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Arthur Balfour

British Conservative politician and statesman
Arthur Balfour

Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour, KG, OM, PC (25 July 184819 March 1930) was a British Conservative statesman and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1902 until 1905. The author of several influential works of philosophy, he was one of the most intellectual prime ministers of the 20th century. As Foreign Secretary he authored the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which supported the establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine.



listed chronologically


  • Those who look forward to a period of continuous and, so to speak, inevitable progress, are bound to assign some more solid reason for their convictions than a merely empirical survey of the surface lessons of history. ...Humanity, civilisation, progress itself, must have a tendency to mitigate the harsh methods by which Nature has wrought out the variety and the perfection of organic life.
    • A Fragment on Progress (1891)
  • The energies of our system will decay; the glory of the sun will be dimmed, and the earth, tideless and inert, will no longer tolerate the race which has for a moment disturbed its solitude. Man will go down into the pit and all his thoughts will perish.
    • The Foundations of Belief (1895).


  • His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
    • Letter (2 November 1917) to Lord Rothschild; this letter became known as the Balfour Declaration, quoted in Blanche E. C. Dugdale, Arthur James Balfour, First Earl of Balfour, K.G., O.M., F.R.S., Etc. 1906–1930 (London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd, 1936), p. 171.
  • The case which the French present to us with regard to the Left Bank of the Rhine is very forcible, but very one-sided. They draw a lurid picture of future Franco-German relations. They assume that the German population will always far outnumber the French; that as soon as the first shock of defeat has passed away, Germany will organise herself for revenge; that all our attempts to limit armaments will be unsuccessful; that the League of Nations will be impotent; and, consequently, that the invasion of France, which was fully accomplished in 1870, and partially accomplished in the recent War, will be renewed with every prospect of success.
    • Memorandum, 'France's Fear of German Aggression' (28 March 1919) written for the Paris Peace Conference, quoted in Blanche E. C. Dugdale, Arthur James Balfour, First Earl of Balfour, K.G., O.M., F.R.S., Etc. 1906–1930 (London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd, 1936), p. 204.
  • If Germany is going again to be a great armed camp, filled with a population about twice as great as that of any State in Europe; and if she is going again to pursue a policy of world domination, it will no doubt tax all the statesmanship of the rest of the world to prevent a repetition of the calamities from which we have been suffering. But the only radical cure for this is a change in the international system of the world—a change which French statesmen are doing nothing to promote, and the very possibility of which many of them regard with ill-concealed derision. They may be right; but if they are, it is quite certain that no manipulation of the Rhine frontier is going to make France anything more than a second-rate Power, trembling at the nod of its great neighbours in the East, and depending from day to day on the changes and chances of a shifting diplomacy and uncertain alliances.
    • Memorandum, 'France's Fear of German Aggression' (28 March 1919), quoted in Blanche E. C. Dugdale, Arthur James Balfour, First Earl of Balfour, K.G., O.M., F.R.S., Etc. 1906–1930 (London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd, 1936), pp. 204–205.


  • I feel, as time goes on, not that the war has produced fewer evils than I feared at the time, for the conviction grows on me that the evils are unmeasured. As year succeeds year we shall more and more see how great was the calamity, how inexplicable the crime which brought that war on humanity. There was one bright side to it. The horrors of that war did at least persuade mankind that some great effort must be made to prevent its repetition. Those who with the facile scepticism or easy cynicism of the arm-chair deride the efforts—humble, imperfect, but honest which are being made all the world over to render the repetition of those horrors impossible must be careful that they do not make themselves shares in the great crime from which we have already so bitterly suffered.
    • Speech (1921), quoted in Blanche E. C. Dugdale, Arthur James Balfour, First Earl of Balfour, K.G., O.M., F.R.S., Etc. 1906–1930 (London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd, 1936), p. 230.
  • Suppose [he said to the Americans] that it was a familiar thought in your minds that there never was at any moment of the year within the limits of your State more than seven weeks food for the population, and that that food had to be replenished by overseas communication...Then you will understand why every citizen of the British Empire, whether he comes from the far Dominions of the Pacific, or the small island in the North Sea, can never forget...that without sea communication he, and the Empire to which he belongs, would perish.
    • Speech to the second meeting of the Washington Naval Conference (1921), quoted in Blanche E. C. Dugdale, Arthur James Balfour, First Earl of Balfour, K.G., O.M., F.R.S., Etc. 1906–1930 (London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd, 1936), p. 236.
  • The General Strike has taught the working classes more in four days than years of talking could have done.
    • Speech (7 May 1926), reported in The Observer (14 November 1926), quoted in Robert Andrews, The New Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations (2003)
  • Biography should be written by an acute enemy.
    • Observer (20 January 1927).
  • Our whole political machinery presupposes a people so fundamentally at one that they can safely afford to bicker.


