I’ll soon be discussion leader of a Liberty Fund symposium on Liberty and Power. One of the readings is the correspondence between the famous Lord Acton and the less-famous Bishop Mandell Creighton. It’s the first time I’ve read Creighton’s side of things and I’m impressed by his willingness to admit error.

Acton takes on historian Creighton’s view of “great men.” In Acton’s letter of April 5, 1887 is the paragraph that contains a few famous sentences. I liked the whole paragraph. Here it is:

But if we might discuss this point until we found that we nearly agreed, and if we do argue thoroughly about the impropriety of Carlylese denunciations, and Pharisaism in history, I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable 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. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means. You would hang a man of no position, like Ravaillac; but if what one hears is true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan. Here are the greater names coupled with the greater crimes. You would spare these criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them, higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice; still more, still higher, for the sake of historical science.

I had never known before that this paragraph was in a letter, as opposed to an article.

Creighton’s response went beyond civil. He actually admitted error.

I particularly liked three passages.

The first is Creighton’s opening paragraph:

Your letter is an act of true friendliness, and I am very grateful to you for it, more grateful than I can say. It is a rare encouragement to have such a standard set up as you have put before me. Judged by it I have nothing to say except to submit: efficaci do manus scientiae. Before such an ideal I can only confess that I am shallow and frivolous, limited alike in my views and in my knowledge. You conceive of History as an Architectonic, for the writing of which a man needs the severest and largest training. And it is impossible not to agree with you: so it ought to be.

Wow! The latin phrase above translates to “I give an effective hand of knowledge.” I don’t quite get it.

The second was Creighton’s discussion of Pope Sixtus IV and the Spanish Inquisition:

My purpose was not to justify him, but to put him in rank with the rest. I think, however, that I was wrong, and that you are right: his responsibility was graver than I have admitted. I think he knew better.

The third is Creighton’s closing paragraph:

Will you not someday write an article in the Historical Review on the Ethics of History? I have no objection to find my place among the shocking examples. Believe me that I am genuinely grateful to you.

Wow again.

The picture above is of Creighton.