The opening words of Lord Acton’s first lecture on the History of Freedom in 1877 set the theme: “Liberty, next to religion, has been the motive of good deeds and the common pretext of crime, from the sowing of the seed at Athens, 2,460 years ago, until the ripened harvest was gathered by men of our race.” In the course of time, constitutions were perverted, charters became obsolete, parliaments abdicated, and peoples erred, but the idea of liberty survived. That idea is “the unity, the only unity, of the history of the world, and the one principle of a philosophy of history.”
Whatever institutions or forms of government have been devised through the ages, the idea of liberty has remained constant: the right of each man to consult his conscience without reference to authorities or majorities, custom or opinion. The security of conscience enjoyed by the individual has its parallel in the security of minorities within the State; in both cases liberty is the safeguard of religion.
In the history of antiquity, Acton found confirmation of two of his favorite theories, that liberty is ancient and despotism modern, and that the history of liberty is in large measure the history of religion. The government of the Israelites, the first demonstration of political liberty, was a voluntary federation of self-governing tribes and families. When monarchy was finally instituted, it was only after much resistance, and the prophets kept alive the idea of equality before the law and the subservience of all before God. Acton wrote: “Thus, the example of the Hebrew nation laid down the parallel lines on which all freedom has been won – the doctrine of national tradition and the doctrine of the higher law; the principle that a constitution grows from a root, by process of development, and not of essential change; and the principle that all political authorities must be tested and reformed according to a code which was not made by man.”
The first of the many disasters to befall liberty occurred when Babylonia conquered Judah and freedom under divine authority made way for absolutism under human authorities. From the degradation of tyranny, inequality and oppression, the world was rescued by the most gifted of ancient cities, Athens. Solon inaugurated a revolution in philosophy and politics when he introduced the idea of popular election, “the idea that a man ought to have a voice in selecting those to whose rectitude and wisdom he is compelled to trust his fortune, his family, and his life.” Government by consent replaced government by force, and those who ruled were made responsible to those who obeyed. It was then discovered that political power, once concentrated in the interest of good order, could be distributed at no risk to order and at great gain to liberty.
This process of democratization was hastened by Pericles. With popular religion disintegrating, morality liberating itself from mythology, and a growing skepticism of moral authority, the people became the effective arbiters of good and evil. In consideration of this, Pericles installed them in the seat of power. All the props that artificially bolstered up property and wealth were destroyed, and it was a duty as well as a right for Athenians to participate in public affairs. Government became a matter of persuasion and rhetoric the instrument of popular rule, so that the “ascendancy of the mind” was established together with the ascendancy of the people.
In the zeal for the popular interest, however, there was no provision for the unpopular, and the minority soon found itself at the mercy of the majority. The people, now sovereign, felt themselves bound by no rules of right or wrong, no criteria except expediency, no force outside of themselves. They conducted wars in the marketplace and lost them, exploited their dependencies, plundered the rich, and crowned their guilt with the martyrdom of Socrates. The experiment of Athens taught that democracy, the rule of the most numerous and most powerful class, was an evil of the same nature as monarchical absolutism and required restraints of the same sort: institutions to protect it against itself and a permanent source of law to prevent arbitrary revolutions of opinion.
Men learned for the first time what later history was to confirm again and again. Acton:
It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist. But from the absolute will of an entire people there is no appeal, no redemption, no refuge but treason.
The Roman Republic experienced the same problems as Greece. Aristocratic governments alternated with democratic ones, until Caesar, supported by an army flushed with victories and a populace seduced by his generosity, converted the republic into a monarchy. In spite of the fact that the empire was an “ill-disguised and odious despotism,” it made an important contribution to liberty. As Frederick the Great, though a despot, could promote the freedom of religion and speech, and the Bonapartes, though tyrants, could win the love of the people, so the Roman Empire aroused genuine loyalty because it satisfied deep needs.
The poor fared better than they had under the Republic and the rich better than under the Triumvirate; the provinces acquired citizenship; slavery was mitigated; religious toleration was instituted; a primitive law of nations was devised; and the law of property was perfected. But what was given to liberty with one hand was taken away with the other when the people, by a voluntary act of delegation, transferred its sovereignty to the emperor and supported his tyranny because they thought of it as their own.
In terms of institutions and legislation, Greece and Rome had an imperfect conception of freedom. They knew how to manipulate power, but not how to achieve liberty. “The vice of the classic State was that it was both Church and State in one. Morality was undistinguished from religion and politics from morals; and in religion, morality, and politics there was only one legislator and one authority,” Acton wrote. The citizen was subject to the State as the slave was to his master, and nothing was deemed sacred apart from the public welfare.
But where their institutions failed, their philosophy succeeded. At a time when their governments were most absolute, their theories called for a mixed constitution. They saw that any single principle of government standing alone, whether monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy, was apt to be carried to excess, and that only in a distribution and balance of powers was liberty secure. All the philosophers of antiquity displayed the same theoretical boldness and practical timidity. Socrates urged men to submit all questions to the judgment of reason and conscience, and to ignore the verdict of authority, majority, or custom. Yet he would not sanction resistance. “He emancipated men for thought, but not for action,” and he fell victim to the old superstition of the State.
Plato taught the supremacy of a divine law “written in the mind of God,” and Aristotle applied it, in the form of the doctrine of a mixed constitution, to practical government. But neither Plato nor Aristotle dared to conceive of liberty as justice rather than as expediency. Plato “perverted” the divine law when he limited it to the citizens of Greece, refusing it to the slave and the stranger. Aristotle perverted it by putting good government higher than liberty. They did not see that liberty was not a means to a higher political end but was itself the highest end, that “it is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society and of private life.”
The Stoics pushed the theory of liberty one step forward with the doctrine of a law of Nature that was superior to the law of nations and the will of the people. “The great question,” they taught, “is to discover, not what governments prescribe, but what they ought to prescribe; for no prescription is valid against the conscience of mankind.” And the conscience of mankind knows no distinctions between Greek and barbarian, rich and poor, slave and master. Men are equal in rights as in duties, and human legislation can neither detract from the one nor add to the other. Thus the Stoics “redeemed democracy from the narrowness, the want of principle and of sympathy, which are its reproach among the Greeks.” Augustine testified to their wisdom when he remarked, after quoting Seneca, “What more could a Christian say than this Pagan has said?”
The Christian had, indeed, little more to say. There was hardly a truth in politics or ethics that had not already been enunciated before the new dispensation was revealed. It was left for Christianity, however, to animate the old truths, to make real the metaphysical barrier which philosophy had erected in the way of absolutism. The only thing Socrates could do in the way of a protest against tyranny was to die for his convictions. The Stoics could only advise the wise man to hold aloof from politics and keep faith with the unwritten law in his heart. But when Christ said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” he gave to the State a legitimacy it had never before enjoyed, and set bounds to it that it had never yet acknowledged. And he not only delivered the precept, but he also forged the instruments to execute it. To limit the power of the State ceased to be the hope of patient, ineffectual philosophers and became the perpetual charge of a universal Church.
This article was excerpted from Gertrude Himmelfarb’s Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics. The book, originally published in 1952, is available in a new 2015 edition from the Acton Book Shop.