JOHN EMERICH EDWARD DALBERG-ACTON (1834–1902)
A Lecture On The Study Of History (1896, 2nd Edition)
Letters Of Lord Acton To Mary, Daughter Of The Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone (1904)
"It does not seem likely that any one, after reading these letters, would question the desirability of their publication. In general they speak for themselves; a few notes have been added to explain allusions which by lapse of time have become obscure; some names and passages, and some letters, have been omitted. After 1885 Lord Acton touched upon questions which are still matters of controversy, and therefore the selection closes with that year. The letters were written to the daughter who lived with Mr. Gladstone from the time of her own birth, in the middle of the last century, to the day of his death, at its close. The idea of publishing a selection of them arose in 1898; and Lord Acton, with certain reservations, assented to it. But it was felt by competent judges that it would be trespassing in Mr. Morley's domain; and Mr. Morley himself was strongly of opinion that the mutilation which at that period would have been necessary, would seriously impair the interest and the significance of the book. So, for the time, the project was abandoned. On the other hand, in the judgment of the eminent authorities to whom the letters were submitted, their value was of such a nature that it was evident they ought to be published as soon as Mr. Morley should have completed his task.
With the exception of passages critical of himself or his policy, the letters were not read by Mr. Gladstone; for, while he made it a rule to shun all that was laudatory of himself, he always welcomed and carefully studied anything deliberately thought out or written in an opposite sense. His own correspondence with Lord Acton extended over a period of some thirty years; but it does not cover nearly so wide a range of subjects, or appeal so much to general interests, as the series now printed.
To the recipient of these letters from Lord Acton they will always be precious, not merely for the judgments they contain and the memories they recall, but also as the outward symbol of an inward and priceless possession—the treasure of his friendship." (Preface)
Lectures On Modern History (1906)
"The profound student of history will beyond all doubt find a vast deal of absolutely authoritative and reliable information in these sixteen lectures of Lord Acton collected by careful editors in the present volume. No historian of recent years possessed a more thorough knowledge of facts, no one had a clearer mind for associating and grouping them, and no one a deeper reverence for them. But to that great majority made up of what is called the "lay reader" the book is of greater importance even than to the student of history generally. It is, in fact, a primer of history.
The word "primer" may suggest a sort of elementary text for the young, but that it is emphatically not. He who would venture into these lectures must be resolved for serious work. Their very style has a forbidding air. Indeed, Lord Acton's conviction that history must be approached with gravity and sobriety brings to his work a regrettable kind of cloistral austerity. "His lectures", the editors tell us in the introduction, "were not either in delivery or substance adapted to the assiduous note-taker". Obviously they were not. The reader may recall Stevenson's opinion upon the style of Lord Acton's predecessor at Cambridge, Sir John Seeley, whose manner of writing Stevenson termed "a winking, curled-and-oiled, ultra-cultured, Oxford-don sort of an affectation that infuriates my honest soul". And Seeley's style, be it said, was perhaps ten times simpler and better than the best of Lord Acton's. The virtue of the present volume, clearly, lies in the substance, and the gist and heart of it is a kind of pious zeal and fervor for historical knowledge.
Those who follow French literature may remember how a recent life of St. Francis of Assisi, by the perfervid religious enthusiasm in its pages, wrought so potently on certain French minds that even some students of the Latin Quarter, it is said, embraced the cult of St. Francis. For a brief space they walked in his footsteps and added chastity and charity to the virtue of poverty, already theirs. The lectures of Lord Acton will, in similar fashion, though perhaps more abidingly, instil in the reader a great desire for historical study. On his very first page, the author cites that famous dictum of Seeley's that, "Politics are vulgar when they are not liberalized by history, and history fades into mere literature when it loses sight of its relation to practical politics". With him we stand aghast at the darkness of the Middle Ages when men "became content to be deceived, to live in a twilight of fiction, under clouds of false witnesses", and with him we rejoice that "unlike the dreaming historic world ours . . . has devoted its best energy and treasure to the sovereign purpose of detecting error and vindicating entrusted truth". No intellectual exercise, he tells us, " can be more invigorating than to watch the working of the mind of Napoleon, the most entirely known as well as the ablest of historic men." And every part of modern history, he assures us, "is weighty with inestimable lessons that we must learn by experience and at a great price, if we know not how to profit by the example and teaching of those who have gone before us, in a society largely resembling the one we live in."
