Arthur James Balfour Balfour.

Essays, speculative and political online

. (page 1 of 12)
Online LibraryArthur James Balfour BalfourEssays, speculative and political → online text (page 1 of 12)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook















Printed in 1920


IN this volume I have collected Essays, Lec-
tures, and some occasional pieces written during
the last twelve years. They touch on subjects
of the most varied character, ranging from a
revue of M. Bergson's L'Evolution Creatrice to
brief Notes on " Zionism " and "The Freedom
of the Seas." I do not expect, I need hardly
say, that even the most friendly reader will
take an interest in them all; though perhaps
he may, here and there, find something to
meet his individual tastes.

I have roughly divided them into groups,
about one of which a special word of expla-
nation and apology is perhaps necessary the
group relating to Germany. Of these the first
in date is an article on Anglo-German rela-
tions, written at the request of Professor Dr.
Ludwig Stein in 1912 for the well-known


periodical Nord und Sud ; the second is a re-
view of Treitschke's Lectures on " Politics " ;
the third is the Note on " The Freedom of the
Seas" already referred to; and the last is a
reprint of the Official Dispatch on the Allied
objects in the War which I wrote in January
1917. Of these the first was written entirely
for German readers ; the third, in the main,
for American friends ; while the fourth was
the British reply to President Wilson's request
for a statement of the objects of the Entente
Powers in the War. All these Papers were
occasional, and one of them was official ; but,
in a certain sense, they form a series repre-
senting the contemporary thoughts of at
least one individual concerned with the various
stages in the great drama which ended in
June 1919.

To some readers the Paper of 1912 may seem
lacking in the emphasis of its warnings. But
it was written, as I have already said, for the
German public, at the request of a German
Editor, who, without doubt, sincerely desired
to improve the relations between Germany


and Britain. The object was a laudable one,
with which I heartily sympathised ; and it
certainly would not have been promoted by
the adoption of too controversial a tone.

As the interest of some of these Papers, if
they have any interest, depends in part upon
the date at which they were written, I have
in no case altered the sense of the text, though
here and there I have made slight verbal

My thanks are due to the Editors of the
various books and journals in which any of
these Essays may have originally appeared for
permission to republish them.

A. J. B

October 1920.





Sidgwick Memorial Lecture, Cambridge,



BEAUTY. . . . .53
Romanes Memorial Lecture, Oxford,


Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the Hib-
bert Journal, 1911.


Tercentenary Celebration at Gray's Inn,

Presidential Address, 1894.




Written for Nord und Sud, 1912


WORLD-POLICY . . . 208

Introduction to the English translation
of his Lectures, 1916.

Reflections addressed to the American
public in 1916.



The British reply of January 1917 to
President Wilson's dispatch to the
Entente Powers requesting informa-
tion as to their aims.


The Introduction to The History of
Zionism, by M. Sokolow, 1918.



I MUST begin what I have to say with a warning
and an apology. I must warn you that the
present essay makes no pretence to be an
adequate treatment of some compact and
limited theme ; but rather resembles those
wandering trains of thought, where we allow
ourselves the luxury of putting wide-ranging
questions, to which our ignorance forbids any
confident reply. I apologise for adopting a
course which thus departs in some measure
from familiar precedent. I admit its perils.
But it is just possible that when a subject, or
group of subjects, is of great inherent interest,
even a tentative and interrogative treatment
of it may be worth attempting.

My subject, or at least my point of departure,

1 Henry Sidgwick Memorial Lecture, delivered at Newnham
College, January 25, 1908.



is Decadence. I do not mean the sort of
decadence often attributed to certain phases
of artistic or literary development, in which an
overwrought technique, straining to express sen-
timents too subtle or too morbid, is deemed to
have supplanted the direct inspiration of an
earlier and a simpler age. Whether these
autumnal glories, these splendours touched with
death, are recurring phenomena in the literary
cycle ; whether, if they be, they are connected
with other forms of decadence, may be questions
well worth asking and answering. But they are
not the questions with which I am at present
concerned. The decadence respecting which
I wish to put questions is not specifically
literary or artistic. It is the decadence which
attacks, or is alleged to attack, great com-
munities and historic civilisations : which is to
societies of men what senility is to man, and
is often, like senility, the precursor and the
cause of final dissolution.