Theism and humanism Edit

  • Few persons are prevented from thinking themselves right by the reflection that, if they be right, the rest of the world is wrong.
  • I speak of God, I mean something other than an Identity wherein all differences vanish, or a Unity which includes but does not transcend the differences which it somehow holds in solution. I mean a God whom men can love, a God to whom men can pray, who takes sides, who has purposes and preferences, whose attributes, howsoever conceived, leave unimpaired the possibility of a personal relation between Himself and those whom He has created.
  • Apart from life and thought, there is no reason to regard one form of material distribution as in any respect superior to another. A solar system may be more interesting than its parent nebula ; it may be more beautiful. But if there be none to unravel its intricacies or admire its splendours, in what respect is it better ? Its constituent atoms are more definitely grouped, the groups move in assignable orbits ; but why should the process by which these results have been achieved be regarded as other than one of purposeless change super-induced upon meaningless uniformity?
  • Everything that happened, good or bad, would subtract something from the lessening store of useful energy, till a time arrived when nothing could happen any more, and the universe, frozen into eternal repose, would for ever be as if it were not. /.../ The physical course of nature does not merely fail to indicate design, it seems loudly to proclaim its absence.
  • Theory of selection /.../ leaves untouched all that can be inferred from the existence of the conditions which make organic evolution possible: matter which lives, multiplies, and varies ; an environment which possesses the marvellously complex constitution required to make these processes possible. /.../ it cannot produce either the original environment or the original living matter. These must be due either to luck or to contrivance; and, if they be due to luck, the luck (we must own) is great. How great we cannot say.
  • We now know too much about matter to be materialists. The very essence of the physical order of things is that it creates nothing new. Change is never more than a redistribution of that which never changes. But sensibility belongs to the world of consciousness, not to the world of matter.
  • Whereas reasons may, and usually do, figure among the proximate causes of belief, and thus play a part in both kinds of series (cognitive and causal), it is always possible to trace back the causal series to a point where every trace of rationality vanishes ; where we are left face to face with conditions of beliefs social, physiological, and physical— which, considered in themselves, are quite a-logical in their character. /.../ on any merely naturalistic hypothesis, the rational elements in the causal series lie always on the surface. Penetrate but a short way down, and they are found no more.
  • A distinguished agnostic once observed that in these days Christianity was not refuted, it was explained. Doubtless the difference between the two operations was, in his view, a matter rather of form than of substance. That which was once explained needed, he thought, no further refutation. And certainly we are all made happy when a belief, which seems to us obviously absurd, is shown nevertheless to be natural in those who hold it. But we must be careful. True beliefs are effects no less than false. In this respect magic and mathematics are on a level. Both demand scientific explanation ; both are susceptible of it. Manifestly, then, we cannot admit that explanation may be treated as a kind of refutation. /.../ This way lies universal scepticism. Thus would all intellectual values be utterly destroyed.
  • On questions of taste there is notoriously the widest divergence of opinion./.../ if, from a survival point of view, one taste be as good as another, it is not the varieties in taste which should cause surprise so much as the uniformities. To be sure, the uniformities have often no deep aesthetic roots. They represent /.../ tendencies to agreement, which govern our social ritual, and thereby make social life possible.
  • In art, origin and value cannot be treated as independent. Those who enjoy poetry and painting must be at least dimly aware of a poet beyond the poem and a painter beyond the picture. If by some unimaginable process works of beauty could be produced by machinery, as a symmetrical colour pattern is produced by a kaleidoscope, we might think them beautiful till we knew their origin, after which we should be rather disposed to describe them as ingenious. And this is not, I think, because we are unable to estimate works of art as they are in themselves, not because we must needs buttress up our opinions by extraneous and irrevelant considerations ; but rather because a work of art requires an artist. not merely in the order of natural causation, but as a matter of a-sthetie necessity. It conveys a message which is valueless to the recipient, unless it be understood by the sender. It must be expressive.
  • Romantic love goes far beyond race requirements. From this point of view it is as useless as aesthetic emotion itself. And, like aesthetic emotion of the profounder sort, it is rarely satisfied with the definite, the limited, and the immediate. It ever reaches out towards an unrealised infinity. It cannot rest content with the prose of mere fact. It sees visions and dreams dreams which to an unsympathetic world seem no better than amiable follies. Is it from sources like these—the illusions of love and the enthusiasms of ignorance—that we propose to supplement the world-outlook provided for us by sober sense and scientific observation ?
    Yet why not ? Here we have values which by supposition we are reluctant to lose. Neither scientific observation nor sober sense can preserve them. It is surely permissible to ask what will.
  • There is always something about our feeling for beautiful things which can neither be described nor communicated, which is unshared and unshareable.
  • Our admiration for natural beauty /.../ cares not to understand either the physical theories which explain what it admires, or the psychological theories which explain its admiration. It does not deny the truth of the first, nor (within due limits) the sufficiency of the second. But it requires more. It feels itself belittled unless conscious purpose can be found somewhere in its pedigree. Physics and psycho-physics, by themselves, suffice not. It longs to regard beauty as a revelation—a revelation from spirit to spirit, not from one kind of atomic agitation to the "psychic" accompaniment of another. On this condition only can its highest values be maintained.'
  • Men's wishes are not always vain, nor is every life too brief to satisfy its possessor. Only when we attempt, from the point of view permitted by physics and biology, to sum up the possibilities of collective human endeavour, do we fully realise the "vanity of vanities" proclaimed by the Preacher.
  • Logic always seems to be telling us, in language quite unnecessarily technical, what we understood much better before it was explained.

