Smith discusses Acton’s thesis that the conflict between church and state in medieval Europe was vital to the progress of freedom.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

In Part 1 of this series, I mentioned Lord Acton’s interest in two aspects of the history of freedom: the intellectual and the institutional. This essay focuses on the institutional factor, specifically, on a fundamental condition that permitted free institutions to develop in the West. After summarizing Acton’s views on this matter, I quote from numerous sources, ranging from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, to show that Acton’s approach has been a common explanation among classical liberal historians.

“Liberty,” according to Acton, “is established by the conflict of powers.” This principle is the key to Acton’s institutional history of freedom.

For centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Catholic Church was the only institution with the authority to challenge the power of feudal lords, monarchs, and emperors. Church and state contended for power, and if either had achieved total victory the probable result would have been the kind of absolute despotism that developed in other parts of the world. This is the fundamental theme in Acton’s history of freedom–a prolonged struggle between spiritual and temporal powers in which neither side was able to achieve complete victory until the ultimate triumph of the sovereign territorial state in post‐​Reformation Europe. (Many historians have warned against speaking of this as a struggle between church and state, since the “state,” as we understand the term today, did not, for the most part, exist in medieval Europe. I hereby acknowledge this qualification, ignore it, and move on.)

According to Acton, neither church nor state favored liberty, but, while competing for allies, each granted various immunities and privileges to towns, parliaments, universities, guilds, and other corporations. Eventually some of these institutions were able to resist the power of both church and state–and so there evolved a decentralized system of power unknown to the ancient world and the East. Institutional barriers to arbitrary and absolute power, long advocated in theory, now existed in fact. Individual liberty was a happy byproduct of this system. As Acton wrote in “The History of Freedom in Christianity.”

To that conflict …we owe the rise of civil liberty. If the Church had continued to buttress the thrones of the kings whom it anointed, or if the struggle had terminated speedily in an undivided victory, all Europe would have sunk down under a Byzantine or Muscovite despotism. For the aim of both contending parties was absolute authority. But although liberty was not the end for which they strove, it was the means by which the temporal and spiritual power called the nations to their aid. The towns of Italy and Germany won their franchises, France got her States‐​General, and England her Parliament out of the alternate phases of the contest; and as long as it lasted it prevented the rise of divine right.

The contention that freedom emerged in Europe as an unintended consequence of centuries of conflict between various claimants to power, with the result that no single power was able to establish a monopoly, was scarcely original with Acton. I don’t know how far back this theory goes, but it was advanced in the early eighteenth century by Voltaire (who is sometimes credited with originating the idea), and it subsequently became standard fare among classical liberals who wrote about the history of freedom.

This approach to understanding the evolution of free institutions in the West has also been defended by many modern historians. Because of the tremendous importance of this explanation, I will cite examples from various sources. These examples are far from exhaustive, of course, but they may serve as indicators for readers who wish to investigate this matter in more detail.

In his Philosophical Letters (1733; also known as Letters Concerning the
English Nation
), Voltaire discussed why personal freedom in England was so much greater than in his native France. English liberty, he argued, emerged from conflicts between English kings and nobles that prevented any single power from becoming dominant.

Fortunately, in the shaking that the strife between kings and nobles gave to empires, the chains of the nations have been more or less loosened. Liberty was born in England of the quarrels between tyrants.

In Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (written during the early 1790s and published posthumously), Condorcet attributed the decentralized power structure in Renaissance Italy to the “rivalry between pope and emperor,” which “prevented Italy from being united under one master, and ensured the continuance of a large number of independent societies.”

In History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe (1861), the secular historian W.E.H. Lecky discussed “the conflicting claims of temporal sovereigns and of popes.” Although severely critical of the Catholic Church, especially for its role in promoting the “Crusades and religious persecution,” Lecky concluded that “there can be no question that it was on the whole favourable to liberty.”

The simple fact that nations acknowledged two different masters was itself a barrier to despotism, and the Church had always to appeal to the subjects of a sovereign to enforce its decisions against him. There was therefore a certain bias among ecclesiastics in favour of the people, and it must be added that the medieval popes almost always belonged to a far higher grade of civilization than their opponents. Whatever may have been their faults, they represented the cause of moral restraint, of intelligence, and of humanity, in an age of physical force, ignorance, and barbarity.

In The History of European Liberalism (1927 English translation), Guido de Ruggiero wrote:

Ever since the feudal period, and with renewed vigour in the age of absolute monarchy, the Catholic Church fought against State supremacy; and the very fact of this conflict between two great powers has been an effectual safeguard for individuals against the perils of utter enslavement to either. If the Western peoples have succeeded in saving themselves from the stagnant theocracy of the East, it has been because of the age‐​long rivalry of Church and State, rooted ultimately in the fact that both Church and State were self‐​contained and self‐​sufficient institutions forming in fact two separate and independent states.

Regarding the “reciprocal influence of church and state” in medieval Europe, Alexander Rüstow (Freedom and Domination: A Historical Critique of Civilization, 1980 English translation) wrote:

To both sides this separation of power was undesirable; church and state each tried to establish total and unrestricted domination, yet neither succeeded. The church remained the conscience of the state, the state the critic of the church–both unquestionably to the benefit of Western Mankind. For as Voltaire knew, this dualism was the strongest guarantee of freedom, the only protection against being overtaken by one of the two powers.

