was natural that he should become fired under Doellinger's influence with the ideals of continental scholarship and exact and minute investigation. He had a good deal of the massive solidity of the German intellect. He liked, as in the "Letter to a German Bishop," to make his judgment appear as the culmination of so much weighty evidence, that it seemed to speak for itself. He had, too, a little of the German habit of breaking a butterfly upon a wheel, and at times he makes reading difficult by a more than Teutonic allusiveness. It was not easy for Acton to bear in mind that the public is often ignorant of even the names of distinguished scholars, and that "a European reputation" is sometimes confined to the readers of specialist publications.
The Italian strain in Acton is apparent in another quality, which is perhaps his one point of kinship with Machiavelli, the absence of hesitation from his thought, and of mystery from his writing. Subtle and ironic as his style is, charged with allusion and weighted with passion, it is yet entirely devoid both of German sentiment and English vagueness. There was no haze in his mind. He judges, but does not paint pictures. It may have been this absence of half-tones in his vein of thought, and of chiaroscuro in his imagination that made Manning, an intelligent however hostile critic, speak of "the ruthless talk of undergraduates."
But however much or little be allowed to the diverse strains of hereditary influence or outward circumstances, the interest of Acton to the student lies in his intense individuality. That austerity of moral judgment, that sense of the greatness of human affairs, and of the vast issues that lie in action and in thought, was no product of outside influences, and went beyond what he had learnt from his master Doellinger. To treat politics as a game, to play with truth or make it subservient to any cause other than itself, to take trivial views, was to Acton as deep a crime as to waste in pleasure or futility the hours so brief given for salvation of the soul would have seemed to Baxter or Bunyan; indeed, there was an element of Puritan severity in his attitude towards statesmen both ecclesiastical and civil. He was no "light half-believer of a casual creed," but had a sense of reality more like Dante than many moderns.
This, perhaps, it was that drew him ever closer to Mr. Gladstone, while it made the House of Commons and the daily doings of politicians uncongenial. There is no doubt that he had learned too well "the secret of intellectual detachment." Early in his life his shrewd and kindly stepfather had pointed out to him the danger of losing influence by a too unrestrained desire to escape worshipping the idols of the marketplace. There are, it is true, not wanting signs that his view of the true relations of States and Churches may become one day more dominant, for it appears as though once more the earlier Middle Ages will be justified, and religious bodies become the guardians of freedom, even in the political sphere. Still, a successful career in public life could hardly be predicted for one who felt at the beginning that "I agree with nobody, and nobody agrees with me," and towards the close admitted that he "never had any contemporaries." On the other hand, it may be questioned whether, in the chief of his self-imposed tasks, he failed so greatly as at first appeared. If he did not prevent "infallibility" being decreed, the action of the party of Strossmayer and Hefele assuredly prevented the form of the decree being so dangerous as they at first feared. We can only hazard a guess that the mild and minimising terms of the dogma, especially as they have since been interpreted, were in reality no triumph to Veuillot and the Jesuits. In later life Acton seems to have felt that they need not have the dangerous consequences, both in regard to historical judgments or political principles, which he had feared from the registered victory of ultramontane reaction. However this may be, Acton's whole career is evidence of his detachment of mind, and entire independence even of his closest associates. It was a matter to him not of taste but of principle. What mainly marked him out among men was the intense reality of his faith. This gave to all his studies their practical tone. He had none of the pedant's contempt for ordinary life, none of the aesthete's contempt for action as a "little vulgar," and no desire to make of intellectual pursuits an end in themselves. His scholarship was to him as practical as his politics, and his politics as ethical as his faith. Thus his whole life was a unity. All his various interests were inspired by one unconquered resolve, the aim of securing universally, alike in Church and in State, the recognition of the paramountcy of principles over interests, of liberty over tyranny, of truth over all forms of evasion or equivocation. His ideal in the political world was, as he said, that of securing suum cuique to every individual or association of human life, and to prevent any institution, however holy its aims, acquiring more.
To understand the ardour of his efforts it is necessary to bear in mind the world into which he was born, and the crises intellectual, religious, and political which he lived to witness and sometimes to influence. Born in the early days of the July monarchy, when reform in England was a novelty, and Catholic freedom a late-won boon, Acton as he grew to manhood in Munich and in England had presented to his regard a series of scenes well calculated to arouse a thoughtful mind to consideration of the deepest problems, both of politics and religion. What must have been the "long, long thoughts" of a youth, naturally reflective and acutely observant, as he witnessed the break-up of the old order in '48 and the years that followed. In the most impressionable age of life he was driven to contemplate a Europe in solution; the crash of the kingdoms; the Pope a Liberal, an exile, and a reactionary; the principle of nationality claiming to supersede all vested rights, and to absorb and complete the work of '89; even socialism for once striving to reduce theory to practice, till there came the "saviour of society" with the coup d'etat and a new era of authority and despotism. This was the outward aspect. In the world of thought he looked upon a period of moral and intellectual anarchy. Philosopher had succeeded philosopher, critic had followed critic, Strauss and Baur were names to conjure with, and Hegel was still unforgotten in the land of his birth. Materialistic science was in the very heyday of its parvenu and tawdry intolerance, and historical knowledge in the splendid dawn of that new world of knowledge, of which Ranke was the Columbus. Everywhere faith was shaken, and except for a few resolute and unconquered spirits, it seemed as though its defence were left to a class of men who thought the only refuge of religion was in obscurity, the sole bulwark of order was tyranny, and the one support of eternal truth plausible and convenient fiction. What wonder then that the pupil of Doellinger should exhaust the intellectual and moral energies of a lifetime, in preaching to those who direct the affairs of men the paramount supremacy of principle. The course of the plebiscitary Empire, and that gradual campaign in the United States by which the will of the majority became identified with that necessity which knows no law, contributed further to educate his sense of right in politics, and to augment the distrust of power natural to a pupil of the great Whigs, of Burke, of Montesquieu, of Madame de Stael. On the other hand, as a pupil of Doellinger, his religious faith was deeper than could be touched by the recognition of facts, of which too many were notorious to make it even good policy to deny the rest; and he demanded with passion that history should set the follies and the crimes of ecclesiastical authority in no better light than those of civil.
We cannot understand Acton aright, if we do not remember that he was an English Roman Catholic, to whom the penal laws and the exploitation of Ireland were a burning injustice. They were in his view as foul a blot on the Protestant establishment and the Whig aristocracy as was the St. Bartholomew's medal on the memory of Gregory XIII., or the murder of the duc d'Enghien on the genius of Napoleon, or the burning of Servetus on the sanctity of Calvin, or the permission of bigamy on the character of Luther, or the September Massacres on Danton.
