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THE HISTORY OF FREEDOM AND OTHER ESSAYS. BY JOHN EMERICH EDWARD DALBERG ACTON, FIRST BARON ACTON. London: Macmillan, 1907.
LORD ACTON can be studied as a personality, a historian, a Roman Catholic, a moralist and a Liberal. As a personality he ranks among the most fascinating figures of the nineteenth century. Young and old agreed that there was no one like him. Lord Morley used to say that if he could summon one -- and only one -- of his friends from the grave it would be Acton. Gladstone, declares his biographer, could never have enough of his company, and the present writer preserves the memory of delightful talks fifty years ago. The success of Bishop Mathew's recent study of his formative years suggests that interest in this striking figure tends to grow rather than to wane. As a historian the man who never published a book has outlived most of his more productive contemporaries on the strength of two posthumous collections of essays and two courses of Cambridge lectures. His strenuous efforts to broaden the intellectual horizon of English Catholics and to combat the Ultramontanism which he abhorred have been described in Dr. Noack's "Acton und der Katholizismus," a book too little known outside Germany. His celebrity as a moralist is largely due to the fact that some of his maxims have become current coin. Taine was saluted by a young French writer as notre conscience vivante. It was Acton's task to test men and movements, institutions and ideologies, by the pointed challenge of Christian ethics, convinced as he was that since the coming of Christ there was no excuse for anyone to pretend that he did not know the difference between right and wrong. On his deathbed he confessed to his son that his judgments had occasionally been too harsh, but he would have reproached himself far more if he had ever failed to condemn wrongdoing in Church and State.
It is with the fifth aspect of this many-sided man that this article is concerned, for it is above all as an apostle of liberty that his name and influence survive. His reputation grew steadily after his death with the publication of his writings and his correspondence; and the revival of the theory and practice of dictatorship after the First World War increased the authority of a teacher who ranks with Jefferson and Humboldt, Mill and Croce, among the eminent liberal thinkers of the modern world. In a celebrated phrase, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and a familiar couplet of Goethe proclaims that he alone merits liberty "who conquers it afresh from day to day." A recent American biography, entitled "As Lord Acton Says," tells the story of an unceasing struggle against political and intellectual coercion. If he returned to the world of today and was told, as we have been assured both from the Fascist and Marxist camps and by once popular oracles such as Spengler and Möller van den Bruck, that nineteenth century liberalism was dead, he would surely rejoin: So much the worse for the twentieth century! The laissez-faire economics which prevailed in his lifetime formed no essential portion of the gospel of liberty, which rests on the notion that we are neither slaves nor robots and that every man however humble and weak should have his chance.
The first of human concerns, declared Acton in his famous Inaugural Lecture at Cambridge, was religion, the second liberty, and their fortunes were intertwined. His conception was more fully expounded in the two lectures delivered in 1878 on "The History of Freedom," which make us sadly aware what the world has lost by the failure even to commence what should have been the principal work of his life, and to which he wistfully referred as the Madonna of the Future. "By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion. The state is competent to assign duties and draw the line between good and evil only in its immediate sphere. Beyond the limits of things necessary for its well-being it can only give indirect help to fight the battle of life by promoting the influences which prevail against temptation -- religion, education, and the distribution of wealth. The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of civil society and of private life. A generous spirit prefers that his country should be poor and weak and of no account but free, rather than powerful, prosperous and enslaved. It is better to be the citizen of a humble commonwealth in the Alps than a subject of the superb autocracy that overshadows half of Asia and Europe." It is no new doctrine that the quality of the citizen matters more than the size, the wealth and the power of the state; but no one has held it with deeper conviction or proclaimed it with more fervent eloquence than this liberal aristocrat who combined cosmopolitan culture with the Englishman's instinctive determination to stand firmly on his own legs. There is always a ring in his voice when he speaks of liberty.
Every Liberal, it has been truly said, is something of an optimist about human nature; the higher our estimate, the more can citizens be encouraged and allowed to go their own way. The worse we are -- or are believed to be -- the greater the need for coercion and control in society and government. As a Christian individualist hating revolution no less than despotism, Acton asked, not that we should follow every whim of the natural man, but that we should have the opportunity to fulfil our lofty destiny as the children of God. "The end of civil society is the establishment of liberty for the realization of moral duties." Though one of the most learned men of his time was only too familiar with the history of temptation, he believed that we are divinely endowed with the instruments of resistance and that conscience is our mariner's compass in the stormy voyage of life. The way to secure the flowering of personality, to get the best out of the citizen, to aid him to grow to his full spiritual stature, is to make the highest claims on him, to give him the maximum chance of self-realization, to say to him: Freely ye have received, freely give. "The emancipation of conscience from authority," he declares in one of his most pregnant aphorisms, "is the main content of modern history." The way to make men better, he declared, is to make them free. For tame machine-made and mass-produced citizens, as for the systems which bred them, he had nothing but contempt. He looked to Locke and Montesquieu, Burke and Mill, not to Hobbes or Rousseau, Hegel or Joseph de Maistre.
