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The 101 greatest philosophers of liberty (and Lord Acton is #70)

The Acton Institute’s namesake, Lord Acton, finds himself honored in a new book about the philosophers who cultivated the intellectual seeds that blossomed into Western civilization. Lord John Dalberg-Acton ranks at number 70, not because he had less influence on liberty than 69 others, but because the new collection unfolds in chronological order.

Eamonn Butler provides brief, encyclopedic entries of figures from Pericles to Gary Becker in his newest book, School of Thought – 101 Great Liberal Thinkers, published by the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA).

Butler begins by defining the term “liberal” in its classical sense.

“In summary, liberals believe in a thriving, spontaneous social order with mutual respect, toleration, non-aggression, cooperation and voluntary exchange between free people,” Butler writes. “Most base this on individuals’ basic moral rights of life, liberty and property, protected by a strong, trustworthy justice system.”

Below is his entry on Lord Acton:

[70] Lord Acton [John Dalberg-Acton] (1834–1902):


English Catholic historian and politician. Key ideas: Power corrupts; individual as the highest political end; liberty is not licence; importance of ideas in preserving liberty. Key work: The History of Freedom and Other Essays (1907).


Though Acton was more conservative than liberal, he has a place in the hearts of liberals for his remark: ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.


Acton believed that Western civilisation was superior to others, having taken centuries to develop the idea that the individual was the highest value. The individual’s liberty, therefore, ‘is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end’. It required protection ‘against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion’. Yet, as a committed Catholic, he was keen to distinguish liberty from licence: ‘Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought’.


Acton applauded the federal structure of the US Constitution as a protector of personal freedom. He supported the Confederacy for its defence of states’ rights against centralised government – which, he warned, could easily descend into tyranny if left unchecked.


But constitutions alone could not preserve freedom. Freedom depends on the ideas in which our institutions are rooted. Even liberal institutions degenerate over time if they do not live in the hearts and minds of individuals. Though the institutions of government may look liberal in form, he observed, they still do not necessarily defend liberty in practice.

You can read the full book here.

 (Photo credit: Public domain.)

Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.