Quotes from Lord Acton I

Jan 4, 2015 by

“By Liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion.”  -Lord Acton


In this short line by Lord Acton, we can see clearly what it is that Lord Acton means when he refers to Liberty.  For Lord Acton, liberty is the freedom, not merely from governmental authority, but social authority as well.  Now, what does this mean?  Well, when we talk about liberty, we usually mean a freedom from some kind of oppression.  Liberty for African Americans before the Civil War was freedom from the oppression of slavery.  Liberty for the Colonies was freedom from legislation without representation.  However, these conceptions of Liberty are mere pieces of a grander puzzle.  While, yes, liberty does refer to freedom from legal oppression, Lord Acton, wisely, talks about the ability to act against the influence of custom and opinion.  Custom and opinion are powerful influences on our lives.  We have all felt the weight of peer pressure growing up.  Friends, or even just the people around you, start doing something, for better or worse, and you join in.  It is not the event which drives you to join in, but the influence of those people around you.  Maybe you are afraid of negative opinions, maybe the event is a custom of your society, and, for that reason, you feel compelled to join in to continue the tradition.  St. Augustine, in his work Confessions, contemplates the appeal of wrong actions.  In this work he talks about his life and what it was that compelled him to do certain things.  He illustrates one story in his life in which he is part of a type of gang of kids and they stole pears.  Now, he notes that there was nothing about the theft itself that was appealing.  The pears weren’t worth much and weren’t appealing to the taste.  This theft did nothing to make him better, for certain.  However, it was the feeling of inclusion which compelled him to do this act.  Liberty, for Lord Acton, is the ability to be able to resist these kinds of pressures.

Now, I don’t know if Lord Acton had this in mind, but the idea here is to take an idea and contemplate it.  When we fully understand Lord Acton’s meaning of Liberty, it is a freedom to act against the influences of the authority and pressures of government and society.  Yet, consider the underlying principle that led us to this place.  We begin with freedom from authority.  No one has the right to direct my actions except me.  I cannot be compelled to make choices that are not my own.  From here, we also state that no outside influence has the right to compel me to act in any manner that goes against my judgement.  Now, the principle here seems to be that liberty is a freedom to act as your judgement dictates, and that no influence should have the power to hinder your judgment.  Now, let us consider the custom of the individual, habit.  Much like society’s that have customs that influence the individual members, so to do we have customs that influence our individual actions.  These customs are what we call habits.  Now, liberty is the freedom to act against influence.  The question that I would like you to think about is this, does this apply to our habits?  Can we truly enjoy liberty when enslaved to a habit?  I would note the difference between enslavement to a habit of action and a habit of choice.  A habit of action is when we continually act in a certain way.  Smoking is a habit of action, or always donating money.  An action of choice is when we make choices towards a certain end, usually what we perceive as the good.  For instance, donating when you perceive it as beneficial.  Now, does liberty need to differentiate between these two kinds of habits?  Can we possess Liberty with both these kinds of habits or only with no habit of any kind?  Does habit only enter in when it tries to inhibit you from doing what you perceive, or know, is the good?

1 Comment

  1. Nawk

    We have the freedom to act against our habits. It is not our strict duty to to rebel against our habits, or to act solely without them.
    We are limited beings; limited in attention and in reason. Habits shortcut the attention we need to give to internalized tasks.
    You do not need to relearn to walk for every step you take, you simply decide to walk and your habits take care of the rest.
    Habits, and also emotion, are also quicker than reason when time is of the essence.
    A car is on its way to hit a child in front of you. You do not have time to reason why you should grab the child off the road before the car hits the child.
    Habits are a tool we limited beings use to help overcome some of our limitations.

    Our habits are a complete structure that we have built over time with our reason: or in less attentive cases, habits become a jumbled up structure that was thrown together and neglected. How attentive are we to our own habits? What principles, or bases, are we building our habits from?
    The man of good character is one who analyzes his own habits and rearranges them with his reason, incorporating his experience and knowledge into the structure he builds of himself, and ensuring that the foundation or principles upon which he builds himself is a/are solid one(s). He looks carefully at every piece he is to use, including “outside influences”, and reasons for himself if such things are worthy of his character. He acts with this structure to help guide his actions back towards the principle(s). It is complete in itself, but it is not complete because it is limited, and therefore not perfect.
    The man of poor character bases his actions upon habits which he did not arrange himself: rather, they simply are a pile of experiences, rationalized but not reasoned together, changed easily by outside influences, and throughout which many contradictions exist. It is not a cohesive whole. The man of poor character is a man in shambles.

    Yes, we are “enslaved” to our habits (or, we act in accordance with our habits), but so are we able to change and reason for ourselves new habits or reiterations of previous ones. Thus, the question becomes: are we to become slaves to our habits, or are we to become master of them?

    Thus, we may free from the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion.

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