Balfour on Progress

Balfour’s ‘Fragment On Progress’

The essay ‘A Fragment On Progress’ was a public lecture given in 1891.  I have moved the references by name to Spencer and Galton from notes to the main text.  Other notes are omitted.

There is no more interesting characteristic of ordinary social and political speculation than the settled belief that there exists a natural law or tendency governing human affairs by which, on the whole, and in the long run, the general progress of our race is ensured. I do not know that any very precise view is entertained as to the nature of this law or tendency, its mode of operation, or its probable limits; but it is understood to be established, or at least indicated, by the general course of History, and to be in harmony with modern developments of the doctrine of Evolution.

The argument from History usually presents itself somewhat in this form. Man, it is said, has been working out his destiny through countless generations, and from the first epoch of which any record has survived, down to our own day, his course, though subject to many mutations, has, in the main, been one of steady and enormous improvement Fix your eyes, indeed, upon one race, or one age, and you may have to admit that there have been long periods during which there has been no movement, or a movement only of retrogression. But the torpor that has paralysed one branch of the human family has been balanced by the youthful vigour of another; now one nation, and now another, may have led the van, but the van itself has been ever pressing forward; and though there have been periods in the world’s history when it may well have seemed to the most sanguine observers that the powers that make for progress were exhausted, that culture was giving place to barbarism, and civil order to unlettered anarchy, time and the event have shown that such prophets were wrong, and out of the wreck of the old order a new order has always arisen more perfect and more full of promise than that which it replaced. The argument seems seductive; yet in the absence of any established law underlying this empirical generalisation, it has after all but little value. For the same facts can without difficulty be stated so as to suggest precisely the opposite conclusion. A survey of the world, it may be replied, shows us a vast number of savage communities, apparently at a stage of culture not profoundly different from that which prevailed among prehistoric man during geological epochs which, estimated by any historical standard, are immensely remote. History, again, tells us of successive civilisations which have been born, have for a space thriven exceedingly, and have then miserably perished. And as it shows us samples of death and decay, so it shows us samples of growth arrested, and, as far as we can tell, permanently arrested, at some particular stage of development. What is there in all this to indicate that a nation or group of nations, which happens to be under observation during its period of energetic growth, is either itself to be an exception to this common law, or is of necessity to find in some other race an heir fitted for the task of carrying on its work? Progressive civilisation is no form of indestructible energy which, if repressed here must needs break out there, if refused embodiment in one shape must needs show itself in another. It is a plant of tender habit, difficult to propagate, not difficult to destroy, that refuses to flourish except in a soil which is not to be found everywhere, nor at all times, nor even, so far as we can see, necessarily to be found at all.

I conceive, therefore, that 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. They must find some tendencies deep-rooted in the nature of things which may be trusted gradually to work out the desired result. And this, to do them justice, they have not been slow to attempt. Two such causes, or groups of causes, have been assigned which deserve special consideration, the one eminently characteristic of the second half of the nineteenth century, the other not less characteristic of the latter half of the eighteenth. The former, or biological, relies on the gradual improvement both of the human and of the social organism through the continued operation of those laws by which evolution in general has been effected. The latter relies on the spread of enlightenment, the dissipation of prejudice, the conscious application to social problems of unfettered criticism, the deliberate reconstruction of the whole social fabric upon rational principles. These two theories are not, of course, mutually exclusive; since, for example, no evolutionist would deny that the intentional adaptation of institutions to foreseen results must play a part — possibly a large part — in the development of a social and rational animal. Nevertheless, the two ways of estimating the history of the past and attacking the problem of the future, differ profoundly both in the letter and in the spirit, and they require, therefore, separate treatment at our hands.

Now, no one, I conceive, will be found to-day anxious to dispute the proposition that the same laws which have operated in the organic world of animals and plants may have had much, and must have had something, to do with moulding the destiny of man. In dealing with the causes which ages before the dawn of history produced the various physical and mental qualities of the different races of the world, we are no doubt necessarily reduced to dim conjecture. But we can hardly be wrong in supposing that, during the vast period in which a blind struggle with the forces of nature and with each other, was the main occupation of men, and when defeat in either contest meant death, the weeding out of unfit individuals and unfit institutions was an active agency in shaping the characteristics of humanity, as it still is in shaping those of the lower animals. We may conceive without difficulty, indeed we can hardly refuse to believe that the “natural man” — man (that is) as he is born into the world as distinguished from man as he afterwards makes himself and is made by his surroundings, might thus by elimination and selection undergo a process of profound modification; that in dexterity of muscle and, still more, in power of brain an enormous improvement might easily take place; and even that special aptitudes for social life, involving, of course, an innate predisposition to accept a morality without which social life is impossible, might be bred into the physical organisation of the most successful races. But this particular cause of progress has, we can scarcely doubt, lost most of its strength. Nay, if certain theorists are rights and it requires the unsparing slaughter of all the inferior members of a species to maintain its effectiveness at its normal level, — to preserve the speed of the antelope undiminished and the sight of the eagle undimmed, — then we can hardly refuse our support to the view that the general improvement of the race may in some respects lead to a deterioration in the natural constitution of the individual. 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. And however much man as he is ultimately moulded by the social forces surrounding him may gain, man as he is born into the world must somewhat lose; the loss in the quality of the raw material being thus a deduction, it may be even a large deduction, to be set off against the advantages obtained by better processes of manufacture.

