Philosophy against Misosophy



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This was sent to The Remnant, a Catholic periodical, after it published a smear of Lord Acton as a "Gnostic” by Professor John C. Rao of St. John’s University (New York).  The original title was “Do Illiberals Tend to Smear?  Or Is It Just Professor Rao When It Comes to Lord Acton?” The editor not only did not publish it, but even after more than one query, did not even acknowledge receiving it.  It's not the first time I've been on the receiving end of his poor manners.


In Defense of Lord Acton

Anthony Flood


The significance of the Incarnation of the Prince of Peace for society is always a timely topic, and never a more welcome one than at Christmastime.  It is the motif of Professor John C. Rao’s vast historical studies, and I expected his recent column in The Remnant1 to add one more variation on that theme.  He more than disappointed any such expectation by taking the occasion of the season to impute heresy-mongering, if not heresy itself, to Lord Acton, a man who regarded communion with the Church as dearer than life itself.  That is, Professor Rao maligned a fellow member of his own profession, a towering figure in European historiography who participated in the unearthing of many official archives.  And he did it not by examining any of Acton’s own words, but rather by repeatedly asserting what he “really” meant.  Feeling glum2 cannot excuse such a lapse from the standards of controversy.

Should the professor find the time to document his charge of Gnosticism against Acton and the Institute that bears his name,3 it would be interesting to see how he would construe such passages as the following as Gnostic-inspired “deconstructions of the Christian message” rather than elegant soundings of some of Professor Rao’s own themes:


There is a wide divergence, an irreconcilable disagreement, between the political notions of the modern world and that which is essentially the system of the Catholic Church.  It manifests itself particularly in their contradictory views of liberty, and of the functions of the civil power.  The Catholic notion, defining liberty not as the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought, denies that general interests can supersede individual rights.  It condemns, therefore, the theory of the ancient as well as of the modern state.  It is founded on the divine origin and nature of authority.  According to the prevailing doctrine, which derives power from the people, and deposits it ultimately in their hands, the state is omnipotent over the individual, whose only remnant of freedom is then the participation in the exercise of supreme power; while the general will is binding him.  Christian liberty is lost where this system prevails:  whether in the form of the utmost diffusion of power, as in American, or of the utmost concentration of power, as in France; whether, that is to say, it is exercised by the majority, or by the delegate of the majority—it is always a delusive freedom, founded on a servitude more or less disguised.4

. . .

The Church which our Lord came to establish had a two-fold mission to fulfill.  Her system of doctrine, on the one hand, had to be defined and perpetually maintained.  But it was also necessary that it should prove itself more than a mere matter of theory—that it should pass into practice, and command the will as well as the intellect of men.  It was necessary not only to restore the image of God in man, but to establish the divine order in the world.  Religion had to transform the public as well as the private life of nations, to effect a system of public right corresponding with private morality and without which it is imperfect and insecure.  It was to exhibit and confirm its victory and to perpetuate its influence by calling into existence, not only works of private virtue, but institutions which are the product of the whole life of nations, and bear an unceasing testimony to their religious sentiments.  The world, instead of being external to the Church, was to be adopted by her and imbued with her ideas.5


Instead of wasting column space sketching Gnosticism and Manicheanism only to postpone a “full discussion of the problem,”6 the professor might have either (a) endeavored to show how devious Acton was in disguising his allegedly anti-Incarnational message in Incarnational language or (b) composed a message on the Incarnation without referring to Acton.  That is to say, he should have either “done Acton in” properly or not have bothered at all.

And so parading in quickstep through the column’s early paragraphs are Saints Francis of Assisi, Irenaeus, and Gregory of Nyssa as witnesses for the defense of Authority.  Most apologists for the State presuppose as self-evident the professor’s central analogy, the one that allegedly holds between the authority of parents over their children, which is born of love, and the power that the State wields over its hapless subjects, which is born of something other than love.  The cherished analogy begs the question, and Professor Rao did not better his predecessors here.  Insights into the alleged necessity of State authority, we are assured, are “brilliantly presented in the writings of the great men of classical culture, its Hesiods, Solon the Lawgivers, Platos, and Aristotles.”  Surely he knows that this was a topic of great interest to Acton.  Apparently, however, he did not deem telling his readers about it to be as important as making sport of Acton’s aphorism.  To this point, and to compensate Professor Rao’s readers for his omissions, let us again hear Acton.  In summarizing the contribution of the Stoics to Christian liberty, Acton wrote:


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. Their test of good government is its conformity to principles that can be traced to a higher legislator. 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, which proceeds from His nature, and reigns over heaven and earth and over all the nations.7


