John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton Acton.

Lectures on Modern history online

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E-text prepared by Geoffrey Cowling






Delivered at Cambridge, June 1895

FELLOW STUDENTS - I look back today to a time before the middle of
the century, when I was reading at Edinburgh and fervently
wishing to come to this University. At three colleges I applied
for admission, and, as things then were, I was refused by all.
Here, from the first, I vainly fixed my hopes, and here, in
a happier hour, after five-and-forty years, they are at last

I desire, first, to speak to you of that which I may reasonably
call the Unity of Modern History, as an easy approach to questions
necessary to be met on the threshold by any one occupying this
place, which my predecessor has made so formidable to me by the
reflected lustre of his name.

You have often heard it said that Modern History is a subject to
which neither beginning nor end can be assigned. No beginning,
because the dense web of the fortunes of man is woven without a
void; because, in society as in nature, the structure is
continuous, and we can trace things back uninterruptedly, until
we dimly descry the Declaration of Independence in the forests of
Germany. No end, because, on the same principle, history made
and history making are scientifically inseparable and separately

"Politics," said Sir John Seeley, "are vulgar when they are not
liberalised by history, and history fades into mere literature
when it loses sight of its relation to practical politics."
Everybody perceives the sense in which this is true. For the
science of politics is the one science that is deposited by the
stream of history, like grains of gold in the sand of a river;
and the knowledge of the past, the record of truths revealed by
experience, is eminently practical, as an instrument of action
and a power that goes to the making of the future #1. In France,
such is the weight attached to the study of our own time, that
there is an appointed course of contemporary history, with
appropriate text-books #2. That is a chair which, in the progressive
division of labour by which both science and government prosper #3,
may some day be founded in this country. Meantime, we do well to
acknowledge the points at which the two epochs diverge. For the
contemporary differs from the modern in this, that many of its
facts cannot by us be definitely ascertained. The living do not
give up their secrets with the candour of the dead; one key is
always excepted, and a generation passes before we can ensure
accuracy. Common report and outward seeming are bad copies of the
reality, as the initiated know it. Even of a thing so memorable
as the war of 1870, the true cause is still obscure; much that we
believed has been scattered to the winds in the last six months,
and further revelations by important witnesses are about to
appear. The use of history turns far more on certainty than on
abundance of acquired information.

Beyond the question of certainty is the question of detachment.
The process by which principles are discovered and appropriated
is other than that by which, in practice, they are applied; and
our most sacred and disinterested convictions ought to take shape
in the tranquil regions of the air, above the tumult and the
tempest of active life #4. For a man is justly despised who has one
opinion in history and another in politics, one for abroad and
another at home, one for opposition and another for office.
History compels us to fasten on abiding issues, and rescues us
from the temporary and transient. Politics and history are
interwoven, but are not commensurate. Ours is a domain that
reaches farther than affairs of state, and is not subject to the
jurisdiction of governments. It is our function to keep in view
and to command the movement of ideas, which are not the effect
but the cause of public events #5; and even to allow some priority
to ecclesiastical history over civil, since, by reason of the
graver issues concerned, and the vital consequences of error, it
opened the way in research, and was the first to be treated by
close reasoners and scholars of the higher rank #6.

In the same manner, there is wisdom and depth in the philosophy which
always considers the origin and the germ, and glories in history as
one consistent epic #7. Yet every student ought to know that mastery
is acquired by resolved limitation. And confusion ensues from the
theory of Montesquieu and of his school, who, adapting the same term
to things unlike, insist that freedom is the primitive condition of
the race from which we are sprung #8. If we are to account mind not
matter, ideas not force, the spiritual property that gives dignity and
grace and intellectual value to history, and its action on the
ascending life of man, then we shall not be prone to explain the
universal by the national, and civilisation by custom #9. A speech of
Antigone, a single sentence of Socrates, a few lines that were
inscribed on an Indian rock before the Second Punic War, the footsteps
of a silent yet prophetic people who dwelt by the Dead Sea, and
perished in the fall of Jerusalem, come nearer to our lives than the
ancestral wisdom of barbarians who fed their swine on the Hercynian

