Acton in Italy
For several months now Italian bookshops have been selling a priceless collection of the thoughts and sayings of one of the greatest “Catholic Liberals” of the 19th century: John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, Baron Acton of Aldenham, a brilliant cosmopolitan intellectual who is probably best known for his unfinished work, the “History of Liberty.” Acton’s works are not well known in Italy and through this book we hope in the possibility of a new cultural season in which historians and social scientists might go to the deepness of a so important author. Snippets and parts of this great publishing adventure have come down to us, and they all show the author’s breadth and depth of historical understanding. This book is introduced and edited by Massimo Baldini, a semiotics professor at the Luiss Guido Carli University of Social Studies in Rome. In this important introduction he shows to Italian readers a writer who has been forgotten, selecting and inserting thoughts and aphorisms by Acton to let non-historians study the areas Acton discusses. The index to the book immediately shows the breadth of the work which has gone into it, and how useful it could be in spreading Acton’s thought throughout Europe.
Throughout his life, Acton (who was born in Naples in 1834 and died in Tegernsee in 1902) studied liberalism and concluded that it was something other than excessive rationalism, utilitarianism, and materialism. Lord Acton's conclusions place him firmly within one strand of Western thinking about liberalism, and with the Catholic tradition in particular. Precious proof of Acton’s views on the history of liberty is given to us by Friedrich August von Hayek. The Austrian economist, in re-tracing the steps of Western liberalism in the wake of Lord Acton, defined St. Thomas Aquinas as the “first Whig.” In examining the first political schools which laid down the principle of the rule of law, that very civic republicanism which was so dear to the founders of the United States and which is indeed one of the cornerstones of Catholic “subsidiarity” (civitas sibi princeps), Hayek refers to the writings of mediaeval philosophers such as Nicholas of Cusa and Bartolus of Saxoferrato. It is this tradition to which Acton belongs.
The definition of Lord Acton’s Whiggery is based upon an idea of liberty firmly rooted in responsibility and based upon respect for the law; it is not freedom from the law, but freedom under it. Free men are those who can do what they ought, and not those who do as they wish. It is only by continually exercising this freedom that free societies will remain so. Real liberty has its own responsibilities. Liberty in this way is very close to Aristotle’s practical wisdom, which is another way of speaking about the informed conscience. So liberty means a moment for deliberation, or a practical search for perceiving and choosing (proposing) the best way of reaching a purpose here and now. The best example we can see of this type of liberty is, as Michael Novak says, the Statue of Liberty: a woman (wisdom) holding the light of reason in one hand and a book of law in the other. Such ethics of responsibility are typical of Catholic-based societies, with the separation of powers and the sharing out of action into three spheres in our social lives: politics, economics, and culture.
In this way, Lord Acton contributed like few others to an ethical definition of liberty, which Baldini describes with the term “ethical liberalism.” The importance of Providence in history, Acton believed, was the expansion of human freedoms, and the pivot for this process was the birth and development of Catholicism. Indeed, he said “Outside Christianity there is no freedom,” by which he meant that our informed consciences (i.e., not arbitrary and abandoned to themselves) were the pivot around which Catholicism revolved. This Catholic English historian, in the wake of Cicero, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Montesquieu, affirmed that someone who does what he wants is not free, but someone who is able to do what he must is.
Freedom in this way is an exaltation of the practice of the virtues, a series of ideals that will turn us towards what is good and that have been recognised as such. It is symptomatic of a Liberal like Lord Acton that he points to duty (including religious duties) as the source of all civil freedoms. The Cambridge historian does not ignore the differences there have been along the path of human liberty throughout history, nor does he delude himself there will not be others with the time yet to come. For Acton, liberty is the fragile outcome of a long and never-ending process, a path which is not ramrod-straight. If we look backwards, we cannot fail to see the blackest pages of our history, when human dignity was trampled underfoot by evil and falsehoods seemed destined to win out. Our opinion cannot change, however far back we look. And yet, even here, if we are to continue walking towards liberty and not be tricked, we must use all our efforts so that the difficulties awaiting us will not find us unprepared.
Flavio Felice is professor in “Economics and Political Doctrines” at the Lateran Pontifical University in Rome. The director of the Tocqueville-Acton Centre of Studies, he is the author of Capitalism and Christianity, Neocon Perspective, Theocon and Neocon, and Welfare Society.
Posted: September 6, 2008