Philosophy against Misosophy



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Feb. 1947), 59-69.   In a letter to Mandell Creighton (1843-1901), Anglican ecclesiastic and historian of the medieval papacy, Acton penned his famous aphorism about power.  Acton had high praise for the work of Henry Charles Lea (1825-1909), a Philadelphia-born historian, on the Inquisition.  Andrew Fish is professor of history in the University of Oregon.  In 1943 he was elected president of the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association.  This paper, read at the meeting at Claremont, on January 3, 1947, is his presidential address, somewhat abbreviated as well as postponed.” 


Acton, Creighton, and Lea:

A Study in History and Ethics

Andrew Fish 


According to the Latin historian Tacitus, the chief office of history is “to rescue virtue from oblivion, and that base words and deeds should have the fear of posthumous infamy.”  When, in the nineteenth century, professional historians came to think of themselves as scientists, they conceived their only function to be to describe what actually happened, without teaching any lessons or pointing any morals.  Theirs not to accuse, nor to excuse, merely to expose.  That they, too, like all intelligent and thoughtful men, had their points of view, their principles of selection and interpretation, seems to have escaped them.  Acton, Creighton, and Lea all thought of themselves as in some sense scientists and were devoted to the ideals of objectivity and impartiality; yet each had decided views on the duty of historians in the matter of moral judgments on historical characters.  I propose to compare these views.

Lord Acton, reputedly the most erudite man in England, adopted as his life mission the synthesizing of his Whiggish liberalism, critical historical scholarship, and Roman Catholicism.  When his efforts were frowned upon by ecclesiastical authority, he made his submission without changing his mind and turned to the task of gathering materials for a monumental history of freedom, which was never written.  When Lord Rosebery as prime minister appointed him Regius Professor of Modem History at Cambridge in 1895, only a few die-hard, down-with-Popery Protestants mur-mured.  He wrote no great historical work, but his collected papers, lectures, and letters fill several volumes, the reading of which has well been described as an intellectual adventure.  His last great undertaking was the planning of the Cambridge Modern History, which was to have been his dreamed-of history of liberty, but he did not live to carry it through.

When Mandell Creighton died he was the Anglican Bishop of London, but more to our purpose he had written, some years before, A History of the Papacy from the Great Schism to the Sack of Rome in six masterly volumes.  After a brilliant career at Oxford as scholar, fellow, and tutor, he took orders and a college living in a secluded Northumbrian parish.  Faithful even beyond the call of duty to his churchly responsibilities, he had as his first love the writing of his book.  Walter Pater thought he would have made a better lawyer, or even soldier, than priest.1  Some people thought he was not spiritually minded, was even flippant, skeptical, and paradoxical.  They misread his character; it was merely that he hated cant and humbug, had a streak of puckish humor, and was unwilling to dogmatize without knowledge.  In 1884 Cambridge took the unusual step of selecting him, an Oxford man, for the newly created post of Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History.  He was largely instrumental in founding the English Historical Review in 1886 and was its first editor.  Subsequently he was Bishop of Peterborough, and from there was translated to London.  Like Stubbs he found that the care of a diocese left him no time for further historical work, and his book fell short of his goal, the Council of Trent.  It was a loss to historical scholarship, but the English church gained a sagacious statesman.

Henry Charles Lea of Philadelphia published the first of a long series of important works in 1866 and the last in 1908.  His subject throughout was the Latin Church of the Middle Ages.  Written almost entirely from sources, his histories constitute the greatest original contribution to European history by an American.  He has not escaped all criticism, but he received the highest praise from the foremost scholars in the same field, both Protestant and Roman Catholic.  Quaker in origin, he seems to have shared the mild rationalism of Lecky, with whom he carried on an intimate correspondence.

This narrative begins in 1882 with the publication of the first two volumes of Creighton’s history.  He explained to his friend Hodgkin, the historian of the barbarian invasions of Italy:  “My arraignment against the Papacy is that it rendered a violent reformation necessary, because it refused to make a mild and wise one.”2  Bryce greeted it as a fine piece of fruit of the Oxford school of history.  Warning a young friend that it would be dull reading, Creighton avowed that he regarded history as a branch of science, not of novel writing.  In his preface he claims to do nothing more than to gather materials for a judgment of the Reformation.  With the Papacy as the central point he would have the best opportunity to survey European affairs as a whole.  The volumes deal with the Concilliar Movement, which, in the author’s opinion, was on the whole a failure.  While it ended the Schism, it not only failed to reform the Church but checked those forces which might have brought about a conservative change.  Thus it paved the way for the revival of the papal monarchy.  He explains his principle of selection by saying:  “My omissions and my details are intentional.  I have enlarged on points, not because they are interesting to the modern observer, but because they formed part of the political experience of those who moulded the immediate future.”