It has, however, been thought by many that there are biological causes at work which may compensate, and more than compensate, the kind of loss produced by the greatly diminished efficiency of elimination and selection. The majority of naturalists have held, and I suppose still hold, that modifications in the physical structure of animals produced during life may be transmitted to their offspring, and that by the cumulative effect of such changes, profound alterations may gradually be made in the characteristics of a species. And there is one systematic philosopher of our own day [Herbert Spencer] who has applied this principle so persistently in every department of his theory of Man, that were it to be upset, it is scarcely too much to say that his Ethics, his Psychology, and his Anthropology would all tumble to the ground with it. Yet this doctrine has for many years been questioned by a great English authority, [Galton] and, as many of you are aware, it has been directly controverted by one of the most eminent living German biologists. This is not the occasion, and assuredly I am not the person, to attempt to sum up the argument or to pronounce upon the merits of this interesting controversy. For my present purpose it will be enough if I remind you that Weisman’s conclusions are largely based on the extreme difficulty of conceiving any possible theory of heredity by which the transmission of acquired qualities could be accounted for; on the relative simplicity and plausibility of his own theory of heredity, according to which the transmission would be impossible; and on the absence of any conclusive proof that the transmission has ever taken place. It may no doubt be objected (I do not say rightly objected) to such a line of argument, that even the simplest explanations of heredity are so mysterious, and involve so large an element of unverifiable hypothesis, that it is rash to lay too much stress on the difference in these respects which may exist between one speculation and another; that evidence from experience cannot at. most be said to prove more than that many qualities patiently acquired by generation after generation do not seem, as a matter of fact, to have become hereditary; while as a matter of theory, qualities which are undoubtedly hereditary can seldom if ever be shown to have been originally acquired.

I cannot but think, however, that even in this qualified form the lessons to be learned from the discussion are full of interest from our present point of view. We have got into the habit of thinking that the efforts at progress made by each generation may not only bear fruit for succeeding ones, in the growth of knowledge, the bettering of habits and institutions, and the increase of wealth, but that there may also be a process, so to speak, of physiological accumulation, by which the dexterities painfully learned by the fathers shall descend as inherited aptitudes to the sons, and not merely the manufactured man — man as he makes himself and is made by his surroundings, — but the natural man also, may thus go through a course of steady and continuous improvement. It now seems, I think, probable, that not in this more than in other cases is biology necessarily optimist. For as it has long been known that the causes by which species have been modified are not inconsistent with an immobility of type lasting through geological epochs; as it is also known that these causes may lead to what we call deterioration as well as to what we call improvement; as it is impossible to believe that selection and elimination can play any very important part in the further development of civilised man; so now the gravest doubts have been raised as to whether there are any other physiological causes in operation by which that development is likely to be secured.

If this be so we must regard the raw material, as I have called it, of civilisation as being now, in all probability, at its best, and henceforth for the amelioration of mankind we must look to the perfection of manufacture. But do not let any one suppose that the possible results of manufacture are insignificant. Doubtless they are strictly conditioned by the quality of the stuff that has to be worked on. Doubtless this quality differs essentially in each of the great families of mankind. They have emerged from the dim workshop where the rough machinery of nature has, in remotest ages, wrought into each its inalienable heritage of natural gifts and aptitudes; — and by these must the character and limits of their development in part be determined. But let us not found more upon this truth than it will bear. In our social and political speculations we are surely apt to think too much of ethnology, and too little of history. Sometimes from a kind of idleness, sometimes from a kind of pride, sometimes because the “principles of heredity” is now always on our lips, we frequently attribute to differences of blood effects which are really due to differences of surroundings. We note, and note correctly, the varying shades of national character; and proceed to put them down, often most incorrectly, to variations in national descent. The population of one district is Teutonic, and therefore it does this; the population of the other district is Celtic, and therefore it does that. A Jewish strain explains one peculiarity; a Greek strain explains another; and so on. Conjectures like these appear to be of the most dubious value. We know by experience that a nation may suddenly blaze out into a splendour of productive genius, of which its previous history gave but faint promise, and of which its subsequent history shows but little trace; some great crisis in its fate may stamp upon a race marks which neither lapse of time nor change of circumstance seem able wholly to efface; and empires may rise from barbarism to civilisation and sink again from civilisation into barbarism, within periods so brief that we may take it as certain, whatever be our opinion as to the transmission of acquired faculties, that no hereditary influence has had time to operate. Now, if the differences between the same nation at different times are thus obviously not due to differences in inherited qualities, is it not somewhat rash to drag in hypothetical differences in inherited qualities to account for the often slighter peculiarities of temperament by which communities of different descent may be distinguished? Are we not often attributing to heredity what is properly due to education, and crediting Nature with what really is the work of Man?