For our present purpose, then, I describe as Modern History that which
begins four hundred years ago, which is marked off by an evident and
intelligible line from the time immediately preceding, and displays in
its course specific and distinctive characteristics of its own #10.
The modern age did not proceed from the medieval by normal succession,
with outward tokens of legitimate descent. Unheralded, it founded a
new order of things, under a law of innovation, sapping the ancient
reign of continuity. In those days Columbus subverted the notions of
the world, and reversed the conditions of production, wealth, and
power; in those days Machiavelli released government from the
restraint of law; Erasmus diverted the current of ancient learning
from profane into Christian channels; Luther broke the chain of
authority and tradition at the strongest link; and Copernicus erected
an invincible power that set for ever the mark of progress upon the
time that was to come. There is the same unbound originality and
disregard for inherited sanctions in the rare philosophers as in the
discovery of Divine Right, and the intruding Imperialism of Rome. The
like effects are visible everywhere, and one generation beheld them
all. It was an awakening of new life; the world revolved in a
different orbit, determined by influences unknown before. After many
ages persuaded of the headlong decline and impending dissolution of
society #11, and governed by usage and the will of masters who were in
their graves, the sixteenth century went forth armed for untried
experience, and ready to watch with hopefulness a prospect of
incalculable change.

That forward movement divides it broadly from the older world;
and the unity of the new is manifest in the universal spirit of
investigation and discovery which did not cease to operate, and
withstood the recurring efforts of reaction, until, by the advent
of the reign of general ideas which we call the Revolution, it at
length prevailed #12. This successive deliverance and gradual
passage, for good and evil, from subordination to independence is
a phenomenon of primary import to us, because historical science
has been one of its instruments #13. If the Past has been an obstacle
and a burden, knowledge of the Past is the safest and the surest
emancipation. And the earnest search for it is one of the signs
that distinguish the four centuries of which I speak from those
that went before. The Middle Ages, which possessed good writers
of contemporary narrative, were careless and impatient of older
fact. They became content to be deceived, to live in a twilight
of fiction, under clouds of false witness, inventing according to
convenience, and glad to welcome the forger and the cheat #14. As
time went on, the atmosphere of accredited mendacity thickened,
until, in the Renaissance, the art of exposing falsehood dawned
upon keen Italian minds. It was then that History as we
understand it began to be understood, and the illustrious dynasty
of scholars arose to whom we still look both for method and
material. Unlike the dreaming prehistoric world, ours knows the
need and the duty to make itself master of the earlier times, and
to forfeit nothing of their wisdom or their warnings #15, and has
devoted its best energy and treasure to the sovereign purpose of
detecting error and vindicating entrusted truth #16.

In this epoch of full-grown history men have not acquiesced in
the given conditions of their lives. Taking little for granted
they have sought to know the ground they stand on, and the road
they travel, and the reason why. Over them, therefore, the
historian has obtained an increasing ascendancy #17. The law of
stability was overcome by the power of ideas, constantly varied
and rapidly renewed #18; ideas that give life and motion, that take
wing and traverse seas and frontiers, making it futile to pursue
the consecutive order of events in the seclusion of a separate
nationality #19. They compel us to share the existence of societies
wider than our own, to be familiar with distant and exotic types,
to hold our march upon the loftier summits, along the central
range, to live in the company of heroes, and saints, and men of
genius, that no single country could produce. We cannot afford
wantonly to lose sight of great men and memorable lives, and are
bound to store up objects for admiration as far as may be #20; for
the effect of implacable research is constantly to reduce their
number. No intellectual exercise, for instance, can be more
invigorating than to watch the working of the mind of Napoleon,
the most entirely known as well as the ablest of historic men.
In another sphere, it is the vision of a higher world to be
intimate with the character of Fenelon, the cherished model of
politicians, ecclesiastics, and men of letters, the witness
against one century and precursor of another, the advocate of the
poor against oppression, of liberty in an age of arbitrary power,
of tolerance in an age of persecution, of the humane virtues
among men accustomed to sacrifice them to authority, the man of
whom one enemy says that his cleverness was enough to strike
terror, and another, that genius poured in torrents from his
eyes. For the minds that are greatest and best alone furnish the
instructive examples. A man of ordinary proportion or inferior
metal knows not how to think out the rounded circle of his
thought, how to divest his will of its surroundings and to rise
above the pressure of time and race and circumstance #21, to choose
the star that guides his course, to correct, and test, and assay
his convictions by the light within #22, and, with a resolute
conscience and ideal courage, to remodel and reconstitute the
character which birth and education gave him #23.

