When Acton met Whitehead?

Knowing that the paths of two intellectual heroes, Lord Acton and Alfred North Whitehead, crossed at Cambridge, I’ve sometimes imagined Whitehead, whose mathematics fellowship (1888-1910) overlapped Acton’s Regius Professorship of Modern History (1895-98), attending his lectures.

We know that while at Cambridge Whitehead showed interest in history and theology. But did they meet? The truth may be lost to history.

Lowe’s life of Whitehead documents that he admired Acton, was aware of his “troubles with Rome,” proposed a Cambridge memorial to him, and dropped “in on some of his lectures after Acton was appointed” to the Regius chair.  (p. 186) “But I know of no discussions between them,” Lowe wrote.Image result for Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and his Work

Like Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon before him, Acton had rooms in Nevile’s Court.  In his Lord Acton Roland Hill states that the designation of his room was “staircase 2, A1, on the first floor. (His library would later occupy the apartment next door.) When Whitehead married [in 1891], he changed the rooms given him by Trinity College, moving from a large, high-ceilinged room (C2) in Nevile’s Court to a modest one there” until 1902, the year of Acton’s death.

During the years of the lectures, therefore, Acton and Whitehead were “next-door neighbors.” Someone with access to Nevile’s Court’s floor plans could judge the proximity of their rooms to each other.

Lowe mentioned that in the mid-1890’s the philosopher J. M. E. McTaggart formed Eranos, a discussion group and that Whitehead was a member, but he did not think much of it.  James C. Holland, in his introduction to Owen Chadwick’s study of Acton, noted that “it was at Cambridge that he gave it [i.e., “his commitment to moral judgment in history”] definitive and final expression, in May, 1897, in the privacy of his Trinity rooms in Nevile’s Court, where he [Acton] addressed a select society, the Eranus [sic], which never numbered more than twelve members.”

That is, in his private rooms Acton addressed, not the crowds drawn to his Regius lectures, but an elite dozen who knew each other. It therefore seems likely that if Whitehead attended those Eranos sessions, he may have participated in the discussions with Acton, whose path he must have crossed many times in the corridors of Nevile’s Court.

But did he attend those meetings? Perhaps a diary or attendance record holds the dispositive fact. To the reader who could supply it and thereby remove my doubt, I’d be grateful, as I would if he or she were to show that my wish that these men conversed is father to any overstatement of the significance of the facts I do have.

Postscript: I published a version of this on another site on June 5, 2009. On October 13 of that year Dennis Palmu emailed me this erudite comment, which I am pleased to post with his permission.

One knot you need untangled to assist in your attempt to determine if indeed Acton and Whitehead conversed is to realize that Eranos and Eranus are two distinct groups.

You are correct in your characterization of Eranos as being a philosophical discussion group formed by John Ellis McTaggart (elected as a member of the Cambridge Apostles in 1886) with fellow Apostle A. N. Whitehead (elected 1884) and other Apostles. The Eranus, however, was formed at Cambridge over a decade earlier in 1872 as a sort of senior Apostles group by B. F. Westcott, F. J. A. Hort and J. B. Lightfoot. Their discussion and papers covered a wide range of disciplines, unlike the Eranos.

Other early members of the Eranus included Henry Sidgwick, J. Clerk Maxwell, Alfred Marshall, J. R. Seeley and Coutts Trotter. The Eranus carried on to the late 1890s, and perhaps beyond, with later members including Henry Jackson, V. H. Stanton, F. W. Maitland and Lord Acton.  Acton was a member of the Eranus (as in clouds-heavens [i.e., Gk. Ouranos (Οúρανός)–AGF]) who readily delivered his lectures on modern history to this group as well as the Trinity Historical Society.

Whitehead was a reluctant member of the Eranos (I believe this to be a play on words, i.e., eros), a reluctance no doubt due to his family background in the clergy coupled with the aesthetic-uranian predilections of its members. Acton was not a member of the Cambridge Apostles (Cambridge Conversazione Society) so there was no need of secrecy if indeed his path, and that of Whitehead, crossed. Perhaps a biography of one of their contemporaries, i.e., G. E. Moore, might reveal something.

Dennis Palmu

Mr. Palmu’s 2006 book Cutting Edge Lodged in the Groves, a defense of the King James Bible, is available from Sightler Publications.