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I read a Chinese article that quoted a passage purported to be from Lord Acton, describing how "freedom faces four major challenges". The original Chinese states:

每个时代,自由都会面临着四大挑战:
强人对权力集中的渴望,穷人对财富不均的怨恨,无知者对乌托邦的向往,无信仰者将自由和放纵混为一谈。
而它们共同的思想源头,是激进主义。

Using google translation (from Chinese back to English), it's saying:

In each era, freedom faces four major challenges: The strong man's desire for concentration of power, The poor's resentment of unequal wealth, The ignorant's yearning for utopia, The unbeliever's confusion of freedom and indulgence. And their common source of the thought is radicalism

Try as I might, I just can't find out whether Lord Acton actually said that or not. If he didn't, did someone say something similar to the above quote?

PS. I first asked this question at English Language & Usage SE. One of reasons I asked it there is I find it interesting to see if someone could recognize the quote when using google to translate back into English. But it was closed as off-topic and someone suggested I ask it here.

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3 Answers 3

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That appears to be adapted from a passage in "The History of Freedom in Antiquity", which was both an essay and a lecture Lord Acton once gave.

Liberty, next to religion, has been the motive of good deeds and the common pretext of crime . . . In every age its progress has been beset by its natural enemies, by ignorance and superstition, by lust of conquest and by love of ease, by the strong man's craving for power, and the poor man's craving for food. . . . At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities who have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own.

As you can see, the wording is somewhat different, and the order of the challenges is very different, and the conclusion was completely different. Nevertheless, the parallels are very clear.

The Acton Institute has the full text of the essay for further reading.


The Chinese version appears to have originated from an essay, "History is not only about truth, but also morality and faith (历史不仅关乎真相,更关乎道德与信仰)" by someone writing under the name Lì Quán (沥泉). This appears to be promotional material by the online bookstore, Xianzhi (先知书店). Both are clearly credited in the very earliest instance I can locate, which dates to 14 February 2019 (I suspect there's an original version on Weibo, but I cannot find it): https://2newcenturynet.blogspot.com/2019/02/blog-post_62.html

Notably, this essay did not present the passage as a quote, but merely the author's own summation of Acton's beliefs:

上溯西方的传统就可以发现,无论是在基督教的历史中,还是在雅典的时代,都能发现自由社会的踪影。(...)

然而,阿克顿无情地指出,自由在每个时代的进步,都面临着几大威胁,源头是人性中的恶:强人对权力集中的渴望,穷人对财富不平均的怨恨,无知者和迷信者对乌托邦的向往,缺乏信仰者将自由和放纵混为一谈。

然而更不幸的是,大多数人在历史中没有学到任何好的东西,所以,历史的悲剧一次又一次重演……而中国至今还未走出治乱兴衰的历史循环。

Looking back on western tradition, we find signs of liberal society in both the history of Christianity or the time of Athens (. . . )

However, Acton bluntly points out, in every age liberty's progressive faces several threats. The common source is the evil in human nature: the strong desires concentration of power, the poor complains about wealth inequality, the ignorant and the superstitious' yearn for utopia, and the faithless confuse liberty with self-indulgence.

However, even more unfortunately, most people has not learned from history. And so, the tragedies of history repeats again and again... And China, even now, has not broken out of the historical cycle of dark and golden ages.

Although the surrounding fluff is quite different, this is the exact wording as the popularized fake quote.

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  • 1
    A comment from my original question at English S.E. also mentioned that. Nov 30, 2021 at 9:13
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    @Qiulang邱朗 Ah, I should've checked there first then. But in any case, I believe this is the source the translator adapted. It's not uncommon for people to fudge translations to make a point.
    – Semaphore
    Nov 30, 2021 at 9:23
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    Hi your answer double confirmed it! Thanks! I actually did research myself before asking the question and I can't confirm Load Acton actually said something like that, especially the part "The ignorant's yearning for utopia, The unbelievers confuse freedom and indulgence" Nov 30, 2021 at 9:30
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    @vijayvithal It all depending of course on what you mean by "freedom" - along with its stable-mate "democracy" it is one of the most contested words in modern history.
    – WS2
    Dec 1, 2021 at 13:51
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    @Qiulang邱朗 Acton's will undoubtedly be a nineteenth-century, individualistic notion of "freedom". I would strongly suggest you read the works of such as Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) who deems a collectivist approach essential to achieving universal liberty. The twentieth-century approach moves the discussion further away from Acton, whose views can now be considered dated.
    – WS2
    Dec 5, 2021 at 9:43
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I already got an answer but I have to say I really like the Chinese version and the google translated version. I think it speaks about the challenges freedom faces even in present day. I don't think that blog writer can just come up with it. SO I decide to do another research and find another interesting result.

I first searched the keyword "强人对权力集中的渴望", i.e. "The strong man's desire for concentration of power" and I got 784,000 results and apparently the first couple pages of results are all relevant (I have checked them all).

784000 result

But when I search this keyword from 2011 to 2015 I only got TWO results. Only two results are actually about that keyword!

2011-2015

Then I search the keyword from 2000 to 2010 only ONE valid result and when I click this result it was actually a google's scrapping error. So that means ZERO result from 2000 to 2010!

2000-2010

So I believe it must be point in between 2016 to now that somebody said that and make it popular. I did a year by year search for after 2015, e.g. 2016-2017, 2017-2018,2018-2019, 2019-2020etc which I didn't post results here (otherwise too many pictures for my question).

My further research show that there are 2 possible roots to make these words famous in China:

  1. In quora's China counterpart, zhihu a guy who is somewhat famous posted this article "自由的威胁是什么”, What is the threat to freedom in 2020 sept, mentioned those words, check here if you can read Chinese.

  2. Because of the translation of "Essays in the History of Liberty" by lord Acton. The translated version may not contains those words but someone (I don't know who) who introduced this book mentioned those words as Lord Acton's famous quote, refer to this (if you can read Chinese).

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  • Since the (Chinese) text in those two places is identical (for the four points), one is the source for the other. Whichever it is, it is not a translation, but rather a very loose paraphrase of Acton's text.
    – Mitch
    Dec 2, 2021 at 14:50
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    I guess it is probably throughout zhihu those words become famous. Because zhihu is super popular in China and that guy 罗胖 is somewhat famous. Dec 2, 2021 at 15:02
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I don't think it is necessary to confirm whether these words were literally from Lord Acton. The main idea of the Chinese narrative was very clear and consistent to conservative idea. The “four major challenges” is apt to what happened in the whole world. Especially for the United States, every challenge seems to be real and imminent. Liberal leftists are very active in every point of this idea.

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    I'm not sure this answers the question. This response might be appropriate for a discussion site, but Q&A sites expect that answers are responsive to the question. OP wanted to confirm the words, not to understand the larger context. The last sentence is political and outside the scope of H:SE
    – MCW
    Jul 21 at 16:51

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