For ourselves, if it were not the quest of the higher level and
the extended horizon, international history would be imposed by
the exclusive and insular reason that parliamentary reporting is
younger than parliaments. The foreigner has no mystic fabric in
his government, and no arcanum imperii. For him the foundations
have been laid bare; every motive and function of the mechanism
is accounted for as distinctly as the works of a watch. But with
our indigenous constitution, not made with hands or written upon
paper, but claiming to develop by a law of organic growth; with
our disbelief in the virtue of definitions and general principles
and our reliance on relative truths, we can have nothing
equivalent to the vivid and prolonged debates in which other
communities have displayed the inmost secrets of political
science to every man who can read. And the discussions of
constituent assemblies, at Philadelphia, Versailles and Paris, at
Cadiz and Brussels, at Geneva, Frankfort and Berlin, above nearly
all, those of the most enlightened States in the American Union,
when they have recast their institutions, are paramount in the
literature of politics, and proffer treasures which at home we
have never enjoyed.

To historians the later part of their enormous subject is
precious because it is inexhaustible. It is the best to know
because it is the best known and the most explicit. Earlier
scenes stand out from a background of obscurity. We soon reach
the sphere of hopeless ignorance and unprofitable doubt. But
hundreds and even thousands of the moderns have borne testimony
against themselves, and may be studied in their private
correspondence and sentenced on their own confession. Their
deeds are done in the daylight. Every country opens its archives
and invites us to penetrate the mysteries of State. When Hallam
wrote his chapter on James II, France was the only Power whose
reports were available. Rome followed, and The Hague; and then
came the stores of the Italian States, and at last the Prussian
and the Austrian papers, and partly those of Spain. Where Hallam
and Lingard were dependent on Barillon, their successors consult
the diplomacy of ten governments. The topics indeed are few on
which the resources have been so employed that we can be content
with the work done for us and never wish it to be done over
again. Part of the lives of Luther and Frederic, a little of the
Thirty Years' War, much of the American Revolution and the French
Restoration, the early years of Richelieu and Mazarin, and a few
volumes of Mr. Gardiner, show here and there like Pacific islands
in the ocean. I should not even venture to claim for Ranke, the
real originator of the heroic study of records, and the most
prompt and fortunate of European pathfinders, that there is one
of his seventy volumes that has not been overtaken and in part
surpassed. It is through his accelerating influence mainly that
our branch of study has become progressive, so that the best
master is quickly distanced by the better pupil #24. The Vatican
archives alone, now made accessible to the world, filled 3239
cases when they were sent to France; and they are not the
richest. We are still at the beginning of the documentary age,
which will tend to make history independent of historians, to
develop learning at the expense of writing, and to accomplish a
revolution in other sciences as well.