Since ordered liberty was the greatest prize of civilized mankind, its evolution appeared to Acton not only the most fascinating but the most significant theme in the whole range of historical studies. Hegel's "Philosophy of History" had taught the same doctrine, but while his interest was concentrated on the state, Acton's eyes were fixed on the individual. "Twenty years ago," writes Lord Bryce in a memorable passage, "late at night in his library at Cannes, he expounded to me his views of how such a history of liberty might be written and how it might be made the central thread of all history. He spoke for six or seven minutes only; but he spoke like a man inspired, as if from some mountain summit high in air he saw beneath him the far-winding path of human progress from dim Cimmerian shores of prehistoric shadow into the fuller yet broken light of the modern time. The eloquence was splendid; but greater than the eloquence was the penetrating vision which discerned throughout all events and in all ages the play of those moral forces, now creating, now destroying, always transmuting, which had moulded and remoulded human institutions, and had given to the human spirit its ceaselessly changing forms of energy. It was as if the whole landscape of history had been suddenly lit up by a burst of sunlight. I have never heard from any other lips any discourse like this, nor from his did I ever hear the like again." Though the outlines were never filled in, we possess enough material to indicate his attitude to the main phases of the ascent of man. "We have no thread through the enormous intricacy of modern politics," he declared in his "Lectures on Modern History," "except the idea of progress towards more perfect and assured freedom and the divine right of free men."
Dismissing the economic interpretation of history proclaimed by Marx as a childish oversimplification, Acton also rejected a predominantly political approach. History, he declared, derived its best virtue from beyond the sphere of state. Institutional changes, transformations of society, the rise and fall of empires, have many causes, but at the back of everything is the conflict of ideas. There was little liberty in the ancient world, for the individual was at the mercy of the state. "It is the Stoics who emancipated mankind from its subjugation to despotic rule, and whose enlightened and elevated views of life bridged the chasm that separates the ancient from the Christian state and led the way to freedom. They made it known that there is a will superior to the collective will of man and a law that overrules those of Solon and Lycurgus. That which we must obey, that to which we are bound to reduce all civil authorities and to sacrifice every earthly interest, is that immutable law which is perfect and eternal as God Himself." True freedom, says the most eloquent of the Stoics, consists in obeying God. These doctrines were adopted and applied by the great jurists of the Empire. Readers of the first volume of Carlyle's monumental survey of mediæval political theory will discover how much the Christian doctrine of the state took over from the sages of Greece and Rome. The difference between the ancient and the Christian world was not the difference between darkness and light. "There is hardly a truth in politics or in the system of the rights of man that was not grasped by the wisest of the Gentiles and the Jews, or that they did not declare with a refinement of thought and a nobleness of utterance which later writers could never surpass. But although the maxims of the great classic teachers, of Sophocles and Plato and Seneca, and the glorious examples of public virtue, were in the mouths of all men, there was no power in them to avert the doom of that civilization for which the blood of so many patriots and the genius of such incomparable writers had been wasted in vain. The liberties of the ancient nations were crushed beneath a hopeless and inevitable despotism, and their vitality was spent when the new power came forth from Galilee, giving what was wanting to the efficacy of human knowledge to redeem societies as well as men."
If the recognition of "the law of nature" was the first step on the long and winding road from despotism to liberty, the second was the proclamation of the spiritual independence of every human being by the Christian Church. "When Christ said: Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's, those words gave to the civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness it had never enjoyed and bounds it had never acknowledged, and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of freedom. For our Lord not only delivered the precept but created the force to execute it. To reduce all political authority within defined limits ceased to be an aspiration of patient reasoners and was made the perpetual charge and care of the most energetic institution and the most universal association in the world." That the Church often abused its power and betrayed its principles is true enough, but it was above all ecclesiastical resistance which prevented Europe from falling under the yoke of a Byzantine despotism. It was the first great organization which dared to tell the state: Thus far and no further!
