Acton Tends to Corrupt

Voiced by Amazon Polly

Lord Acton’s dictum, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” has been getting a good airing in the media lately. “Donald Trump, Absolutely Corrupted” ran an October 11 Washington Post headline, but they’re not the only ones quoting Acton as a satisfactory explanation of the President of the United States’ disturbing tendency to run the country his way and not theirs. Satisfactory, perhaps, but hardly original: use of this adage to condemn any holder of authority with whom one disagrees is distinctly old hat.

Lord Acton was an influential 19th-century Catholic liberal. He famously (and vainly) opposed the doctrine of infallibility, traveling to Rome during Vatican I to lobby against it; he felt that the Council would do better to focus on repealing the “intolerant” measures of the Council of Trent and introducing relaxed rules on celibacy, use of the vernacular in the liturgy, a suppression of solemn vows in religious orders, and a decentralization of the pontifical power—ideas that led 20th-century Catholic scholar Hugh MacDougall to hail him as a “frustrated intellectual giant”.

His power adage is taken from an 1887 letter from Acton to Mandell Creighton, an Anglican cleric and author of History of the Papacy. Acton thought Creighton had soft-pedaled his judgment of the Renaissance popes. In criticizing Creighton’s approach, Acton set forth the basic principles of what historian Herbert Butterfield would call “the Whig interpretation of history.”

The Whig historian, Butterfield says, does not focus on understanding a historical figure by delving into his social context. Rather, the Whig historian’s priority is moral judgment; understanding is secondary and sometimes dangerously conducive to sympathy: “Beware of too much explaining, lest we end by too much excusing,” Acton wrote. For the Whig historian, historical figures could be divided into two camps—the good, who could be portrayed as favoring the cause of “liberty”, and the bad, who oppose it. Butterfield thought this simplistic as well as historically unrealistic: the Enlightenment notion of liberty, for instance, was as foreign to the Middle Ages as it was to classical antiquity. How could medieval men be said to defend or oppose it, when they had never conceived of such a thing?

The epitome of the Whig historian, to Butterfield’s mind, was Lord Acton. In the context of his “Power tends to corrupt” remark, we find a snapshot of his Whiggish thought:

“I cannot accept your canon,” Acton wrote to Creighton, “that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.”

Thus, in the mind of Acton the Whig historian, persons in authority are to be automatically assigned to the bad camp, simply because they hold power; if they’ve done nothing bad yet, they surely will soon. Elsewhere Acton would quote Fenelon: “Power is poison,” adding, “as kings are nearly always bad, they ought not to govern, but only to execute the law.” Superbly, he advised his students at Cambridge to “suspect power more than vice” (causing Butterfield to comment wryly on “the peculiar historian’s ethics, by which we can overlook the fact that a king is a spendthrift and a rake, but cannot contain our moral passions if a king has too exalted a view of his own office.”)

Yet history offers examples of strong kings who brought peace, learning, stability, and prosperity to their people. What about Louis IX and Alfred the Great? What about Charlemagne and Augustus? Certainly, they had their faults, but it’s hard to deny that the stability and safety of their kingdoms benefited everyone. As for weak monarchs, what magnets for misfortune! The vacillation of Louis XVI allowed hundreds of thousands to be murdered in the French Revolution; the unfortunate Henry VI led England into the bloody Wars of the Roses; and if the ill-starred Nicholas II of Russia hadn’t been so spineless, perhaps his people would have been spared the atrocities of Stalin. How could Acton be so suspicious of power when it seems so necessary for the good of society?

The answer is that Acton had an entirely different idea of the good of society. “The object of civil society is justice, not truth, virtue, wealth, knowledge, glory or power,” he wrote; “justice is followed by equality and liberty.” Setting aside the question of whether justice can even exist without a prior foundation in truth and virtue, the Catholic might wonder:  Is it possible that the sole pursuit of equality and liberty can result in the heights of social harmony envisioned by St. Augustine in his City of God? “The peace of all things is the tranquillity of order,” Augustine wrote, and “order is the distribution which allots things equal and unequal, each to its own place.”