To men in general I would justify the stress I am laying on
Modern History, neither by urging its varied wealth, nor the
rupture with precedent, nor the perpetuity of change and increase
of pace, nor the growing predominance of opinion over belief, and
of knowledge over opinion, but by the argument that it is a
narrative told of ourselves, the record of a life which is our
own, of efforts not yet abandoned to repose, of problems that
still entangle the feet and vex the hearts of men. Every part of
it is weighty with inestimable lessons that we must learn by
experience and at a great price, if we know not how to profit by
the example and teaching of those who have gone before us, in a
society largely resembling the one we live in #25. Its study fulfils
its purpose even if it only makes us wiser, without producing
books, and gives us the gift of historical thinking, which is
better than historical learning #27. It is a most powerful
ingredient in the formation of character and the training of
talent, and our historical judgments have as much to do with
hopes of heaven as public or private conduct. Convictions that
have been strained through the instances and the comparisons of
modern times differ immeasurably in solidity and force from those
which every new fact perturbs, and which are often little better
than illusions or unsifted prejudice #28.

The first of human concerns is religion, and it is the salient
feature of the modern centuries. They are signalised as the
scene of Protestant developments. Starting from a time of
extreme indifference, ignorance, and decline, they were at once
occupied with that conflict which was to rage so long, and of
which no man could imagine the infinite consequences. Dogmatic
conviction - for I shun to speak of faith in connection with many
characters of those days - dogmatic conviction rose to be the
centre of universal interest, and remained down to Cromwell the
supreme influence and motive of public policy. A time came when
the intensity of prolonged conflict, when even the energy of
antagonistic assurance abated somewhat, and the controversial
spirit began to make room for the scientific; and as the storm
subsided, and the area of settled questions emerged, much of the
dispute was abandoned to the serene and soothing touch of
historians, invested as they are with the prerogative of
redeeming the cause of religion from many unjust reproaches, and
from the graver evils of reproaches that are just. Ranke used to
say that Church interests prevailed in politics until the Seven
Years' War, and marked a phase of society that ended when the
hosts of Brandenburg went into action at Leuthen, chaunting their
Lutheran hymns #29. That bold proposition would be disputed even if
applied to the present age. After Sir Robert Peel had broken up
his party, the leaders who followed him declared that no popery
was the only basis on which it could be reconstructed #30. On the
other side may be urged that, in July 1870, at the outbreak of
the French war, the only government that insisted on the
abolition of the temporal power was Austria; and since then we
have witnessed the fall of Castelar, because he attempted to
reconcile Spain with Rome.

Soon after 1850 several of the most intelligent men in France,
struck by the arrested increase of their own population and by
the telling statistics from Further Britain, foretold the coming
preponderance of the English race. They did not foretell, what
none could then foresee, the still more sudden growth of Prussia,
or that the three most important countries of the globe would, by
the end of the century, be those that chiefly belonged to the
conquests of the Reformation. So that in Religion, as in so many
things, the product of these centuries has favoured the new
elements; and the centre of gravity, moving from the Mediterranean
nations to the Oceanic, from the Latin to the Teuton, has also
passed from the Catholic to the Protestant #31.

