“What is tolerance nowadays? Is it a moral virtue in the possessor, or is it a recognition of a necessity arising from an equilibrium of parties? It often seems to me that we speak of it as if it is the first, when actually it is the second.” (Letter of Mandell Creighton to Lord Acton, April 9, 1887)*
Mandell Creighton was an English churchman and historian, and he wrote these lines in answer to Lord Acton’s savage review of the second volume of his History of the Papacy During the Period of the Reformation. Although Creighton was himself one sort of liberal, he had described the persecutions of the early fifteenth-century Church with an air of tolerant understanding, and this outraged Acton, who was another sort of liberal.
Creighton quietly indicates the two types of liberal in his question about tolerance. His own tolerance was the moral virtue that we sometimes call broadmindedness, which is the ability to entertain beliefs one does not hold and to sympathize with men one does not like. It is the ability to suspend abhorrence, extend charity to one’s adversaries, and carry into the intellectual sphere our Lord’s command to love one’s enemies. As Creighton saw it, Renaissance Popes were not an exception to this rule, and this is why he described their persecutions with such tolerant understanding.
Acton’s tolerance was, in contrast, a decidedly uncharitable abhorrence for persecution and those who practiced it. It was what today’s liberals primly describe as “intolerance for intolerance”—or, after a few drinks, “punch a Nazi.” Creighton’s point is that liberals of Acton’s sort hated persecutors more than persecution, and that they would therefore gladly persecute persecutors as soon as they had sufficient power to do so.
Now we have daily acts of liberal persecution to show us how right Creighton was. Liberals clearly hate persecutors more than persecution, and so are pleased to hound “haters” out of restaurants, social media platforms and jobs.
A little later in the same letter, Creighton wrote:
“French Liberalism does not convince me that it is universal. I am not sure how Frederic Harrison or Cotter Morison would deal with me were they in the majority.”
Harrison and Morison were Comtean Positivists, and Creighton supposes, not unreasonably, that the “tolerance” of Comtean Positivists for Christian churchmen was due to the temporary inability of Comtean Positivists to effectively persecute Christian churchmen. Like all liberals of Acton’s sort, Harrison and Morison simply recognized “a necessity arising from an equilibrium of parties,” and were therefore content to bide their time, gather their strength, and oil their thumbscrews.
When Creighton writes that he is not convinced that French liberalism is universal, he means that French liberals use the word fraternity in a special sense. French fraternity is not the same as Christian brotherhood because the former is limited to “the persecuted,” “the oppressed,” and what one great French liberal called “the miserable.” French fraternity does not recognize that human brotherhood takes in even those men who happen to be Popes and Kings (and even Nazis), and that we owe just as much charity to power as we do to poverty.
Acton gave voice to the narrow and uncharitable prejudice of French liberalism in the letter to which Creighton was responding:
“I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favored 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 . . . . Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men . . .”*
Creighton had not, in fact, stipulated that Pope and King should be presumed to have done no wrong. He had said that the law of charity requires us to see these “great men,” not as monsters and fiends, but as brothers placed in exceedingly difficult situations. Creighton did not for a moment deny the truth of Acton’s celebrated line about the tendency of power to corrupt; but he believed that the corruption of a brother should make us feel charity towards that corrupted brother, not hatred.
If I must pity the man who is intoxicated with alcohol, surely I must pity the man who is intoxicated with power!
Lord Acton is often seen as a keen critic of power, but he seems to me decidedly inferior to Creighton. He did not, for instance, see that the historian’s authority to defame great men is a very considerable power, and that historians are therefore subject to the same inexorable corruption (and entitled to the same charity) as other men gifted with great power. The myth that scholars and journalists are immune to corruption by power is one of the great lies of our age.
More generally, and in line with all liberals of his sort, Acton did not see how easily the persecuted can become the persecutors and the oppressed the oppressors. In fact, all history seems to show that, when the miserable come to power, they very often outdo their predecessors in the making of misery. And the reason for this is very clearly their failure to recognize the brotherhood of their former masters. As one old historian put it
“The rule of the mob has ever been the most oppressive tyranny whatever.”**
It has ever been the most oppressive because the mob always believes another great lie: the lie that it alone has a claim on the receipt of charity, and that it is at the same time exempt from the duty of its performance.
*Louise Creighton, ed., Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton, two volumes (London: Longman, green and Co., 1904), vol 1, pp. 370-373.
** Edward Stillingfleet Cayley, The European Revolutions of 1848,two volumes (London: Smith Elder and Co., 1856), vol. 1, p. 255.