It is curious how deeply imbedded in ordinary
discourse are traces of the conviction that
childhood, maturity, and old age are stages in


the corporate, as they are in the individual,
life. " A young and vigorous nation," " a
decrepit and moribund civilisation " phrases
like these, and scores of others containing the
same implication, come as trippingly from the
tongue as if they suggested no difficulty and
called for no explanation. To Macaulay (unless
I am pressing his famous metaphor too far)
it seemed natural that ages hence a young
country like New Zealand should be flourish-
ing, but not less natural that an old country like
England should have decayed ; Berkeley, in a
well-known stanza, tells how the drama of
civilisation has slowly travelled westward to
find its loftiest development, but also its final
catastrophe, in the New World ; while every
man who is weary, hopeless, or disillusioned
talks as if his unhappy case was due to the
decadent epoch in which his lot was cast.

But why should civilisations thus wear out
and great communities decay ? and what evi-
dence is there that, in fact, they do ? These
questions, though I cannot give to them any
conclusive answers, are of much more than a


merely theoretic interest. For if current modes
of speech take Decadence for granted, with still
greater confidence do they speak of Progress
as assured. Yet if both are real they can
hardly be studied apart, they must evidently
limit and qualify each other in actual experi-
ence, and they cannot be isolated in specula-

Though antiquity, Pagan and Christian,
took a different view, it seems easier, a priori,
to understand Progress than Decadence. Even
if Progress be arrested, as presumably it must
be, by the limitation of human faculty, we
should expect the ultimate boundary to be
capable of indefinite approach, and we should
not expect that any part of the road towards it,
once traversed, would have to be retraced.
Even in the organic world, decay and death,
familiar though they be, are phenomena that
call for scientific explanation. And Weismann
has definitely asked how it comes about that the
higher organisms grow old and die, seeing that
old age and death are not inseparable character-
istics of living protoplasm, and that the


simplest organisms suffer no natural decay,
perishing, when they do perish, by accident,
starvation, or specific disease.

The answer he gives to his own question is
that the death of the individual is so useful to
the race, that Natural Selection has, in all
but the very lowest species, exterminated the
potentially immortal.

One is tempted to inquire whether this
ingenious explanation could be so modified as
to apply not merely to individuals, but to com-
munities. Is it needful, in the interests of
civilisation as a whole, that the organised em-
bodiment of each particular civilisation, if and
when its free development is arrested, should
make room for younger and more vigorous com-
petitors ? And if so can we find in Natural
Selection the mechanism by which the principle
of decay and dissolution shall be so implanted
in the very nature of human societies as to
secure that a due succession among them shall
always be maintained ?

To this second question the answer must,
I think, be in the negative. The struggle for


existence between different races and different
societies has admittedly played a great part in
social development. But the extension of
Weismann's idea from the organic to the social
world, would imply a prolonged competition
between groups of communities in which deca-
dence was the rule and groups in which it was
not ending in the survival of the first and
the destruction of the second. The groups
whose members suffered periodical decadence
and dissolution would be the fittest to survive :
just as, on Weismann's theory, those species
which are constantly replacing the old by the
young have an advantage in the competitive

