England's erudite grandee

Action and History
May 21, 1999

Acton may not have been one of the greatest historians of the 19th century but he was certainly one of the most colourful. As possessor of a legendary library, grandson of the prime minister of Bourbon Naples, son of a Shropshire baronet, stepson to Lord Granville, confidant to Gladstone and incumbent of a distinguished chair of modern history, Acton radiated an aura compounded of enormous erudition and familiarity with the corridors of power, both at the Vatican and Westminster.

Written in an informal and undemanding style, Owen Chadwick's book ranges widely. It is loosely constructed, giving the author freedom to take up such disparate matters as Acton's historical formation, his role during and after the Vatican Council of 1869-70, his relationship with Newman, Dollinger, Gladstone and Augustin Theiner, and the status he won at Cambridge for the study of history. "He needed to prove to the university," Chadwick aptly writes, "that history is tough, a worthy training of the mind. He found so many of the traditional professors who regarded it as an easy option for young people not good at Latin and Greek and not able to cope with pure mathematics." One instrument of this rehabilitation of history was Acton's foundation of the Trinity College Historical Society.

It included Lytton Strachey among its distinguished members, which provokes Chadwick to raise the question of Strachey's Actonian affiliations, concluding that Strachey took to excess Acton's teaching, "never be surprised at the crumbling of an idol or the disclosure of a skeleton". The "excess", noted by Chadwick, consisted in this, that whereas Strachey enjoyed demolishing the reputation of his subjects and had no faith in the world being any better than it is - as a result of the flawed actions of men and women - Acton had some degree of confidence in the possibility of a better world. This judgement is surprising given that Acton was at least as sensitive to human weakness as Strachey. Even so, however surprising, the distinction seems to me a fair one, which is perhaps to be explained by the fact that Acton was not immune to the optimism of the 19th century. Strachey, writing in the 20th century, in the aftermath of the first world war, could have no such optimism. The influence of the zeitgeist would also explain why Acton could still project a work to be entitled "History as the story of liberty". But does the fact that this work was never completed, and not even seemingly begun, suggest a contrary argument? That perhaps the influence of the zeitgeist was not paramount and therefore that confidence in human betterment was misplaced? Whatever the answer, what Acton and Mary Gladstone referred to, in a private joke, as the "Madonna of the Future" was always in the writing and never written. (The reference is to the Henry James story of the artist whose dream painting of the ideal of motherhood amounts to no more than a blank and cracked canvas.) There is a tendency in this book to disregard Acton's injunction to study ideas rather than people. Nevertheless, to a remarkable extent, even the limited attention given to those ideas remains provoking - and this is because some have an inspired contemporary relevance. It is what makes Acton a man of two worlds.

Obviously, there are few historians today, if any, who look on themselves as custodians of the conscience of humanity. Again, it is only too obvious that when an historian today turns to deal with power he sees it purely as a sociological category with its exercise devoid of the moral hazards that Acton perceived. On the other hand, the call for an "ethical foreign policy" would surely meet with his approval. And this approval would extend also to the contemporary European drive towards the elimination of the nation state. "He preferred Austro-Hungary to the national state in Croatia or Serbia or Bohemia or Slovakia," Chadwick emphasises. Most important of all and the most resonant to contemporary ears would be Acton's insistence on the indivisible nature of an individual's responsibility for his actions, meaning that responsibility must not be shuffled off to some other authority or institution. And this capacity for the freedom of choice was to some extent a function of a state that allowed for the institution of private property. But on its own this criterion is inadequate. Chadwick also makes the point that for Acton the state must be more than a utilitarian instrument for the protection of its citizens, or the promotion of their prosperity. But what would this "more" entail?

Chadwick has written engagingly and informatively of the many and varied components of Acton as a person. If, ultimately, one finds the book unsatisfying it is because lesser justice is meted out to Acton's ideas.

Lionel Kochan is senior research fellow, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

Action and History

Author - Owen Chadwick
ISBN - 0 521 57074 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 0

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