Lectures on Modern history

Baron John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton
Lectures on Modern history

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John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton
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Title: Lectures on Modern history
Author: Baron John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton

Release Date: June 26, 2006 [eBook #18685]
Language: English
Character set encoding: ISO-646-US (US-ASCII)
E-text prepared by Geoffrey Cowling



Delivered at Cambridge, June 1895
FELLOW STUDENTS--I look back today to a time before the middle
of the century, when I was reading at Edinburgh and fervently wishing
to come to this University. At three colleges I applied for admission,
and, as things then were, I was refused by all. Here, from the first, I
vainly fixed my hopes, and here, in a happier hour, after five-and-forty
years, they are at last fulfilled.
I desire, first, to speak to you of that which I may reasonably call the
Unity of Modern History, as an easy approach to questions necessary to
be met on the threshold by any one occupying this place, which my
predecessor has made so formidable to me by the reflected lustre of his
You have often heard it said that Modern History is a subject to which
neither beginning nor end can be assigned. No beginning, because the
dense web of the fortunes of man is woven without a void; because, in
society as in nature, the structure is continuous, and we can trace things
back uninterruptedly, until we dimly descry the Declaration of
Independence in the forests of Germany. No end, because, on the same
principle, history made and history making are scientifically
inseparable and separately unmeaning.
"Politics," said Sir John Seeley, "are vulgar when they are not
liberalised by history, and history fades into mere literature when it
loses sight of its relation to practical politics." Everybody perceives the
sense in which this is true. For the science of politics is the one science
that is deposited by the stream of history, like grains of gold in the sand
of a river; and the knowledge of the past, the record of truths revealed
by experience, is eminently practical, as an instrument of action and a

power that goes to the making of the future #1. In France, such is the
weight attached to the study of our own time, that there is an appointed
course of contemporary history, with appropriate text-books #2. That is
a chair which, in the progressive division of labour by which both
science and government prosper #3, may some day be founded in this
country. Meantime, we do well to acknowledge the points at which the
two epochs diverge. For the contemporary differs from the modern in
this, that many of its facts cannot by us be definitely ascertained. The
living do not give up their secrets with the candour of the dead; one key
is always excepted, and a generation passes before we can ensure
accuracy. Common report and outward seeming are bad copies of the
reality, as the initiated know it. Even of a thing so memorable as the
war of 1870, the true cause is still obscure; much that we believed has
been scattered to the winds in the last six months, and further
revelations by important witnesses are about to appear. The use of
history turns far more on certainty than on abundance of acquired
Beyond the question of certainty is the question of detachment. The
process by which principles are discovered and appropriated is other
than that by which, in practice, they are applied; and our most sacred
and disinterested convictions ought to take shape in the tranquil regions
of the air, above the tumult and the tempest of active life #4. For a man
is justly despised who has one opinion in history and another in politics,
one for abroad and another at home, one for opposition and another for
office. History compels us to fasten on abiding issues, and rescues us
from the temporary and transient. Politics and history are interwoven,
but are not commensurate. Ours is a domain that reaches farther than
affairs of state, and is not subject to the jurisdiction of governments. It
is our function to keep in view and to command the movement of ideas,
which are not the effect but the cause of public events #5; and even to
allow some priority to ecclesiastical history over civil, since, by reason
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