Two other tendencies dominant in Germany—tendencies which had and have a great power in the minds of scholars, yet to Acton, both as a Christian and a man, seemed corrupting—compelled him to a search for principles which might deliver him from slavery alike to traditions and to fashion, from the historian's vice of condoning whatever has got itself allowed to exist, and from the politician's habit of mere opportunist acquiescence in popular standards.
First of these is the famous maxim of Schiller, Die Welt-Geschichte ist das Welt-Gericht, which, as commonly interpreted, definitely identifies success with right, and is based, consciously or unconsciously, on a pantheistic philosophy. This tendency, especially when envisaged by an age passing through revolutionary nationalism back to Machiavelli's ideals and Realpolitik, is clearly subversive of any system of public law or morality, and indeed is generally recognised as such nowadays even by its adherents.
The second tendency against which Acton's moral sense revolted, had arisen out of the laudable determination of historians to be sympathetic towards men of distant ages and of alien modes of thought. With the romantic movement the early nineteenth century placed a check upon the habit of despising mediaeval ideals, which had been increasing from the days of the Renaissance and had culminated in Voltaire. Instead of this, there arose a sentiment of admiration for the past, while the general growth of historical methods of thinking supplied a sense of the relativity of moral principles, and led to a desire to condone if not to commend the crimes of other ages. It became almost a trick of style to talk of judging men by the standard of their day and to allege the spirit of the age in excuse for the Albigensian Crusade or the burning of Hus. Acton felt that this was to destroy the very bases of moral judgment and to open the way to a boundless scepticism. Anxious as he was to uphold the doctrine of growth in theology, he allowed nothing for it in the realm of morals, at any rate in the Christian era, since the thirteenth century. He demanded a code of moral judgment independent of place and time, and not merely relative to a particular civilisation. He also demanded that it should be independent of religion. His reverence for scholars knew no limits of creed or church, and he desired some body of rules which all might recognise, independently of such historical phenomena as religious institutions. At a time when such varied and contradictory opinions, both within and without the limits of Christian belief, were supported by some of the most powerful minds and distinguished investigators, it seemed idle to look for any basis of agreement beyond some simple moral principles. But he thought that all men might agree in admitting the sanctity of human life and judging accordingly every man or system which needlessly sacrificed it. It is this preaching in season and out of season against the reality of wickedness, and against every interference with the conscience, that is the real inspiration both of Acton's life and of his writings.
It is related of Frederick Robertson of Brighton, that during one of his periods of intellectual perplexity he found that the only rope to hold fast by was the conviction, "it must be right to do right." The whole of Lord Acton's career might be summed up in a counterphrase, "it must be wrong to do wrong." It was this conviction, universally and unwaveringly applied, and combined with an unalterable faith in Christ, which gave unity to all his efforts, sustained him in his struggle with ecclesiastical authority, accounted for all his sympathies, and accentuated his antipathies, while it at once expanded and limited his interests. It is this that made his personality so much greater a gift to the world than any book which he might have written—had he cared less for the end and more for the process of historical knowledge.
He was interested in knowledge—that it might diminish prejudice and break down barriers. To a world in which the very bases of civilisation seemed to be dissolving he preached the need of directing ideals.
Artistic interests were not strong in him, and the decadent pursuit of culture as a mere luxury had no stronger enemy. Intellectual activity, apart from moral purpose, was anathema to Acton. He has been censured for bidding the student of his hundred best books to steel his mind against the charm of literary beauty and style. Yet he was right. His list of books was expressly framed to be a guide, not a pleasure; it was intended to supply the place of University direction to those who could not afford a college life, and it throws light upon the various strands that mingled in Acton and the historical, scientific, and political influences which formed his mind. He felt the danger that lurks in the charm of literary beauty and style, for he had both as a writer and a reader a strong taste for rhetoric, and he knew how young minds are apt to be enchained rather by the persuasive spell of the manner than the living thought beneath it. Above all, he detested the modern journalistic craze for novelty, and despised the shallowness which rates cleverness above wisdom.
In the same way his eulogy of George Eliot has been censured far more than it has been understood. It was not as an artist superior to all others that he praised the author of Daniel Deronda and the translator of Strauss. It was because she supplied in her own person the solution of the problem nearest to his heart, and redeemed (so far as teaching went) infidelity in religion from immorality in ethics. It was, above all, as a constructive teacher of morals that he admired George Eliot, who might, in his view, save a daily increasing scepticism from its worst dangers, and preserve morals which a future age of faith might once more inspire with religious ideals. Here was a writer at the summit of modern culture, saturated with materialistic science, a convinced and unchanging atheist, who, in spite of this, proclaimed in all her work that moral law is binding, and upheld a code of ethics, Christian in content, though not in foundation.
In the same way his admiration for Mr. Gladstone is to be explained. It was not his successes so much as his failures that attracted Acton, and above all, his refusal to admit that nations, in their dealings with one another, are subject to no law but that of greed. Doubtless one who gave himself no credit for practical aptitude in public affairs, admired a man who had gifts that were not his own. But what Acton most admired was what many condemned. It was because he was not like Lord Palmerston, because Bismarck disliked him, because he gave back the Transvaal to the Boers, and tried to restore Ireland to its people, because his love of liberty never weaned him from loyalty to the Crown, and his politics were part of his religion, that Acton used of Gladstone language rarely used, and still more rarely applicable, to any statesman. For this very reason—his belief that political differences do, while religious differences do not, imply a different morality—he censured so severely the generous eulogy of Disraeli, just as in Doellinger's case he blamed the praise of Dupanloup. For Acton was intolerant of all leniency towards methods and individuals whom he thought immoral. He could give quarter to the infidel more easily than to the Jesuit.
We may, of course, deny that Acton was right. But few intelligent observers can dispute the accuracy of his diagnosis, or deny that more than anything else the disease of Western civilisation is a general lack of directing ideals other than those which are included in the gospel of commercialism. It may surely be further admitted that even intellectual activity has too much of triviality about it to-day; that if people despise the schoolmen, it is rather owing to their virtues than their defects, because impressionism has taken the place of thought, and brilliancy that of labour. On the other hand, Acton's dream of ethical agreement, apart from religion, seems further off from realisation than ever.
