Monday, December 18, 2023

"Sceptical chiefly of conventional scepticism"

John Buchan on Arthur Balfour (1848-1930), "the greatest public figure of that time":
His character will be a puzzle to future historians, and it sometimes puzzled even his friends, since it united so many assumed contradictories. For example, he combined a real earnestness and a thorough-going scepticism. We find it in his philosophy. He approaches the world of simple faiths with reverence, and will never heedlessly disturb them, since he not only sees their practical value but shares in their spiritual appeal. He is sceptical chiefly of conventional scepticism. He has none of the poetry and the sudden high visions of the great system-makers; he is never exalté, his metaphors are never grandiose, he builds no cloud cities. But he does provide a rational basis for belief, and, speculatively, he clears the air and defines the problems which he leaves for later and more fortunate philosophers to solve. ....

He had none of the Victorian belief in progress. He saw no golden age in the future, and he doubted the existence of any in the past. Hope and dream, he seemed to say, but if you are wise do not look for too much; this world is a bridge to pass over, not to build upon. But at the same time he revered the fortitude of human nature, the courage with which men stumbled up the steep ascent of life. It was the business of a leader, he thought, not so much to put quality into his following as to elicit it, since the quality was already there. ....

But the most remarkable union of opposites was his devotion to what was old and his aliveness to what was new. He had the eighteenth-century sense of living in a world which was not made yesterday and emphatically would not be remade tomorrow, and he saw the long descent of the most novel problems. Like Burke, he would not destroy what many generations had built merely because some of the plasterwork was shaky. At the same time he was wholly in tune with his age and aware of every nuance of the modern world. He would never admit that there was any merit in a thing merely because it was new, but he gave it a judicial examination. ....

So unique a combination of qualities rarely combined made him a major force in public life, whether in or out of office. As I have said, he had none of the gifts which attract an easy popularity. He had his shortcomings too. Sometimes he used his powers on behalf of an obscurantism which was not his true creed. But he was a very great servant of the State and a great human being. To many there was something chilly in his aloofness from the passions of the market-place, something not quite human. Could he suffer and rejoice like an ordinary creature? Assuredly he could. I have seen him in old age show the light-heartedness of a boy, and he could mourn long and deeply, though silently, for the loss of friends. As the phrase goes, he "maximised" life, getting and giving of the best, and on his death-bed he looked forward to the end calmly and hopefully as the gateway to an ampler world.

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