January 10, 2021, marked Lord Acton’s 187th birthday. Amid a global pandemic, a crisis in institutions and civic unrest may seem like a strange time to look back on the life and legacy of a Victorian historian of ideas, but as Lord Acton himself remarked, “If the Past has been an obstacle and a burden, knowledge of the past is the safest and surest emancipation.” The freedom of the historian is the freedom to look beyond and through our own times to see the root causes of our current crises.
Many of today’s most contested and contentious questions are centered around the nature of liberty, a problem Lord Acton spent his life as a historian seeking to understand, believing that “no obstacle has been so constant, or so difficult to overcome, as uncertainty and confusion touching on the nature of liberty.”
Questions of the proper response to the COVID-19 pandemic, civic unrest, burgeoning public debt, corruption and resurgent socialism and nationalism can only be answered in the context of a proper view of freedom and responsibility.
This notion of liberty as the unfolding, in history and politics, of the idea of the dignity of the human person and their rights of conscience is deeply Christian. With roots in the Hebrew prophets of old and the classical tradition, it is revealed in its fullness in Jesus Christ.
We see Lord Acton’s vision in the guiding principles of the Acton Institute to promote freedom, as Lord Acton argued, as the highest political good. We realize that freedom is central because it is necessary to virtue, to people fulfilling their duties of conscience. In this sense, when we speak of individual liberty we are speaking of the reign of conscience. Authority, best embodied in religion, is necessary to form consciences, sustain liberty and promote the common good.
Acton’s vision, the liberal vision – of a society that is beyond the state, of individual souls that are above the state, and of the God who rules all through His providence – is still worth defending, and it offers hope to us now in polarized and troubled times.