It was Creighton’s first major work; his reputation was at stake.  The man whose opinion had most weight for him was Acton, and by Creighton’s arrangement with the editor Acton wrote the review for the Academy.3  The general tone was that of praise and appreciation, and the author was much gratified.  Acton noted the work’s fullness and accuracy, the historian’s acquaintance with the best materials, his right use of them, the fact that the book was written from the originals.  The critic was sorry, however, that Creighton had been content with the outer husks of fact and had not gone below to the forces and ideas at work beneath.  Further objections anticipated the sharper differences that later developed between the two men.  Acton thought it dangerous that Creighton “allows extenuating circumstances, and leans to a Scotch verdict. . . he praises Hus, and praises also the men who sent him to the stake.”  Acton controverts Creighton’s position that uniformity in religion had been demanded throughout the Middle Ages.  That idea did not prevail, he maintains, until the twelfth century, and even then it was not without its opponents.  He cites instances of resistance to authority in the Middle Ages, especially the teaching of the Franciscans.  Besides power of pope and power of king they imagined a third, “and founded a doctrine which has become the strongest propeller of society and maker of later history.  They taught mankind that authority is founded on contract and limited by conditions, that it is forfeited when wrongly used, and is legitimate only by consent.  It is among these men, in the cloister and the school, not where Johnson found him, that we must look for the first Whig.”  Johnson, it will be recalled, said the Devil was the first Whig.

In an exchange of letters the two men discuss some of the points raised by Acton.  Creighton urges that it is difficult to determine the force of ideas in practical affairs.  For himself he had adopted the principle of dealing with them only when they show themselves as motive powers.  Acton thought it would be difficult to escape theology when Creighton got to Luther.  He wrote:  “Here I think you could give much light which, from your sovereign impartiality, would be particularly valuable.”4 

In 1887 Creighton’s second two volumes appeared and Acton’s review of them was written for the English Historical Review, of which the author was the editor.  Acton’s accompanying letter said, “You must understand that it is the work of an enemy,” and referred to the “width of yawning difference” between their views.  But he also expressed fear that it might seem to be more hostile than he wished, and he suggested that it be shown to certain specified judges before being printed.  The situation was awkward.  Was Creighton as editor to approve an attack on himself as author?  To his subeditor, R. L. Poole, he con-fessed that at first he was angry, but that he had come to be amused by it.  Corrections were made, and Acton said he had “altered every passage which could be construed or misconstrued into hostility.”5

The volumes in question covered the years from 1464 to 1518, that is to say, the seamy history of the Italy of the Borgias.  It was delicate ground for a Canon of Worcester.  The preface explains that since previous treatments of the Italian Renaissance had dealt with literary and artistic aspects, and so had made the period seem abnormal, the author would try to put it in its proper place in human development.  He would subject the sources to scientific criticism, and would be no more credulous of the gossip of the time than historians generally were of the miraculous in medieval documents.  The passage in the preface to which Acton was to advert most strongly runs:

The epoch traversed in these volumes is one of the most ignoble, if not the most disastrous in the history not only of the Papacy, but of Europe.  It is scarcely fair to isolate the Popes from their surroundings and hold them up to exceptional ignominy; yet it is impossible to forget their high office and their lofty claims.  I have tried to deal fairly with the moral delinquencies of the Popes, without, I trust, running the risk of lowering the standard of moral judgment.  But it seems to me neither necessary to moralise at every turn in historical writing, nor becoming to adopt an attitude of lofty superiority over anyone who ever played a prominent part in European affairs, nor charitable to lavish undiscriminating censure on any man.  All I can claim is that I have not allowed my judgment to be warped by a desire to be picturesque or telling.

Acton’s review6 accounts the author’s sobriety and moderation as merits but regrets the avoidance of discussion of disputed points. He allows, however, that this is in harmony with Creighton’s purpose, since “he is not trying to prove a case . . . but wishes to pass through scenes of raging controversy and passion with a serene curiosity, a suspended judgment, a divided jury, and a pair of white gloves.”  The reviewer complains that Creighton “shows no strong feeling for the liberty of conscience.”  He deprecates “the spirit of retrospective indulgence and reverence for the operation of authority” in the handling of the popes.  It can hardly mean, he says, that “justice has one law for the mighty and another for the fallen.”  If it means that men should be judged by the canons of their time, Acton replies that no such sliding scale has ever been devised.  Does Creighton mean that “power goes where power is due, and that the will of Providence is made manifest by success, that the judgment of history is the judgment of heaven”?  Such a belief, he declares, aims at excluding the moral standard, and Acton asserts his own conviction that “it is the office of historical science to maintain morality as the sole impartial criterion of men and things, and the only one on which honest minds can be made to agree.”  This sweeping dogma implies that so far as Creighton had fallen short in condemning sin he was not a true historian.

