Lord Acton on liberty and law

Lord Acton

No one is more memorably linked with thought about the dangers of state power than John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, writes former High Court Justice Dyson Heydon in The Catholic Weekly.

He was the beneficiary of many gifts. He spoke several languages. He was the son of an English baronet. He was related to nobility in France, South Germany, and Italy. He inherited great possessions. He also assembled a library of 60,000 volumes—a remarkable number; Lord Sumption himself, in writing his lapidary multivolume history of the Hundred Years War, is said to have assembled only about 8,000.

Acton had the advantage of being educated, from the ages of 16 to 22, in Munich, in the household of the great liberal Catholic historian Ignaz von Döllinger. Von Döllinger inculcated in Acton Burkean liberalism.

He also inculcated a hatred of all forms of absolutism, whether in church or state. Finally, Acton had the great gift of being a master of English prose. But he is often seen as a failure. He failed in democratic politics.

Gladstone placed him in the House of Lords, but he failed there. His marriage failed. As a custodian of his wealth, he was a failure: He had to sell his library to Andrew Carnegie. His literary output was profound but skimpy.

His History of Liberty was described as the 'greatest book that never was written.' The source of his downfall in this respect lay in a refusal to write until he had read all the sources. This, as one biographer observes, was 'a rule which was fatal in the era of the opening of archives.' Yet he is remembered as a man of deep integrity, devoted to conscience, truth and liberty. Indeed, his name survives that of many successful contemporaries.

If for nothing else, he is remembered for one idea and a couple of phrases. The Actonian idea was that however much social conditions changed, moral standards remained absolute: ‘The moral law is written on the tablets of eternity.' He applied to states the same code of morals as applied to individuals.

- Dyson Heydon

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