From the conflict of the secular and ecclesiastical authority arose civil liberty, for both were driven to acknowledge, at any rate in theory, the sovereignty of the people. The third decisive advance was the invention of representative government. "Neither an enlightened philosophy, nor all the political wisdom of Rome, nor even the faith and virtue of the Christians, availed against the incorrigible tradition of antiquity. Something was wanted beyond all the gifts of reflection and experience -- a faculty of self-government and self-control, developed like its language in the fibre of a nation and growing with its growth. This vital element, which many centuries of warfare, of anarchy, of oppression had extinguished in the countries that were still draped in the pomp of ancient civilization, was deposited on the soil of Christendom by the fertilizing stream of migration that overthrew the Empire of the West." In this pæan to our Teutonic ancestors, to "the noble savage" of the poets, we might be listening to the voice of Freeman himself. While the main outcome of ancient politics was an absolute state resting on slavery, the Middle Ages witnessed the progressive restriction of the executive by the combined pressure of feudalism, cities and the Church. This process of the dispersion of power was challenged by Machiavelli and the Protestant reformers, by Bodin and Hobbes, who revived the doctrine of the unfettered sovereignty of the state as the only method of dealing with the abuses of feudalism and particularism and the best way of preserving order. Once again, as in the ancient world, centralization was carried too far in the absolute monarchies created in sixteenth century Europe, Catholic no less than Protestant.
Fortunately for mankind the cause of liberty was saved by England and America. Acton always had a warm place in his heart for the Puritans who, primarily from religious motives, stood up to the first two Stuart kings and were ready to pay any price for obeying the voice of conscience. Though religion meant little to Lilburne, and he cannot therefore be classified as a Puritan in the stricter sense, he is hailed as one of the first writers to understand the need of democracy. Locke, the most typically English and therefore the most influential of our publicists, proclaimed the virtues of the juste milieu, and Montesquieu emphasized the value of the "separation of powers" as the strongest guarantee of ordered liberty. Acton the Liberal admired the Constitution of the United States as much as did Maine the Conservative. Detesting the concentration of power above all things, he applauded a system which divided authority between the Executive, the Legislature, the Supreme Court and the federal units, the whole structure and function of government being set forth in a maturely considered document the provisions of which could be altered only by an elaborate scheme of national consultation. "It was democracy in its highest perfection, armed and vigilant against its own weakness and excess." Acton spoke with no less enthusiasm of the Declaration of Independence and of the decision of the American Colonies to fight, though the justification he presents is not quite in line with the older American interpretation. "Their grievance was difficult to substantiate and trivial in extent. But if interest was on one side, there was manifest principle on the other -- a principle so sacred and so clear as imperatively to demand the sacrifice of men's lives, of their families and their fortunes. They represented liberty as a thing so divine that the existence of society must be staked to prevent even the least infraction of its sovereign right."
Of the contribution of France to the making of a free world, which forms the theme of his second course of Cambridge lectures, Acton speaks more critically. Despite the heavy artillery of Burke and Bentham, he acclaims the Declaration of the Rights of Man. "It is the triumphant proclamation of the doctrine that human obligations are not all assignable to contract or to interest or to force. This single page of print outweighs libraries and is stronger than all the armies of Napoleon." Yet it had one grave fault: it sacrificed liberty to equality, and the absolutism of the King was succeeded by the absolutism of the Assembly. Rousseau, who finds no favor in Acton's eyes, proclaimed the sovereignty of the people, not the self-determination of the citizen, and France had never been granted the privilege of learning the art of constitutional government by the method of trial and error. Yet the Revolution, despite its horrors, was a great effort at the emancipation of the common man. "The best things that are loved and sought by men are religion and liberty, not pleasure or prosperity, not knowledge or power. Yet the paths of both are stained with infinite blood."
Having thus briefly explained Acton's conception of liberty, and having under his guidance surveyed its slow advance through the centuries, let us turn to its principal foes. The first and the oldest is autocracy, dynastic or otherwise -- what we now call the totalitarian state.
