Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Arthur James, Earl of Balfour (1848–1930)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Carlton Joseph Huntley Hayes (1882–1964)
ARTHUR JAMES BALFOUR is of a type fairly common in Great Britain—conservative and aristocratic, at once sportsman, savant, and statesman, a man of action and a man of letters. Born in Scotland in 1848, he began life with all the advantages of high social position, for on his father’s side he came of a well-known Scottish family, while his mother, a sister of the third marquis of Salisbury, belonged to the famous Cecil family. He was educated at Eton and at Trinity College, Cambridge; and in 1874 he entered Parliament as a Conservative. In 1878, when the marquis of Salisbury succeeded Lord Derby as secretary of state for foreign affairs, Mr. Balfour became his uncle’s private secretary, and in this capacity accompanied Lords Salisbury and Beaconsfield to the Congress of Berlin. In Parliament, for a number of years, Mr. Balfour was not taken very seriously. He was thought of chiefly as an amateur philosopher whose contemptuous attitude toward “science” and whose defense of theology were as insincere as his paradoxes were brilliant; and both the exasperating charm of his conversation and his studied attempts to practice indolence as a fine art were viewed by many of his colleagues as betokening the character of a decadent scion of an honorably family. He appeared to be at best an enthusiastic golf-player and at worst a dandy and a poseur. He was a member of the coterie known as “The Souls,” and for a time was associated with the erratic Lord Randolph Churchill’s “Fourth Party.” Under the circumstances, it was a source of surprise and uneasiness that Lord Salisbury, upon becoming prime minister in 1885, appointed his nephew to the responsible post of President of the Local Government Board. But, as the event proved, Lord Salisbury knew his nephew’s true character and ability better than did the general public. Mr. Balfour speedily displayed a surprising earnestness and attention to administrative detail; and thenceforth his rise in public life was rapid. He was secretary for Scotland, with a seat in the Cabinet, from 1886 to 1887; and from the latter year to 1891 as chief secretary for Ireland—a trying post in trying times—he vigorously applied coercion while seeking to secure remedial legislation. He was made leader of the House of Commons and First Lord of the Treasury in 1891; became leader of the Opposition on Gladstone’s final accession to power in 1892; and following the Conservative-Unionist electoral triumph in 1895, he returned to his offices as First Lord of the Treasury and leader of the House of Commons. When Lord Salisbury in 1902 withdrew from public life, Mr. Balfour succeeded him as prime minister, but the rising tide of Liberalism and the dissensions within the Unionist party over fiscal policies encompassed the downfall of his government in 1905. Mr. Balfour had never fully accepted the tariff proposals of his colleague, Joseph Chamberlain; and because of his desire to promote harmony within the Unionist camp as well as because of his advancing age he surrendered the leadership of the Opposition in the House of Commons to Mr. Bonar Law in 1911. Nevertheless, he continued to be an active critic of the Liberal régime; and when, after the outbreak of the Great War, a Coalition Ministry was formed under the premiership of Mr. Asquith, Mr. Balfour became First Lord of the Admiralty (1915–1916). With the formation of Mr. Lloyd George’s ministry in 1916, Mr. Balfour became secretary of state for foreign affairs, and on the entry of the United States into the War, he visited Washington as the representative of the British Government (April, 1917).  1
  In spite of this long record of political activity, in spite of the fact that he has been the leader of a great political party in the House of Commons for twenty years and an active cabinet member for eighteen years, politics and statesmanship have represented but a part—and to some people it has seemed a minor part—of Mr. Balfour’s interests and achievements. It is true that he himself has always been very modest in appraising the value of his philosophical writings, and that his most vitriolic critics have discovered in his philosophical system only a more or less adroit attempt to provide a speculative support for the prejudices of British Conservatism—support for Tradition and Authority. But that Mr. Balfour has made distinctive and valuable contributions to the thought of the present age, no reflective and unbiased reader will deny.  2
  As a young man, Mr. Balfour turned his curious and active mind to philosophy, just at the time when the Darwinian theory of evolution was winning many converts to the “certitudes” of natural science and when numerous popular apologists of the “new science” were affirming the existence of a fundamental conflict between science and religion and stoutly predicting that Authority, the stubborn defender of Religion, would soon be vanquished by the sharp sword-thrust of Reason, the champion of Science. The results of his reflection on these matters were embodied in his ‘Defense of Philosophic Doubt,’ published in 1879. Disavowing any quarrel with purely experimental science, he maintained that certain current scientific generalizations were unsound philosophically, that in all scientific generalizations—in what may be termed philosophical science as opposed to strictly experimental science—the method and the aim were not essentially different from the method and the aim of theology, and that both theology and science involved faith as well as reason, and authority as well as physical observation.
