Historian in the Seat of God

Paul Smith

  • Acton and History by Owen Chadwick
    Cambridge, 270 pp, £30.00, August 1998, ISBN 0 521 57074 3

To be the author of the best-known work of history never written is a guarantee of enduring celebrity, but also of lasting ridicule. On the marble bench in Venice where, by moonlight, in 1879, he expounded to an enthralled Herbert and Mary Gladstone the project of his great history of liberty, his ‘Madonna of the Future’, as he called it, Lord Acton was courting nemesis. For ‘moonlight’ his detractors have tended to read ‘moonshine’. His defenders have countered the impression that he wrote no history by representing that in fact he wrote a good deal; but they are heavily dependent on his early journalism and on the lectures published after his death by J.N. Figgis and R.V. Laurence. There is no great work to count in the research assessment exercise of the ages, only a vast assembly of materials, to some grand in the nobility of conception and thrilling in the promise of transcendental wisdom which they convey, to others a profoundly depressing monument to the union of pedantic burrowing with lack of will and courage for composition. Even Acton’s best friends sometimes despaired. Asked maliciously by Eddie Hamilton ‘whether there was to be any result from such wondrous accumulations of knowledge’, W.E. Gladstone thought that Acton would have difficulty in finding a publisher for a dozen volumes on liberty, ‘but being so well versed in history, especially that of last century, why should he not write a memoir of Madam Dubarry?’

Not only did Acton not produce his big book, but he laid down the law for history and historians in a manner which, even in the 1890s, when he came to his Cambridge chair at the close of his career, seemed naive and hubristic. Setting up what was to be the Cambridge Modern History (another work of which, bar the introduction, he never wrote a word, though Frederick Maitland suggested that ‘his omniscient lordship’ could do the whole of it and ‘come up smiling’), Acton looked forward to the arrival of ‘ultimate history’, now that ‘all information is within reach, and every problem has become capable of solution,’ and desired that in the great collective enterprise the unity of design should be uncompromised by the ‘disclosure of personal views’ – positions from which most of his profession have been in apologetic retreat ever since. At the same time, he summoned historians to pronounce the impersonal verdict of a timeless ethical code on the subjects of their enquiries – ‘to try others by the final maxim that governs your own lives, and to suffer no man and no crime to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong’. The arrogation to historians of this grandiose role seems all the more presumptuous coming from one whose historical excursions were not always free from factual error, as Owen Chadwick reminds us in this volume – which brings together his writings of the last twenty-five years on Acton the historian (and Acton the would-be power in the Liberal Party, whose ambitions nearly gave his career a final touch of the ludicrous by landing him in the post of Captain of the Yeoman of the Guard).

If Acton failed to get into bed with his Madonna, and might have produced a fiasco had he done so, why should we pay attention to him, except as a warning and a convenient butt in the history of historiography? The answer is that even if he was not a good historian, he was a significant one. It is precisely the ingenuousness, the idealism, the vast pretensions for his subject, which expose him so easily to attack, that make him significant. They lay bare the hopes, the quasi-millenarian inspiration and the sense of vital civic function which fuel the energies and set the agenda of much historical writing, even if its practitioners go about with their coats modestly buttoned over these primitive instincts and embarrassing urges.

Acton’s vision of the unity and objectivity of ‘ultimate’ history was an understandable outcrop of the excitement with which he responded to the vast opening of archives in the later 19th century. ‘In our own time, within the last few years,’ he told contributors to the Cambridge History, ‘most of the official collections in Europe have been made public, and nearly all the evidence that will ever appear is accessible now.’ Acton was implying an unproblematic model of instant access from documents to definitive knowledge at which historians today can only gape in wonderment. Nevertheless, under whatever subsequent accretions of sophistication, such simplicities are the basis of action. Without the stimulating confidence that an expanding range of sources will yield to interrogation an ever greater harvest of knowledge and understanding, there would be no incentive to get out of bed in the morning to do history. Nor would there be any reason to regard doing history as important and useful unless it had, as Acton believed it had, some evident significance for the development and expression of collective moral understanding. Acton’s governing moral vision was of universal harmony in faith. He promoted history to the central role in its realisation because his studies taught him that neither Church nor state was a reliable agency without the searching audit of its record that only historical scholarship could undertake.

