Arthur Balfour

The Rt Hon. Mr. A.J. Balfour MP on ‘Literature and the Arts’

From Whitefriars Journal, vol. III, no. 5, March 1907, pp. 78-81.

The Guest of the Whitefriars Club at its Annual Dinner on 22 February 1907, held at the Trocadero, was the Rt Hon. Mr A.J. Balfour, Prime Minister 1902-1905, and at this time Leader of the Opposition. The Prior, Friar Anthony Hope Hawkins (the novelist Anthony Hope), gave the toast of ‘Literature and the Arts’, coupled with the name of Mr Balfour, who, in the course of his reply, said

“The Reverend Prior has explained to you that his speech is not upon the lines of a leading article. I can well believe it. My experience of leading articles is that they are far from possessing the flattering characteristics of his remarks. (Laughter.) I can only say, in answer to his speech, that it has been a great gratification to me to be the guest of this Club. I have sometimes been accused of taking no interest in journalism. (Laughter.) I have heard the charge levelled against me. There is really no truth in it. I am a firm believer in the great influence of journalism in this country, and in its beneficent influence. I am not sure that when I am individually attacked it may not conduce, on the whole, to that impartial judgment which we hope to see extended to the characters of political men, as well as to the problem which the country has to deal with. I do not know what right I have to be associated with this toast, however. Of course, I cannot deny that I have been the author of some books – (‘hear, hear’) – some of which are to be got at an extremely cheap rate. (Laughter.) These, I hope, are balanced by others, which it is extremely difficult to procure, and which I have great doubt whether I shall republish. (Laughter.) My trade, after all, is to get up in the House of Commons and attack the Government, and not to deal with these high subjects.”

It seems impossible that I should be called upon to enlarge upon them in a serious spirit. Indeed, I am not sure that the form of the toast ought not to be altered. 1 believe that all of us who have been associated with, either literature or art must begin to feel that we are to be dominated in the future neither by the man of literature, the man of art, nor by the mere politician, but by the man of science. We hear that the world is governed by ideas, and literary ideas may have their place. The hundred best books may be moulding the destinies of generations. I do not deny that they have their share in that great work, and political ideas and ideals may be a force in moulding the destinies of mankind. But, depend upon it, these sink into insignificance besides the work which is done by some scientist working in an obscure laboratory the result of whose discoveries he is the very last man to foresee, but who is nevertheless starting some train of thought, some development of knowledge, some beginning of discovery and invention which is going to change the face of the civilised globe, and the whole globe is going to be what we call civilised in a comparatively small number of years.

If you go back upon the beginning of discoveries which have brought continents together, made intercourse possible, made the growth of populations possible, and made the feeling of solid communities possible, if you go to the root of these things you will find some man relatively obscure, known to only a narrow circle of competent specialists who has been the beginning of great changes that have affected every civilised nation in the world. I do not mean to underrate what men of letters – even the humblest philosopher among them – (hear, hear) – can do in the way of moulding thought to carry out the destinies of our own generation and of the next generation, so inevitably influenced by our own, either by imitation or, more probably, by reaction and contrast.

Nevertheless, the main stream of tendency in the future must certain depend upon your growing knowledge of the physical and material world in which we live. I have often tried to think what future generations are going to say of the last thirty or forty years – how [to] compare it with the generations which have preceded it? I do not believe we can prophecy in the matter, but I venture to throw out the suggestion, I think we can say that with regard to literature there was a very high level, but that we had not been so fruitful in men of great genius as the generations that preceded it; that there was not the outstanding and immortal work which, for instance, the first thirty years of the nineteenth produced, but that the level of literary performance was high, was dignified, was worthy, but I think they will say that was not what marked the generation as noteworthy.

I think they will say that it is in originality of criticism, of scientific discovery, of historical study of antiquity, of theological criticism, of the profound modification of ideas, without any revolutionary break in them which marks this generation, the generation now coming to an end; the thirty years preceding the moment in which I speak, as almost unique in the history of the world. (Applause.) Take Darwin’s Origin of Species, which appeared in 1859 as a beginning, and take the whole change of thought which has occurred since upon some of the greatest subjects upon which mankind can occupy itself, reflect upon the magnitude of that change and upon the fact that it has been carried out, or is in process of being carried out, without sharp break or revolution, and then I think you will agree with me that we have had the good fortune to live through an age of profound interest and an age which will well deserve of posterity a great meed of intellectual and moral gratitude. (‘Hear, hear.’) At all events that is my conviction, and I think the work has been done by the unconscious alliance of men of letters and of men of science. They are sometimes in antagonism, but they have worked together without knowing it to produce this great result, and, though I suppose that, like all prophets, if I had the misfortune to live till the value of my prophecy could be tested I should turn out to be little better than a fool, still we cannot help prophesying in private.

At all events I do not complain of the age in which I was born. I do not say I am not a pessimist, I do not say I do not foresee every kind of evil, especially if the present Government remains in power. (Laughter.) I would not be suspected of such a sentiment. (Laughter.) But though I am a pessimist by profession – (laughter) – I have at the bottom of my heart, however much I may regret this or that tendency of thought, a firm conviction that things are on the whole not going ill with civilised humanity. (‘Hear, hear.’) I daresay the Press is full of atrocious crimes. (Laughter.) I believe so. (Laughter.) I daresay municipal institutions, both in America and here, leave a deal to be desired, that the House of Commons is not a perfect institution, that much may be said about the House of Lords – (laughter) – but, I believe, with all these pessimistic views, which are quite genuine, I am fundamentally cheerful under it all.

If, thirty years ago, I had been asked what my forecast was about these enormous changes of thought on religious, philosophic, scientific, and other matters, I should have taken the gloomiest view of them. I should have said, ‘this is going to upset everything and everybody’. It has not upset everything and everybody – (‘hear, hear’) – and I look forward to the future with a cheerfulness which I am unable to restrain, however dark may be the particular prospect with regard to particular subjects with which I happen to be intimately concerned. (Laughter.) I have wandered very far in these conversational observations from the subject of ‘Literature and the Arts’, as they are legitimately and properly understood; but I know that in this society, and all such societies, on occasions the audience is tolerant; they do not expect a consecutive argument, they do not insist on carefully thought-out observations. I have only risen to make these observations, Reverend Prior, in order that I may, if I can, express to every gentleman who has been good enough to drink to this toast the warm feelings of thanks and cordiality with which I have received their kind reception of the remarks of the Chairman this evening, and to tell them how greatly I have enjoyed this opportunity of meeting them, what pleasure I have derived from the invitation which they were good enough to send me, and how greatly I desire that so agreeable an experience may again be repeated. (Applause.)

As Mr Balfour had announced that he had been commanded by His Majesty to attend a Court at Buckingham Palace that evening, and was obliged to leave at ten o’clock, dinner was served promptly at seven o’clock and the musical programme was somewhat curtailed.