“Acton’s ideal of the historian as judge, as the upholder of the moral standard, is the most noble ideal ever proposed for the historian,” says Josef L. Altholz in this week’s Acton Commentary, “and it is an ideal that has been rejected, perhaps with grudging respect, by all historians, including myself.”
We workaday historians can have no higher ideal than Acton’s second choice, impartiality or objectivity. In this sense, as also in his relative lack of publications, Acton was somewhat of a failure as a historian. Yet he remains relevant to historians, not as a model but as a challenge. If Acton stands on the far right of historians, demanding something more than objectivity, there is a significant far left that would do away with objectivity altogether, and many others who would sharply modify that already moderate standard. Their critique is based upon the valid observation that it is difficult or even impossible for historians to meet the standard of objectivity, that they will always be affected by their time, their place, their creed, perhaps even their gender. This can be constructively applied as a call to historians to acknowledge their limitations and make the best of them. But it has also been applied as a justification for abandoning any standard, for elevating the historian above the historical record, denying that there is any objective factuality, and allowing an individual historian in effect to create his or her own past—the historical equivalent of deconstructionism and other postmodern tendencies in literary studies. To this, Acton in his isolation serves at least as a counterpoise, a countervailing force allowing the center to hold. For the historian of today, Acton serves not as an example but as a counter-example, providing a standard that we do not follow but that enables us at least to reject its direct opposite.
The full text of the essay can be found here. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton Commentary and other publications here.