Balfour, Arthur James (1848–1930)

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Arthur James Balfour, the first earl of Balfour, was born at Whittingehame, Haddington, East Lothian. He was the son of a Scottish landowning family and was connected, through his mother, with the aristocratic house of Cecil. After an education at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he came under the influence of Henry Sidgwick (later his brother-in-law), he became a Conservative M.P. in 1874 and, despite an early reputation for indolence and frivolity, soon rose, by a combination of influence and ability, to ministerial rank. Having made his name as a courageous and enlightened chief secretary for Ireland during the turbulent period from 1887 to 1891, he became leader of the House of Commons in 1891 and in 1902 succeeded his uncle, Lord Salisbury, as prime minister. Beset by dissensions over tariff reform, his administration fell in 1905; but he remained leader of the Opposition until 1911. He resumed office in the wartime coalition as first lord of the admiralty, later becoming foreign secretary and lord president of the council. In these capacities he played a major part in the postwar negotiations at Versailles and Washington and, by the Balfour Declaration of 1917, in the eventual establishment of the state of Israel. He received the Order of Merit in 1916 and a Garter knighthood, followed by an earldom, in 1922. Among many other distinctions, he was chancellor of both Cambridge and Edinburgh universities, fellow of the Royal Society, president of the British Academy, the British Association, and the Aristotelian Society, and one of the founders of the Scots Philosophical Club. As an elder statesman whose disinterested sagacity was equally valued by both parties, Balfour in his later years enjoyed a unique position in British political life. He died, unmarried, at Woking.

Balfour's intelligence, versatility, and charm were at the service of many causes besides politics. Science and education were among his keenest interests; with his sister, Mrs. Sidgwick, he was a leading figure in the Society for Psychical Research. His leisure was divided equally between the arts and society, on the one hand, and tennis and golf on the other. Philosophy, however, was his main pursuit in private life, and in this sphere alsolike his fellow statesman Richard Burton Haldanehe made a definite, if temporary, mark. Aside from having considerable literary merits, his writings are chiefly notable as a vigorous and independent contribution to the literature of the perennial conflict between science and religion.

Balfour had a strong distaste for the evolutionary naturalism of his younger days, and made repeated attempts to expose its pretensions as a prelude to stating the case for a "higher Reason" and the acceptance of Christian belief. To this end he employs skeptical weapons of a type forged by George Berkeley and David Hume and subsequently wielded by Henry Longueville Mansel, while his own defenses owe more than a little to Edmund Burke. If the would-be scientific answers to the problems of knowledge and human existence turn out, on examination, to be at once ungrounded and inconsistent, they supersede neither the time-honored beliefs of common sense nor the equally cherished, albeit unprovable, convictions of religion. Balfour's first book, A Defence of Philosophic Doubt (London, 1879), argues derisively against the claims of any prevailing system of thought to justify, let alone criticize, the natural and "inevitable" beliefs in the external world, in the uniformity of nature and, to a lesser extent, in theism. His second book, the widely read Foundations of Belief (London, 1895), renews the polemic against John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer, dwelling on their inability to account either for the facts of perception or for the appearance of natural law, and still less for the data of ethical and aesthetic experience. So far from being rational, they degrade reason to the status of an evolutionary by-product and ignore the importance of belief. The latter, it is argued in a famous chapter, is founded, not on induction, but on the more enduring basis of "authority"the climate of traditional opinion, by which all reasonable men live. Where nothing is certain and everything rests on belief, science not only cannot dictate to religion, but even presupposes theism as the basis for its own claims to rationality.

If Balfour's strictures on naturalism were not infrequently mistaken by his opponents for a Tory attack upon science, his defense of the faith tended equally to unnerve the faithful who distrusted its appearances of skepticism. So far as these misunderstandings resulted from his own rather casual employment of such terms as naturalism, rationalism, theism, reason, authority, and the like, they were clarified, in part, by his two sets of Gifford Lectures, Theism and Humanism (London, 1915) and Theism and Thought (London, 1923). These works, however, though readable enough as a restatement of his position, are essentially products of a bygone phase of controversy and have little to add that is new.

See also Berkeley, George; Burke, Edmund; Hume, David; Mansel, Henry Longueville; Mill, John Stuart; Naturalism; Sidgwick, Henry.


Balfour's minor writings are represented in Essays and Addresses (London, 1905) and Essays, Speculative and Political (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1920). See also an anthology by his secretary, W. M. Short, A. J. Balfour as Philosopher and Thinker (London: Longmans, Green, 1912).

The leading biographies are Mrs. Dugdale (his niece), Arthur James Balfour, 2 vols. (London: Hutchinson, 1936), and K. Young, Arthur James Balfour (London: G. Bell, 1963). The former has an appraisal of his philosophy by A. Seth Pringle-Pattison, an old friend, whose Man's Place in the Cosmos (London: Blackwood, 1897) also contains a useful appreciation of Balfour's earlier point of view.

P. L. Heath (1967)