Few, however, will say that in the petty frag-
ment of human history which alone is open to
our inspection, there is satisfactory evidence of
any such long drawn process. Some may even
be disposed to ask whether there is adequate
evidence of such a phenomenon as decadence
at all. And it must be acknowledged that the
affirmative answer should be given with caution.
Evidently we must not consider a diminution


of national power, whether relative or absolute,
as constituting by itself a proof of national
decadence. Holland is not decadent because
her place in the hierarchy of European Powers
is less exalted than it was two hundred and fifty
years ago. Spain was not necessarily decadent
at the end of the seventeenth century because
she had exhausted herself in a contest far
beyond her resources either in money or in men.
It would, I think, be rash even to say that
Venice w r as decadent at the end of the eighteenth
century, though the growth of other Powers,
and the diversion of the great trade routes, had
shorn her of wealth and international influence.
These are misfortunes which in the sphere of
sociology correspond to accident or disease in
the sphere of biology. And what we are
concerned to know is whether in the sphere of
sociology there is also anything corresponding
to the decay of old age a decay which may be
hastened by accident or disease, but is certainly
to be distinguished from both.

However this question should be answered
the cases I have cited are sufficient to show


where the chief difficulty of the inquiry lies.
Decadence, even if it be a reality, never acts
in isolation. It is always complicated with,
and often acts through, other more obvious
causes. It is always therefore possible to argue
that to these causes, not to the more elusive
influences collectively described as " deca-
dence," the decline and fall of great communi-
ties is really due.

Yet there are historic tragedies which (as it
seems to me) do most obstinately refuse to be
thus simply explained. It is in vain that his-
torians enumerate the public calamities which
preceded, and no doubt contributed to, the
final catastrophe. Civil dissensions, military
disasters, pestilences, famines, tyrants, tax-
gatherers, growing burdens and waning wealth
the gloomy catalogue is unrolled before our
eyes, yet somehow it does not in all cases wholly
satisfy us ; we feel that some of these diseases
are of a kind which a vigorous body politic
should easily be able to survive, that others" are
secondary symptoms of some obscurer malady,
and that in neither case do they supply us


with the full explanations of which we are
in search.

Consider, for instance, the long agony and
final destruction of Roman Imperialism in
the West, the most momentous catastrophe of
which we have historic record. It has deeply
stirred the imagination of mankind, it has been
the theme of great historians, it has been much
explained by political philosophers, yet who
feels that either historians or philosophers have
laid bare the real secrets of the tragedy ?
Rome fell, and great was the fall of it. But
why it fell, by what secret mines its defences
were breached, and what made its garrison
so faint-hearted and ineffectual this is by no
means clear.

In order to measure adequately the difficulty
of the problem, let us abstract our minds from
historical details and compare the position of
the Empire about the middle of the second
century with its position in the middle of the
third or again at the end of the fourth, and ask
of what forces history gives us an account,
sufficient in these periods to effect so mighty


a transformation. Or, still better, imagine an
observer equipped with our current stock of
political wisdom, transported to Rome in the
reign of Antoninus Pius or Marcus Aurelius,
and in ignorance of the event, writing letters
to the newspapers on the future destinies of the
Empire. What would his forecast be ?

We might suppose him to examine, in the
first place, the military position of the State,
its probable enemies, its capacities for defence.
He would note that only on its eastern bound-
ary was there an organised military Power
capable of meeting Rome on anything like
equal terms, and this only in the regions
adjacent to their common frontier. For the
rest, he would discover no civilised enemy along
the southern boundary to the Atlantic or along
its northern boundary from the Black Sea to
the German Ocean. Warlike tribes indeed he
would find in plenty : difficult to crush within
the limits of their native forests and morasses,
formidable it may be in a raid, but without
political cohesion, military unity, or the means
of military concentration ; troublesome, there-


fore, rather than dangerous. If reminded of
Varus and his lost legions, he would ask of what
importance, in the story of a world-power, could
be the loss of a few thousand men surprised at a
distance from their base amid the entangle-
ments of a difficult and unknown country ?
Never, it would seem, was Empire more for-
tunately circumstanced for purposes of home