A lively correspondence sharpened the issues.  Acton will not have it that the Renaissance popes were tolerant.  If they countenanced the Inquisition, by that one fact we must judge them.  Nor do the Reformers escape.  Calvin was a very great writer but the execution of Servetus settles his reputation.  The evil is the coercion of the individual conscience.  “My dogma,” he writes, “is. . . the general wickedness of men in authority—of Luther and Zwingli, and Calvin, and Cranmer, and Knox, of Mary Stuart and Henry VIII., of Philip II. and Elizabeth, of Cromwell and Louis XIV., James and Charles and William, Bossuet and Ken.”7  The spirit of the age cannot save them, at any rate in the Christian era, for “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 elsewhere.”8   There is no presumption that great men are right.  Indeed, the presumption is exactly contrary, and in one of his most famous passages Acton roundly declares:  “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”9  One wonders if this has been so often quoted because of its aphoristic quality or for its truth.  One must suppose that Acton would exclude the Deity.  On the earthly plane we are not left to supposition, for we are told that “Great men are almost always bad men. . . .”10  The more important the malefactors, the greater the guilt.  He would hang them higher than Haman, for plain justice, but even more for the sake of historical science.  “The inflexible integrity of the moral code is, to me, the secret of the authority, the dignity, the utility of History.”  Otherwise, “History ceases to be a science, an arbiter of controversy, a guide of the Wanderer. . . . It serves where it ought to reign. .. .”11  

Now, Creighton was as sound an Anglican Christian as ever donned a mitre, and he could assure his critic that he agreed with him in principle.  All he asked for was the use of a little casuistry.  Men in places of power require special consideration because of their representative position.  Wrongdoing for the maintenance of an institution is not the same as wrongdoing for personal advantage.  A murderer for personal gain is different from a careless doctor whose patient would have died anyhow, and the carelessness would be difficult to prove.  And as to tolerance, is it really a virtue in all cases?  Is it not often merely the recognition of a necessity arising from the balance of parties?  He held to his opinion that fifteenth-century popes were relatively tolerant, at least with Jews, Turks, and Humanists.  Acton had raised the case of Sixtus IV.  True, he had recognized the Spanish Inquisition, but only as a matter of official routine, accepting what he found.  However, Creighton admits that perhaps he was too easy with Sixtus.  But he continues to believe that a man who holds that heresy is a crime is not necessarily guilty morally, though he may be accused of an intellectual mistake.  If there are no degrees of criminality then history is surely a dreary record of wickedness.  He finds few heroes in history, but these men were human and sorely tempted by the possession of power.  He cannot help but regard them with pity.  Yet Creighton was disturbed and promised that further thought might lead him to amend his ways.

The result of his further cogitation appears in a paper on “Historical Ethics” written about this time and published after his death, in the Quarterly Review for 1905.  According to this statement, history is a science, not a form of literature; its object is not to amuse but to teach.  The historian studies the evolution of society, not merely dramatic incidents.  He seeks to establish the true principles of progress, and to promote wisdom and virtue, by letting the facts speak for themselves.  Creighton then elaborates on the views expressed to Acton as to modifying circumstances, but concludes that when all allowances have been made there are historical crimes that cannot be condoned.  Proven murder is beyond forgiveness, and a “flimsy air of legality” only makes it worse.  The historian should be the guardian of conscience, but he is more concerned with public than with private morals, and men should be judged by the general effects of their policies rather than by single acts.

In 1887 Henry Charles Lea published the first volume of his History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, which was immediately greeted by English and European scholars as a work of great importance.  Creighton wanted to review it but yielded to Acton on the request of the latter.12  Professor Engel-Janosi considered it perhaps the most perfect of Acton’s review essays.  Lea’s reading, said the reviewer, is as extensive as Buckle’s and he uses it more intelligently.  His information is comprehensive, minute, exact, and sufficient.  Of one section Acton declares that nothing in European literature can compare with it.  On the structure and activities of the Inquisition it will survive the censure of all critics.  Those “who seriously invoke history as the final remedy for untruth and the sovereign arbiter of opinion, can add little to the searching labours of the American.” 