          “Has Science,” he asked, “any claim to be set up as the standard of belief? Is there any ground whatever for regarding conformity with scientific teaching as an essential condition of truth; and non-conformity with it as an unanswerable proof of error? If there is, it cannot be drawn from the nature of the scientific system itself. We have seen how a close examination of its philosophical structure reveals the existence of almost every possible philosophical defect. We have seen that whether Science be regarded from the point of view of its premises, its inferences, or the general relation of its parts, it is found defective; and we have seen that the ordinary proofs which philosophers and men of science have thought fit to give of its doctrines are not only mutually inconsistent, but are such as would convince nobody who did not start (as, however, we all do start) with an implicit and indestructible confidence in the truth of that which had to be proved. I am far from complaining of this confidence. I share it. My complaint rather is, that of two creeds which, from a philosophical point of view, stand, so far as I can judge, upon a perfect equality, one should be set up as a standard to which the other must necessarily conform.”
  If men of his era would persist in criticizing religion and in doubting theology, Mr. Balfour would have them consistent enough to doubt the “certitudes” of science. In a particularly brilliant passage of the ‘Defense of Philosophic Doubt’ he writes:
          “I have sometimes thought that the parallel between Science and Theology, regarded as systems of belief, might be conveniently illustrated by framing a refutation of the former on the model of certain attacks on the latter with which we are all familiar. We might begin by showing how crude and contradictory are the notions of primitive man, and even of the cultivated man in his unreflective moments, respecting the object-matter of scientific beliefs. We might point out the rude anthropomorphism which underlies them, and show how impossible it is to get altogether rid of this anthropomorphism, without refining away the object-matter till it becomes an unintelligible abstraction. We might then turn to the scientific apologists. We should show how the authorities of one age differed from those of another in their treatment of the subject, and how the authorities of the same age differed among themselves; then—after taking up their systems one after another, and showing their individual errors in detail—we should comment at length on the strange obstinacy they evinced in adhering to their conclusions, whether they could prove them or not. It is at this point, perhaps, that according to usage we might pay a passing tribute to morality. With all the proper circumlocutions, we should suggest that so singular an agreement respecting some of the most difficult points requiring proof, together with so strange a divergence and so obvious a want of cogency in the nature of the proofs offered, could not be accounted for on any hypothesis consistent with the intellectual honesty of the apologists. Without attributing motives to individuals, we should hint politely, but not obscurely, that prejudice and education in some, the fear of differing from the majority, or the fear of losing a lucrative place in others, had been allowed to warp the impartial course of investigation; and we should lament that scientific philosophers, in many respects so amiable and useful a body of men, should allow themselves so often to violate principles which they openly and even ostentatiously avowed. After this moral display, we should turn from the philosophers who are occupied with the rationale of the subject to the main body of men of science who are actually engaged in teaching and research. Fully acknowledging their many merits, we should yet be compelled to ask how it comes about that they are so ignorant of the controversies which rage round the very foundations of their subject, and how they can reconcile it with their intellectual self-respect, when they are asked some vital question (say respecting the proof of the law of Universal Causation, or the existence of the external world), either to profess total ignorance of the subject, or to offer in reply some shreds of worn-out metaphysics? It is true, they might say that a profound study of these subjects is not consistent either with teaching or with otherwise advancing the cause of Science; but of course to this excuse we should make the obvious rejoinder that, before trying to advance the cause of Science, it would be as well to discover whether such a thing as true Science really existed. This done, we should have to analyze the actual body of scientific truth presented for our acceptance; to show how, while its conclusions are inconsistent, its premises are either lost in a metaphysical haze, or else are unfounded and gratuitous assumptions; after which it would only remain for us to compose an eloquent peroration on the debt which mankind owe to Science, and to the great masters who have created it, and to mourn that the progress of criticism should have left us no choice but to count it among the beautiful but baseless dreams which have so often deluded the human race with the phantom of certain knowledge.”
  The ‘Defense of Philosophic Doubt’ presented primarily the negative aspects of Mr. Balfour’s philosophy; the positive aspects appeared much more fully in ‘The Foundations of Belief, being Notes introductory to the Study of Theology,’ published in 1895. Here the author expounded his ideas of reason and authority, and the advantage which, in his opinion, traditional religion has over naturalism in offering a rational explanation of the phenomena both of ethics and of æsthetics. His general attitude of mind is perhaps best illustrated by the following quotation, in which he endeavors to evaluate the influence of Authority and of Reason.
          “To Reason is largely due the growth of new and the sifting of old knowledge; the ordering, and in part the discovery, of that vast body of systematized conclusions which constitute so large a portion of scientific, philosophical, ethical, political, and theological learning. To Reason we are in some measure beholden, though not, perhaps, so much as we suppose, for hourly aid in managing so much of the trifling portion of our personal affairs entrusted to our care by Nature as we do not happen to have already surrendered to the control of habit. By Reason also is directed, or misdirected, the public policy of communities within the narrow limits of deviation permitted by accepted custom and tradition. Of its immense indirect consequences, of the part it has played in the evolution of human affairs by the disintegration of ancient creeds, by the alteration of the external conditions of human life, by the production of new moods of thought, or, as I have termed them, psychological climates, we can in this connection say nothing. For these are no rational effects of reason; the causal nexus by which they are bound to reason has no logical aspect; and if reason produces them, as in part it certainly does, it is in a manner indistinguishable from that in which similar consequences are blindly produced by the distribution of continent and ocean, the varying fertility of different regions, and the other material surroundings by which the destinies of the race are modified.