Acton, however, wrote for a world which breathed in the atmosphere created by Kant. His position was something as follows: After the discovery of facts, a matter of honesty and industry independent of any opinions, history needs a criterion of judgment by which it may appraise men's actions. This criterion cannot be afforded by religion, for religion is one part of the historic process of which we are tracing the flow. The principles on which all can combine are the inviolable sanctity of human life, and the unalterable principle of even justice and toleration. Wherever these are violated our course is clear. Neither custom nor convenience, neither distance of time nor difference of culture may excuse or even limit our condemnation. Murder is always murder, whether it be committed by populace or patricians, by councils or kings or popes. Had they had their dues, Paolo Sarpi would have been in Newgate and George I. would have died at Tyburn.
The unbending severity of his judgment, which is sometimes carried to an excess almost ludicrous, is further explained by another element in his experience. In his letters to Doellinger and others he more than once relates how in early life he had sought guidance in the difficult historical and ethical questions which beset the history of the papacy from many of the most eminent ultramontanes. Later on he was able to test their answers in the light of his constant study of original authorities and his careful investigation of archives. He found that the answers given him had been at the best but plausible evasions. The letters make it clear that the harshness with which Acton always regarded ultramontanes was due to that bitter feeling which arises in any reflecting mind on the discovery that it has been put off with explanations that did not explain, or left in ignorance of material facts.
Liberalism, we must remember, was a religion to Acton—i.e. liberalism as he understood it, by no means always what goes by the name. His conviction that ultramontane theories lead to immoral politics prompted his ecclesiastical antipathies. His anger was aroused, not by any feeling that Papal infallibility was a theological error, but by the belief that it enshrined in the Church monarchical autocracy, which could never maintain itself apart from crime committed or condoned. It was not intellectual error but moral obliquity that was to him here, as everywhere, the enemy. He could tolerate unbelief, he could not tolerate sin. Machiavelli represented to him the worst of political principles, because in the name of the public weal he destroyed the individual's conscience. Yet he left a loophole in private life for religion, and a sinning statesman might one day become converted. But when the same principles are applied, as they have been applied by the Jesuit organisers of ultramontane reaction (also on occasion by Protestants), ad majorem dei gloriam, it is clear that the soul is corrupted at its highest point, and the very means of serving God are made the occasion of denying him. Because for Acton there was no comparison between goodness and knowledge, and because life was to him more than thought, because the passion of his life was to secure for all souls the freedom to live as God would have them live, he hated in the Church the politics of ultramontanism, and in the State the principles of Machiavelli. In the same way he denied the legitimacy of every form of government, every economic wrong, every party creed, which sacrificed to the pleasures or the safety of the few the righteousness and salvation of the many. His one belief was the right of every man not to have, but to be, his best.
This fact gives the key to what seems to many an unsolved contradiction, that the man who said what he did say and fought as he had fought should yet declare in private that it had never occurred to him to doubt any single dogma of his Church, and assert in public that communion with it was "dearer than life itself" Yet all the evidence both of his writings and his most intimate associates confirms this view. His opposition to the doctrine of infallibility was ethical and political rather than theological. As he wrote to Doellinger, the evil lay deeper, and Vaticanism was but the last triumph of a policy that was centuries old. Unless he were turned out of her he would see no more reason to leave the Church of his baptism on account of the Vatican Decrees than on account of those of the Lateran Council. To the dogma of the Immaculate Conception he had no hostility. And could not understand Doellinger's condemnation of it, or reconcile it with his previous utterances. He had great sympathy with the position of Liberal High Anglicans; but there is not the slightest reason to suppose that he ever desired to join the English Church. Even with the old Catholic movement he had no sympathy, and dissuaded his friends from joining it. All forms of Gallicanism were distasteful to Acton, and he looked to the future for the victory of his ideas. His position in the Roman Church symbolises in an acute form what may be called the soul's tragedy of the whole nineteenth century, but Acton had not the smallest inclination to follow either Gavazzi or Lamennais. It was, in truth, the unwavering loyalty of his churchmanship and his far-reaching historical sense that enabled him to attack with such vehemence evils which he believed to be accidental and temporary, even though they might have endured for a millennium. Long searching of the vista of history preserved Acton from the common danger of confusing the eternal with what is merely lengthy. To such a mind as his, it no more occurred to leave the Church because he disapproved some of its official procedure, than it would to an Englishman to surrender his nationality when his political opponents came into office. He distinguished, as he said Froschammer ought to have done, between the authorities and the authority of the Church. He had a strong belief in the doctrine of development, and felt that it would prove impossible in the long run to bind the Christian community to any explanation of the faith which should have a non-Christian or immoral tendency. He left it to time and the common conscience to clear the dogma from association with dangerous political tendencies, for his loyalty to the institution was too deep to be affected by his dislike of the Camarilla in power. He not only did not desire to leave the Church, but took pains to make his confession and receive absolution immediately after his letters appeared in the Times. It must also be stated that so far from approving Mr. Gladstone's attack on Vaticanism, he did his utmost to prevent its publication, which he regarded as neither fair nor wise.
It is true that Acton's whole tendency was individualistic, and his inner respect for mere authority apart from knowledge and judgment was doubtless small. But here we must remember what he said once of the political sphere—that neither liberty nor authority is conceivable except in an ordered society, and that they are both relative to conditions remote alike from anarchy and tyranny. Doubtless he leaned away from those in power, and probably felt of Manning as strongly as the latter wrote of him. Yet his individualism was always active within the religious society, and never contemplated itself as outside. He showed no sympathy for any form of Protestantism, except the purely political side of the Independents and other sects which have promoted liberty of conscience.
Acton's position as a churchman is made clearer by a view of his politics. At once an admirer and an adviser of Mr. Gladstone, he probably helped more than any other single friend to make his leader a Home Ruler. Yet he was anything but a modern Radical: for liberty was his goddess, not equality, and he dreaded any single power in a State, whether it was the King, or Parliament, or People. Neither popes nor princes, not even Protestant persecutors, did Acton condemn more deeply than the crimes of majorities and the fury of uncontrolled democracy. It was not the rule of one or many that was his ideal, but a balance of powers that might preserve freedom and keep every kind of authority subject to law. For, as he said, "liberty is not a means to a higher end, it is itself the highest political end." His preference was, therefore, not for any sovereign one or number, such as formed the ideal of Rousseau or the absolutists; but for a monarchy of the English type, with due representation to the aristocratic and propertied classes, as well as adequate power to the people. He did not believe in the doctrine of numbers, and had no sympathy with the cry Vox populi Vox Dei; on the other hand, he felt strongly that the stake in the country argument really applied with fullest force to the poor, for while political error means mere discomfort to the rich, it means to the poor the loss of all that makes life noble and even of life itself. As he said in one of his already published letters:—
The men who pay wages ought not to be the political masters of those who earn them, for laws should be adapted to those who have the heaviest stake in the country, for whom misgovernment means not mortified pride or stinted luxury, but want and pain and degradation, and risk to their own lives and to their children's souls.
