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date: 25 October 2021

Synthetic Societyfree

(act. 1896–1909)

Synthetic Societyfree

(act. 1896–1909)
  • William C. Lubenow

Synthetic Society (act. 1896–1909), consisted of fifty-five eminent writers, university dons, and politicians who met to discuss 'existing Agnostic tendencies' and to work toward 'a philosophy of religious belief' (Papers, vii). The society came into existence after Arthur Balfour published Foundations of Belief (1895). Wilfrid Ward reviewed it for the Quarterly Review. Ward and Balfour came to feel that religion and science, having been contested in public debate for an extended period, could now be brought together and a new society, through extended intellectual consideration, might establish a basis for religious belief along modern critical lines.

Balfour, Ward, Edward Talbot, the future bishop of Rochester, and Charles Gore, the future bishop of Birmingham, met for dinner at the Junior Carlton Club on 24 January 1896. They agreed to a name for the new society and drew up a list of potential members. They met again on 28 February at the Westminster Palace Hotel, joined this time by James Bryce, R. B. Haldane, R. H. Hutton, Gerald Balfour, and George Wyndham. Ward read a paper describing the purposes of the society. The Synthetic Society had its first regular meeting on 25 March and Arthur Balfour read the paper. Thereafter they dined together on the last Friday in the months from January to May. Following dinner, a thirty-minute paper, printed and circulated in advance, was presented. Each member gave formal remarks in seven minutes. At the chairman's discretion, informal discussion followed. New members required unanimous votes to be elected. The chairman was to be elected annually. Talbot, Sir Alfred Lyall, Haldane, Sir Oliver Lodge, Arthur Balfour, and Henry Sidgwick served as chairmen. Sidgwick, at first, was reluctant to join for fear that an exciting evening might disturb his sleep.

A diverse group, they were distinctly unaristocratic. To be sure, Lord Hugh Cecil was a member, as was Lord Rayleigh [see Strutt, John William], but Rayleigh's claim rested on his position as the Cavendish professor at Cambridge and president of the Royal Society rather than his birth. Haldane was raised to the peerage in recognition of his statesmanship and his contributions to law and thought. Friedrich von Hügel held a foreign title. In general the members came from the families of clergymen and schoolmasters, barristers, judges, journalists, physicians, and, to a lesser extent, businessmen (one was the son of a camlet and bombazine manufacturer). If they were aristocrats, they were what one writer (Noel Annan) later called 'intellectual aristocrats'. They derived their social standing from their positions in the universities and the professions. Hastings Rashdall, A. V. Dicey, Henry Scott Holland, and Bryce were from Oxford. Rayleigh and F. W. Myers were from Cambridge and they were joined by several Cambridge Apostles: Gerald Balfour, Alfred Lyttelton, Bernard Henry Holland (1856–1926), Sir Richard Jebb, James Ward, Francis Warre-Cornish, John McTaggart, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, and Henry Sidgwick.

Since religion was the subject of their discussions, the religious diversity of the Synthetic Society is as important as its members' social backgrounds. Some were Unitarians; Hugh Cecil was a high churchman in the style of Laud; Philip Napier Waggett was a Cowley father. Some were Roman Catholics: William John Williams (b. 1863), Richard Frederick Clarke (1839–1900), and William Francis Barry were joined by the modernists Wilfrid Ward, von Hügel and George Tyrrell. The religious positions of some are extremely difficult to pin down. Bernard Holland, an agnostic as a young man, followed his mother to Rome. Lowes Dickinson, an emotional pantheist, had views that were hardly Christian. McTaggart, an atheist, aggressively defended the Church of England and believed in the immortality of the human soul. As Sidgwick put it, they were not 'pure-blooded Protestants' (Ward, Wilfrid Wards, 1.356). It is unsurprising that Gore, Talbot, and Scott Holland, who belonged to the Lux mundi group with its incarnationalist theology, its sympathy for modern science and biblical criticism, should be members of the Synthetic Society. When Hutton, who sprang from Unitarian roots, died in 1897, Anglicans and Roman Catholics as well as Unitarians gathered round his grave.

These were not earnest young men, early in their careers, struggling to discover places for themselves in the world. They all had established positions in other knowledge communities. Their average age in 1896 was forty-three and if one excludes the oldest (Shadworth Hodgson, James Martineau, Hutton) and the youngest (Lord Hugh Cecil, Lord Warkworth, afterwards Earl Percy [see Percy, Henry Algernon George] their generational cohesion is even more pronounced. There was one small dynasty. The Balfours were brothers; Rayleigh and Sidgwick were their brothers-in-law; Hugh Cecil was their cousin. They had other shared experiences before they came together in the Synthetic Society. Martineau, Hutton, Sidgwick, and Charles Barnes Upton had been members of the Metaphysical Society. Martineau had been Hutton's teacher. William Johnson had been Arthur Balfour's, Bernard Holland's, and Henry Scott Holland's ‘beak’ at Eton. Henry Montagu Butler strongly influenced Gore and Rashdall at Harrow. McTaggart and Lowes Dickinson had studied with Henry Sidgwick and James Ward. Ten had been at Trinity College, Cambridge, and five had been undergraduates at Christ Church, Oxford. After being undergraduates at other Oxford colleges, Charles Bigg, Scott Holland, and John Alexander Stewart were elected senior students at Christ Church. Bryce, Hutton, Armitage Robinson, Andrew Seth [see Pattison, Andrew Seth Pringle-], Sidgwick, von Hügel, and James Ward had studied in Germany. They had been friends together as well. Waggett, for example, had been deeply influenced by Scott Holland, Edward Talbot, and Gore at Oxford.

