Arthur J. Balfour

Arthur Balfour

1848-1930. Educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. Devoted himself to philosophical studies for many years. First went to Parliament in 1876. Published "A Defense of Philosophic Doubt" in 1879, pleading for individual freedom of thought as against the increasing dogmatism of science. Through his sister, the wife of Prof. Henry Sidgwick, the first president of the SPR, he became interested in psychic phenomena and the question of survival in 1882. In 1894 he occupied the presidential chair of the SPR and in 1893 he became President. Eleven years later he became President of the British Association. Served as the British Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905. His paper on the Ear of Dionysuis cross correspondence (attributed to the discarnate minds of Prof. Butcher and Prof. Verrall) which he read before the SPR in November, 1916, is a most constructive presentation of an excellent piece of evidence for survival.


 - Arthur Balfour -

           I HAVE been requested, by those who are responsible for the organisation of this celebration, to take that part in it which has been announced in no uncertain tone. I am conscious of but two qualifications which I possess for the task. The one is the deepest personal affection and the most unstinted admiration for the subject with which I am asked to deal; the second is that I yield to no man in my loyal devotion to the University of which Charles Darwin was one of the greatest ornaments. I think it may well thrill the minds of every son of Cambridge to reflect on the part which his University has played in leading great movements, those great cosmic movements whose effects are never obliterated by the progress of science, or the development of discovery, but which remain as perpetual landmarks in the intellectual history of mankind. This day and on preceding days we are concerned with Charles Darwin. Charles Darwin, though one of the greatest of men of science the world has seen, has, even in Cambridge, great rivals. Will it be erroneous to say that much of the best scientific thought of the eighteenth century was devoted to developing those great mechanical ideas which the world owes to Newton? During that century men largely spent their time in developing ideas the origin of which we can with perfect certainty trace to the greatest ornament of our University, and perhaps the greatest man the world has ever seen. Is it not true that the greatest scientific minds of the nineteenth century were largely occupied with another allied set of problems, those connected with the character of the ether and the energies of which ether is the vehicle; and that in Cambridge we may claim to have educated Young, Kelvin, Maxwell, Stokes - I do not carry the catalogue into the realm of the living-men whose names will for ever be associated with that vast expansion of our knowledge of the material universe, associated with the theory of the ether, the theory of electricity, of light, and that great group of allied subjects. If we have not in that department a clear and undoubted lead, which Cambridge men may surely claim that Newton gave in another department, at least we have borne our fair share, and more than our fair share, of the heat and burden of scientific investigation. And we are now occupied with pardonable pride in turning our attention to one who in another wholly different sphere of scientific investigation has for all time imprinted in unmistakable lines his unmistakable signature upon the whole development of future thought.

I do not wish to exaggerate on such an occasion, because of all crimes Charles Darwin would have disliked exaggeration in anything connected with science, and most of all in anything connected with his own claims. Yet the fact remains that Charles Darwin has become part of the common intellectual heritage of every man of education, wheresoever he may live, or whatsoever be his occupation in life. The fact remains that we trace, perhaps not to him alone, but to him in the main, a view which has affected not merely our ideas of the development of living organisms, but ideas of politics, ideas upon sociology, ideas which cover the whole domain of human terrestrial activity. He is the fount, he is the origin, and he will stand to all time as the man who made this great - as I think - beneficent revolution in the mode in which educated mankind conceive the history, not merely of their own institutions, not merely of their own race, but of everything which has that unexplained attribute of life, everything which lives on the surface of the globe, or even the depths of its oceans. After all Darwin was the Newton of this great department of human research; and to him we may look, as we look to Newton to measure the heavens or to weigh suns and their attendant planets. The branch of research which he has initiated is surely the most difficult of all. I talk of measuring the heavens and weighing suns; but those are tasks surely incomparably easy compared with the problem which taxes the physiologist, the morphologist, in dealing with the living cell, be it of plant or be it of animal or man. That problem, the problem of life, is the one which it is impossible for us to evade, which it may be impossible for us ultimately to solve; but in dealing with it in its larger manifestations Charles Darwin made greater strides than any man in the history of the world had made before him, or that any man so far has made since that great anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species which we have met this week to celebrate. We have heard this morning, from lips far more expert than mine, some estimate of the genius of that great man in whose honour we have met, and I feel it would be impertinent to add to anything which has been said.

