Essays on Freedom and Power

Essays on Freedom and Power

Essays on Freedom and Power

Essays on Freedom and Power

Excerpt

When Lord Acton died in 1902 his name was unfamiliar to the general public. The assiduous reader of the London Times might have identified him as reputedly the most erudite man of his era. He might have remembered the rumors, some thirty years before, of Acton's possible excommunication from the Catholic church. He might have recalled occasional items in the society, court and literary columns in which Acton had figured as the week-end guest of Mr. Gladstone at Hawarden, as Lord-in-Waiting to Her late Majesty at Windsor Castle, as professor at Cambridge University and editor of a grand, new, encyclopedic venture, the Cambridge Modern History. It would have been a miscellaneous assortment of facts, likely to confirm Acton's own sense of the futility of his life.

The current fortune of his reputation would have been more agreeable to Acton. It would have gratified him to know that his maxim, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely," has become commonplace enough to serve as the text for editorials in daily newspapers, and that he has been awarded the titles of prophet of liberalism and magistrate of history. If he could claim no particular distinction for his own life, he could claim to have given distinction to the two ideas he valued most, the ideas of liberty and morality.

Now that Acton has attained the status of a minor prophet, it is difficult to reconstruct his life in Victorian England. Not only do his ideas transcend the period in which they were conceived, but the details of his life and background often jar with the familiar picture of that period. Related . . .

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