While he felt the dangers of Rousseau's doctrine of equality, declaring that in the end it would be destructive alike of liberty and religion, he was yet strongly imbued with the need of reconciling some of the socialists' ideals with the regard due to the principles which he respected. He was anxious to promote the study of Roscher and the historical economists, and he seems to have thought that by their means some solution of the great economic evils of the modern world might be found, which should avoid injustice either to the capitalist or the wage-earner. He had a burning hatred of injustice and tyranny, which made him anxious to see the horrors of the modern proletariat system mitigated and destroyed; but combined with this there was a very deep sense of the need of acting on principles universally valid, and a distrust of any merely emotional enthusiasm which might, in the future, create more evils than it cured. Acton was, in truth, the incarnation of the "spirit of Whiggism," although in a very different sense of the phrase from that in which it became the target for the arrows of Disraeli's scorn and his mockery of the Venetian constitution. He was not the Conservative Whig of the "glorious revolution," for to him the memory of William of Orange might be immortal but was certainly not pious: yet it was "revolution principles" of which he said that they were the great gift of England to the world. By this he meant the real principles by which the events of 1688 could be philosophically justified, when purged of all their vulgar and interested associations, raised above their connection with a territorial oligarchy, and based on reasoned and universal ideals. Acton's liberalism was above all things historical, and rested on a consciousness of the past. He knew very well that the roots of modern constitutionalism were mediaeval, and declared that it was the stolid conservatism of the English character, which had alone enabled it to preserve what other nations had lost in the passion for autocracy that characterised the men of the Renaissance and the Reformation. Constitutional government was for him the sole eternal truth in politics, the rare but the only guardian of freedom. He loved to trace the growth of the principle of power limiting itself and law triumphant alike over king, aristocracies, and majorities; and to show how it arose out of the cruel conflicts of the religious wars and rested upon the achievements of Constance and the efforts of Basle, and how it was influenced in expression by the thinkers of the ancient world and the theologians of the modern, by the politics of Aristotle, by the maxims of Ulpian and of Gaius, by the theology of St. Thomas and Ockham, and even by Suarez and Molina.
What Acton feared and hated was the claim of absolutism to crush the individuality and destroy the conscience of men. It was indifferent to him whether this claim was exercised by Church or State, by Pope or Council, or King or Parliament. He felt, however, that it was more dangerous because more absorbing when exercised in religious matters, and thus condemned the Protestant theory more deeply than the Catholic permission of persecution. He also felt that monarchy was more easily checked than pure democracy, and that the risk of tyranny was greater in the latter.
Provided that freedom was left to men to do their duty, Acton was not greatly careful of mere rights. He had no belief in the natural equality of men, and no dislike of the subordination of classes on the score of birth. His ideal of freedom as of the Church was in some respects that of the earlier Middle Ages. He did not object to serfdom, provided that it safeguarded the elementary rights of the serf to serve God as well as man. In the great struggle in America, he had no sympathy with the North, which seemed to him to make majority rule the only measure of right: and he wrote, if not in favour, at least in palliation, of slavery. It may be doubted how far he would have used the same language in later life, but his reasons were in accord with all his general views. Slavery might be rendered harmless by the State, and some form of compulsion might be the only way of dealing with child-races, indeed, it might be merely a form of education no more morally blameworthy than the legal disabilities of minors. But the absolute state recognising no limits but its own will, and bound by no rule either of human or Divine law, appeared to him definitely immoral.
Acton's political conscience was also very broad on the side technically called moral. No one had higher ideals of purity. Yet he had little desire to pry into the private morality of kings or politicians. It was by the presence or absence of political principles that he judged them. He would have condemned Pope Paul the Fourth more than Rodrigo Borgia, and the inventor of the "dragonnades" more than his great-grandson. He did not view personal morality as relevant to political judgment.
In this, if in nothing else, he agreed with Creighton. His correspondence with the latter throws his principles into the strongest light, and forms the best material for a judgment. For it must, we think, be admitted that he applied these doctrines with a rigidity which human affairs will not admit, and assumed a knowledge beyond our capacity. To declare that no one could be in a state of grace who praised S. Carlo Borromeo, because the latter followed the evil principle of his day in the matter of persecution, is not merely to make the historian a hanging judge, but to ignore the great truth that if crime is always crime, degrees of temptation are widely variable. The fact is, Acton's desire to maintain the view that "morality is not ambulatory," led him at times to ignore the complementary doctrine that it certainly develops, and that the difficulties of statesmen or ecclesiastics, if they do not excuse, at least at times explain their less admirable courses. At the very close of his life Acton came to this view himself. In a pathetic conversation with his son, he lamented the harshness of some of his judgments, and hoped the example would not be followed.
Still, Acton, if he erred here, erred on the nobler side. The doctrine of moral relativity had been overdone by historians, and the principles of Machiavelli had become so common a cry of politicians, that severe protest was necessary. The ethics of Nietzsche are the logical expansion of Machiavelli, and his influence is proof that, in the long-run, men cannot separate their international code from their private one. We must remember that Acton lived in a time when, as he said, the course of history had been "twenty-five times diverted by actual or attempted crime," and when the old ideals of liberty seemed swallowed up by the pursuit of gain. To all those who reflect on history or politics, it was a gain of the highest order that at the very summit of historical scholarship and profound political knowledge there should be placed a leader who erred on the unfashionable side, who denied the statesmen's claim to subject justice to expediency, and opposed the partisan's attempt to palter with facts in the interest of his creed.