One aspect, and one aspect alone, of Darwin's scientific genius seems to me to be insufficiently appreciated, at all events by the general public, of which I am one, and on whose behalf I may be supposed to speak. I mean the great achievement which Darwin made in science quite apart from - I may not say quite apart, but distinct from - that great generalisation with which his name is immortally connected. Let us assume that Darwin was not the author of the theory of the Origin of Species; let us assume that the great work which he did in connection with the ideas of the evolution of human beings had never taken place. Would he not still rank as one of the most remarkable investigators whom we have ever seen? I am, of course, not qualified to speak as an expert upon this subject, but I appeal to those - and there are many in this room - who are experts. Is it not true, quite apart from his theories of evolution, that in zoology, in botany, in geology, in anthropology, in the whole sphere of these great allied sciences, Charles Darwin showed himself one of the most masterly investigators, proved himself to have the power of the loving investigation of natural phenomena; showed himself to be able to cast a new and an original light upon facts the most commonplace and the most familiar, and to elicit from them lessons which men of science must always value quite apart from the great uses to which his genius was able to put them? It is, I think, satisfactory to see that in order to gain a place second to none in the growing list of great men of science, it is not merely necessary to have the power of ingenious generalisation which is given to many, to some who have not other powers. Darwin's great achievement was due to the fact that with this power of generalisation, and ancillary to it, he had the power of investigation, the power of seeing the problems, that required solution in the world in which he lived, which, so far as I know, has seldom been equalled, and certainly never been surpassed in the biography of great men of science.

I cannot conclude without saying something about Charles Darwin the man, as well as Charles Darwin the great man of science. Some of us - I am proud to think I am one among many in this room - knew Charles Darwin personally. Those who had not that great honour and that great pleasure, have the next best thing to it in the biography, which reveals the man as clearly as printed matter can reveal living human personality. I am sure I am not in the least going beyond the bare and naked truth when I say that quite apart from his great scientific achievement, there never lived a man more worthy of respect and more worthy of love than this great naturalist. From the very nature of the case his great generalisation, from the very fact of its magnitude, produced, as was inevitable, violent controversy; and human nature in 1859 and 1860 was not different from human nature in 1909, and violent controversy then, as now, was prolific, and must be prolific, in misrepresentation. So far as I am aware no misrepresentation moved that equable temperament. Darwin never was betrayed into uncharitable observations; he never was embittered by any controversy, however unfair; but he pursued the even tenor of the man whose business it was to investigate the truths of nature and to state fact as he saw fact, to proceed irrespective of all the storm of indignation and of misplaced antagonism to which his speculations at the moment inevitably led. That is a great quality. It is a quality which few men of science have possessed in equal measure. Most scientific discoveries are so remote from the knowledge and immediate interest of uninstructed mankind that the man of science may pursue his way tolerably secure of escaping abuse from any but his scientific rivals. That was not Charles Darwin's fortune. He, through no fault of his - and, let me add, through no fault of the community to which he gave his discoveries - inevitably produced general controversy, for those discoveries attacked the conception which every man had formed of the world in which he lived and of the race to which he belonged. On the whole I think it is creditable to every one concerned that that controversy went on with so little bitterness and so little misrepresentation. But though there was bitterness and misrepresentation, yet never did it deflect for one instant, so far as I am aware, the strict path of scientific rectitude and of admirable charity which always characterised that great man. When we remember under what circumstances of ill-health Darwin pursued, decade after decade, these immortal investigations, I think our admiration for his temper, for his moral character, is augmented by a feeling of further admiration for the heroism with which he fought against these untoward physical conditions. Never did he lose his interest in his work, never was he discouraged. He went on from discovery to discovery, and from truth to truth, unwearied and unfatigued, leaving behind him the immortal reputation which we are here to celebrate.

I do not think that all the history of science has produced a genius whose memory a great University could more fitly celebrate, or one whose contributions to knowledge the representatives of other great centres of learning would more gladly assemble to honour. I have ventured, perhaps too boldly, to praise Cambridge and those whom Cambridge has produced, but our guests will forgive in a son of Cambridge a momentary excess of emotion, if not of statement; and if you think I have exaggerated the fame of my own University, you will at all events agree that I have not exaggerated the merits of the man to whom we have met to do honour. For he was a man whose performances have become part of the common intellectual heritage of mankind, through whose ideas we look at every problem, not merely those connected with the lower organisms, but those connected with society, as an evolutionary question; and he was above all a man whose heroic disposition and whose lovable qualities would, even if he had not otherwise gained that immortal niche in the temple of fame, still commend him to every man who either knew him personally, or who by tradition has been able to form some estimate of the rare qualities which he exhibited. There is another speech to be delivered on this great theme by one incomparably more qualified than I can pretend to be to deal with Charles Darwin on the scientific side, and I will leave to him the grateful task of asking you to drink to the memory of Charles Darwin.


The article above was taken from "Arthur James Balfour As Philosopher and Thinker: A Collection of the More Important and Interesting Passages in his Non-Political Writings, Speeches, and Addresses, 1897-1912" (Longmans, Green and Co., 1912) by Wilfred M. Short.


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