Shared experiences produced, if not common views, at least a common way in which life might be viewed. Gore prided himself as a freethinker. When he drew a line between what he regarded as orthodox and what was not, he drew it on the basis of reason, not tradition. J. A. Stewart, White's professor of moral philosophy in Oxford, distrusted philosophic dogmatism and its technical trends. For Clement Charles Julian Webb, all dogma had to be subjected to criticism. Whatever knowledge of God one had, and however one acquired it, it was always mixed with error of some kind. He accepted infallibility nowhere, not from pope, or church, or even scripture. Lord Hugh Cecil's mental independence made him unsuitable for the loyalties of government office. Shadworth Hodgson's intensive psychological perceptions were compelling, but they were insufficient to gain the agreement of others and he established no school of followers.

They had the gifts of intimacy. Alfred Lyall, a man of charm and genius, became one of the best-known figures in London society after his return from India. He was a member of the Club, Grillion's, the Literary Society, M. E. Grant Duff's Breakfast Club, and the Athenaeum. J. A. Smith, who became Waynflete professor of moral and metaphysical philosophy at Oxford, loved paradox, was a formidable conversationalist, and a master of card tricks. T. B. Strong, dean of Christ Church, Oxford, had a whimsical and unpredictable mind. His conversation flowed as it encountered the views of others, quickened by unexpected anecdotes. Waggett, a monk, philosopher, and theologian, had a paradoxical conversational style which was known to shock some. Francis Warre-Cornish seemed interested in everything and his epigrammatic speech fascinated most people. Scott Holland had a special aptitude for companionship and became part of the group, which included Gore and Talbot, who read and speculated together and then expressed Lux mundi's ideas to a wider world.

The Synthetic Society was far from a flight from the world of action. Alfred Lyall was prominent in the Indian Civil Service in the period following the mutiny. To some, Lyall was a person who combined the vita activa with a philosophic and poetic, if melancholic, imagination. Frederic Myers was an inspector of schools. Bernard Holland was private secretary to the duke of Devonshire (whose biographer he became) and to a series of colonial secretaries, including Alfred Lyttelton. Sir Richard Jebb and Hugh Cecil sat in the House of Commons. Alfred Lyttelton was an MP and colonial secretary. Lord Warkworth was a Conservative MP and under-secretary of state for India and for foreign affairs. The Balfour brothers, Bryce, Haldane, and Wyndham were all active in politics during the Synthetic Society's lifetime. Arthur Balfour, in writing his first paper for the society, complained about the difficulties of writing philosophy while dealing daily with questions he found distinctly unphilosophical. The first meeting of the society occurred on the evening of the speaker's levee and Balfour, Bryce, and Haldane appeared in their uniforms as privy councillors. Scott Holland was amused to hear Haldane speak of Hegel while dressed in black velvet.

Such questions as the Synthetic Society took up were at the interstices of intellectual disciplines, issues they felt could not be left to specialists. For Gore, the society was to take up the great matters that underlay life itself. People with differing theological views, but eager to act in union with each other, might be able to construct a philosophical basis for belief. As might be expected in any intellectual society, members sometimes talked past each other. Haldane thought his colleagues were insufficiently grounded in the thought of Kant and Hegel. Sidgwick, Arthur Balfour, and Hastings Rashdall found Haldane's Hegelianism trying. The manner of their procedures was as important as the content of their questions. In describing Sidgwick's mental qualities, Wilfrid Ward provided a catalogue of those characteristics necessary for membership in the Synthetic Society. These included deep sympathy, a passion for truth (or truths), an 'almost religious earnestness' about mental questions, and a minute, dissecting process going beyond the particular logic of a question (Ward, Wilfrid Wards, 1.344–5).

They struggled with fundamental matters. At a meeting in May 1900, presided over by Henry Sidgwick just before he was struck down by the cancer that killed him, Arthur Balfour read a paper on prayer. He discussed the various instincts that drove people to appeal to a supernatural being and described the difficulties people like Sidgwick had in reconciling the idea of prayer with their general views of the laws of nature. In his response Sidgwick made an appeal to pure spirituality, to seek only those things that never pass away. Rashdall, at a meeting eight years later, discussed the future of religious creeds. In Rashdall's view unity and historical continuity were more important than ‘exact’ theology or complete interpretative agreement. Over time, he believed, traditional formulations would be adapted to new theological positions as older language gradually gained new meanings, as statements insusceptible of reinterpretation became neglected unconsciously, and as the emphasis on 'the more technical and unintelligible elements' of Christian doctrine declined (Matheson, 123–4).