“We can suspect,” wrote Butterfield (a Methodist) perspicaciously, “that [Acton’s adage on power] was a truth more dear to the heart of the liberal… in him than to the mind of the Roman Catholic.” Indeed, the more we examine Acton’s allergy to authority, the more incompatible it seems with the Catholic vision of society. The power that Acton intended to condemn, historian John Rao writes, “was precisely the activity of that mesh of social authorities… developed by Greco-Roman culture and Catholic thinkers tying natural wisdom together with the message of the Incarnation.”

This “mesh of social authorities” was the hierarchy of bodies that made up civilization: the family, the city, the province, and the empire. As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire into which it was born, its intellectual leaders—the Fathers of the Church—sought to repurpose the civilizational achievements of Greece and Rome “to aid the task of salvation.”

Rao argues this was a natural consequence of the Incarnation: the Word Incarnate came to “redirect the entirety of fallen Creation to the glorification of God.” St. Irenaeus called this “the ‘recapitulation’ of everything in Christ.”

The Fathers of the Church believed that the Greco-Roman emphasis on familial and state authority was particularly important for Christian civilization. St. Augustine, for instance, describes how the Roman tradition of the paterfamilias required the head of the family to exert a loving oversight over the household’s practice of religion. St. Augustine judged this so much in accordance with the natural order that he called for Christian fathers to continue this loving oversight and to “endeavor that all the members of their household, equally with their own children, should worship and win God, and should come to that heavenly home in which the duty of ruling men is no longer necessary, because the duty of caring for their everlasting happiness has also ceased.”

Acton would have strongly objected to Augustine’s exalted notion of authority. “Authority that does not exist for liberty is not authority but force,” he declared. However, Augustine thought authority was not license to indulge one’s tyrannical instincts, but a higher calling—a sacred trust. “Until they reach that [heavenly] home,” he says, “masters ought to feel their position of authority a greater burden than servants their service.”

Writing of the good Christian emperor, Augustine did not advise him to harbor a sense of guilt at ruling over his fellows, much less to surrender his power into the capricious hands of the majority. Instead, Augustine promised him a heavenly reward if he used his authority virtuously and worthily. “[Christian emperors] are happy,” he writes, “if they rule justly; …if they make their power the handmaid of His majesty by using it for the greatest possible extension of His worship…”

What a contrast! Acton’s idea of power is a dark and nefarious force, sucking its users into corruption, while Augustine believes that power can, by the grace of God, be “the handmaid of God’s majesty”!

More shockingly yet to the democratic mind, Augustine appears to argue that the State ought to use its authority to promote the true religion. From across the centuries, Leo XIII nods approvingly: “The true liberty of human society does not consist in every man doing what he pleases,” Leo wrote in the encyclical Libertas, “for this would simply end in turmoil and confusion, and bring on the overthrow of the State; but rather in this, that through the injunctions of the civil law all may more easily conform to the prescriptions of the eternal law.”

Acton fought the definition of infallibility tooth and nail. If he had been alive in 1925, would he have protested Pius XI’s call for mankind to subject itself to the absolute Kingship of Christ? It would surely have been a bitter pill. Yet Acton’s bleak civil society—which promises only “justice, not truth, virtue, wealth, knowledge, glory or power”—makes a poor showing next to the society that calls Christ King: “a kingdom of truth and life; a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace,” as the original prayers for the Feast of Christ the King have it.

For in Christ the King—to whom is given all power on heaven and on earth—we find the ultimate negation of Acton’s maxim. His absolute power is the very antithesis of corruption. And when earthly authority founds itself upon Him, its power, already naturally good, is sanctified and exalted.


Jane Stannus is a journalist and translator. Her writing has also appeared in the Catholic Herald of London, The Spectator USA, and the National Catholic Reporter.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.