Indeed, Acton wrote, 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 expression that later writers could never surpass. I might go on for hours, reciting to you passages on the law of Nature and the duties of man, so solemn and religious, that though they come from the profane theatre on the Acropolis, and from the Roman Forum, you would deem that you were listening to the hymns of Christian Churches, and the discourse of ordained divines. 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.8


Now, strictly speaking, it may not be false to write, as the professor did, that Acton “intensely disliked the counterrevolutionary direction down which the Church was headed under the leadership of Blessed Pius IX.”  The comment nevertheless distorts, however, for Acton’s argument against that direction was not a matter of mere “intense dislike” and neither was the great learning he brought to bear in making it.  At stake was, and is, a matter of principle, namely, the love of truth and the correlative hatred of the crime-rationalizing lie.  That was the theme of Acton’s life, but you would never gather that from reading Professor Rao.  (Also absent is any hint that Blessed Pius IX had once been the hope of liberals, Catholic and non-Catholic, a role he later repudiated to the point of identifying his person with Tradition.9)  What does come across loud and clear is that Professor Rao intensely dislikes Lord Acton.

I surmise that Acton’s own Incarnation-oriented theology, including his deep appreciation of the social-relations “mesh” that the professor rightly prizes, is simply too close for comfort.  He therefore paints an unattractive picture of Acton that douses the natural curiosity the controversial Catholic scholar and activist may arouse in Professor Rao’s less well-read fellow “counter-revolutionaries.”  That is, Acton is a “mixed bag”: his rich support for many of Professor Rao’s central themes combines with a “heretical” suspicion of power—power, not authority, not the genuine right to be obeyed—a suspicion that is poison to any illiberal program.10 

As I do not wish to offend in the very way I believe the professor has, I stress that the foregoing is but a hypothesis in explanation of how he could write that Acton was “particularly revolted by the crucial, positive role played in Creation and Redemption by social authority, both natural and supernatural.”  For what revolted Acton, manifestly for anyone familiar with his writings as I trust Professor Rao is, and what he devoted his life to documenting and denouncing, was the rationalization of crime when those in authority are the perpetrators.  Professor Rao might have noted this and then attempt to persuade his reader to file it away under “black legends.” To ignore it altogether, however, is irresponsible. 

So is it to assert that “what Acton meant by ‘power’ was precisely the activity of that mesh of social authorities, guided by a sense of philosophical and religious responsibilities and hierarchical organization, developed by Greco-Roman culture and Catholic thinkers tying natural wisdom together with the message of the Incarnation.”  The professor then refers to Acton’s “urging . . . a flight from an accurate and responsible tool demanded by God and well develop, as a ‘seed of the Logos,’ in the natural world of Greece and Rome.”  His divination of Acton’s intent does not end there: “What he was really calling for was creation of a social jungle in which the kind of truly raw power that ultimately destroys both the strong and weak would happily flourish.”  Again and again, Professor Rao imputes to Acton the stupidity of confusing authority with power without even acknowledging, let alone meeting, any burden of proof.

Acton insisted that the historian must hold the strong and the weak to the same moral standard.  Libertarian theoretician Murray N. Rothbard was, therefore, not being overly generous when he referred to Acton as “the great Catholic libertarian historian.”11  Acton was broadly libertarian even if Rothbardians like myself deny—as Acton did not and as the Acton Institute does not—that the State is a social grouping organized for the common good.  For in the view of libertarians, the common good is liberty, and the State is founded upon its violation.  Nevertheless, Rothbard credited Acton with having grasped the revolutionary insight implicit in the natural law philosophy that not only saints like Thomas Aquinas, but also heroes of the professor’s like Father Luigi Taparelli espoused.12  “While natural-law theory has often been used erroneously in defense of the political status quo,” Rothbard writes, “its radical and ‘revolutionary’ implications were brilliantly understood by” Acton.  Rothbard continues:


Acton saw clearly that the deep flaw in the ancient Greek—and their later followers’—conception of natural law political philoso-phy was to identify politics and morals, and then to place the supreme social moral agent in the State.  From Plato and Aristotle, the State’s proclaimed supremacy was founded in their view that “morality was distinguished from religion and politics from morals; and in religion, morality, and politics there was only one legislator and one authority.”13

Acton added that the Stoics developed the correct, non-State principles of natural law political philosophy, which were then revived in the modern period by [Hugo] Grotius and his followers.  “From that time it became possible to make politics a matter of principle and of conscience.” The reaction of the State to this theoretical development was horror.