Out of these controversies proceeded political as well as
historical science. It was in the Puritan phase, before the
restoration of the Stuarts, that theology, blending with
politics, effected a fundamental change. The essentially English
reformation of the seventeenth century was less a struggle
between churches than between sects, often subdivided by
questions of discipline and self-regulation rather than by dogma.
The sectaries cherished no purpose or prospect of prevailing over
the nations; and they were concerned with the individual more
than with the congregation, with conventicles, not with State
churches. Their view was narrowed, but their sight was
sharpened. It appeared to them that governments and institutions
are made to pass away, like things of earth, whilst souls are
immortal; that there is no more proportion between liberty and
power than between eternity and time; that, therefore, the sphere
of enforced command ought to be restricted within fixed limits,
and that which had been done by authority, and outward discipline,
and organised violence, should be attempted by division of power,
and committed to the intellect and the conscience of free men #32.
Thus was exchanged the dominion of will over will for the dominion
of reason over reason. The true apostles of toleration are not
those who sought protection for their own beliefs, or who had none
to protect; but men to whom, irrespective of their cause, it was
a political, a moral, and a theological dogma, a question of
conscience involving both religion and policy #33. Such a man was
Socinus; and others arose in the smaller sects - the Independent
founder of the colony of Rhode Island, and the Quaker patriarch
of Pennsylvania. Much of the energy and zeal which had laboured
for authority of doctrine was employed for liberty of prophesying.
The air was filled with the enthusiasm of a new cry; but the cause
was still the same. It became a boast that religion was the
mother of freedom, that freedom was the lawful offspring of religion;
and this transmutation, this subversion of established forms of
political life by the development of religious thought, brings us
to the heart of my subject, to the significant and central feature of
the historic cycles before us. Beginning with the strongest
religious movement and the most refined despotism ever known, it
has led to the superiority of politics over divinity in the life
of nations, and terminates in the equal claim of every man to be
unhindered by man in the fulfilment of duty to God #34 - a doctrine
laden with storm and havoc, which is the secret essence of the
Rights of Man, and the indestructible soul of Revolution.

When we consider what the adverse forces were, their sustained
resistance, their frequent recovery, the critical moments when
the struggle seemed for ever desperate, in 1685, in 1772, in
1808, it is no hyperbole to say that the progress of the world
towards self-government would have been arrested but for the
strength afforded by the religious motive in the seventeenth
century. And this constancy of progress, of progress in the
direction of organised and assured freedom, is the characteristic
fact of Modern History, and its tribute to the theory of
Providence #35. Many persons, I am well assured, would detect that
this is a very old story, and a trivial commonplace, and would
challenge proof that the world is making progress in aught but
intellect, that it is gaining in freedom, or that increase in
freedom is either a progress or a gain. Ranke, who was my own
master, rejected the view that I have stated #36; Comte, the master
of better men, believed that we drag a lengthening chain under
the gathered weight of the dead hand #37; and many of our recent
classics - Carlyle, Newman, Froude - were persuaded that there is
no progress justifying the ways of God to man, and that the mere
consolidation of liberty is like the motion of creatures whose
advance is in the direction of their tails. They deem that
anxious precaution against bad government is an obstruction to
good, and degrades morality and mind by placing the capable at
the mercy of the incapable, dethroning enlightened virtue for the
benefit of the average man. They hold that great and salutary
things are done for mankind by power concentrated, not by power
balanced and cancelled and dispersed, and that the whig theory,
sprung from decomposing sects, the theory that authority is
legitimate only by virtue of its checks, and that the sovereign
is dependent on the subject, is rebellion against the divine will
manifested all down the stream of time.

I state the objection not that we may plunge into the crucial
controversy of a science that is not identical with ours, but in order
to make my drift clear by the defining aid of express contradiction.
No political dogma is as serviceable to my purpose here as the
historian's maxim to do the best he can for the other side, and to
avoid pertinacity or emphasis on his own. Like the economic precept
laissez faire #38, which the eighteenth century derived from Colbert,
it has been an important, if not a final step in the making of method.
The strongest and most impressive personalities, it is true, like
Macaulay, Thiers, and the two greatest of living writers, Mommsen and
Treitschke, project their own broad shadow upon their pages. This is
a practice proper to great men, and a great man may be worth several
immaculate historians. Otherwise there is virtue in the saying that a
historian is seen at his best when he does not appear #39. Better for
us is the example of the Bishop of Oxford, who never lets us know what
he thinks of anything but the matter before him; and of his
illustrious French rival, Fustel de Coulanges, who said to an excited
audience: "Do not imagine you are listening to me; it is history
itself that speaks." #40 We can found no philosophy on the observation
of four hundred years, excluding three thousand. It would be an
imperfect and a fallacious induction. But I hope that even this
narrow and dis-edifying section of history will aid you to see that

Online LibraryJohn Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton ActonLectures on Modern history → online text (page 1 of 31)