So far, then, we have arrived at the double conclusion that, while there is, to say the least, no sufficient ground for expecting that our descendants will be provided by Nature with better “organisms” than our own, it is nevertheless not impossible to suppose that they may be able to provide themselves with a much more commodious “environment.” And this is not on the face of it wholly unsatisfactory; for if, on the one hand, it seems to forbid us to indulge in visions of a millennium in which there shall not only be a new heaven and a new earth, but also a new variety of the human race to enjoy them; on the other hand it permits us to hope that the efforts of successive generations may so improve the surroundings into which men are born that the community of the far future may be as much superior to us as we are to our barbarian ancestors.

Our expectations, however, that any such hope will be realised must depend largely on the efficiency which we are justified in attributing to the “efforts of successive generations” — must depend, in other words, on the value we are disposed to attach to the second or “rational” theory of progress which I mentioned earlier in this paper. This theory assumes that every community, at least every self-governing community, holds its fate in its hands, and is itself the intelligent arbiter of its own destiny. Its efforts may be as immediately and as effectively directed to the work of promoting progress as the efforts of a navvy to the work of raising a weight. What is to be done is clear; how to do it may easily be discovered: nothing more, therefore, is required to attain success but strenuous and single-minded endeavour. Unfortunately the world is not made on so simple a plan, nor is the problem to be dealt with one in elementary mechanics: so complex is it indeed that I could not attempt on such an occasion even roughly to formulate it in its entirety. But the most cursory observation will show that in many cases endeavour is not enough, even when endeavour is made. Consider, for instance, the case of Art. Mr. Spencer cherishes the belief that his “fully evolved” man will spend much more time in aesthetic enjoyment than our toil-worn generation is permitted to do. I hope he may. But what art is he going to enjoy? Leisure and fashion will produce audiences and spectators. We know of nothing that will produce musicians or painters: and I sometimes fear that if Mr. Spencer’s “fully evolved man” ever comes into being, he will not only find perfect “harmony with his environment” intolerably tedious, but will be in the humiliating position of having to depend for his higher pleasures on the Poetry and Painting of his “imperfectly evolved” forefathers, whose harmony with their environment was, perhaps, fortunately for the cause of Art, not quite so perfect as his own.

