This is the eighth in a series celebrating the work of Russell Kirk in honor of his 100th birthday this October. Read more from the series here.
Russell Kirk had a profound influence on the conservative mind and movement—offering a rich and compelling vision of ordered liberty and cultural imagination necessary to sustain it.
Toward the end of his prolific life and career, Kirk would offer his final public lecture on January 10, 1994, at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, MI. The lecture, “Lord Acton on Revolution,” aptly embodies that same legacy, exploring key philosophical tensions and weighing complex historical realities—all with the goal of better understanding and, more importantly, better preserving human freedom, properly understood.
The audio of the lecture can be accessed below. (The lecture can also be found in written form in Lord Acton: Historian and Moralist, a recently released collection of lectures and essays, edited by Samuel Gregg.)
Kirk begins the lecture with a series of reflections on Lord Acton’s enduring contributions to our understanding of freedom, expressing great appreciation for Acton’s view that “liberty is the condition of duty, the guardian of conscience,” and that, “It grows as conscience grows. The domains of both grow together.”
Kirk summarizes Lord Acton’s view as follows:
He meant Ciceronian and Christian concepts of liberty—ordered freedom, governed by conscience. He understood, of course, Cicero’s distinction between voluntas and libido: the first is willed freedom, the freedom of the high old Roman virtue; the second is lust, the freedom of unhallowed appetites. And Acton knew, of course, the Pauline truth that “the service of God is perfect freedom.”
Acton understood that power is the ability to do unto other people as one wishes, whether those others so wish or not; while freedom is the ability to withstand arbitrary power. Thus true freedom is the opportunity to make moral choices, and to do one’s moral duty here below. Lord Acton—who never throughout his life suffered under any arbitrary power—detested the absolutist political regimes of earlier centuries and those that remained during his own age.
From here, Kirk steadily transitions from appreciation to critique, focusing on Acton’s views on revolution and its merits as a mechanism for bringing about or maintaining such liberty.
In his early writings, Acton would refer to revolutions as “a malady, a frenzy, an interruption of the nation’s growth, sometimes fatal to its existence, often to its independence,” agreeing with Edmund Burke that the French Revolution was “the enemy of liberty.” Yet Kirk observes a shift in those views over time. “How then did Acton come from time to time to commend revolution?” Kirk asks. “Because he thought of political revolutions as bringing about, usually, an increase of freedom.”
The proceeding discussion offers much to consider, with in-depth explorations of key revolutions and Acton’s opinions thereof, from the Puritan Revolution to the English Revolution to the American Revolution—with the arguments perhaps coming to their clearest points in his final discussion of the French Revolution.
“Freedom cannot endure except upon the footing of a healthy order—order in the soul, and order in the commonwealth,” Kirk concludes. “Revolution, after all, is the disruption of order, and therefore extreme medicine.”
Throughout it all, we see those unique Kirkian tendencies at their best: a constant weighing and illuminating of that which so often lies hidden, whether it be defining a more robust ordered liberty or observing the more subtle distinctions between revolutionary and constitutional principles.
Listen to Kirk’s full and final public lecture here.