Page images
PDF
EPUB

Art. 12.--TWO DISTINGUISHED GLADSTONIANS.

1. Selections from the Correspondence of the first Lord

Acton. Edited with an Introduction by John Neville Figgis and Richard Vere Laurence. Vol. I. Long

mans, 1917. 2. Recollections. By John, Viscount Morley, 0. M. Mac

millan, 1917.

A HAPPY coincidence in publication has thrown into juxtaposition Lord Morley's Recollections' and a fresh volume of Lord Acton's Correspondence,' which keeps appearing, as one cannot but regret, under various auspices and with indifferent regard for the convenience of the reader or the credit of the writer.

The two men, whose memorials are thus simultaneously submitted to the notice of the public, offer such interesting points of comparison and of contrast, both in opinion and career, that a soul like Plutarch's must have snatched greedily at so delicious an opportunity for moralising and storytelling within the category of similarity and opposition. Eyes much less acute than his would, indeed, discover at a glance enough common ground between the two to make it worth while to trace their distinctive features. Both men, with personalities too independent and knowledge too extensive for discipleship, moved constantly in Gladstone's company, found in him the statesman of their hopes, and entertained for him a regard involving a large measure of veneration-in Acton's case a far larger measure than history will justify or than friendship can explain. Their appreciation of him sprang in the first instance from a common belief in individualism, in the freedom of the individual from interference, such as we can hardly know again, at least in any passionate or philosophic sense. And both men, being students of history, gave, as was natural, much time and thought to a study of the growth and development of personal liberty, Acton seeking to grasp the movement in its long range and earliest origins, Lord Morley illustrating its character from that particular and unhappy phase of its fortunes which occurred in France before the Revolution. Then, again, the study of history has been for both preeminently a school of casuistry or, if we prefer,

[merged small][ocr errors]

a hall of judgment, where characters and causes are brought to trial, and acquitted or condemned with unsleeping industry. For each of them the ethical has dominated all other considerations.

These are some points of resemblance. The differences are more striking and instructive. Lord Morley's career looks singularly finished. The tale has been well told, the time well used, the talents carefully laid out. As journalist, as man of letters, as statesman, he has met with rare success and recognition; and this in an age of increasing specialisation. In Acton's life, on the other hand, there is all the appearance of failure. The goal seems everywhere just missed. At the outset, as he never forgot, religious disabilities shut him out of the English Universities. In the House of Commons he felt as if he agreed with no one nor anyone with him. He was thought of as Ambassador at Paris, but was just disqualified for want of a diplomatic training and perhaps of another invaluable diplomatic accessory. His great book-a History of Liberty-for which he collected such countless notes, was never written, and faded, even before his own eyes, into a Madonna of the Future.' His Cambridge Professorship enabled him to plan but not to edit the Cambridge Modern History. And that work, invaluable and indispensable as it is, just missed the perfection of collaborative composition that he dreamed of, and did not quite satisfy the student or quite charm the amateur. Acton, in truth, seems like the Grammarian in Browning's poem, defiant of time, circumstance, occasion, with which things no prudent man may trifle. For him, but not for Lord Morley, 'man bas for ever.'

Here we touch the very root of the contrast. Acton is at heart a mystic, possessed of two worlds, in both of which he has his being. • He loved retirement and avoided company,' says the strange fragment of self-portraiture which he left among his papers, but you might sometimes meet him coming from scenes of sorrow, silent and appalled, as if he had seen a ghost, or in the darkest corners of churches, his dim eyes radiant with light from another world.' But in Lord Morley's philosophy, as he himself tells us,

6

repeating once again some old assertions, such dreaming has no place. For him the flaming ramparts of the world stand firm, dazzling the eye and blocking the path of man, strive he never so wisely.

Fundamentally, then, the two men were, as we say, poles asunder. And yet, since the climate of the polar regions is similar, the Catholic and the Agnostic understand one another better than either can understand all the inhabitants of the zones that lie between.

Is it a mere chance that Lord Morley has administered, and administered with rare ability, the two offices in the British Cabinet which alone call for a lively religious imagination ? At any rate the essay on Joseph de Maistre is there to prove that Ultramontanism had few secrets for the biographer of the Encyclopædists. And Acton on his part was never tired of pointing out how in George Eliot there existed one who, though only the inhabitant by birth and education of circles where the thought of God was rather contemned than rejected, had, with a genius comparable to that of Sophocles, Dante and Cervantes, preached such virtue as only the noblest Christian writers could surpass. Both men had early achieved that long, first step in intellectual happiness-the sympathetic and dispassionate consideration of opinions one does not share and may even spend one's life in combating.

They were born within four years of each other -Acton in 1834, Lord Morley in 1838–became acquainted over the affairs of Ireland, found common interests in history and politics, and formed a high regard for one another's characters and a high estimate of one another's talents. Acton's praise is, however, the more critical.

• He (John Morley) has the obstinacy of a very honest mind.'

And again :

• As there are for him no rights of God, there are no rights of man-the consequence on earth of obligation in Heaven. Therefore he never tries to adjust his view to many conditions and times and circumstances, but approaches each with a mind uncommitted to devotion and untrammelled by analogies.

The consequence of this propensity is that he draws his

conclusions from much too narrow an induction ; and that his very wide culture-wide at least for a man to whom all the problems, the ideas, the literature of religion are indifferent and unknown-does not go to the making of his policy. These are large drawbacks, leaving, nevertheless, a mind of singular elasticity, veracity and power, capable of all but the highest things. He seems to me to judge men dispassionately.'

Lord Morley has himself criticised the criticism. He tells us that he is surprised at the imputation of indifference about the ideas and literature of religion, and complains that acquiescence in the second-best in politics is due to no indifference to principles but to the hard teachings of common sense, to which such statesmen as Walpole, Chatham, Peel, were constantly alive. His surprise might, perhaps, diminish if he were to view afresh Acton's list of the hundred best books, where the theological element is so easily master; just as his complaint is doubtless modified by the reflexion that Acton moved always in the high altitudes of political theory and knew little or nothing of the rough-andtumble life of the practical politician.

His own tribute to Acton is in some respects the most striking in his Recollections':

6

Friendship is a relation that has many types. On none did I presume to set a more special value than on my intercourse with this observant, powerful, reflective, marvellously full mind. He saw both past history as a whole and modern politics as a whole. He was a profound master of all the

a lights and shades of ecclesiastical system; a passionately interested master of the bonds between moral truth and the action of political system; an eager explorer of the ideas that help to govern the rise and fall of States; and a scrupulous student of the march of fact, circumstance and personality in which such ideas worked themselves through. He was comprehensive as an encyclopædia, but profound and rich, not tabulated and dry. He was a man who even on one's busiest day could seldom come amiss, so deep and unexpected was he in thought, so impressive without empty pomp of words, so copious, exact and ready in his knowledge. ...' The connexion between the two men was not wholly severed by death. The whim or wisdom of one of his admirers placed in Lord Morley's hands the disposal of

« PreviousContinue »