Consider, again, the case of Knowledge. Growth in Knowledge, like productiveness in Art, can hardly, so far as its direct consequences are concerned, do otherwise than subserve the cause of progress. But, unlike productiveness in Art, it would seem to be under some kind of control. It is true, no doubt, that the greatest achievements in discovery, like the greatest creations of the imagination, depend largely upon individual genius; — depend, that is, upon something which is, and which will probably remain, wholly accidental and incalculable. Nevertheless a community which, individually or collectively, was sufficiently interested in the matter, might apparently be as certain of having an annual output of scientific research and industrial invention, as a farmer is of growing an annual crop of wheat or barley; and, within limits, this is probably the fact. I would only note that the presupposed appetite for scientific knowledge and the demand for industrial invention, have been rare in the history of the world; that advanced civilisations have existed without them, and that we certainly do not know enough of the causes by which they have been produced to enable us to say with any assurance that they will persist in places where they are now to be found, or arise in places from which they are now absent. But granting their existence, may we assume that knowledge will grow without limit? In an age distinguished for its scientific progress, and in the presence of some by whom that progress has been largely promoted, I scarcely dare suggest a doubt on such a question. Indeed, with regard to one aspect of it, I feel no doubt. Unquestionably mankind will be able to cultivate the field of scientific discovery to all time without exhausting it. But is it so certain that they will be able indefinitely to extend it? Industrial invention need never cease. But will our general theory of the material Universe again undergo any revolution comparable to that which it has undergone in the last four hundred years? It is at least uncertain. We seem indeed even at this moment to stand on the verge of some great co-ordination of the energies of nature, and to be perhaps within a measurable distance of comprehending the cause of gravitation and the character of that ethereal medium which is the vehicle of Light, Magnetism, and Electricity. Yet though this be true, it is also true that in whatever direction we drive our explorations we come upon limits we cannot, as it seems to me, hope to overpass. Consider, for example, the case of Astronomy — the region of investigation in which the results already obtained are, perhaps, in some respects the most unexpected and the most impressive. Far-reaching as they seem, the theories dealing with the constitution, movements, and evolution of the heavenly bodies, are all, without exception, ultimately based upon terrestrial analogies and upon laws of which in some of their manifestations we have terrestrial experience. If these fail us, we are, and must remain, perfectly helpless. Supposing it to be true, for instance, that the proper motion of the stars cannot in many cases be reasonably attributed to gravitation. Does it not seem almost certain that we are here in presence of a force on which we can never experiment, and whose laws we shall never be able to determine? Again, in Physics, the admirable results which have been attained, blind us sometimes to the fact that where we have been successful has been in the case of phenomena which, though in their reality they can never be directly perceived, are nevertheless analogous to objects of sensible experience, which can therefore be readily if not adequately imagined, and about which hypotheses can be made simple enough to be treated mathematically. No man will ever see what goes on in a gas, or know by direct vision how ether behaves. But we can all of us think of a collision or a vibration, and a few of us can deal with them by calculation. But observe how rapidly the difficulty of comprehension increases as soon as sensible analogies begin to fail, as they do in the case of many electric and magnetic phenomena; and how quickly the difficulty becomes an impossibility when, as in the case of the most important organic processes, the operations to be observed are too minute ever to be seen and too complex ever to be calculated. It is no imperfection in our instruments which here foils us. It is an incurable imperfection in ourselves. Our senses are very few and very imperfect. They were not, unfortunately, evolved for purposes of research. And though we may well stand amazed at the immense scientific structure which Mankind have been able to raise on the meagre foundations afforded by their feeble sense-perceptions, we can hardly hope to see it added to without limit. Nor is the time necessarily as far distant as we sometimes think, when we may be reduced either to elaborating the details of that which in outline is known already, or to framing dim conjectures about that which cannot scientifically be known at all.

These passing doubts, however, as to the future triumphs of Art and Science, be they well or ill founded, need not, it may be said, affect our estimate of the results which in other departments of human activity may be expected to flow from the “efforts of successive generations,” made through the machinery by which alone in its collective capacity the community can make a deliberate attempt at progress — I mean the State. It is unnecessary to remind you what immense expectations have been, and are, based upon State action. We are all familiar with that numerous class who see in political changes the main interest of the Past, and their main hopes for the Future; who, if asked what they mean by Progress, will tell you Reform; and if asked what they mean by Reform, will tell you, “An alteration of the State Constitution,” and if asked why they desire an alteration of the State Constitution, will tell you, “In order to carry on more rapidly and effectively the work of Progress.” For this view ordinary History is, no doubt, partly responsible. Such history is largely employed in giving an account of the mode in which political institutions have from time to time been modified to suit the changing wishes or the changing needs of the community, or of some portion of it. It is full of accounts of violent and often sanguinary disputes, in the decision of which the two sides held at the time, and the historian has held after them, that the most important interests of the community were involved. Yet, if this proposition is true at all, it is certainly not true in the sense in which it is commonly accepted. Consider, for instance, how different has been the political history, and yet how similar is the social condition, of Great Britain, France, Germany, Holland, and Belgium. Though these five nations do not for the most part speak the same language, nor profess the same religion, nor claim the same ancestry; though the events by which they have been moulded, and the institutions by which they have been governed, are apparently widely dissimilar; yet their culture is at this moment practically identical; their ideas form a common stock; the social questions they have to face are the same; and such differences as exist in the material condition and wellbeing of their populations are unquestionably due more to the economic differences in their position, climate, and natural advantages, than to the decisions at which they may have from time to time arrived on the various political controversies by which their peoples have been so bitterly divided. We cannot, of course, conclude from this that political action or inaction has no effect upon the broad stream of human progress; still less that it may not largely determine for good or for evil the course of its smaller eddies and subsidiary currents. All that we are warranted in saying is that, as a matter of fact, the differences in the political history of these five communities, however interesting to the historian, nay, however important at the moment to the happiness of the populations concerned, are, if estimated by the scale we are at this moment applying to human affairs, almost negligible; and that it must be in connection with the points wherein their political systems agree that the importance of those systems is principally to be found.