Therefore Acton wrote:


When [English theologian Richard] Cumberland and [German jurist Samuel von] Pufendorf unfolded the true significance of [Grotius’s] doctrine, every settled authority, every triumphant interest recoiled aghast. . . . It was manifest that all persons who had learned that political science is an affair of conscience rather than of might and expediency, must regard their adversaries as men without principle.14


“Acton saw clearly,” Rothbard continues, “that any set of objective moral principles rooted in the nature of man must inevitably come into conflict with custom and with positive law. To Acton, such an irrepressible conflict was an essential attribute of classical liberalism: ‘Liberalism wishes for what ought to be, irrespective of what is.’ . . . And so, for Acton, the individual, armed with natural law moral principles, is then in a firm position from which to criticize existing regimes and institutions, to hold them up to the strong and harsh light of reason.”15

And so Professor Rao the illiberal must anathematize Lord Acton the liberal, no matter how devout a Catholic he may have been, and regardless of his failure to draw anti-State inferences from natural law theory.

Since the Professor’s rhetorical performance depends on his reader’s not knowing anything about Acton except his so-called “power dictum” (PD), we will now turn to it.  As Professor Rao knows but perhaps thought it inopportune to note, its context is a long letter Acton wrote in 1887 to Anglican Archbishop Mandell Creighton, whose five-volume history of the medieval papacy Acton had recently scored for its double standard toward the commission of crimes.  The particular authority that moved Acton to express his PD was ecclesiastical.  The professor muted Acton’s prophetic voice, but let us consider the surrounding sentences of the despised maxim (highlighted in italics below):


I really don’t know whether you [Abp. Creighton] exempt them [from criticism] because of their rank, or of their success and power, or of their date.  It does not allow of our saying that such a man did not know right from wrong, unless we are able to say that he lived before Columbus, before Copernicus, and could not know right from wrong. It can scarcely apply to the centre of Christendom, 1500 [years] after the birth of our Lord.  That would imply that Christianity is a mere system of metaphysics, which borrowed some ethics from elsewhere.  It is rather a system of ethics which borrowed its metaphysics from elsewhere.  Progress in ethics means a constant turning of white into black and burning what one has adored.  There is little of that between St. John and the Victorian era.

But if we might discuss this point until we found that we nearly agreed, . . . 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 respon-sibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.  There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.  That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means.  You would hang a man of no position, like [Henry IV of France assassin François] Ravaillac; but if what one hears it true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan.  Here are the greater names coupled with great crimes.  You would spare these criminals, for some mysterious reason.  I would hang them higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice; still more, still higher, for the sake of historical science.16 


On the scale of justice, one pan overflows with bloody illustrations of Acton’s point.  What can Professor Rao possibly put on the other?  What in fact does he offer but quasi-comical rhetorical questions17 occasioned by the Nativity, inserted between deductions from an authoritarian presup-position?

Of course, the PD itself does not refer to authority, so Professor Rao, in whose eyes Acton is an antinomian foe of genuine authority, senses a problem.  He therefore hedges his bet: if what Acton “really intended to say was that a raw, stubborn, unbending power tended to corrupt, he would have been correct, and would not have encountered the criticism that he did from nineteenth-century counter-revolutionary oppo-nents in the Catholic camp.”  (We are not even told who these critics were.)  This defense against the anticipated charge of distortion is full of holes, one for each of the Professor’s divinations about what Acton “really intended.”  After all, we are to take him at his word that Acton “like the mainstream of heretical modern man, cannot endure nature as God really created it.”  

Acton’s object was simply power.  Not “raw, stubborn, unbending” power, which only qualifies the point to death; but rather just that circumstance of being able, as Murray Rothbard bluntly used to put it, to push people around.  For one’s being able to push people around is a cue for everyone else to look for any sign that he is about to illustrate the tendency of Acton’s epigram.  The greater the range of that ability, the more irresistible the tendency, whether the tempted wear mitre or crown.  Acton wrote:


In the days of the Conquest, when the Normans destroyed the liberties of England, the rude institutions which had come with the Saxons, the Goths, and the Franks from the forests of Germany were suffering decay, and the new element of popular government afterwards supplied by the rise of towns and the formation of a middle class was not yet active.  The only influence capable of resisting the feudal hierarchy was the ecclesiastical hierarchy; and they came into collision, when the process of feudalism threatened the independence of the Church by subjecting the prelates severally to that form of personal dependence on kings which was peculiar to the Teutonic state.

