The Theism of Lord Balfour

Lord Balfour, then Foreign Secretary, announced that he viewed with favour a national home for the Jews in Palestine. I.T. Naamani examines the philosophical writings of a remarkable British statesman.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. Often called the Second Cyrus, Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930) has secured for himself a prominent place in Jewish annals. As Secretary for Scotland (1886), Chief Secretary for Ireland (1887-91), Prime Minister (1902-1905), Foreign Secretary (1916-1920) and as leader of the Conservative Party for more than fifty years, he certainly carved a niche for himself in British history.

But he is mainly remembered now, even in England, for the Declaration that bears his name; the Balfour Declaration, issued on November 2nd, 1917, which viewed ‘with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’.

Fifty years later, few are aware of the fact that in addition to being a statesman he was also an eminent theist and philosopher whose scintillating works and ideas caused animated comments in British literary circles at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.

‘That practical politics and speculative philosophy may inhabit the same brain, however incredible the co-tenancy,’ struck many Englishmen as a delightful phenomenon.

Even Balfour’s severest critic, the theologian Principal Fairbairn of Mansfield College, Oxford—who once described Balfour as a ‘brilliant amateur’, and one of his books as ‘redeemed by its digressions’—could not help but point out as early as 1895 that Balfour’s writings were ‘a remarkable achievement for a statesman, and give to the state the happy assurance that a mind which may yet control its destinies has visions of higher and more enduring things than the strife of parties, the collision of interests or the jealousies of classes’.

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