The bleakest possible view of life?

Arthur Balfour, the British prime minister from 1902 to 1905, is remembered for two things: his Declaration which gave birth to Israel; and his saying that “Nothing matters very much, and few things matter at all.”

I’ve been reading about him in John Gray’s book The Immortalisation Commission: The Strange Quest to Cheat Death and learnt that he dabbles in the psychic research that was fashionable at the time. He like others desperately wanted there to be an afterlife and hoped that science could prove that there was.

Gray speculates on why so many highly intelligent people should have become involved in such research. An explanation for Balfour, a lifelong bachelor, promoted by his heirs is that he could never overcome his grief at the death of the woman he loved but to whom he’d never declared himself. Gray suggests, however, that this story was a myth and that the real reason was grief over the death of a mistress with whom he had sado-masochistic sex.

Following Balfour’s own famous quote, it doesn’t matter, but I was greatly taken by an extract from one of Balfour’s letters that seem to me that it could be among the great declarations on the futility of life [I’ve divided what was one long paragraph:


“Man, so far as natural science by itself is able to teach us, is no longer the final cause of the universe, the Heaven-descended heir of all the ages. His very existence is an accident, his story a brief and transitory episode in the life of one of the meanest of the planets.

Of the combination of causes which first converted a dead organic compound into the living progenitors of humanity, science, indeed, as yet knows nothing. It is enough that from such beginnings famine, disease, and mutual slaughter, fit nurses for the future lords of creation, have gradually evolved, after infinite travail, a race with conscience enough to feel that it is vile, and intelligence enough to know that it is insignificant.

We survey the past, and see that its history is of blood and tears, of helpless blundering, of wild revolt, of stupid acquiescence, of empty aspirations. We sound the future, and learn that after a period, long compared with the individual life, but short indeed compared with the divisions of time open to our investigation, the energies of our system will decay, the glory of the sun will be dimmed, and the Earth, tideless and inert, will no longer tolerate the race which has for a moment disturbed its solitude.

Man will go down into the pit, and all his thoughts will perish. The uneasy consciousness, which in this obscure corner has for a brief space broken the contented silence of the universe, will be at rest. Matter will know itself no longer. ‘Imperishable monuments’ and ‘immortal deeds’, death itself, and love stronger than death, will be as though they had never been.”



One thought on “The bleakest possible view of life?

  1. Pingback: Battle of the pessimists | Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

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