It is these principles which both explain Acton's work as a student, and make it so difficult to understand. He believed, that as an investigator of facts the historian must know no passion, save that of a desire to sift evidence; and his notion of this sifting was of the remorseless scientific school of Germany, which sometimes, perhaps, expects more in the way of testimony than human life affords. At any rate, Acton demanded that the historian must never misconceive the case of the adversaries of his views, or leave in shade the faults of his own side. But on the other hand, when he comes to interpret facts or to trace their relation, his views and even his temperament will affect the result. It is only the barest outline that can be quite objective. In Acton's view the historian as investigator is one thing, the historian as judge another. In an early essay on Doellinger he makes a distinction of this kind. The reader must bear it in mind in considering Acton's own writing. Some of the essays here printed, and still more the lectures, are anything but colourless; they show very distinctly the predilections of the writer, and it is hardly conceivable that they should have been written by a defender of absolutism, or even by an old-fashioned Tory. What Acton really demanded was not the academic aloofness of the pedant who stands apart from the strife of principles, but the honesty of purpose which "throws itself into the mind of one's opponents, and accounts for their mistakes," giving their case the best possible colouring. For, to be sure of one's ground, one must meet one's adversaries' strongest arguments, and not be content with merely picking holes in his armour. Otherwise one's own belief may be at the mercy of the next clever opponent. The reader may doubt how far Acton succeeded in his own aim, for there was a touch of intolerance in his hatred of absolutism, and he believed himself to be divided from his ecclesiastical and political foes by no mere intellectual difference but by a moral cleavage. Further, his writing is never half-hearted. His convictions were certitudes based on continual reading and reflection, and admitting in his mind of no qualification. He was eminently a Victorian in his confidence that he was right. He had none of the invertebrate tendency of mind which thinks it is impartial, merely because it is undecided, and regards the judicial attitude as that which refrains from judging. Acton's was not a doubting mind. If he now and then suspended his judgment, it was as an act of deliberate choice, because he had made up his mind that the matter could not be decided, not because he could not decide to make up his mind. Whether he was right or wrong, he always knew what he thought, and his language was as exact an expression of his meaning as he could make it. It was true that his subtle and far-sighted intelligence makes his style now and then like a boomerang, as when he says of Ranke's method "it is a discipline we shall all do well to adopt, and also do well to relinquish." Indeed, it is hardly possible to read a single essay without observing this marked characteristic. He has been called a "Meredith turned historian," and that there is truth in this judgment, any one who sees at once the difficulty and the suggestiveness of his reviews can bear witness. He could hardly write the briefest note without stamping his personality upon it and exhibiting the marks of a very complex culture. But the main characteristic of his style is that it represents the ideals of a man to whom every word was sacred. Its analogies are rather in sculpture than painting. Each paragraph, almost every sentence is a perfectly chiselled whole, impressive by no brilliance or outside polish, so much as by the inward intensity of which it is the symbol. Thus his writing is never fluent or easy, but it has a moral dignity rare and unfashionable.
Acton, indeed, was by no means without a gift of rhetoric, and in the "Lecture on Mexico," here republished, there is ample evidence of a power of handling words which should impress a popular audience. It is in gravity of judgment and in the light he can draw from small details that his power is most plainly shown. On the other hand, he had a little of the scholar's love of clinging to the bank, and, as the notes to his "Inaugural" show, he seems at times too much disposed to use the crutches of quotation to prop up positions which need no such support. It was of course the same habit—the desire not to speak before he had read everything that was relevant, whether in print or manuscript—that hindered so severely his output. His projected History of Liberty was, from the first, impossible of achievement. It would have required the intellects of Napoleon and Julius Caesar combined, and the lifetime of the patriarchs, to have executed that project as Acton appears to have planned it. A History of Liberty, beginning with the ancient world and carried down to our own day, to be based entirely upon original sources, treating both of the institutions which secured it, the persons who fought for it, and the ideas which expressed it, and taking note of all that scholars had written about every several portion of the subject, was and is beyond the reach of a single man. Probably towards the close of his life Acton had felt this. The Cambridge Modern History, which required the co-operation of so many specialists, was to him really but a fragment of this great project.
Two other causes limited Acton's output. Towards the close of the seventies he began to suspect, and eventually discovered, that he and Doellinger were not so close together as he had believed. That is to say, he found that in regard to the crimes of the past, Doellinger's position was more like that of Creighton than his own—that, while he was willing to say persecution was always wrong, he was not willing to go so far as Acton in rejecting every kind of mitigating plea and with mediaeval certainty consigning the persecutors to perdition. Acton, who had as he thought, learnt all this from Doellinger, was distressed at what seemed to him the weakness and the sacerdotal prejudice of his master, felt that he was now indeed alone, and for the time surrendered, as he said, all views of literary work. This was the time when he had been gathering materials for a History of the Council of Trent. That this cleavage, coming when it did, had a paralysing effect on Acton's productive energy is most probable, for it made him feel that he was no longer one of a school, and was without sympathy and support in the things that lay nearest his heart.
Another cause retarded production—his determination to know all about the work of others. Acton desired to be in touch with university life all over Europe, to be aware, if possible through personal knowledge, of the trend of investigation and thought of scholars working in all the cognate branches of his subject. To keep up thoroughly with other people's work, and do much original writing of one's own, is rarely possible. At any rate we may say that the same man could not have produced the essay on German schools of history, and written a magnum opus of his own.
His life marks what, in an age of minute specialism, must always be at once the crown and the catastrophe of those who take all knowledge for their province. His achievement is something different from any book. Acton's life-work was, in fact, himself. Those who lament what he might have written as a historian would do well to reflect on the unique position which he held in the world of letters, and to ask themselves how far he could have wielded the influence that was his, or held the standard so high, had his own achievement been greater. Men such as Acton and Hort give to the world, by their example and disposition, more than any written volume could convey. In both cases a great part of their published writings has had, at least in book form, to be posthumous. But their influence on other workers is incalculable, and has not yet determined.
To an age doubting on all things, and with the moral basis of its action largely undermined, Acton gave the spectacle of a career which was as moving as it was rare. He stood for a spirit of unwavering and even childlike faith united to a passion for scientific inquiry, and a scorn of consequences, which at times made him almost an iconoclast. His whole life was dedicated to one high end, the aim of preaching the need of principles based on the widest induction and the most penetrating thought, as the only refuge amid the storm and welter of sophistical philosophies and ecclesiastical intrigues. The union of faith with knowledge, and the eternal supremacy of righteousness, this was the message of Acton to mankind. It may be thought that he sometimes exaggerated his thesis, that he preached it out of season, that he laid himself open to the charge of being doctrinaire, and that in fighting for it he failed to utter the resources of his vast learning. Enough, however, is left to enable the world to judge what he was. No books ever do more than that for any man. Those who are nice in comparisons may weigh against the book lost the man gained. Those who loved him will know no doubt.
* * * * *
The following document was found among Lord Acton's Papers. It records in an imaginative form the ideals which he set before him. Perhaps it forms the most fitting conclusion to this Introduction.
