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Lord Acton (1834 – 1902): Historian of Freedom

When the great historian Lord Acton addressed a small public audience in an English market town in 1877, his subject scarcely could have been larger: the history of freedom. The conditions, Acton explained, must be just right. Liberty, after all, can be mistaken for license. But if genuine freedom is achieved by a culture, he maintained, the rewards are sweet. Acton announced,

Liberty, next to religion, has been the motive of good deeds and the common pretext of crime, from the sowing of the seed at Athens, two thousand four hundred and sixty years ago, until the ripened harvest was gathered by men of our race. It is the delicate fruit of a mature civilisation; and scarcely a century has passed since nations, that knew the meaning of the term, resolved to be free. In every age its progress has been beset by its natural enemies, by ignorance and superstition, by lust of conquest and by love of ease, by the strong man’s craving for power, and the poor man’s craving for food. . . . At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare . . .1

Lord Acton spoke at a time when political freedom was increasing in many parts of the world. But his sobering words turned out to be prophetic. The experience of repressive fascism and communism in the century that followed all too sadly confirmed his view. He could not have been more right: freedom is historically rare—and fragile.

As Acton explains, freedom was particularly rare in the world of antiquity for two main reasons. The first was the worship of power at the heart of so much pre-Christian, pagan religion. Since kings and rulers were commonly regarded as representatives or even incarnations of the gods, the state was effectively deified and became the center of all legitimate authority and decision-making. The individual, by contrast, was seen merely as the subject and servant of the pagan state. Secondly, this mentality both helped to justify and was also reinforced by the fact that slavery was a universal institution throughout the ancient world. Apart from a handful of philosophers, no one questioned the morality of a social order in which countless human beings were regarded as the goods and chattels of the rich and powerful, on a par with cattle and domestic animals. Given such conditions, most pre-Christian societies had no effective moral, religious, or institutional barriers to the violence and cruelty inherent in fallen human nature—might was right. It was also a world in which the moral self-discipline required for the successful evolution of peaceful representative government did not and could not exist. Consequently, as Acton argues, despite the enlightened views about ethics and politics of Greek and Roman philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Cicero, and Seneca, “there was no power in them to avert the doom of that civilisation . . . the ancient nations were crushed beneath a hopeless and inevitable despotism . . .”2

But the advent of Christianity, according to Acton, changed the tide of history and gave freedom a future. It did so by spreading throughout the world the revelation, originally given to the Jews, that there is only one God, and His perfect goodness and power is the universal law which is the true ruler of nations, and is therefore above the State and an eternal check on its pretensions and power. Furthermore, by giving birth to the Church, Christianity established a new, independent, international institution through which the power and spirit of Christ was released into human society and history.

It is no coincidence, then, that historically those societies which have enjoyed the most freedom are also those where Christianity has been practiced; and the same tends to be true today.


Lord Acton, “History of Freedom in Antiquity,” in History of Freedom and Other Essays (London: MacMillian and Co., 1919), 1.


Ibid., 27.