From Murray N.
The Ethics of Liberty,
". . . the great Catholic libertarian historian . . . ."
Murray N. Rothbard
While natural-law theory has
often been used erroneously in defense of the political status quo, its
radical and “revolutionary” implications were brilliantly understood by
the great Catholic libertarian historian Lord Acton. Acton saw clearly
that the deep flaw in the ancient Greek—and their later
followers’—conception of natural law political philosophy was to
identify politics and morals, and then to place the supreme social moral
agent in the State. From Plato and Aristotle, the State’s proclaimed
supremacy was founded in their view that “morality was distinguished
from religion and politics from morals; and in religion, morality, and
politics there was only one legislator and one authority.”
Acton added that the Stoics
developed the correct, non-State principles of natural law political
philosophy, which were then revived in the modern period by Grotius and
his followers. “From that time it became possible to make politics a
matter of principle and of conscience.” The reaction of the State to
this theoretical development was horror:
When Cumberland and
Pufendorf unfolded the true significance of [Grotius’s] doctrine,
every settled authority, every triumphant interest recoiled aghast. .
. . It was manifest that all persons who had learned that political
science is an affair of conscience rather than of might and
expediency, must regard their adversaries as men without principle.
Acton saw clearly that any
set of objective moral principles rooted in the nature of man must
inevitably come into conflict with custom and with positive law. To
Acton, such an irrepressible conflict was an essential attribute of
classical liberalism: “Liberalism wishes for what ought to be,
irrespective of what is.”
As Himmelfarb writes of
the past was allowed no
authority except as it happened to conform to morality. To take
seriously this Liberal theory of history, to give precedence to “what
ought to be” over “what is” was, he admitted, virtually to install a
“revolution in permanence.”
And so, for Acton, the
individual, armed with natural law moral principles, is then in a firm
position from which to criticize existing regimes and institutions, to
hold them up to the strong and harsh light of reason. Even the far less
politically oriented John Wild has trenchantly described the inherently
radical nature of natural-law theory:
the philosophy of natural
law defends the rational dignity of the human individual and his right
and duty to criticize by word and deed any existent institution or
social structure in terms of those universal moral principles which
can be apprehended by the individual intellect alone.
John Edward Emerich Dalberg-Acton, Essays on Freedom and Power
(Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1948), p. 45. Also see Gertrude Himmel-farb,
Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1962), p. 135. [Go
here for the text of "The Vatican
Council," a chapter of this book.]
Acton, Essays, p. 74. Himmelfarb correctly noted that “for Acton,
politics was a science, the application of the principles of morality.”
Gertrude Himmelfarb, “Introduction,” ibid., p. xxxvii.
Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, p. 204. Contrast the exclamation of
bewilderment and horror by the leading nineteenth-century German
Conserva-tive, Adam Muller: “A natural law which differs from the
positive law!” See Robert W. Lougee, “German Romanticism and Political
Thought,” Review of Politics (October 1959): 637.
Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, p. 205.
John Wild, Plato’s Modern Enemies and the Theory of Natural Law
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 176. Note the similar
assessment by the conservative Otto Gierke, in Natural Law and the
Theory of Society, 1500 to 1800 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), pp.
35–36, who was for that reason hostile to natural law:
In opposition to positive
jurisprudence, which still continued to show a Conserva-tive trend,
the natural-law theory of the State was Radical to the very core of
its being. . . . It was also directed . . . not to the purpose of
scientific explanation of the past, but to. . . the exposition and
justifi-cation of a new future which was to be called into existence.