The Weakness of Idolizing Achievements: Lord Acton

I’d like to quote a letter from Lord Acton (John Edward Dalberg) to Mandell Creighton, a historian of the papcy and a bishop in the Anglican Church.  This is by far the most significant critique of the demonstrative failure of idolization.  Peter Drucker, Henri De Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar would have agreed.

“You say that people in authority are not to be snubbed at from our pinnacle of conscious rectitude.  I really don’t know whether you exempt them because of their rank, or of their success and power.

I cannot accept your canon 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 the 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 add the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authenticity.  THERE IS NO WORSE HERESY THAN THE OFFICE SANCTIFIES THE HOLDER OF IT. . .

The inflexible integrity of the moral code is, to me, the secret of the authority, the dignity, the utility of History.  IF WE DEBASE THE CURRENCY FOR THE SAKE OF GENIUS, OR SUCCESS, OR RANK, OR REPUTATION, WE MAY DEBASE IT FOR THE SAKE OF A MAN’S INFLUENCE, OF HIS RELIGION, HIS PARTY, OF THE GOOD CAUSE WHICH PROSPERS BY HIS CREDIT.

Then History ceases to be a science, an arbiter of controversy, a guide for a moral standard which the powers of the earth and religion itself tend constantly to depress.  It serves where it ought to reign; and its serves the worst cause better than the purest. “

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About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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