But (it might be thought) the burden of
securing frontiers of such length, even against
merely tribal assaults, though easy from a
strictly military point of view, might prove too
heavy to be long endured. Yet the military
forces scattered through the Roman Empire,
though apparently adequate in the days of her
greatness would, according to modern ideas,
seem hardly sufficient for purposes of police,
let alone defence. An army corps or less was
deemed enough to preserve what are now mighty
kingdoms from internal disorder and external
aggression. And if we compare with this the
contributions, either in the way of money or
of men, exacted from Mediterranean lands


before the Empire came into being, or at
any period of the world's history since it
dissolved away, the comparison must, I sup-
pose, be entirely in favour of the Empire.

But burdens which seem light if measured
by area, may be heavy if measured by ability
to pay. Yet when has ability to pay been
greater in the regions bordering the Southern
and Eastern Mediterranean than under the
Roman Empire ? Travel round it in imagina-
tion eastward from the Atlantic coast of
Morocco till returning westward you reach the
head of the Adriatic Gulf, and you will have
skirted a region, still of immense natural
wealth, once filled with great cities and fertile
farms, better governed during the Empire than
it has ever been governed since (at least till
Algeria was ruled by the French and Egypt
by the British) ; including among its provinces
what were great states before the Roman rule,
and have been great states since that rule
decayed, divided by no international jealousies,
oppressed by no fear of conquest, enterprising,
cultured. Remember that to estimate its


area of taxation and recruiting you must add to
these regions Bulgaria, Servia, much of Austria
and Bavaria, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy,
France, Spain, and most of Britain, and you
have conditions favourable to military strength
and economic prosperity rarely equalled in the
modern world and never in the ancient.

Our observer however might, very rightly,
feel that a far-spreading Empire like that of
Rome, including regions profoundly differing
in race, history, and religion, would be liable to
other dangers than those which arise from mere
external aggression. One of the first questions,
therefore, which he would be disposed to ask,
is whether so heterogeneous a state was not
in perpetual danger of dissolution through the
disintegrating influence of national sentiments.
He would learn, probably with a strong feeling
of surprise, that with the single exception of
the Jews, its constituent nations, once con-
quered, were not merely content to be parts of
the Empire, but could scarcely imagine them-
selves as anything else ; that the Imperial
system appealed, not merely to the material


needs of the component populations, but also
to their imagination and their loyalty ; that
Gaul, Spain, and Britain, though but recently
forced within the pale of civilisation, were as
faithful to the Imperial ideal as the Greeks of
Athens or the Hellenised Orientals of Syria ;
and that neither historic memories, nor local
patriotism, nor disputed successions, nor public
calamities, nor administrative divisions, ever
really shook the sentiment in favour of Imperial
Unity. There might be more than one Em-
peror, but there could only be one Empire.
Howsoever our observer might disapprove of
the Imperial system he would therefore have to
admit that the Empire, with all its shortcom-
ings, its absolutism, and its bureaucracy, had
solved more successfully than any government,
before or since, the problem of devising a
scheme which equally satisfied the sentiments
of East and West ; which respected local
feelings, and encouraged local government ; in
which the Celt, the Iberian, the Berber, the
Egyptian, the Asiatic, the Greek, the Illyrian,
the Italian were all at home, and which,


though based on conquest, was accepted by the
conquered as the natural organisation of the
civilised world.

Rome had thus unique sources of strength.
What sources of weakness would our observer
be likely to detect behind her imposing ex-
terior ? The diminution of population is the
one which has (rightly I think) most impressed
historians ; and it is difficult to resist the
evidence, either of the fact or of its disastrous
consequences. I hesitate indeed to accept
without qualification the accounts given us of
the progressive decay of the native Italian
stock from the days of the Gracchi to the dis-
integration of the Empire in the West ; and
when we read how the dearth of men was made
good (in so far as it was made good) by the
increasing inflow of slaves and adventurers from
every corner of the known world, one wonders
ivhose sons they were who, for three centuries
and more, so brilliantly led the van of modern
European culture, as it emerged from the
darkness of the early Middle Ages. Passing
by such collateral issues, however, and admit-