He detects, however, some confusion of thought in the work.  Lea, he complains, will not condemn the persecutors, while at the same time he denounces persecution.  Acton quotes a number of passages from Lea like this one:  the Inquisition is “a standing mockery of justice, perhaps the most iniquitous that the arbitrary cruelty of man has ever devised.”  Now, says Acton, we have to explain how men trained to charity and mercy, and not always without a certain independence of mind, came to practice such cruelty.  Lea would have it that it lies in the nature of the creed of the Church.  “No firm believer in the doctrine of exclusive salvation,” he maintains, “could doubt that the truest mercy lay in sweeping away the emissaries of Satan with fire and sword.”  To which Acton counters that the historical truth is that the Church had not always persecuted.  And if the Inquisition might well seem to be the invention of demons as Lea declared, how could it also be worked by godly men for the benefit of the souls of the victims?  Thus we have, says Acton in his best style, this impossibility: “Crime without a culprit, the unavenged victim who perishes by no man’s fault, law without responsibility, the virtuous agent of vicious cause.”

And neither did Creighton agree with Lea.  In 1895 he published a book called Persecution and Tolerance which shows him to be much nearer to Acton than that gentleman seemed to suppose.  The view expressed by Lea had been powerfully expounded by Lecky in the famous History of Rationalism, first published in 1865, and was widely held.  Creighton believed exactly the opposite.  Persecution is opposed to the express teaching of Jesus and to the spirit of Christianity.  The Church had adopted it, unfortunately, when it assumed the responsibility of maintaining social order, but it was used for political rather than religious ends.  Even then it was condemned by the Christian conscience, and those who used it felt there was a contradiction.  Intolerance is not peculiarly religious; it is a common human failing, rooted in selfishness, love of getting one’s own way, love of success and power.

Creighton draws a distinction, whether tenable or not, between persecution in Roman Catholic and in Protestant countries.  In the former it hardened into a necessary principle which might not be questioned, while in the latter it was a matter of national policy and therefore open to discussion.  When the nation had worked out for itself a secure basis for its common life apart from religion, it became possible to advocate freedom.  If this seems to make toleration mere practical expediency, he argues, not too clearly, that the national solidarity is itself the result of the permeation of the Christian spirit.  He further urges that if toleration began in political expediency it is only secure when it becomes a positive principle, inspired by religion.  In language that would be thoroughly acceptable to Acton he asserts his conviction that the development of society is the work of the Incarnation, that civilization is part of the divine order.  The Church, in spite of faults, throughout the ages has upheld its testimony to the presence among men of the Incarnate Lord.  In his final chapter he gives us his conception of toleration as a virtue rather than a convenience.  It lies in the Aristotelian mean between persecution the excess and indifference the defect.  It is not absence of conviction; the Church has a revealed truth to announce and defend.  But history has shown the error of trying to secure unity of belief by force.  Carnal means cannot avail.  “The Church will affect society as it shows its capacity to persuade, rebuke, exhort . . . not as it claims to command.”  Liberty is always insecure, and only the Church can guarantee it, because “it possesses the knowledge of man’s eternal destiny-which alone can justify his claim to freedom.”

Creighton had told Lea he did not agree with him, and now sent a copy of his book to convince him of his errors.  But Lea stuck to his guns and in 1903 took as the subject of his presidential address to the American Historical Society, “Ethical Values in History.”13  The grand old scholar was now nearly eighty and unable to appear personally.  Making direct reference to the passage in Acton’s inaugural lecture at Cambridge about never debasing the moral currency, Lea maintains that the whole argument rests on a false premise; namely, that there exists a fixed and unalterable standard of morality.  On the contrary, anthropologists have shown that there is hardly a sin in the Decalogue that has not been somewhere or at some time considered a virtue, or at any rate quite allowable.  History reveals no universal standard.  The current moral standard is but the result of the wisdom of our forefathers as they adapted themselves to circumstances.  As part of our inheritance we have the noble teachings of Christianity, but efforts to practice them have met with poor success.  Lea contends that written history should convey a moral, but that it should educe itself from the facts.  Men should be judged by the standards of their time, even though the historian must point out the evil consequences of certain historical beliefs.  To introduce modem theories into the past is to make subjective that which should be objective.  As an example of how history should not be written he takes Motley’s treatment of Philip II in his book on the Dutch revolt.  Not Philip, but the spirit of the age should have been censured, for most people and most faiths then believed it to be the duty of monarchs to enforce religious unity.  And with Creighton evidently in mind, Lea categorically asserts, “This was the inevitable result of the deplorable doctrine of exclusive salvation, which rendered the extinction of heresy a duty to God and man.  The idea was gradually abandoned by Protestants, but it still inspired the kindly Pius IX in 1864 when he ordered all Catholics to condemn the error that a man is free to follow the religion his reason dictates.”  History teaches no moral lesson, maintains Lea, by merely denouncing Philip as a monster of iniquity however much it may give vigor to a narrative. On the other hand:

To represent him truthfully as the inevitable product of a distorted ethical conception is to trace effects to causes and to point out the way to improvement.  This is not only the scientific method applied to history, but it ennobles the historian’s labors by rendering them contributory to that progress which adds to the sum of human happiness and fits mankind for a higher standard of existence.