This day's post informed me of the death of Adrian, who was the best of all men I have known. He loved retirement, and avoided company, but you might sometimes meet him coming from scenes of sorrow, silent and appalled, as if he had seen a ghost, or in the darkest corner of churches, his dim eyes radiant with light from another world. In youth he had gone through much anxiety and contention; but he lived to be trusted and honoured. At last he dropped out of notice and the memory of men, and that part of his life was the happiest.
Years ago, when I saw much of him, most people had not found him out. There was something in his best qualities themselves that baffled observation, and fell short of decided excellence. He looked absent and preoccupied, as if thinking of things he cared not to speak of, and seemed but little interested in the cares and events of the day. Often it was hard to decide whether he had an opinion, and when he showed it, he would defend it with more eagerness and obstinacy than we liked. He did not mingle readily with others or co-operate in any common undertaking, so that one could not rely on him socially, or for practical objects. As he never spoke harshly of persons, so he seldom praised them warmly, and there was some apparent indifference and want of feeling. Ill success did not depress, but happy prospects did not elate him, and though never impatient, he was not actively hopeful. Facetious friends called him the weather-cock, or Mr. Facingbothways, because there was no heartiness in his judgments, and he satisfied nobody, and said things that were at first sight grossly inconsistent, without attempting to reconcile them. He was reserved about himself, and gave no explanations, so that he was constantly misunderstood, and there was a sense of failure, of disappointment, of perplexity about him.
These things struck me, as well as others, and at first repelled me. I could see indeed, at the same time, that his conduct was remarkably methodical, and was guided at every step by an inexhaustible provision of maxims. He had meditated on every contingency in life, and was prepared with rules and precepts, which he never disobeyed. But I doubted whether all this was not artificial,—a contrivance to satisfy the pride of intellect and establish a cold superiority. In time I discovered that it was the perfection of a developed character. He had disciplined his soul with such wisdom and energy as to make it the obedient and spontaneous instrument of God's will, and he moved in an orbit of thoughts beyond our reach.
It was part of his religion to live much in the past, to realise every phase of thought, every crisis of controversy, every stage of progress the Church has gone through. So that the events and ideas of his own day lost much of their importance in comparison, were old friends with new faces, and impressed him less than the multitude of those that went before. This caused him to seem absent and indifferent, rarely given to admire, or to expect. He respected other men's opinions, fearing to give pain, or to tempt with anger by contradiction, and when forced to defend his own he felt bound to assume that every one would look sincerely for the truth, and would gladly recognise it. But he could not easily enter into their motives when they were mixed, and finding them generally mixed, he avoided contention by holding much aloof. Being quite sincere, he was quite impartial, and pleaded with equal zeal for what seemed true, whether it was on one side or on the other. He would have felt dishonest if he had unduly favoured people of his own country, his own religion, or his own party, or if he had entertained the shadow of a prejudice against those who were against them, and when he was asked why he did not try to clear himself from misrepresentation, he said that he was silent both from humility and pride.
At last I understood that what we had disliked in him was his virtue itself.
[Footnote 1: There is no foundation for the statement of Canon Meyrick in his Reminiscences, that Acton, had he lived on the Continent, would have undoubtedly become an Old Catholic. He did very largely live on the Continent. Nor did even Doellinger, of whom Dr. Meyrick also asserts it, ever become an adherent of that movement.]
THE HISTORY OF FREEDOM IN ANTIQUITY
Liberty, next to religion, has been the motive of good deeds and the common pretext of crime, from the sowing of the seed at Athens, two thousand four hundred and sixty years ago, until the ripened harvest was gathered by men of our race. It is the delicate fruit of a mature civilisation; and scarcely a century has passed since nations, that knew the meaning of the term, resolved to be free. In every age its progress has been beset by its natural enemies, by ignorance and superstition, by lust of conquest and by love of ease, by the strong man's craving for power, and the poor man's craving for food. During long intervals it has been utterly arrested, when nations were being rescued from barbarism and from the grasp of strangers, and when the perpetual struggle for existence, depriving men of all interest and understanding in politics, has made them eager to sell their birthright for a mess of pottage, and ignorant of the treasure they resigned. At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has been sometimes disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition, and by kindling dispute over the spoils in the hour of success. No obstacle has been so constant, or so difficult to overcome, as uncertainty and confusion touching the nature of true liberty. If hostile interests have wrought much injury, false ideas have wrought still more; and its advance is recorded in the increase of knowledge, as much as in the improvement of laws. The history of institutions is often a history of deception and illusions; for their virtue depends on the ideas that produce and on the spirit that preserves them, and the form may remain unaltered when the substance has passed away.
A few familiar examples from modern politics will explain why it is that the burden of my argument will lie outside the domain of legislation. It is often said that our Constitution attained its formal perfection in 1679, when the Habeas Corpus Act was passed. Yet Charles II. succeeded, only two years later, in making himself independent of Parliament. In 1789, while the States-General assembled at Versailles, the Spanish Cortes, older than Magna Charta and more venerable than our House of Commons, were summoned after an interval of generations, but they immediately prayed the King to abstain from consulting them, and to make his reforms of his own wisdom and authority. According to the common opinion, indirect elections are a safeguard of conservatism. But all the Assemblies of the French Revolution issued from indirect elections. A restricted suffrage is another reputed security for monarchy. But the Parliament of Charles X., which was returned by 90,000 electors, resisted and overthrew the throne; while the Parliament of Louis Philippe, chosen by a Constitution of 250,000, obsequiously promoted the reactionary policy of his Ministers, and in the fatal division which, by rejecting reform, laid the monarchy in the dust, Guizot's majority was obtained by the votes of 129 public functionaries. An unpaid legislature is, for obvious reasons, more independent than most of the Continental legislatures which receive pay. But it would be unreasonable in America to send a member as far as from here to Constantinople to live for twelve months at his own expense in the dearest of capital cities. Legally and to outward seeming the American President is the successor of Washington, and still enjoys powers devised and limited by the Convention of Philadelphia. In reality the new President differs from the Magistrate imagined by the Fathers of the Republic as widely as Monarchy from Democracy, for he is expected to make 70,000 changes in the public service; fifty years ago John Quincy Adams dismissed only two men. The purchase of judicial appointments is manifestly indefensible; yet in the old French monarchy that monstrous practice created the only corporation able to resist the king. Official corruption, which would ruin a commonwealth, serves in Russia as a salutary relief from the pressure of absolutism. There are conditions in which it is scarcely a hyperbole to say that slavery itself is a stage on the road to freedom. Therefore we are not so much concerned this evening with the dead letter of edicts and of statutes as with the living thoughts of men. A century ago it was perfectly well known that whoever had one audience of a Master in Chancery was made to pay for three, but no man heeded the enormity until it suggested to a young lawyer that it might be well to question and examine with rigorous suspicion every part of a system in which such things were done. The day on which that gleam lighted up the clear hard mind of Jeremy Bentham is memorable in the political calendar beyond the entire administration of many statesmen. It would be easy to point out a paragraph in St. Augustine, or a sentence of Grotius that outweighs in influence the Acts of fifty Parliaments, and our cause owes more to Cicero and Seneca, to Vinet and Tocqueville, than to the laws of Lycurgus or the Five Codes of France.