ting depopulation to have been both real and
serious, we may well ask whether it was not the
result of Roman decadence rather than its
cause the symptom of some deep-seated social
malady, not its origin. We are not concerned
here with the aristocracy of Rome, nor even
with tjie people of Italy. We are concerned
with the Empire. We are not concerned with
a passing phase or fashion, but with a process
which seems to have gone on with increasing
rapidity, through good times as well as bad,
till the final cataclysm. A local disease might
have a local explanation, a transient disease
might be due to a chance coincidence. But
what can we say of a disease which was appar-
ently co-extensive with Imperial civilisation
in area, and which exceeded it in duration ?

I find it hard to believe that either a selfish
aversion to matrimony or a mystical admiration
for celibacy, though at certain periods the one
was common in Pagan and the other in Chris-
tian circles, were more than elements in the
complex of causes by which the result was
brought about. Like the plagues which de-


vastated Europe in the second and third cen-
turies, they must have greatly aggravated
the evil, but they are hardly sufficient to
account for it. Nor yet can we find an ex-
planation of it in the sense of impending doom,
by which men's spirits were oppressed long
before the Imperial power began visibly to
wane ; for this is one of the things which, if
historically true, does itself most urgently re-
quire explanation.

It may be, however, that our wandering
politician would be too well grounded in
Malthusian economics to regard a diminution
of population as in itself an overwhelming
calamity. And if he were pressed to describe
the weak spots in the Empire of the Antonines
he would be disposed, I think, to look for them
on the ethical rather than on the military, the
economic, or the strictly political sides of
social life. He would be inclined to say, as in
effect Mr. Lecky does say, that in the institu-
tion of slavery, in the brutalities of the gladia-
torial shows, in the gratuitous distribution of
bread to urban mobs, are to be found the


corrupting influences which first weakened and
then destroyed the vigour of the State.

I confess that I cannot easily accept this
analysis of the facts. As regards the gladia-
torial shows, even had they been universal
throughout the Empire, and had they flourished
more rankly as its power declined, I should still
have questioned the propriety of attributing too
far-reaching effects to such a cause. The
Romans were brutal while they were conquer-
ing the world : its conquest enabled them to
be brutal with ostentation ; but we must not
measure the ill consequences of their barbaric
tastes by the depth of our own disgusts, nor
assume the Gothic invasions to be the natural
and fitting Nemesis of so much spectacular
shedding of innocent blood.

As for the public distributions of corn, one
would wish to have more evidence as to its
social effects. But even without fully accept-
ing the theory of the latest Italian historian of
ancient Rome who believes that, under the then
prevailing conditions of transport, no very large
city could exist in antiquity if the supply of its


food were left to private enterprise, we cannot
seriously regard this practice, strange as it
seems to us, as an important element in the
problem. Granting for the sake of argument
that it demoralised the mob of Rome, it must
be remembered that Rome was not the Empire,
nor did the mob of Rome govern the Empire
as once it had governed the Republic.

Slavery is a far more important matter.
The magnitude of its effects on ancient societies,
difficult as these are to disentangle, can hardly
be exaggerated. But with what plausibility
can we find in it the cause of Rome's decline,
seeing that it was the concomitant also of its
rise ? How can that which in antiquity was
common to all states have this exceptional
and malign influence upon one ? It would not
in any case be easy to accept such a theory;
but surely it becomes impossible when we bear
in mind the enormous improvement effected
under the Empire both in the law and the
practice of slavery. Great as were its evils,
they were diminishing evils less ruinous as
time went on to the character of the master,


less painful and degrading to the slave. Who
can believe that this immemorial custom could,

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Online LibraryArthur James Balfour BalfourEssays, speculative and political → online text (page 1 of 12)