Advice to persons about to write History

In the Moral Sciences Prejudice is Dishonesty.

A Historian has to fight against temptations special to his mode of life, temptations from Country, Class, Church, College, Party, authority of talents, solicitation of friends.

The most respectable of these influences are the most dangerous.

The historian who neglects to root them out is exactly like a juror who votes according to his personal likes or dislikes.

In judging men and things, Ethics go before Dogma, Politics or Nationality.

The Ethics of History cannot be denominational.

Judge not according to the orthodox standard of a system, religious, philosophical, political, but according as things promote or fail to promote the delicacy, integrity and authority of Conscience.

Put Conscience above both System and Success.

History provides neither compensation for suffering nor penalties for wrong.

The moral code, in its main lines, is not new; it has long been known; it is not universally accepted in Europe, even now. The difference in moral insight between past and present is not very large.

But the notion and analysis of Conscience is scarely older than 1700, and the notion and analysis of veracity is scarcely older than our time—barring Sacred Writings of East and West.

In Christendom, time and place do not excuse—if the Apostle’s Code sufficed for Salvation.

Strong minds think things out, complete the circle of their thinking, and must not be interpreted by types.

Good men and great men are ex vi termini, aloof from the action of surroundings.

But goodness generally appeared in unison with authority, sustained by environment, and rarely manifested the force and sufficiency of the isolated will and conscience.

The Reign of Sin is more universal, the influence of unconscious error is less, than historians tell us. Good and evil lie close together. Seek no artistic unity in character.

History teaches a Psychology which is not that of private experience and domestic biography.

The principles of public morality are as definite as those of the morality of private life; but they are not identical.

A good cause proves less in a man’s favour than a bad cause against him.

The final judgment depends on the worst action.

Character is tested by true sentiments more than by conduct. A man is seldom better than his word.

History is better written from letters than from histories: let a man criminate himself.
No public character has ever stood the revelation of private utterance and correspondence.

Be prepared to find that the best repute gives way under closer scrutiny.

In public life, the domain of History, vice is less than crime.

Active, transitive sins count for more than others.

The greatest crime is Homicide.

The accomplice is no better than the assassin; the theorist is worse.

Of killing from private motives or from public, from political or from religious, eadem est ratio. Morally, the worst is the last. The source of crime is pars melior nostri. What ought to save, destroys. The sinner is hardened and proof against Repentance.

Faith must be sincere. When defended by sin it is not sincere; theologically, it is not Faith. God’s grace does not operate by sin.

Transpose the nominative and the accusative and see how things look then.

History deals with Life; Religion with Death. Much of its work and spirit escapes our ken.
The systems of Barrow, Baxter, Bossuet higher, spiritually, constructively, scientifically, than Penn’s. In our scales his high morality outweighs them.

Crimes by constituted authorities worse than crimes by Madame Tussand’s private malefactors. Murder may be done by legal means, by plausible and profitable war, by calumny, as well as by dose or dagger.

Ex vi termini-force of the boundary

Source:  Acton-Creighton Correspondence [1887] by John Emerich Edward Dalberg and Lord Acton. First Published in “Review of Sir Erskine May’s Democracy in Europe,” The Quarterly Review (Jan 1878)

Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian.

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