Nor need this conclusion seem strange or paradoxical. For great as are the recent changes which have taken place in Western civilisation, they have been almost entirely due to scientific discoveries, to industrial inventions, to commercial enterprise, to the occupation by Europeans of new Continents, to the slow and in the main consequential modification of our beliefs, ideas, and governing conceptions. But to these great causes of movement the State, in the cases to which I have referred, has contributed little but the external conditions under which individual effort has been able to operate unhindered— conditions consisting for the most part in a tolerable degree of security, and a tolerable degree of freedom; and the great political movements with which the historian chiefly concerns himself must be regarded as symptoms, rather than as causes, of the vital changes which have taken place.

I hold, then, that the actual uses to which political action within the community has been, and is being, put are in the main rather negative than positive. Such action does not to any great extent supply the causes which advance the world, it only provides the conditions under which the world may be advanced. Even those, however, who agree with this estimate of what in fact has commonly happened in the recent past, might hold, and in many cases do hold, that much more than this may be made to happen in the future. It is admitted, they might say, that the destiny of each generation is, to an almost incalculable degree, determined by the social conditions in the midst of which it is born. It is admitted that these conditions are principally the handiwork of man himself. It is admitted that no instrument at our command is more powerful than the collective action of the community. Why not, then, employ it to create the environment by which the progress we desire may be hastened and ensured?

Now to answer this question we must know both whether the community whose intervention is invoked has the requisite knowledge, and whether, if so, it has also the power to turn this knowledge to account.

It is curious that the first of these problems hardly seems to have presented itself to whole schools of political thinkers who flourished at the end of the last century, and the beginning of this. According to their view, an acquaintance with the “Law of Nature” was enough, and the “Law of Nature” could be understood by all who brought to its study an unprejudiced mind. This remarkable doctrine even now survives to an astonishing extent; and there are still plenty of excellent gentlemen who appear to be exclusively preoccupied with the task of making the opinion of the community, or what passes for such, act rapidly and effectively on the administrative machine; never supposing, apparently, that if it could be made to act rapidly and effectively there could be any doubts as to what it ought to do. And yet there is no sign that sociology, or even the limited department of it concerned with politics, exists or ever will exist except in the shape of a certain number of valuable empirical maxims, and a few very wide and not very trustworthy generalisations. The science has been planned out by some very able philosophers, much as a prospective watering-place is planned out by a speculative builder. But the streets, the squares, the theatres, and the piers of this scientific city have so far no existence except in imagination — nor are they likely soon to be constructed. Much indeed of what commonly figures as the theory of Politics has nothing, properly speaking, to do with Sociology at all. The whole tribe of Utopias; the innumerable theories deduced from the abstract rights or moral obligations of individuals or communities; all speculations which concern themselves, not with explaining what is, but with telling us what ought to be, are, however admirable and useful, wholly alien to Science in the sense in which that word is here used. Such speculations have had, and are having, for good and for evil, important political effects; they are therefore among the phenomena which political science must coordinate and explain: but they are no more contributions to that science than an earthquake is a contribution to Geology.

Other investigations, commonly and not incorrectly considered as contributions to Political Knowledge, such as those which deal with Constitutional History and Constitutional Law, stand in a different category. Their business is to discover and classify political facts of great significance and interest. They ought, therefore, it would seem, to be valuable preliminaries to the construction of a Science of Politics. Yet, as they are usually conducted, it may be doubted whether they do not obscure rather than illustrate its problems. They bring into undue prominence certain kinds of fact; they wholly ignore other kinds of fact at least as material to a true understanding of the real play of social laws. For them the legal and theoretical attributes of each organ in the body politic, the forms and fictions of exoteric politics, are the main subjects of interest, and supply the only principles of classification; while the ever-varying social forces which successively work through the same constitutional mechanism, and which give to the latter its chief significance, are comparatively neglected. That this should be so is perhaps inevitable. For while it is easy, with the lawyers, to analyse the documents, or the precedents on which are based the legal and constitutional powers of every governing element in a State; while it is not difficult, with the historians, to trace the formal growth and gradual transformation of these various elements through successive generations, the difficulty of any systematic inquiry into the essential sequences of social phenomena are great, and perhaps on any large scale insuperable. We are apt to be misled in this matter by a false scientific analogy. We often talk, and sometimes think, as if its political constitution was to the State what its anatomical conformation is to the living animal: and as if therefore we might argue from “structure” to “function” with the same degree of assurance in the one case as we habitually do in the other. But there is little analogy between the two. The trite comparison between a community and an organism is doubtless suggestive, and may be useful. But it can only be employed in security by those who remember that among the organs through which the vital energies of society act, and by which they are conditioned, those whose character is described in constitutional text-books, and whose growth is traced in constitutional histories, are among the least interesting, and the least important.