To that conflict of four hundred years we owe the rise of civil liberty.  If the Church had continued to buttress the thrones of the king whom it anointed, or if the struggle had terminated speedily in an undivided victory, all Europe would have sunk down under a Byzantine or Muscovite despotism.  For the aim of both contending parties was absolute authority. But although liberty was not the end for which they strove, it was the means by which the temporal and the spiritual power called the nations to their aid.18

The foregoing has no doubt provided an additional illustration of the “blindfold.”  Equally certain, unfortunately, is that the professor’s analysis of liberals exemplifies what Karl Popper called “reinforced dogmatism”19 and is therefore rendered immune from liberal attack.  That is (according to this attitude), liberal resistance to illiberal analysis and therapy is merely the acting out of liberal neurosis. 

As a fellow communicant of Professor Rao’s at the Tridentine Rite at St. Agnes in New York, I have found writing this a duty, but not a pleasant one.  The most irenic note I can think of to end on is this: May the Dietrich von Hildebrand Institute one day be as “well heeled” as he supposes the Acton Institute to be, if only to accelerate the process by which illiberalism’s best arguments are aired, critiqued and, once and for all, retired.  Indispensable to the achievement of that end will be the writings of Lord Acton.

January 2006

1 John Rao, Ph.D., “A Message from Bethlehem: Lord Acton Tends to Corrupt,” The Remnant, December 31, 2005, pp. 14-15. 

2 “Being myself basically not of good cheer, my mind strayed during the meditation.  It came to rest on a current preoccupation: the Acton Institute and all of its works.”  Rao, Ibid., p. 14.  Note the charming allusion to Satan.

3 Father Robert Sirico and other leaders of the Acton Institute will have to ascertain whether Professor Rao walked up to or crossed the line of calumniating them as Manichean heretics and then decide whether it is worthwhile to respond.  For besides “Lord Acton’s tendency to corrupt,” Professor Rao denounced the tendency of “Institutes absolutely dedicated to spreading his ideas to corrupt absolutely.”  And in case that phrase leaves any doubt:

I stand by the comparison of the Acton Institute dedicated to the spread of his ideas in the Catholic world with Manicheanism.  Like so many other conservative Catholic organizations today, it works with familiar Christian language.  It can even defend itself against the charge of Gnosticism by pointing out how much it loves money.  Meanwhile, it systematically works to deconstruct the essence of the Christian message and redirect it to the service of its own subversive purpose: the equation of our Faith with an unnatural, semi-Gnostic, Enlightenment concept of a self-destructive freedom destined to ensure the victory of the strong over the weak.  For this is the ultimate goal of Acton’s contemporary followers: to make it seem that God created and redeemed the world in order to make it safe for the exercise of raw power masquerading as true freedom.

Rao, Ibid., p. 15.  In other words, those ostensible enemies of raw power are really working to bring about its reign.  They are “Masters of Deceit,” as the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover once dubbed Communists in non-Communist countries.  As the antidote to Professor Rao’s smear of Acton is Acton’s writings, so the effective cure for his slander of the Institute is to be found in their cornucopia of studies, many of which are available online, including: Jozef D. Zalot, “Economic Crisis in Africa: Moral Challenges to the World Community”; Rev. Robert A. Sirico, “The Church Must Remember Its Mission” and “Politicizing Food Makes the Rich Richer”; John G. Gard, “Freeing Those Trapped in the Net”.

4 John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, “The Church in the Modern World” [January 1860], in Selected Writings of Lord Acton, Volume III, Essays in Religion, Politics, and Morality, J. Rufus Fears ed., Indianapolis, Liberty Classics, 1985, p. 613.

5 Acton, “Political Thoughts on the Church” [January 1859], in Selected Writings of Lord Acton, Vol. III, op. cit, p. 22.

6 Professor Rao’s admission that a “full discussion of the problem represented by Acton would require a theological, philosophical, and historical analysis of Protestantism and the Enlightenment” hardly excuses his ignoring Acton’s analyses of those very things. Rao, Ibid., p. 14. 

7 Acton, “The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” An Address Delivered to the Members of the Bridg-north Institute, February 26, 1877, in Selected Writings of Lord Acton, Volume I, Essays in the History of Liberty, J. Rufus Fears ed., Indianapolis, Liberty Classics, 1985, pp. 23-24; available online here or here.  Herafter: Acton, “Antiquity.”

8 Acton, “Antiquity,” p. 26.  My emphasis.—A.F.

9 Pioneering Acton scholar Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote:

Those who were worried because they could see nothing in the tradition of the Church to support the dogma of Infallibility were supposed to have been soothed by Pius’ bland assurance, “The tradition is myself,” and by his frank admission of divine inspiration.