Nature hath put this tincture in our blood, That each would be a tyrant if he could,
wrote Defoe in the days of William III. How easy it is for ambitious adventurers when favored by circumstances to overthrow free institutions is more obvious to the twentieth than to the nineteenth century, when it was commonly assumed that the main struggle was over. Such was indeed the case in the British Commonwealth and the United States, but in the larger part of Europe the enemies of mixed government have never laid down their arms. While the privileged Anglo-Saxon inherits freedom "slowly broadening down from precedent to precedent," and instinctively approaches the problems of political science from the angle of the citizen's rights, the continental thinker and statesman usually starts with the conception of the overriding authority of the state. Hobbes has always been the prophet without honor in his own country, but the Great Leviathan has found plenty of ardent disciples abroad. In Germany, the land of obedience, as Herder described it, Kant and Humboldt, Stein and Dahlmann were voices crying in the wilderness. Hegel had no use for the separation of powers, Bismarck took care that the grant of adult male suffrage for the Reichstag should leave the power of the executive virtually unimpaired, and Treitschke loudly proclaimed that the state was power, not an academy of arts. In this great argument Acton, despite his partially continental upbringing, was a thorough Englishman. He detested Carlyle and the whole school of apologists for successful supermen. He had no love for Palmerston, but in his rough challenge to autocracies the most celebrated of British Foreign Ministers spoke for his countrymen.
Autocracy was an enemy fighting with the visor up, and everyone could see its ugly face. But there was another terrible danger to liberty which it was Acton's unceasing endeavor to expose. To overthrow an autocracy by frontal attack was not enough, for the foe might only too easily enter by the back door in disguise. Acton believed in the Rights of Man as much as Tom Paine or the Abbé Sieyès, but his historical studies convinced him that there was little prospect of obtaining them from an omnipotent executive. "All power tends to corrupt," runs the most familiar of his aphorisms, "and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." The ultimate problem to be faced was not so much the form of government as the abuse of power. Etatisme was the unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost. "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 majority can seldom resist. But from the absolute will of an entire people there is no appeal, no redemption, no refuge but treason." Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Rousseau's doctrine of the General Will could be easily perverted into the ruthless tyranny of the majority -- "an evil of the same nature as unmixed monarchy, requiring, for nearly the same reasons, institutions that shall protect it against itself and shall uphold the permanent reign of law against arbitrary revolutions of opinion."
Acton abhorred the notion of government merely by counting heads; yet the Liberal in him realized that the days of upper and middle class rule were over, and he welcomed the extension of the franchise to the manual worker. Though he described Burke's teaching as the noblest political philosophy in the world, he never shared his conviction that power should rest in the hands of those who, to use an ambiguous phrase, had a stake in the country. "The men who pay wages ought not to be the political masters of those who earn them," he wrote to Mary Gladstone, "for laws should be adapted to those who have the heaviest stake in the country, for whom misgovernment means not mortified pride or stinted luxury, but want and pain and degradation, and risk to their own lives and to their children's souls."
Though he had little in common with Bentham, Acton accepted the formula "everybody to count for one and nobody for more than one." That birth or wealth should bring special political privileges was an offense both to his liberal ideology and to Christian ethics. "The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern. The law of liberty tends to abolish the reign of race over race, of faith over faith, of class over class. It is not the realization of a political ideal: it is the discharge of a moral obligation." He belonged to the Liberal Party because in his opinion it was least dominated by class. "The nature of Toryism is to be entangled in interests, traditions, necessities, difficulties, expedients, to manage as best one may, without creating artificial obstacles in the shape of dogma or superfluous barriers of general principle." As an English Liberal, he wrote to Lady Blennerhassett in 1879, "I judged that of the two parties -- of the two doctrines -- which have governed England for 200 years, that one was most fitted for the divine purpose which upheld civil and religious liberty. . . . The House of Lords represents one great interest--land. Except under very perceptible pressure it always resists measures aimed at doing good to the poor. It has been almost always in the wrong -- sometimes from prejudice and fear and miscalculation, still oftener from instinct and self-preservation." Gladstone, his beloved leader, expressed the same view in his well-known formula that in the great political controversies of his lifetime the classes had usually been wrong and the masses usually right.