If I desired to illustrate the consequences which follow upon forgetfulness of these truths, I might remind you of the absurd controversies, dear to the debating societies of two generations ago, and not perhaps quite forgotten in some political clubs even now, on the relative merits of various abstract forms of government — Monarchical, Republican, Aristocratic, Democratic, and so forth. But let me take a less crude form of the same kind of error. We are all of us prone to regard a political institution, for instance, a representative chamber, as a machine whose character can be adequately expressed by defining its legal constitution. When we have mastered this, when we know the qualification of its electors, its legislative powers, its relation to other bodies in the State, and so forth, we conceive ourselves to have mastered its theory, and to be qualified to pronounce an opinion on the way it will work in practice. But, in truth, we have only mastered a certain modicum of constitutional law; and Constitutional law may (as I have said), be in some respects, an obstacle rather than an aid, to the construction of Political Science. The second is concerned with the reality of things, the first with their form. The subject-matter of one is Natural law, of the other Statute law. The assumed line between the theory of the political machine and its practical working, either cannot be drawn at all, or cannot be drawn at the place where legal definition and enactment end. No statute, for example, provides or could provide that a popular assembly shall work through a few large and well-disciplined parties, rather than through a number of small and independent groups. Yet its habits in this respect are incomparably more important than anything in its formal constitution. No statute provides or could provide that the representatives composing it shall, on the whole, be elected from among those who do not regard politics as a means of making money. Yet the habits of the electorate in this respect are incomparably more important than any mere question of the franchise. On the other hand, the constitution of most representative assemblies does assume that the units who elect and the units who are elected shall, as among themselves, possess equal fractions of political power: and, accordingly, the law is careful to draw no distinction between them. But here, again, Law is no guide to fact. Legal equality has no necessary connection with political equivalence, and the most cursory observations, not of constitutional forms, but of the realities of life, show that organisation is the inevitable accompaniment of electoral institutions, and that organisation, from the very nature of the case, is absolutely incompatible with uniformity.

All this goes to show that we are not yet in possession of anything deserving the name of political science; that the intrinsic difficulties of creating one are almost insurmountable; and that in most cases those who attempt the task employ methods essentially arbitrary, and predestined from the beginning to be unfruitful But though it may well seem doubtful whether a complete science of politics (and a fortiori of sociology) will ever exist, it is quite certain that if it ever does exist it must be confined to a small body of experts. Is there the slightest probability that in their hands it could ever produce the practical results which many persons hope for? It may be doubted. An acquaintance with the laws of nature does not always, nor even commonly, carry with it the means of controlling them. Knowledge is seldom power. And a sociologist so coldly independent of the social forces among which he lived as thoroughly to understand them, would, in all probability, be as impotent to guide the evolution of a community as an astronomer to modify the orbit of a comet.

It might indeed at first sight appear that while the astronomer has no means of intervening in the affairs of the star, it is always open to the sociologist to appeal to the reason of the community of which he is a member. But this view depends, I think, on an erroneous view of the influence which reasoning has or can have on the course of human affairs. To hear some people talk, one would suppose that the successful working of social institutions depended as much upon cool calculation as the management of a Joint Stock Bank: that from top to bottom, and side to side, it was a mere question of political arithmetic; and that the beliefs, the affections, the passions and the prejudices of Mankind were to be considered in no other light than as obstacles in the path of progress, which it was the business of the politician to destroy or to elude. This is a natural and, perhaps in some respects, a beneficial illusion. Movement, whether of progress or of retrogression, can commonly be brought about only when the sentiments opposing it have been designedly weakened or have suffered a natural decay. In this destructive process, and in any constructive process by which it may be followed, reasoning, often very bad reasoning, bears, at least in Western communities, a large share as cause, a still larger share as symptom; so that the clatter of contending argumentation is often the most striking accompaniment of interesting social changes. Its position, therefore, and its functions in the social organism, are frequently misunderstood. People fall instinctively into the habit of supposing that, as it plays a conspicuous part in the improvement or deterioration of human institutions, it therefore supplies the very basis on which they may be made to rest, the very mould to which they ought to conform; and they naturally conclude that we have only got to reason more and to reason better, in order speedily to perfect the whole machinery by which human felicity is to be secured. Surely this is a great delusion. A community founded upon argument would soon be a community no longer. It would dissolve into its constituent elements. Think of the thousand ties most subtly woven out of common sentiments, common tastes, common beliefs, nay, common prejudices, by which from our very earliest childhood we are all bound unconsciously but indissolubly together into a compacted whole. Imagine these to be suddenly loosed and their places taken by some judicious piece of reasoning on the balance of advantage, which, after making all proper deductions, still remains to the credit of social life. Imagine nicely adjusting our loyalty and our patriotism to the standard of a calculated utility. Imagine us severally suspending our adhesion to the Ten Commandments until we have leisure and opportunity to decide between the rival and inconsistent philosophies which contend for the honour of establishing them! These things we may indeed imagine if we please. Fortunately, we shall never see them. Society is founded — and from the nature of the human beings which constitute it, must, in the main, be always founded — not upon criticism but upon feelings and beliefs, and upon the customs and codes by which feelings and beliefs are, as it were, fixed and rendered stable. And even where these harmonise so far as we can judge with sound reason, they are in many cases not consciously based on reasoning; nor is their fate necessarily bound up with that of the extremely indifferent arguments by which, from time to time, philosophers, politicians, and I will add divines, have thought fit to support them.