Acton never renounced the Catholic religion in which he was brought up, but his relation to the Catholic Church became increasingly ambiguous. His first ideal was the triumph of faith through the Church, married to the attachment to the freedom of the individual conscience which made him a Gladstonian Liberal in British politics. It is tempting, but too simple, to think of his brain as split between a Catholic lobe, craving universal authority and order, and a liberal, exalting freedom. To reject the coercion of conscience by authority was for Acton a way of preparing the ground not for the peaceful coexistence of myriad beliefs of equivalent intellectual and moral status, but for the rational ascendancy of truth. ‘Tolerance of error,’ he wrote, ‘is requisite for freedom, but freedom will be most complete where there is no actual diversity to be resisted, and no theoretical unity to ?e maintained, but where unity exists as the triumph of truth, not of force, through the victory of the Church, not through the enactment of the State.’ The equation of complete freedom with spontaneous unity was much more characteristic of 19th-century liberalism than is often recognised. The point of the liberal free market in ideas was not to facilitate the indiscriminate satisfaction of an infinity of consumer preferences but to hold the ring for a knockdown, drag-out contest in which truth would emerge as the undisputed victor. Acton’s Catholic slant on this was only to assume that victorious truth would be the truth of the religion which he professed.

The credentials of the Roman Church as a vehicle of truth were, however, almost irreparably damaged for him by its adoption in 1870 of the dogma of Papal Infallibility, his determined efforts to organise resistance to which, at the Vatican Council, are well described by Chadwick. Ever since his first incursion, in 1857-8, into the Vatican archives, his documentary studies had been rendering it increasingly difficult to regard as the undeviating exponent of truth an ecclesiastical institution the partisan annals and dogmatic claims of which seemed to him so evidently impugned by the new critical historical scholarship of the 19th century. The pronouncement of Papal Infallibility was abhorrent to him both as intellectual nonsense, incompatible with the historical record, and as a profoundly immoral whitewashing of every crime ever committed under Papal authority. In seizing on Newman’s encouragement to hope that in the long run the weight of Catholic opinion, the consensus fidelium, would overturn the errors of General Councils and Popes, he took up a position that, however grudgingly acquiescent, it was hard to characterise as anything other than Protestant.

If the Church would not serve to bring about the reconciliation of authority with freedom of conscience and the findings of historical scholarship, would the state, in particular the emergent nation-state of the modern era? Acton thrilled to the vitality of the modern, to the spectacle of the 16th century going forth ‘armed for untried experience, and ready to match with hopefulness a prospect of incalculable change’. By the time that he delivered his famous inaugural lecture at Cambridge in June 1895, he had come to view the modern centuries as a triumph of progress in the direction of freedom, achieved in unrelenting struggle to secure liberty of conscience against the encroachments of power. ‘This law of the modern world,’ he wrote, ‘that power tends to expand indefinitely, and will transcend all barriers, abroad and at home, until met by superior forces, produces the rhythmic movement of History ... it is by the combined efforts of the weak, made under compulsion, to resist the reign of force and constant wrong, that, in the rapid change but slow progress of four hundred years, liberty has been preserved, and secured, and extended, and finally understood.’ This was the inspirational tale which his history of liberty would tell.

It is not clear how he squared this optimistic vision with his view of ‘modern progress’ as achieved by ‘revolution’, not least by radical upheavals in the realm of ideas, ‘which are not the effect but the cause of public events’. The ‘revolution’ in its post-1789 form he had defined in the Catholic journalism of his twenties as the product of Rousseau, Babeuf and Mazzini, whose theories of equality, Communism and nationality, ‘impugning the present distribution of power, of property, and of territory, and attacking respectively the aristocracy, the middle class, and the sovereignty’, threatened to lay waste the bases of European civilisation. Acton believed in aristocratic leadership as opposed to a state of equality or of absolutism, and in the institution of private property as the first element of freedom.?He believed in nationality, not as the supreme ground of sovereignty, but only as a useful restraint on its potential excesses. His essay of 1862 on ‘Nationality’, constrained by the need to deny the right of the new Italian state to terminate the temporal power of the Papacy, showed how much work he had to do to assimilate the ‘revolution’ into his scheme of things by subordinating its most powerful contemporary manifestation to the service of universal moral order.

The French Revolution, Acton urged, had taken a wrong turning. ‘The state of nature, which was the ideal of society, was made the basis of the nation; descent was put in the place of tradition, and the French people was regarded as a physical product: an ethnological, not historic, unit ... the idea of the sovereignty of the people, uncontrolled by the past, gave birth to the idea of nationality independent of the political influence of history. It sprang from the rejection of the two authorities – of the State and of the past.’ But the attempt to set aside the state and the past was a reactionary, indeed anti-evolutionary, endeavour. It denied what Acton saw as the true, political nation which had begun to emerge in medieval Christendom, a nation

no longer what it had been to the ancient world – the progeny of a common ancestor, or the aboriginal product of a particular region – a result of merely physical and material causes, but a moral and political being; not the creation of geographical or physiological unity, but developed in the course of history by the action of the State. It is derived from the State, not supreme over it. A State may in course of time produce a nationality; but that a nationality should constitute a State is contrary to the nature of modern civilisation’.

