When Kris Mauren and I founded the Acton Institute ten years ago, we chose as our namesake the English historian John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, First Baron Acton of Aldenham.
Why Acton? He was one of the more fascinating Victorians, at turns a cosmopolitan aristocrat, a journalist, a member of Parliament, a peer in the House of Lords, and a professor of history at Cambridge University. Above all, he was a devout man of faith and a fierce partisan for liberty.
These last two attributes–and how Acton synthesized them–were what impressed us most. It was Acton's conviction that “liberty is the highest political end of man,” but “no country can be free without religion.” In other words, he perceived that though liberty is the highest political end, it is not the highest human end. True liberty must be oriented toward and bounded by the truth. Otherwise, it degenerates into a mere libertinism that degrades the human person. Furthermore, such libertinism creates the conditions for despotism, for “if men are not kept straight by duty, they must be by fear. The more they are kept by fear, the less they are free.” For Acton, religion created the conditions for the preservation of a free society.
These aspects of Acton's life and thought are ably explored in the new and comprehensive biography, Lord Acton, published by Yale University Press and written by the English journalist Roland Hill. As Hill assesses Acton's legacy, “Perhaps after the horrors of Auschwitz and the Gulag we feel that they might have been lessened if in his own and subsequent times more attention had been paid to freedom as the moral and religious end of society.” And Hill is right. “Liberty,” Acton wrote, “is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.” It is a theme that the Acton Institute has sounded again in our age, and I thank you for the support that enables us to do so.
Fr. Robert A. Sirico