From Gertrude Himmelfarb, Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics, The University of Chicago Press, 1952, “The Vatican Council,” pp. 95-128, available online here.  In 1952, her source for this was a letter of “Quirinus” that theologian Ignatz Döllinger, Acton’s teacher, mentor, and friend, wrote pseudonymously based on Acton's reports on the Council from Rome for publication in the Allgemeine Zeitung.  Acton's latest biographer, however, found firmer grounds:

. . . this ["controversial remark"] is now shown to have been made on 18 June 1870 to Cardinal Guidi, according to the testimony of Cardinal Vincenzo Tizzani (1802-92), an Italian member of the Curia who during the Council was on the side of the inopportunists [opponents of defining papal infallibility at the Council.—A.F.], in his recently dis-covered and published diaries and papers. L. Pásztor, "Il Concilio Vaticano I: Diario di Vincenzo Tizzani (1869-70)," in Päpste und Papsttum 25 (Stuttgart, 1991).

Roland Hill, Lord Acton, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2000, p. 500 n. 56.  This confirmation may be added to the assets side of the ledger assessing Acton's reputation as an objective reporter on the Council.

10 Professor Rao adumbrates one in his Removing the Blindfold: Nineteenth-Century Catholics and the Myth of Modern Freedom, St. Paul, MN: The Remnant Press, 1999, a scholarly monograph on the 19th-century Jesuit journal La Civiltà Catolica and its leading light, Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio, S.J. (1793–1862), enlivened by intermittent counter-revolutionary exhortation.  For evidence that Father Taparelli might not qualify as an illiberal icon, see Thomas C. Behr, Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio, S.J. (1793–1862) and the Development of Scholastic Natural-Law Thought As a Science of Society and Politics,” on the web site of those neo-Manicheans, The Acton Institute

11 Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, New York and London: New York University Press, 1998, p. 18.  Online version here.

12 Professor Rao quotes Father Taparelli and another editor of La Civiltà Catolica, but never Acton. 

13 Rothbard cites Acton, Essays on Freedom and Power Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1948, p. 45 [hereafter; Acton, Essays]; and Himmelfarb, op. cit., p. 135.

14 Acton, Essays, p. 74.  The essay is entitled “The History of Freedom in Christianity, An Address Delivered to the Members of the Bridgnorth Institute,” May 28, 1877, in Selected Writings of Lord Acton, Volume I, Essays in the History of Liberty, J. Rufus Fears ed., Indianapolis, Liberty Classics, 1985, pp. 29-53; available online here or here.  Hereafter: Acton, “Christianity.”  The quote is from p. 42.  Immediately preceding the passage Rothbard quotes, Acton wrote:

In a passage almost literally taken from St. Thomas, he [the French philosopher Pierre Charron] describes our subordination under the law of nature, to which all legislation must conform; and he ascertains it not by the light of revealed religion, but by the voice of universal reason, through which God enlightens the consciences of men. Upon this foundation [Hugo] Grotius drew the lines of real political science. In gathering the materials of international law, he had to go beyond national treaties and denominational interests, for a principle embracing all mankind. The principles of law must stand, he said, even if we suppose that there is no God. By these inaccurate terms he meant that they must be found independently of Revelation. From that time it became possible to make politics a matter of principle and of conscience, so that men and nations differing in all other things could live in peace together, under the sanctions of a common law. 

Acton, “Christianity,” p. 42.

15 Rothbard’s source is Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, p. 204.  Rothbard further noted that even “the far less politically oriented John Wild has trenchantly described the inherently radical nature of natural-law theory:

the philosophy of natural law defends the rational dignity of the human individual and his right and duty to criticize by word and deed any existent institution or social structure in terms of those universal moral principles which can be apprehended by the individual intellect alone.

John Wild, Plato’s Modern Enemies and the Theory of Natural Law, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953, p. 176.

16 Acton to Creighton, 5 April 1887. Selected Writings of Lord Acton, Volume II, Essays in the Study and Writing of History, J. Rufus Fears ed., Indianapolis, Liberty Classics, 1985, pp. 383-384.  My emphasis.—A.F.

17 “Do Mary and Joseph really look like a libertarian mother and foster-father?  Are they where they are because of their rejection of the authority of the Roman State?  Does that Christ Child look like a victim of parents whose power over Him was bound to corrupt them, or one who wants us to be subject to the commands of His mother as much as He was?”  Rao, Ibid., p. 15.  In the excitement of rhetorical flourish, Professor Rao lost sight of the difference between “bound to” and “tending to.”  

18 Acton, “Christianity,” pp. 32-33. My emphasis.—A.F.

19  See Karl R. Popper, “What is Dialectic?,” Mind, 1940, Vol. 49, No. 196, pp. 403-426; reprinted in his Conjectures and Refutations, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963, pp. 312-335.  Online version here.

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