This view may, perhaps, be readily accepted in reference, for instance, to Oriental civilisation; but to some it may seem paradoxical when applied to the free constitutions of the West. Yet, after all, it supplies the only possible justification, I will not say for Democratic Government only, but for any Government whatever based on public opinion. If the business of such a Government was to deal with the essential framework of society as an engineer deals with the wood and iron out of which he constructs a bridge, it would be as idiotic to govern by household suffrage as to design the Forth Bridge by household suffrage. Indeed, it would be much more idiotic, because, as we have seen, sociology is far more difficult than engineering. But, in truth, there is no resemblance between the two cases. We habitually talk as if a self-governing or free community was one which managed its own affairs. In strictness, no community manages its own affairs, or by any possibility could manage them. It manages but a narrow fringe of its affairs, and that in the main by deputy. It is only the thinnest surface layer of law and custom, belief and sentiment, which can either be successfully subjected to destructive treatment, or become the nucleus of any new growth — a fact which explains the apparent paradox that so many of our most famous advances in political wisdom are nothing more than the formal recognition of our political impotence.  Examples of this paradox from the history of economic legislation will at once suggest themselves to all. But consider an illustration which in this connection may not seem so familiar, drawn from the theory of toleration.

As we are all aware, this theory was never accepted, unless now and then by the persecuted minority, until quite recent times. It is doubtless one of the most valuable empirical maxims of modern politics. Yet the reasons given for it are usually bad. Some will tell you, oblivious of the most patent facts of history, that persecution is always unsuccessful. Others appear to assume that there is an inherent and inalienable right possessed by every human being to hold and to propagate what opinions he pleases — a doctrine which cannot be held practically in an absolute form, or logically in a limited one. Others again, with more reason, point out that the persecutor never can be quite sure he is right; that new truths have constantly been unpopular in their first beginnings; and that if every modification of received beliefs or customs is to be destroyed as soon as it is born, progress becomes impossible.

This is all very true. But it is far from going to the root of the matter. Persecution is only an attempt to do that overtly and with violence, which the community is, in self-defence, perpetually doing unconsciously and in silence. In many societies variation of belief is practically impossible. In other societies it is permitted only along certain definite lines. In no society that has ever existed, or could be conceived as existing, are opinions equally free (in the scientific sense of the term, not the legal) to develop themselves indifferently in all directions. The constant pressure of custom; the effects of imitation, of education, and of habit; the incalculable influence of man on man, produce a working uniformity of conviction more effectually than the gallows and the stake, though without the cruelty, and with far more than the wisdom that have usually been vouchsafed to official persecutors. Though the production of such a community of ideas as is necessary to make possible community of life, the encouragement of useful novelties, the destruction of dangerous eccentricities, are thus among the undertakings which, according to modern notions, the State dare scarcely touch, or touches not at all, this is not because these things are unimportant, but because, though among the most important of our affairs, we no longer think we can manage them.

It would seem, then, that in all States, and not least in those which are loosely described as self-governing, the governmental action which can ever be truly described as the conscious application of appropriate means to the attainment of fully-comprehended ends, must, in comparison with the totality of causes affecting the development of the community, be extremely insignificant in amount. As a matter of fact, it has, in the recent past, been in the main confined to questions of administration and finance, or to the removal, sometimes, no doubt, by revolutionary means, of antiquated and vexatious restrictions. Far more than this may, of course, be attempted.  It is quite possible to conceive an absolute government with a taste for social experiments. It is quite possible, though not so easy, to conceive a popular government in which the strength of custom and tradition shall have been seriously weakened by criticism or other causes, and where the sentiments which usually support what is, being [sic], by a kind of inverted conservatism, to nourish and give strength to some ideal of what ought to be. Communities so situated are in a condition of unstable equilibrium. They are in danger of far-reaching changes. It is not asserted that the result of such changes must be unsuccessful, only that it is beyond our powers of calculation. The new condition of things would be a political parallel to what breeders and biologists call in natural history a “sport.” Such “sports” do not often survive; still less often do they flourish and multiply. It can only be by a rare and happy accident that either in the social or the physical world they constitute a stable and permanent variety.