By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion. The State is competent to assign duties and draw the line between good and evil only in its immediate sphere. Beyond the limits of things necessary for its well-being, it can only give indirect help to fight the battle of life by promoting the influences which prevail against temptation,—religion, education, and the distribution of wealth. In ancient times the State absorbed authorities not its own, and intruded on the domain of personal freedom. In the Middle Ages it possessed too little authority, and suffered others to intrude. Modern States fall habitually into both excesses. The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities. Liberty, by this definition, is the essential condition and guardian of religion; and it is in the history of the Chosen People, accordingly, that the first illustrations of my subject are obtained. The government of the Israelites was a Federation, held together by no political authority, but by the unity of race and faith, and founded, not on physical force, but on a voluntary covenant. The principle of self-government was carried out not only in each tribe, but in every group of at least 120 families; and there was neither privilege of rank nor inequality before the law. Monarchy was so alien to the primitive spirit of the community that it was resisted by Samuel in that momentous protestation and warning which all the kingdoms of Asia and many of the kingdoms of Europe have unceasingly confirmed. The throne was erected on a compact; and the king was deprived of the right of legislation among a people that recognised no lawgiver but God, whose highest aim in politics was to restore the original purity of the constitution, and to make its government conform to the ideal type that was hallowed by the sanctions of heaven. The inspired men who rose in unfailing succession to prophesy against the usurper and the tyrant, constantly proclaimed that the laws, which were divine, were paramount over sinful rulers, and appealed from the established authorities, from the king, the priests, and the princes of the people, to the healing forces that slept in the uncorrupted consciences of the masses. Thus the example of the Hebrew nation laid down the parallel lines on which all freedom has been won—the doctrine of national tradition and the doctrine of the higher law; the principle that a constitution grows from a root, by process of development, and not of essential change; and the principle that all political authorities must be tested and reformed according to a code which was not made by man. The operation of these principles, in unison, or in antagonism, occupies the whole of the space we are going over together.
The conflict between liberty under divine authority and the absolutism of human authorities ended disastrously. In the year 622 a supreme effort was made at Jerusalem to reform and preserve the State. The High Priest produced from the temple of Jehovah the book of the deserted and forgotten Law, and both king and people bound themselves by solemn oaths to observe it. But that early example of limited monarchy and of the supremacy of law neither lasted nor spread; and the forces by which freedom has conquered must be sought elsewhere. In the very year 586, in which the flood of Asiatic despotism closed over the city which had been, and was destined again to be, the sanctuary of freedom in the East, a new home was prepared for it in the West, where, guarded by the sea and the mountains, and by valiant hearts, that stately plant was reared under whose shade we dwell, and which is extending its invincible arms so slowly and yet so surely over the civilised world.
According to a famous saying of the most famous authoress of the Continent, liberty is ancient, and it is despotism that is new. It has been the pride of recent historians to vindicate the truth of that maxim. The heroic age of Greece confirms it, and it is still more conspicuously true of Teutonic Europe. Wherever we can trace the earlier life of the Aryan nations we discover germs which favouring circumstances and assiduous culture might have developed into free societies. They exhibit some sense of common interest in common concerns, little reverence for external authority, and an imperfect sense of the function and supremacy of the State. Where the division of property and labour is incomplete there is little division of classes and of power. Until societies are tried by the complex problems of civilisation they may escape despotism, as societies that are undisturbed by religious diversity avoid persecution. In general, the forms of the patriarchal age failed to resist the growth of absolute States when the difficulties and temptations of advancing life began to tell; and with one sovereign exception, which is not within my scope to-day, it is scarcely possible to trace their survival in the institutions of later times. Six hundred years before the birth of Christ absolutism held unbounded sway. Throughout the East it was propped by the unchanging influence of priests and armies. In the West, where there were no sacred books requiring trained interpreters, the priesthood acquired no preponderance, and when the kings were overthrown their powers passed to aristocracies of birth. What followed, during many generations, was the cruel domination of class over class, the oppression of the poor by the rich, and of the ignorant by the wise. The spirit of that domination found passionate utterance in the verses of the aristocratic poet Theognis, a man of genius and refinement, who avows that he longed to drink the blood of his political adversaries. From these oppressors the people of many cities sought deliverance in the less intolerable tyranny of revolutionary usurpers. The remedy gave new shape and energy to the evil. The tyrants were often men of surprising capacity and merit, like some of those who, in the fourteenth century, made themselves lords of Italian cities; but rights secured by equal laws and by sharing power existed nowhere.
From this universal degradation the world was rescued by the most gifted of the nations. Athens, which like other cities was distracted and oppressed by a privileged class, avoided violence and appointed Solon to revise its laws. It was the happiest choice that history records. Solon was not only the wisest man to be found in Athens, but the most profound political genius of antiquity; and the easy, bloodless, and pacific revolution by which he accomplished the deliverance of his country was the first step in a career which our age glories in pursuing, and instituted a power which has done more than anything, except revealed religion, for the regeneration of society. The upper class had possessed the right of making and administering the laws, and he left them in possession, only transferring to wealth what had been the privilege of birth. To the rich, who alone had the means of sustaining the burden of public service in taxation and war, Solon gave a share of power proportioned to the demands made on their resources. The poorest classes were exempt from direct taxes, but were excluded from office. Solon gave them a voice in electing magistrates from the classes above them, and the right of calling them to account. This concession, apparently so slender, was the beginning of a mighty change. It introduced the idea that a man ought to have a voice in selecting those to whose rectitude and wisdom he is compelled to trust his fortune, his family, and his life. And this idea completely inverted the notion of human authority, for it inaugurated the reign of moral influence where all political power had depended on moral force. Government by consent superseded government by compulsion, and the pyramid which had stood on a point was made to stand upon its base. By making every citizen the guardian of his own interest Solon admitted the element of Democracy into the State. The greatest glory of a ruler, he said, is to create a popular government. Believing that no man can be entirely trusted, he subjected all who exercised power to the vigilant control of those for whom they acted.