The main task of government in a democratic community in Acton's view was to combine majority rule with the spiritual freedom of the individual which was dearer to him than life. Lecky grappled with the problem in his comprehensive "Democracy and Liberty," which combined a good deal of sound argument with bitter attacks on the Liberal Party. Acton's approach is indicated in his lengthy and pregnant dissertation on Erskine May's "Democracy in Europe," published in 1878, and in his letters to Mary Gladstone. Since all power, as he believed, tended to corrupt, it was mere common sense to limit the amount entrusted to any man or group. The first step was the reform of the franchise machinery on the lines suggested by Hare and blessed by Mill. "The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds by force or fraud in carrying elections. To break off that point is to avoid the danger. The common system of representation perpetuates the danger. Unequal electorates afford no security to majorities. Equal electorates give none to minorities. Thirty-five years ago it was pointed out that the remedy is proportional representation. It is profoundly democratic, for it increases the influence of thousands who would otherwise have no voice in the government; and it brings men nearer an equality by contriving that no vote shall be wasted and that every voter shall contribute to bring into Parliament a member of his own opinions." Acton spoke with special sympathy of the class of citizens whom Bagehot described as "between sizes," for during his six years in Parliament he lamented that he agreed with nobody and nobody agreed with him.
A second and far more important device for preventing the abuse of power was to divide the functions of government between central and regional authorities. The admirer of the American Constitution desired its cardinal principle to be applied as widely as possible. "Of all checks on democracy federalism has been the most efficacious and the most congenial. The federal system limits and restrains the sovereign power by dividing it and by assigning to Government only certain defined rights. It is the only method of curbing not only the majority but the power of the whole people, and it affords the strongest basis for a second chamber, which has been found the essential security for freedom in every genuine democracy." Like Gladstone he sympathized with the South in the American Civil War, not because he approved slavery, but because he believed in upholding State Rights against the domination of the federal executive. Had he lived to read Lord Bryce's "Modern Democracies," he would have approved his friend's verdict that Switzerland, with her cantonal system and her unfettered plebiscites, came nearest to the ideal of democratic government. In countries with a long unitary tradition and a homogeneous population, federal institutions, which were natural in the United States, Canada and Australia, Mexico and Brazil, the German Empire and Switzerland, were impossible; but the principle of devolution could be applied in a limited degree even in Great Britain. Acton was one of the earliest and strongest advocates of Home Rule for Ireland; Scotland has been granted a Minister and could have a Parliament of her own if she wished; Ulster stands in federal relationship to Westminster and Whitehall; Wales can have a Minister whenever she desires. The plan of a federated Great Britain put forward after Acton's death, with separate Parliaments for England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, would at any rate have received his respectful consideration. Rejecting the cynical maxim of despots, Divide et Impera, he would have substituted the maxim: Divide in order that you do not rule too much. Autocracy was as bad for the ruler as for the ruled.
No exposition of Actonian ideology would be complete if we confined our attention to the purely political sphere, for the liberty of the individual is threatened by various influences and institutions. "The emancipation of conscience from authority is the main content of modern history." Like other oracular utterances this must not be taken too literally, but it contains a valuable truth. For by authority he meant any external authority which attempts to lay the mind and soul of man on the bed of Procrustes. Tolerance of error, he declared, was requisite for freedom. Many of the worst offenders had been found in the Christian Churches. An early essay on "The Protestant Theory of Persecution" condemned the Protestant leaders for advocating liberty of conscience when they were weak and forbidding it when they were strong. Luther's despotic nature, he declares, hated political and religious liberty, and he is described as the inventor of the theory of passive obedience. That Melanchthon shared his view was worse, for his blood was cooler. The Church was merged in the State. Yet in the long run the Reformers, without intending it, contributed to the growth of political and religious liberty. "Luther gave to the individual conscience an independence which was sure to lead to an incessant resistance." The earliest and bravest champions of liberty of conscience were to be found, not among the dignitaries of the Protestant churches, but among the little sects in England and Holland which insisted on worshipping God in their own way. Here, far more than among the Barons at Runnymede, were the true pioneers of liberty, fighting not for their property or privileges but for the fundamental right to call their soul their own.
Enemies of liberty were not found in the Protestant camp alone. The same spiritual individualism which led Acton to salute the Puritan conscience compelled him to fight the concentration of ecclesiastical authority which culminated in the Infallibility Decree. Having praised his church in his early essays as the guardian of liberty and conscience by its unceasing warfare against the despotism of the state, he was shocked to witness the authoritarian drive during the pontificate of Pius IX. Corruptio optimi pessima. The position of a critical individualist in a church claiming divine authority was difficult enough before the Vatican Council of 1870 and even more uncomfortable after it. Even in 1869 the Pope complained to an English visitor of certain people who were not Catholics di cuore of whom Acton was the type. He supported Döllinger's campaign against Ultramontanism with passionate zeal. The celebrated aphorism of Pius IX, "I am tradition," filled him with anger and dismay. He objected to autocracy in his church at least as much as to an omnipotent secular ruler. He regarded the failure of the Conciliar movement in the fifteenth century as a tragedy, not only because the leadership of the reform movement fell into other hands, but because it pointed the way to the unchecked domination of the Vatican.