We are therefore driven to the conclusion that, as our expectations of limitless progress for the race cannot depend upon the blind operation of the laws of heredity, so neither can they depend upon the deliberate action of national governments. Such examination as we can make of the changes which have taken place during the relatively minute fraction of history with respect to which we have fairly full information, shows that they have been caused by a multitude of variations, often extremely small, made in their surroundings by individuals whose objects, though not necessarily selfish, have often had no intentional reference to the advancement of the community at large. But we have no scientific ground for suspecting that the stimulus to these individual efforts must necessarily continue; we know of no law by which, if they do continue, they must needs be co-ordinated for a common purpose or pressed into the service of the common good We cannot estimate their remoter consequences; neither can we tell how they will act and re-act upon one another, nor how they will in the long run affect morality, religion, and other fundamental elements of human society. The future of the race is thus encompassed with darkness: no faculty of calculation that we possess, no instrument that we are likely to invent, will enable us to map out its course, or penetrate the secret of its destiny. It is easy, no doubt, to find in the clouds which obscure our path what shapes we please: to see in them the promise of some millennial paradise, or the threat of endless and unmeaning travel through waste and perilous places. But in such visions the wise man will put but little confidence: content, in a sober and cautious spirit, with a full consciousness of his feeble powers of foresight, and the narrow limits of his activity, to deal as they arise with the problems of his own generation.


In thinking over the criticisms which this hasty survey of an immense subject might possibly provoke, two in particular seem to require some special notice on my part. To the first I plead guilty at once. It will be objected that of many statements the proof is not given at all, or is but barely indicated; that no notice has been taken of many obvious objections, and that the treatment of the most important topics has been so meagre that what I have said rather resembles the syllabus of a course of lectures than a lecture complete in itself. All this is perfectly true; and I can only urge in palliation that, as I could not deliver a series of Rectorial Addresses,[1] what I had to say must either have been compressed, as I have endeavoured to compress it, or not be said at all; and further, that I had the good fortune to speak to an audience who might be trusted to fill up the lacuna which I had been compelled to leave.

The second criticism is of a different kind, and to this I do not plead guilty. I shall be told, indeed I have already been told, that the treatment of the subject was unsuited to the occasion, and to the age of many among my audience; that it was calculated to chill youthful enthusiasm, and to check youthful enterprise. Now I quite agree that it would be a melancholy result of ‘ our meeting if any single member of this assembly left it with a lower view of the intrinsic worth of human endeavour. But I do not believe this is likely to be the case. It is true that, as I think, there is nothing in what we know of the earthly prospects of humanity fitted fully to satisfy human aspirations. It is true that, as I think, much optimistic speculation about the future is quite unworthy the consideration of serious men. It is true that, as I think, the light-hearted manner in which many persons sketch out their ideas of a reconstructed society exhibits an almost comic ignorance of our limited powers of political calculation.

But I do not believe that these opinions are likely, either in reason or in fact, to weaken the springs of human effort. The best efforts of mankind have t never been founded upon the belief in an assured j progress towards a terrestrial millennium: if for no other reason because the belief itself is quite modern. Patriotism and public zeal have not in the past, and do not now, require any such aliment. True we do not know, as our fathers before us have not known, the hidden laws by which in any State the private virtues of its citizens, their love of knowledge, the energy and disinterestedness of their civic life, their reverence for the past, their caution, their capacity for safely working free institutions, may be maintained and fostered. But we do know that no State where these qualities have flourished has ever perished from internal decay; and we also know that it is within our power, each of us in his own sphere, to practise them ourselves, and to encourage them in others. As men of action, we want no more than this. Of this no speculation can deprive us. And I doubt whether any of us will be less fitted to face with a wise and cheerful courage the problems of our age and country, if reflection should induce us to rate somewhat lower than is at present fashionable, either the splendours of our future destiny, or the facility with which these splendours may be attained.

[1] Balfour gave the talk as Rector of the University of Glasgow.  This was mostly an honorary position given to some public figure who was not expected to have much input into the actual running of the university.