The sixteen lectures, naturally, do not pretend to cover the whole domain of Modern History. If the work of Lord Acton could without a feeling of irreverence be compared to anything journalistic, it might be said that these lectures are like the captions of a newspaper. Run your eye over them and you gain an idea, though not a very complete one, of the day's news. In the same manner a perusal of these chapters will give the reader
a kind of bulletin of the history that was made between the dates of the Renaissance and the American Revolution. The lectures are crowded with facts. Take, for instance, the one on "The New World". Beginning with the explorations of Henry the Navigator, the lecture touches, however briefly, upon every important point of exploration and discovery down to the voyages of Cortez. Even more complex and comprehensive is the subject of the " Renaissance". It was the age of the revival of Greek learning and humanism, and also the age of endless blood shed and cruelty. Every one penned sentimental poems after Petrarch, while, at the same time, Machiavelli wrote his famous treatise. Savonarola thundered against vice and vanity, while Pope Alexander VI and his children practised every crime to such an extent that even to-day the name of Borgia is synonymous with monster. And yet, for all its complexity, Lord Acton treats of the subject in one lecture in such a way that no important group of facts is left untouched. And the net result of reading this portion is an awakened desire in the student to penetrate further into that brightly colored, vivid period. Some of the other topics dealt with in similar fashion are "Luther," " The Thirty Years' War," " The English Revolution," " Lewis XIV," "Peter the Great" and "The American Revolution." Every sentence carries with it the conviction of truth, and every page creates an impulse to delve deeper into the subject-matter. And before long we become at one with the author in his idea that the study of history " fulfils its purpose even if it only makes us wiser, without producing books, and gives us the gift of historical thinking, which is better than historical learning." (Henry James Forman, The North American Review, 01/02/1907).
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/18685 (Missing Prefatory Note & Introduction)
The History Of Freedom And Other Essays (1907)
Historical Essays And Studies (1907)
Lectures On The French Revolution (1910)
"The vast learning of Lord Acton is displayed in this memorable volume, not in expansion, as in Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, or Buckle's History of Civilization, but in extreme compression. In pregnancy and compactness, he recalls Bacon only he does not permit himself, like either Bacon or Hume, to diverge far into the train of historical reflections suggested by the facts with which he is dealing. The present work has the serious fault which sententiousness is apt to create it is often obscure, not from the use of inexact language (something foreign to Lord Acton), but from the statement of a fact in a form so brief that it assumes some of the faintness of a generalization. This fault is intensified by the author's taking it for granted that the reader is familiar with the history of the French Revolution even to its minutest particulars. The most profound knowledge of that great event is absolutely necessary to an intelligent understanding of these pages. An important scene is sometimes presented in a single sentence; a mighty popular tendency treated in two. To the reader only partially equipped by previous study to grasp the full meaning of the descriptions and the conclusions much of the volume will seem vague and shadowy. The Revolution glimmers, as it were, behind a veil.
There is nothing to recall the terrific dramatic force of Carlyle's companion masterpiece in this work. Carlyle seized upon a few facts only, but his imagination was able to use them with such power that the whole spirit, the concentrated essence, of the French Revolution is brought vividly before us. Lord Acton, on the other hand, seizes upon many facts; and, as it were, by the blows of another Thor, compresses them into a narrow compass, to the exclusion of all imaginative effects. The work seems rather like the head-lines of a professor's thesis than the actual thesis itself: memoranda strung together connectedly, but intended for future elaboration; a skeleton outline to be clothed with flesh by word of mouth in the lecture-room.
To Americans, the most interesting part of the volume will be the description which the writer gives of the influence of the American Revolution the inauguration and expansion of the French Revolution. As Lord Acton points out, it was the Declaration of Independence, not the Federal Constitution, which affected the character of that event. His admiration of Hamilton, who favored monarchy, blinds him to the merits of the other framers. Hamilton alone, he declares, was a man of genius. That great publicist appealed to him as he had done to Talleyrand, because his point of view was so much more in sympathy with European public opinion than the point of view of any other distinguished American.
In this part of his work, Lord Acton is too deferential to those fathers of the Republic who were writers as well as speakers. Otis and Adams are given a disproportionate importance, because they left behind a written record of their political views and impressions. There is no reference to Patrick Henry, presumably because his speeches have practically perished.
In a similar spirit, Lord Acton exalts the work of the voluminous Sieyes, for whom the previous historians of the French Revolution have expressed but small admiration. And he is rather more lenient than is usual in the judgment which he passes on Robespierre. Had Louis XVI. been a strong man, he declares, he would have been saved. This opinion is open to debate. If the king was not strong himself, there were men about him, and at his service, who were certainly strong. In the world-shaking upheaval known as the French Revolution, it is doubtful whether Napoleon himself could, as chief adviser to the monarch, have oppressed the turbulent elements that brought on the Reign of Terror. It was not until the convulsion was subsiding that the opportune whiff of grape-shot was able to put a stop to it finally." (The North American Review, 11/1911)
Selections From The Correspondence Of The First Lord Acton · Volume 1 (1917)
Suggest and discuss books to read (all languages welcome!)
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