Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics

Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics

Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics

Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics

Excerpt

Lord Acton was born three years before Queen Victoria ascended the throne and died the year after her death. The only England he knew, Victorian England, is now a civilization lost beyond recovery. Yet it is only now, while his background recedes ever further from sight, that Acton himself is beginning to come, for the first time, clearly into view. It appears that we are privileged to see and understand him as his contemporaries never did. He is of this age, more than of his. He is, indeed, one of our great contemporaries.

It took almost forty years for Acton to come into his own. In the epoch of complacency before and after the First World War, men had little liking for the kind of intense spiritual probing that Acton demanded of them. Acton was a pessimist and a moralist, a combination hardly likely to endear him to a world that was at the same time expansively optimistic and narrowly materialistic. When the spiritual climate changed, however, Acton found his home. Men who have witnessed the horrors of German Nazism and Soviet Communism have little heart for optimism or materialism and much respect for such hard truths as 'power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely'. Acton's well-turned epigrams denouncing nationalism, racism, and statism give a new literary flavour to editorial sermons and academic dissertations. Liberals who have come to be sceptical of the virtues of a secular, placid and optimistic Liberalism have discovered in Acton a Liberalism, religious in temper, which is able to cope with the facts of human sin and corruption. Historians who once regarded salvation as the automatic and inevitable by-

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