Lord Acton’s judgment on pope and king
BY JOSEF L. ALTHOLZ
In the mid-1880s Lord Acton became one of the founders of the English Historical Review. When the editor, Mandell Creighton, invited Acton to review his own History of the Papacy, Acton produced a harsh review criticizing Creighton’s failure to condemn the popes of the Reformation era. In the ensuing correspondence, Acton uttered his famous phrase about power tending to corrupt and absolute power corrupting absolutely. This is most commonly cited in a political context, as a condemnation of state absolutism, which Acton indeed abhorred. But in this instance his dictum was meant as a canon of historical criticism, a caution against the mitigation of judgment.
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. . . . There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. . . . The inflexible integrity of the moral code is, to me, the secret of the authority, the dignity, the utility of history. If we may debase the currency for the sake of genius, or success, or rank, or reputation, we may debase it for the sake of a man’s influence, of his religion, of his party, of the good cause which prospers by his credit and suffers by his disgrace. Then history ceases to be a science, an arbiter of controversy, a guide of the wanderer, the upholder of that moral standard which the powers of earth, and religion itself, tend constantly to depress.
This was the most noble mission ever assigned to the historian, but it may have been the most impossible. For one thing, there was no consensus as to how the moral standard was to be applied. More important, professional history is the study not of text but of context.
Read more: acton.org