The ethnically self-standing was the politically and morally self-stultifying. It obstructed human evolution, not least because it prevented the more civilised from elevating the less. Social progress depended on ‘the mixture of races under the same governments ... when different races inhabit the different territories of one Empire composed of several smaller States, it is of all possible combinations the most favourable to the establishment of a highly developed system of freedom’. ‘If we take,’ he argued, ‘the establishment of liberty for the realisation of moral duties to be the end of civil society, we must conclude that these states are substantially the most perfect which, like the British and Austrian empires, include various distinct nationalities without oppressing them.’ In such a framework, nationality would be enrolled as an element of individuality in the service of the greater whole, ‘the bulwark of self-government, and the foremost limit to the excessive power of the State’. Religious and civil freedom would be protected as they could not be within a nation-state antagonistic to everything that circumscribed or rivalled the collective will it claimed to embody. Acton’s advocacy of Irish Home Rule, a proposal he believed he had put into Gladstone’s mind, was a natural outcome of this collection of ideas.

The fact remained, however, that the ‘reign of general ideas’ which Acton regarded as the characteristic of the ‘Revolution’ was splintering as much as unifying. Generalised notions of rights, ripping apart the fabric of established social and political relations, setting class against class and nationality against nationality, and teaching ‘the people to regard their wishes and wants as the supreme criterion of right’, subverted all authority and placed all minorities in a position of permanent insecurity. It was hard to reconcile this with his hankering after universal order, with his assumption that the ‘line of march will prove, on the whole to have been from force and cruelty to co?sent and association, to humanity, rational persuasion, and the persistent appeal to common, simple, and evident maxims.’

Contradictions almost too painful to confront loomed in the path of his supreme historical project. The great history of liberty could not be written, because Acton could not demonstrate, and probably knew he could not demonstrate, the progression which it assumed, ‘this constancy of progress, of progress in the direction of organised and assured freedom’, which in his inaugural lecture he alleged to be ‘the characteristic facet of Modern History and its tribute to the theory of Providence’.

It did not shake his dedication to history as the only means of comprehending the working out of the providential dispensation, and hence the only secure basis for the application of universal standards of moral judgment. If neither a Church threatened by the rabid pretensions of Ultramontanism, nor a state too exposed to capture by the vicious parochial intolerance of nationalism, could stand guarantor for the understanding and the protection of liberty, history must. The practice of historical science was not a technical exercise but the only possible way of comprehending human development, thus the only possible avenue towards the universal harmony in understanding of the past and hope for the future, which was Acton’s dream. It had a responsibility to supply the sense of location and direction in time which human beings had come to seek from it since the opening of the modern era. ‘Taking little for granted, they have sought to know the ground they stand on, and the road they travel, and the reason why. Over them, therefore, the historian has obtained an increasing ascendancy.’ It was the business of the historian, empowered by the novel authority conferred on history by the opening of the archives and by the development of impartial critical method, to follow Acton’s injunction to judge the past for the guidance of the present, ‘not according to the orthodox standard of a system religious, philosophical, political, but according as things promote, or fail to promote, the delicacy, integrity and authority of conscience’.

Acton did not think that actions should be described and evaluated without explanatory reference to context. It was necessary to understand the ideas that the past brought to its own proceedings, the standards by which contemporaries made their judgments. But he blisteringly rejected exculpatory moral relativism as an abnegation of the responsibility to assert the ethical standards which must supply the rule of both private and public life. He called for judgment because he believed that history was about justice – was, indeed, in virtue of the judicial impartiality it could exercise, the only universal, unimpeachable and inexorable dispenser of justice on earth. There was no sovereign immunity in his historical universe. Such an approach is easily derided as setting the historian in the seat of God. But for Acton there was no choice: the historian was infinitely preferable in the role to the Pope or the sovereign people.

Historians do not now seek to acclaim or dispense justice in the apocalyptic tones of a Michelet, or in the seigneurial manner natural to a cosmopolitan aristocrat like Acton. Yet they are not always so far from Michelet or Acton as they think. One of the most consistent passions in the historical writing of this century has been for giving voices to those seen as hitherto voiceless in the master narratives of history – the poor, women, minorities of every ethnic, social and ideological description. The methodological foundations of this ventriloquism are often precarious. It is sometimes disfigured by feelings of rancour and the instinct of retrospective revenge. But it bears witness to the instinct to do justice as a means of engendering and enforcing the community of ethical understanding for which Acton longed. The closing words of his inaugural lecture still touch the most profound impulsions of historical writing: ‘We have the power to be more rigidly impersonal, disinterested and just’ – than earlier historians – ‘and to learn from undisguised and genuine records to look with remorse upon the past, and to the future with assured hope of better things; bearing this in mind, that if we lower our standard in History, we cannot uphold it in Church or State.’