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On January 10 it was the birth anniversary of the great Britain historians John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, well known as Lord Acton, who was born in Naples in 1834. Lord Acton, a brilliant cosmopolitan intellectual who is probably best known for his unfinished work the “History of Liberty”. Snippets and parts of this great publishing adventure have come down to us, and they all show the author’s breadth and depth of historical understanding.
Throughout his life, Acton (Naples 1834 – Tegernsee 1902) was to study Liberalism as something else than excessive rationalism, utilitarianism, and materialism. This would point up the proximity of his own positions with that of Western thought, and the Catholic tradition in general. Precious proof of this is given to us by Friedrich August von Hayek. The Austrian economist, in re-tracing the steps of Western liberalism the wake of Lord Acton, defined St. Thomas Aquinas as the “first Whig,” the founder of the Whig party and, in examining the first political schools which laid down the principle of the rule of law, that very civic republicanism which was so dear to the founders of the United States and which is indeed one of the cornerstones of Catholic “subsidiarity” (civitas sibi princeps), refers to the writings of mediaeval philosophers such as Nicholas of Cusa and Bartolus of Saxoferrato.
In this way, Lord Acton contributed like few others to an ethical definition of liberty, whence the term “ethical liberalism”, coined by the late professor Massimo Baldini. The importance of Providence in history, Acton believed, was the expansion of human freedoms, and the pivot for this process was the birth and development of Catholicism. Indeed, he said “Outside Christianity there is no freedom,” by which he meant that our informed consciences (i.e. not arbitrary and abandoned to themselves) were the pivot onto which Catholicism was lowered. This Catholic English historian, in the wake of Cicero, St. Thomas Aquinas and Montesquieu, used to affirm that someone who does what he wants is not free, but someone who is able to do what he must. Freedom in this way is an exaltation of the practice of the virtues, a series of ideals which will turn us towards what is good, and which have been recognised as such. It is symptomatic of a Liberal like Lord Acton that he points to duty (and to religious duties) as the source of all civil freedoms. The Cambridge historian does not seem to ignore the differences there have been along the path of human liberty throughout history, nor does he delude himself there will not be others with the time yet to come. For Acton, liberty is the fragile outcome of a long and never-ending process, a path which is not ramrod-straight. If we look backwards, we cannot fail to see the blackest pages of our history, when human dignity was trampled underfoot by evil, and falsehoods seemed destined to win out. Our opinion cannot change, however far back we look. And yet, even here, if we are to continue walking towards liberty and not be tricked, we must use all our efforts so that the difficulties awaiting us will not find us unprepared.
The definition of Lord Acton’s Whiggery is based upon an idea of liberty firmly rooted in responsibility and based upon respect for the law; it is not freedom from the law, but freedom under it. Free men are those who can do what they ought, and not those who do as they wish. It is only by continually exercising this freedom that free societies will remain so. Real liberty has its own responsibilities. Liberty in this way is very close to Aristotle’s practical wisdom, which is another way of speaking about the informed conscience. So liberty means a moment for deliberation, or a practical search for perceiving and choosing (proposing) the best way of reaching a purpose here and now. The best example we can see of this type of liberty is, as Michael Novak says, the Statue of Liberty: a woman (wisdom) holding the light of reason in one hand and a book of law in the other. Such an ethics of responsibility, teaches us Acton, owes much to the Jewish-Christian culture, a culture that has encouraged the formation of societies characterized by the irreducible and non hierarchical institutional pluralism and by the principle of freedom of conscience.
Flavio Felice is Adjunct Fellow American Enterprise Institute and President of Tocqueville-Acton Centre Studies
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