The only resource against political disorders that had been known till then was the concentration of power. Solon undertook to effect the same object by the distribution of power. He gave to the common people as much influence as he thought them able to employ, that the State might be exempt from arbitrary government. It is the essence of Democracy, he said, to obey no master but the law. Solon recognised the principle that political forms are not final or inviolable, and must adapt themselves to facts; and he provided so well for the revision of his constitution, without breach of continuity or loss of stability, that for centuries after his death the Attic orators attributed to him, and quoted by his name, the whole structure of Athenian law. The direction of its growth was determined by the fundamental doctrine of Solon, that political power ought to be commensurate with public service. In the Persian war the services of the Democracy eclipsed those of the Patrician orders, for the fleet that swept the Asiatics from the Egean Sea was manned by the poorer Athenians. That class, whose valour had saved the State and had preserved European civilisation, had gained a title to increase of influence and privilege. The offices of State, which had been a monopoly of the rich, were thrown open to the poor, and in order to make sure that they should obtain their share, all but the highest commands were distributed by lot.
Whilst the ancient authorities were decaying, there was no accepted standard of moral and political right to make the framework of society fast in the midst of change. The instability that had seized on the forms threatened the very principles of government. The national beliefs were yielding to doubt, and doubt was not yet making way for knowledge. There had been a time when the obligations of public as well as private life were identified with the will of the gods. But that time had passed. Pallas, the ethereal goddess of the Athenians, and the Sun god whose oracles, delivered from the temple between the twin summits of Parnassus, did so much for the Greek nationality, aided in keeping up a lofty ideal of religion; but when the enlightened men of Greece learnt to apply their keen faculty of reasoning to the system of their inherited belief, they became quickly conscious that the conceptions of the gods corrupted the life and degraded the minds of the public. Popular morality could not be sustained by the popular religion. The moral instruction which was no longer supplied by the gods could not yet be found in books. There was no venerable code expounded by experts, no doctrine proclaimed by men of reputed sanctity like those teachers of the far East whose words still rule the fate of nearly half mankind. The effort to account for things by close observation and exact reasoning began by destroying. There came a time when the philosophers of the Porch and the Academy wrought the dictates of wisdom and virtue into a system so consistent and profound that it has vastly shortened the task of the Christian divines. But that time had not yet come.
The epoch of doubt and transition during which the Greeks passed from the dim fancies of mythology to the fierce light of science was the age of Pericles, and the endeavour to substitute certain truth for the prescriptions of impaired authorities, which was then beginning to absorb the energies of the Greek intellect, is the grandest movement in the profane annals of mankind, for to it we owe, even after the immeasurable progress accomplished by Christianity, much of our philosophy and far the better part of the political knowledge we possess. Pericles, who was at the head of the Athenian Government, was the first statesman who encountered the problem which the rapid weakening of traditions forced on the political world. No authority in morals or in politics remained unshaken by the motion that was in the air. No guide could be confidently trusted; there was no available criterion to appeal to, for the means of controlling or denying convictions that prevailed among the people. The popular sentiment as to what was right might be mistaken, but it was subject to no test. The people were, for practical purposes, the seat of the knowledge of good and evil. The people, therefore, were the seat of power.
The political philosophy of Pericles consisted of this conclusion. He resolutely struck away all the props that still sustained the artificial preponderance of wealth. For the ancient doctrine that power goes with land, he introduced the idea that power ought to be so equitably diffused as to afford equal security to all. That one part of the community should govern the whole, or that one class should make laws for another, he declared to be tyrannical. The abolition of privilege would have served only to transfer the supremacy from the rich to the poor, if Pericles had not redressed the balance by restricting the right of citizenship to Athenians of pure descent. By this measure the class which formed what we should call the third estate was brought down to 14,000 citizens, and became about equal in numbers with the higher ranks. Pericles held that every Athenian who neglected to take his part in the public business inflicted an injury on the commonwealth. That none might be excluded by poverty, he caused the poor to be paid for their attendance out of the funds of the State; for his administration of the federal tribute had brought together a treasure of more than two million sterling. The instrument of his sway was the art of speaking. He governed by persuasion. Everything was decided by argument in open deliberation, and every influence bowed before the ascendency of mind. The idea that the object of constitutions is not to confirm the predominance of any interest, but to prevent it; to preserve with equal care the independence of labour and the security of property; to make the rich safe against envy, and the poor against oppression, marks the highest level attained by the statesmanship of Greece. It hardly survived the great patriot who conceived it; and all history has been occupied with the endeavour to upset the balance of power by giving the advantage to money, land, or numbers. A generation followed that has never been equalled in talent—a generation of men whose works, in poetry and eloquence, are still the envy of the world, and in history, philosophy, and politics remain unsurpassed. But it produced no successor to Pericles, and no man was able to wield the sceptre that fell from his hand.
It was a momentous step in the progress of nations when the principle that every interest should have the right and the means of asserting itself was adopted by the Athenian Constitution. But for those who were beaten in the vote there was no redress. The law did not check the triumph of majorities or rescue the minority from the dire penalty of having been outnumbered. When the overwhelming influence of Pericles was removed, the conflict between classes raged without restraint, and the slaughter that befell the higher ranks in the Peloponnesian war gave an irresistible preponderance to the lower. The restless and inquiring spirit of the Athenians was prompt to unfold the reason of every institution and the consequences of every principle, and their Constitution ran its course from infancy to decrepitude with unexampled speed.
Two men's lives span the interval from the first admission of popular influence, under Solon, to the downfall of the State. Their history furnishes the classic example of the peril of Democracy under conditions singularly favourable. For the Athenians were not only brave and patriotic and capable of generous sacrifice, but they were the most religious of the Greeks. They venerated the Constitution which had given them prosperity, and equality, and freedom, and never questioned the fundamental laws which regulated the enormous power of the Assembly. They tolerated considerable variety of opinion and great licence of speech; and their humanity towards their slaves roused the indignation even of the most intelligent partisan of aristocracy. Thus they became the only people of antiquity that grew great by democratic institutions. But the possession of unlimited power, which corrodes the conscience, hardens the heart, and confounds the understanding of monarchs, exercised its demoralising influence on the illustrious democracy of Athens. It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist. But from the absolute will of an entire people there is no appeal, no redemption, no refuge but treason. The humblest and most numerous class of the Athenians united the legislative, the judicial, and, in part, the executive power. The philosophy that was then in the ascendant taught them that there is no law superior to that of the State—the lawgiver is above the law.