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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: A Philosopher’s Insight

From Washington Lawyer, February 2001

By Jacob A. Stein


Random reading in books written long ago often turns up an insight explaining the human comedy much better than any contemporary writing. Take the writings of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). Before going further with Schopenhauer, let me introduce you to Herbert Asquith, Venetia Stanley, and Edwin Montagu. You will see later the Schopenhauer connection.

Herbert Asquith epitomized what the British so prize: seemingly effortless accomplishment. Asquith commenced in 1876 a career as a barrister. Within 10 years he was making money and he had won a seat in Parliament. After his first wife died he married Margot Tennant, the daughter of a rich baronet and a controversial figure in English high society. In 1908 Asquith became prime minister.

Now enter Venetia Stanley. When she met the prime minister, he was 58 years old. Venetia Stanley was an attractive 25, surrounded by ardent suitors. She was to trigger an astonishing stream of letters from the man who many would have thought the busiest man in the world, the British prime minister, just before and during the outbreak of World War I.

The letters poured forth, one after another, sometimes three in one day, some written during secret war cabinet meetings. They contain Asquith’s evaluation of his great contemporaries, among them young Winston Churchill. In the letter of February 26, 1915, he writes: "Our War Counsel lasted nearly 2½ hours. Winston was in some ways at his worst—having quite a presentable case. He was noisy, rhetorical, tactless & temperless—or—full."

The letters, published in 1983, read like a novel. Venetia is the object of Asquith’s love. She is also being courted, unknown to Asquith, by Asquith’s close friend and political secretary, Edwin Montagu. In letter after letter Montagu begs Venetia to marry him. She is reluctant to end things with Asquith. She keeps Asquith in the dark until she agrees to marry Montagu. On May 12, 1915, she breaks the news to Asquith. She tells Asquith of her engagement to marry Montagu. It strikes like a hammer. Asquith writes to Venetia:

Most loved—
As you know well, this breaks my heart.
I couldn’t bear to come and see you.
I can only pray God to bless you—and help me.

     Although Venetia wished to find a quiet week to disengage from Asquith, she hit him at one of the worst weeks of his premiership. On May 12, 1915, the morning papers carried the news of German atrocities, and the press raised the question of whether Asquith had the resolve to fight an all-out war. Eventually, David Lloyd George deposed Asquith, who left office never to return. He collected a few evening honors as the years slipped by and died in 1928.

Edwin Montagu and Venetia married. The marriage was not a happy one. Montagu’s public career ended shortly after the marriage, and he died at age 45. During the nine years of her marriage, Venetia did not write Asquith. Directly after Montagu’s death, Venetia wrote a very touching letter to Asquith and with it our story ends:

My Darling Mr. Asquith,

Edwin asked me to give you something of his and I finally thought you might like this Hamlet which I’d given him a long time ago. I’ve never thanked you for your divine letter, you know how dumb and inarticulate I am, but you do realise I hope how glad I was to get it. I hope I may see you sometime when you get back.

Much love always,

     Arthur Schopenhauer would have enjoyed reading these letters. He also would have enjoyed the TV and press coverage of that affair of the last two years. Schopenhauer would have the comfort of knowing he described these things better than anyone else, way back in 1844. He said a love affair has

an unfavourable influence on the most important affairs, interrupts every hour the most serious occupations, and sometimes perplexes for a while even the greatest minds. It does not hesitate to intrude with its trash, and to interfere with the negotiations of statesmen and the investigations of the learned. It knows how to slip its love notes and ringlets even into ministerial portfolios and philosophical manuscripts. Every day it brews and hatches the worst and most perplexing quarrels and disputes and destroys the most valuable relationships, and breaks the strongest bonds. It demands the sacrifice sometimes of life or health, sometimes of wealth, position, and happiness. Indeed, it robs of all conscience those who were previously honourable and upright, and makes traitors of those who have hitherto been loyal and faithful. Accordingly, it appears on the whole as a malevolent demon, striving to pervert, to confuse, and to overthrow everything. If we consider all this, we are induced to exclaim: Why all this noise and fuss? Is it merely a question of every Jack finding his Jill? Why should such a trifle play so important a role, and constantly introduce disturbance and confusion into the well-regulated life of man? To the earnest investigator, however, the spirit of truth gradually reveals the answer. It is no trifle that is here in question; on the contrary, the importance of the matter is perfectly in keeping with the earnestness and ardour of the effort. The ultimate aim of all love affairs, whether played in sock or in buskin, is actually more important than all other aims in man’s life; and therefore it is quite worthy of the profound seriousness with which everyone pursues it. What is decided by it is nothing less than the composition of the next generation.

Jacob A. Stein may be reached by e-mail at