Each of our three historians in his own way has advanced our knowledge of history and enriched our historical literature.  In spite of their differences, fundamentally they had much in common.  Acton and Creighton believed in a fixed system of moral principles, transcendental in its origin; while to Lea morality was a human product evolved from experience and subject to change.  All three believed that a historian is not only an investigator but a moral judge of men and movements.  Acton’s dictum that men should be estimated intellectually by their best achievements but morally by their worst deeds is harsh, and it led him to conclusions that invite challenge.  Whig though he was, he held that final sentence on William III must be pronounced according as he was responsible for the extermination of a Scottish clan at Glencoe.  It is a satisfaction and a relief to know that just before his death he came to feel that he had been too hard.  His son wrote:  “During what was almost our last conversation he solemnly adjured me not to rash—judge others as he had done, but to take care to make allowance for human weakness.”14  His assumption of an infallible moral code did not endow him with an infallible historical judgment when he came to apply his code to human situations.  To him, for example, morality and idealism were on the side of the South in the American Civil War, because the North represented a majority with superior physical force coercing a minority.  That this is a gross oversimplification of the moral issues hardly needs to be pointed out.  From the same premise others have arrived at a different conclusion.  Fundamentally Creighton believed much as Acton did, but, having more knowledge of men and their struggles in a workaday world, he could more easily make allowances.  In fact he had that pity and sympathy with human failings that Acton came to regret he had not always shown.  Could we choose our judge it would be the more worldly-wise prelate.  That degrees of temptation imply degrees of guilt is a principle we consider essentially just in our jurisprudence.  Under Lea we would apparently escape all personal responsibility, for men would be as chips floating with the current.  To say that historical characters can only reflect the moral standards of their age would seem to endanger all standards.  On his own hypothesis, was it not men who created the prevailing opinions?  He held, rightly or wrongly, that the morality of the nineteenth century was higher than that of the sixteenth.  How could there be such improve-ment except by some individuals defying the spirit of the time?  Or does he after all have some metaphysic, a belief in some force that operates apart from human volition?

Whatever their differences our three historians, however, were agreed that the scientific study of history should advance the cause of morality.  Were they right?  Nothing can be much more tedious in a work of history than the frequent pointing of morals and adorning of tales.  But let me ask this:  Should the history of the Inquisition be so written as to leave it an open question whether or not it was desirable, whether or not it was wrong?  Our authors thought not, and I record my personal conviction that they were right.  They were not concerned so much with personal peccadilloes as with the principles of politics and public policies.  Acton bids us to suspect power rather than vice.  The greatest sins are those against the sanctity of human life, the rights of individual conscience, and social justice. 

How are we to write the history of Hitlerism?  By suspending judgment?  Merely to record the facts according to the tenets of the “things as they actually happened” school is too menial a task for the historian.  At its best, history is reflection on human problems; it makes value judgments and has affinities with philosophy. It is not only a record of civilization; it is a contribution to man’s spiritual culture.  In that culture are not ethical principles, whatever their origin, an essential element?  In a world distraught as perhaps never before, in which power is not yet subject to any law beyond itself, there is still need for Acton’s trumpet call:  “Suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong.”  “If we lower our standard in History, we cannot uphold it in Church and State.”15



1 Edmund Gosse, Portraits and Sketches (London, 1912), 192.

2 Mrs. Mandell Creighton, Life and Letters of Mandeil Creighton. (2 vols., London, 1913), I, 231.

3 See the Academy, XXII, December 9,1882, pp. 407-409.

4 Creighton, op. cit., I, 229.

5 Ibid., I, 371.

6 English Historical Review, 11(1887),571-581.

7 John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, Historical Essays and Studies (ed. by John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence, London. 1907), 505.

8 Ibid., 504.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid., 505.

12 English Historical Review, III (1888),773-788: reprinted in John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, History of Freedom (London, 1922).

13 See American Historical Review, IX (1904), 233-246.

14 London Times, October 30,1906.

15 John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, Lectures on Modern History (ed. with introd. by John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence, London, 1906), 24, 28.

Posted May 25, 2007