This thesis was nicely summarized in 1964 by the distinguished medieval historian Brian Tierney (The Crisis of Church and State, 1050–1300), who also called attention to the philosophical consequences of the conflict between religious and secular authorities:

The very existence of two power structures competing for men’s allegiance instead of only one compelling obedience greatly enhanced the possibilities for human freedom. In practical life over and over again in the Middle Ages men found themselves having to make genuine choices according to conscience or self‐​interest between conflicting appeals to their loyalty. On the theoretical level, intellectuals were led to formulate detailed arguments about the deposition of tyrannical kings or popes and to define with more and more precision the due limits of their respective powers.

In his magisterial book, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (1983), Harold J. Berman explored in considerable detail the highly decentralized legal system of medieval Europe. According to Berman, “Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the Western legal tradition is the coexistence and competition within the same community of diverse jurisdictions and diverse legal systems.” Berman continued:

The pluralism of Western law, which has both reflected and reinforced the pluralism of Western political and economic life, has been, or once was, a source of development, or growth–legal growth as well as political and economic growth. It also has been, or once was, a source of freedom. A serf might run to the town court for protection against his master. A vassal might run to the king’s court for protection against his lord. A cleric might run to the ecclesiastical court for protection against the king.

At the risk of taxing the patience of readers with a laundry list of quotations, I will conclude this essay with some general observations and additional passages about the role of unintended consequences in histories of freedom written by classical liberals.

In Part 2 of this series, I criticized Herbert Butterfield’s discussion of “the whig interpretation of history” as unfair and inaccurate. The leading whig (i.e., classical liberal) historians, I argued, did not trace the progress of freedom in the linear, simplistic manner that Butterfield attributed to them. The passages I have quoted thus far illustrate my point, but additional examples may be given of the stress that whig historians placed on unintended consequences. This is especially true of eighteenth‐​century Scottish historians, such as Adam Smith, David Hume, Adam Ferguson, John Millar, and William Robertson.

Consider The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles the Fifth (1769), by William Robertson. In the celebrated first chapter, “A View of the Progress of Society in Europe,” Robertson discussed how Europe emerged from the “darkness” that prevailed in the centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The factors that contributed to this progress, Robertson maintained, were sometimes unintended. The Crusades, for example, were condemned by Robertson as “a singular monument of human folly”; nevertheless, “from these expeditions, extravagant as they were, beneficial consequences followed which had neither been foreseen nor expected.”

Or consider John Millar’s An Historical View of the English Government (1787). Millar was a student of Adam Smith, so it should come as no surprise that he was sensitive to the role of unintended consequences in historical causation. A good example appears in Millar’s discussion of the Magna Carta and other “charters” that contributed to the progress of English freedom.

Contrary to some modern historians, who look with academic disdain upon the supposedly naïve treatments of English liberty by whig historians, Millar did not embrace the simplistic notion that the Magna Carta and similar charters were intended to establish freedom for the common people of England. On the contrary, “the parties concerned in them were not actuated by the most liberal principles.” Such charters were not meant “to secure the liberties of the people at large, as to establish the privileges of a few individuals.” They resulted from the conflicts between “a set of petty tyrants” (the nobility) and “a great tyrant” (the king). Millar continued:

But though the freedom of the common people was not intended in those charters, it was eventually secured to them; for when the peasantry, and other persons of low rank, were afterwards enabled, by their industry, and by the progress of arts, to emerge from their inferior and servile condition, and to acquire opulence, they were gradually admitted to the exercise of the same privileges which had been claimed by men of independent fortunes; and found themselves entitled, of course, to the benefit of that free government which was already established. The limitations of arbitrary power, which had been calculated chiefly to promote the interest of the nobles, were thus, by a change of circumstances, rendered equally advantageous to the whole community as if they had originally proceeded from the most exalted spirit of patriotism.

Aside from the historical significance of the preceding quotations, I confess to a personal motive in presenting them. Over decades of writing about and teaching the history of libertarian thought, I have often been asked for a list of recommended reading. What books should a student of freedom read if he or she wishes to understand the origin and development of libertarian ideas and how they were implemented? Implicit in this question, more often than not, is the assumption that only fairly recent books are worth reading, that historical accounts from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are outdated and are therefore a waste of time.

Now, I don’t wish to deny that considerable advances have been made in our historical knowledge in modern times, but I do wish to deny that such advances render earlier works of no value. I have benefitted tremendously from my reading of historical works on freedom written during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially for their presentation of general themes that were regarded as fundamental to the classical liberal tradition. I therefore recommend that serious students of liberty study those early accounts as well.

It is often said that early historical works should be read with caution. I agree, but I would add that all historical accounts, whenever written, should be read with caution. I also contend that an understanding of how classical liberals viewed history is indispensable if we wish to understand classical liberalism itself.

Lord Acton once said that we cannot truly appreciate an idea unless we know something about its history. In this as in many other matters, Acton was exactly right.