In the public imagination, Lord Acton is often restricted to his ubiquitous aphorism about power and corruption. This is a pity, as the nineteenth century essayist, historian, and parliamentarian held wide-ranging views about liberty as well-developed as they were penetrating.
Eugenio Lopes explores these views, noting the interrelationship between power and conscience in Lord Acton’s writings. For Acton, “Freedom depends on a well-formed conscience,” Lopes writes. Absolutist political forces continually shape and bend public morality to their own, corrupt vision of society.
Rather than royal decrees, Acton wrote that conscience acts as liberty’s surest buttress:
The true guide of our conduct is no outward authority, but the voice of God, who comes down to dwell in our souls, who knows all our thoughts, to whom are owing all the truth we know, and all our thoughts, to whom are owing all the truth we know, and all the good we do; for vice is voluntary, and virtue comes from the grace of heavenly spirit within (“The History of Freedom in Antiquity”).
“For Acton, freedom is part of human essence,” writes Lopes, who just concluded an internship with the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids. “In this sense, for him, ‘absolute power demoralizes,’ because it inhibits the free exercise of a well-formed conscience. … This context gives sheds new light on his well-known aphorism that ‘power corrupts.'” Absolute power corrupts its citizens, as well as its rulers.
This view of Acton’s corresponds to Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation, in Democracy in America that when:
[G]overnment extends its arm over the whole community … the will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence: it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
Seeing the same phenomenon, Acton wrote of the importance of the separation of powers and guiding society according to sound ethics and right reason.
You can discover more about Lord Acton’s views on liberty, power, and the light of conscience here.
(Photo credit: Public domain.)