  “When we turn, however, from the conscious work of Reason to that which is unconsciously performed for us by Authority, a very different spectacle arrests our attention. The effects of the first, prominent as they are through the dignity of their origin, are trifling compared with the all-pervading influences which flow from the second. At every moment of our lives, as individuals, as members of a family, of a party, of a nation, of a Church, of a universal brotherhood, the silent, continuous unnoticed influence of Authority molds our feelings, our aspirations, and, what we are more immediately concerned with, our beliefs. It is from Authority that Reason itself draws its most important premises. It is in unloosing or directing the forces of Authority that its most important conclusions find their principal function. And even in those cases where we may most truly say that our beliefs are the rational product of strictly intellectual processes, we have, in all probability, only got to trace back the thread of our inferences to its beginnings in order to perceive that it finally loses itself in some general principle which, describe it as we may, is in fact due to no more defensible origin than the influence of Authority.
  “Nor is the comparative pettiness of the rôle thus played by reasoning in human affairs a matter for regret. Not merely because we are ignorant of the data required for the solution, even of very simple problems in organic and social life, are we called on to acquiesce in an arrangement which, to be sure, we have no power to disturb; nor yet because these data, did we possess them, are too complex to be dealt with by any rational calculus we possess or are ever likely to acquire; but because, in addition to these difficulties, reasoning is a force most apt to divide and disintegrate; and though division and disintegration may often be the necessary preliminaries of social development, still more necessary are the forces which bind and stiffen, without which there would be no society to develop.
  “It is true, no doubt, that we can, without any great expenditure of research, accumulate instances in which Authority has perpetuated error and retarded progress, for, unluckily, none of the influences, Reason least of all, by which the history of the race has been molded have been productive of unmixed good. The springs at which we quench our thirst are always turbid. Yet, if we are to judge with equity between these rival claimants, we must not forget that it is Authority rather than Reason to which, in the main, we owe, not religion only, but ethics and politics; that it is Authority which supplies us with essential elements in the premises of science; that it is Authority rather than Reason which lays deep the foundations of social life; that it is Authority rather than Reason which cements its superstructure. And though it may seem to savor of paradox, it is yet no exaggeration to say, that if we would find the quality in which we most notably excel the brute creation, we should look for it, not so much in our faculty of convincing and being convinced by the exercise of reasoning, as in our capacity for influencing and being influenced through the action of Authority.”
  In addition to these major points, Mr. Balfour has made noteworthy contributions to the philosophy of æsthetics, both in ‘The Foundations of Belief,’ and in ‘Criticism and Beauty,’ the Romanes Lecture for 1909. Another interest of Mr. Balfour, which if not profound is at least suggestive, has been the study of the philosophy of the rise and decay of world civilizations. This interest appears in ‘A Fragment on Progress,’ an address delivered in Glasgow University in 1891 and reprinted in ‘Essays and Addresses,’ published in 1893 (3rd and enlarged edition, 1905), and likewise in ‘Decadence,’ the subject of the Henry Sidgwick Memorial Lecture delivered at Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1908. Other publications of Mr. Balfour are ‘Economic Notes on Insular Free Trade’ (1903); ‘Reflections Suggested by the New Theory of Matter’ (1904); ‘Speeches (1880–1905) on Fiscal Reform’ (1906), and ‘Theism and Humanism,’ being the Gifford Lectures for 1914 (1915). The conclusion of this may be quoted:—
          “God must not thus be treated as an entity which we may add to, or subtract from, the sum of things scientifically known as the canons of induction may suggest. He is Himself the condition of scientific knowledge. If He be excluded from the causal series which produces beliefs, the cognitive series which justifies them is corrupted at the root. And as it is only in a theistic setting that beauty can retain its deepest meaning, and love its brightest lustre, so these great truths of æsthetics and ethics are but half truths, isolated and imperfect, unless we add to them yet a third. We must hold that reason and the works of reason have their source in God; that from Him they draw their inspiration; and that if they repudiate their origin, by this very act they proclaim their own insufficiency.”
  Tokens have not been lacking of the esteem in which his countrymen have held Mr. Balfour as a man and of the appreciation which they have felt for his many services to the State and to Thought. Honorary doctorates of law have been conferred on him by Edinburgh University (1881), St. Andrews (1885), Cambridge (1888), Dublin and Glasgow (1891), Manchester (1908), Liverpool and Birmingham (1909), Bristol and Sheffield (1912); and Oxford gave him an honorary D.C.L. in 1891. He was Lord Rector of St. Andrews in 1886 and of Glasgow in 1890, and President of the British Association in 1904. He has been a Fellow of the Royal Society and Member of the Senate of London University since 1888, Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh since 1891, and Corresponding Member of the French Institute. In June, 1916, the King invested him with the insignia of the greatly prized Order of Merit. And in the midst of his honors and of his work in the fields of philosophy and politics, he has not neglected his avocations as a golf enthusiast and a cultured musician.  7

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