As these examples may serve to show, the Synthetic Society's objective was to seek 'working knowledge' rather than certainties or finalities. Its aim was mutual understanding, to discover and then maintain beliefs its members might have in common. The mediating and sustaining psychological functions of the Synthetic Society allowed its members a kind of studied ambiguity that may be seen in Arthur Balfour's intellectual and political careers. He straddled the conflicting policies of free trade and tariff reform while at the same time refusing to allow the extreme positions of the naturalists and their rivals to undermine his confidence in morality, artistic intuition, and religious faith.

Knowledge communities such as the Synthetic Society were agents of intellectual change. Consequently, it was heir to the long tradition of nineteenth-century societies, like the Metaphysical Society and the Eranus Society, which lay outside the structures of the universities and their increasingly specialized courses of study. In societies like these, through intimacy and imagination, there was a kind of intellectual freedom in which what was amateur and what was professional, what was disciplinary and what was not, made little difference. They did not seek permanence and Arthur Balfour proposed dissolving the Synthetic Society when Henry Sidgwick died, while it was 'yet in full strength, and before the inevitable period of senile decay sets in' (Balfour to Wilfrid Ward (copy), 23 Oct 1900, BL, Add. MS 49853, fols. 241–2). It was decided, instead, to suspend meetings for a year, after which the society was revived and new members, including William Temple and G. K. Chesterton, continued to be admitted. The last recorded meeting of the society was in 1909.

Ironically, the legacy of the Synthetic Society worked towards the legitimation of specialization. Since they toiled over the question of religion, it is unsurprising that many were clergymen. However, many of them also held academic positions, an indication that theology and philosophy were joining university studies licensed, by the end of the nineteenth century, by the honours examinations. Further, many members of the Synthetic Society became fellows of the British Academy (Balfour, Bryce, Dicey, Hodgson, Jebb, Lyall, McTaggart, Robinson, Seth Pringle-Pattison, James Ward, Webb). James Ward thought the Synthetic Society had been 'too much of an “omnium gatherum”' and hoped that the new academy would provide a better opportunity for the technical discussion of philosophical questions (J. Ward to Balfour, 6 Jan 1902, BL, Add. MS 49854, fol. 147). So, while the Synthetic Society was heir to a tradition of informal intellectual societies it spawned more specialized scholarly habits and attitudes. It was one of many knowledge communities that tacitly created social capital by establishing social networks and their capacity for mutual correction, transparency, and trust.


  • Arundel Castle archives, fifteenth duke of Norfolk MSS
  • CUL, Acton papers
  • BL, Balfour papers
  • Trinity Cam., Sidgwick papers
  • Papers read before the Synthetic Society, 1896–1908 (1909)
  • A. J. Balfour, The foundations of belief: being notes introductory to the study of theology (1895)
  • [W. Ward], ‘The foundations of belief’, Quarterly Review, 180 (April 1895), 488–520
  • A. Sidgwick and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick: a memoir (1906)
  • M. Ward, The Wilfrid Wards and the transition, 2 vols. (1934–7)
  • S. Paget, ed., Henry Scott Holland: memoir and letters, 2nd edn (1921)
  • P. E. Matheson, The life of Hastings Rashdall, D.D. (1928)
  • C. C. J. Webb and F. G. Kenyon, ‘Arthur James Balfour (earl of Balfour, K.G., O.M., P.B.A.), 1848–1930’, PBA, 16 (1930)
  • C. Gore, ed., Lux mundi: a series of studies in the religion of the incarnation (1891)
  • P. Clark, British clubs and societies, 1580–1800: the origins of an associational world (2000)
  • N. G. Annan, ‘The intellectual aristocracy’, Studies in social history, ed. J. H. Plumb (1955)
  • J. D. Root, ‘The philosophical and religious thought of Arthur James Balfour (1848–1930)’, Journal of British Studies, 19 (spring 1980)
  • W. C. Lubenow, ‘Making words flesh: changing roles of university learning and the professions in nineteenth-century England’, Minerva, 40 (Oct 2002)
  • W. C. Lubenow, ‘Intimacy, imagination and the inner dialectics of knowledge communities: the Synthetic Society, 1896–1908’, The organization of knowledge in Victorian Britain, ed. M. Daunton (2005)
  • W. C. Lubenow, ‘Knowledge communities in Europe from the Renaissance through the cold war’, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 31/2 (2006)
  • R. J. Q. Adams, Balfour: the last grandee (2007)
  • N. Sagovsky, ‘On God's side’: a life of George Tyrrell (1990)
  • S. Collini, ‘“My roles and duties”: Henry Sidgwick as philosopher, professor and public moralist’, Henry Sidgwick, ed. R. Harrison (2001)
  • P. J. Bowler, Reconciling science and religion: the debate in early-twentieth-century Britain (2001)
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Trinity College, Cambridge
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Proceedings of the British Academy
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Cambridge University Library
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British Library, London