The greatest disappointments of Acton's life were the defeat of the South in 1864 and the triumph of the Jesuits in 1870. In both cases, as he saw it, the same vital issue was at stake -- the diffusion versus the concentration of power. Religious no less than civil absolutism was anathema. How deeply he felt was revealed in the "Letters of Quirinus," in which Döllinger embodied his reports from Rome during the Vatican Council. The Pope, he complained, has been captured by the Jesuits and Romanism had triumphed over Catholicism. "We have to meet an organized conspiracy to establish a power which would be the most formidable enemy of liberty as well as science throughout the world." Acton, like the old Puritans, declined to subordinate his conscience to any authority, secular or ecclesiastical, Council or Pope. The Church, he believed, was more than the Papacy, and the Christian conscience, God's greatest gift, was above both.
The defeat of his ideal of a tolerant and scholarly Catholicism threw a shadow over Acton's later years. Not even the best or wisest of men -- Pope or Emperor, President or Prime Minister -- was good enough or wise enough to be entrusted with unlimited authority. The Papacy had shown itself unfit to possess absolute power, above all by the creation of the Inquisition -- Acton's bête noire. "The Inquisition is peculiarly the weapon and peculiarly the work of the Popes. It is the principal thing with which the Papacy is identified and by which it must be judged." He was probably the only Catholic who welcomed the publication of Henry Charles Lea's monumental "History of the Inquisition." Hating all persecution, he particularly detested "the régime of terror" in the sphere of religious convictions, regardless of whether or not they were his own. Heresy was merely an error, intolerance a sin. Though he expected to be excommunicated like his master Döllinger the blow never fell, partly, no doubt, because he was a layman, partly because he discontinued the fight. Neither of them joined the Old Catholic movement founded by their colleagues in the fight, and Acton's gloomy apprehensions were partially relieved by the fact that neither Pius IX nor Leo XIII used the enormous power attributed to them by the Vatican Decrees. When Gladstone in a celebrated pamphlet denounced those Decrees as incompatible with civil allegiance, Acton replied in a series of letters to the Times. Without abandoning his conviction that the proclamation of Papal infallibility was a lamentable mistake, he asserted that the dangers of divided allegiance among English Catholics were theoretical and unlikely to materialize. Though he accepted his defeat in the struggle against Ultramontanism, he had no further contacts with the victors and became an increasingly lonely man. More than ever he interpreted liberty as the right and the duty of the Christian citizen to follow the lead of his conscience.
During the distracting decades between the two World Wars, and in the earlier phases of the second conflict, Acton was dismissed as a voice crying in the wilderness. Free institutions went down like ninepins in country after country in Europe, and the trumpeters of totalitarianism proclaimed that only the rigorous concentration of power could deliver the goods. In the eyes of Hitler and Mussolini, Stalin and Pilsudski, Franco and Pétain, liberal democracy, the child of western civilization, meant weakness. Liberty, shouted the Duce, was a rotting corpse and discipline had taken its place. For a brief space the dictators could point to spectacular successes at home and abroad, and the masses, deprived of all means of expressing their opinions and intent on earning their daily bread, fed out of their hand. With the defeat of the Axis and the growing realization of the catastrophic consequences of absolute power, the wheel has come full circle. While the historic Liberal parties have gone down in many countries before the combined onslaught of Right and Left, the proclamation of the Four Freedoms and the emergence of new parties in western Europe suggest that the spirit of Liberalism is not dead. "To assert that liberty is dead," declares Croce, the Nestor of European Liberalism, "is to say that life is dead, that its mainspring is broken. Ever in peril from the imperfections of human nature, it can never be wholly destroyed."
Every member of the self-governing nations which took part in the greatest struggle in history will define the "way of life" for which it fought in its own way, for the loftiest ideals defy precise definition. Whatever formula we adopt we shall do well to bear in mind the truths which Acton never ceased to proclaim: that man does not live by bread alone; that the state was made for man, not man for the state; that every citizen counts; that minorities should have their place in the sun; that liberty is not a mere political contrivance but a spiritual principle; that ordered liberty is the highest prize of civilized society; that men and women, like flowers, need light and air to have their chance and produce their best; that, since all power tends to corrupt, the only way to prevent its abuse is to cut it up into little bits.