Quotes about BalfourEdit

  • The doubts that Mr. Balfour expressed nearly thirty years ago, in an Address delivered in Glasgow, have not, so far, been answered. And it is probable that many people, to whom six years ago the notion of a sudden decline or break-up of our western civilisation, as a result not of cosmic forces but of its own development, would have appeared almost fantastic, will feel much less confident to-day, notwithstanding the fact that the leading nations of the world have instituted a league of peoples for the prevention of war, the measure to which so many high priests of Progress have looked forward as meaning a long stride forward on the road to Utopia.
    • J. B. Bury, The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry Into Its Origin and Growth (1921) referring to Balfour's A Fragment on Progress (1891)
  • From 1887 up to the end of his Premiership in 1905, he was the most skilful of all the House of Commons speakers of his day, with the exception of...Gladstone. ... he was a brave man—and a fearless one. In comparatively small things he shrank from conclusions and thus gave a false impression of irresolution, but on fundamental issues he never flinched or meandered. He was through and through a patriot and never lost confidence in the invincibility of his country...Clearly he was not the man to stimulate and organise the activity of the Navy in a crisis. But he was an ideal man for the Foreign Office and to assist the Cabinet on big issues. His contributions in the War and afterwards in the making of Peace were of the highest order. In personal charm he was easily first among all the statesmen with whom I came in contact. As to his intellectual gifts I doubt whether I ever met so illuminating an intelligence inside the Council Chamber.
  • One key to the understanding of Arthur Balfour was his conversation. Unhesitatingly I should put him down as the best talker I have ever known, one whose talk was not a brilliant monologue or a string of epigrams, but a communal effort which quickened and elevated the whole discussion and brought out the best of other people. He would take the hesitating remark of a shy man and discover in it unexpected possibilities, would probe it and expand it until its author felt that he had really made some contribution to human wisdom.
    • John Buchan, Memory Hold-the-Door (1940), chapter VI, section V

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