Jan Smuts

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Jan Smuts, circa 1919

Jan Christiaan Smuts (24 May 187011 September 1950) was a South African statesman, general, and intellectual. Amongst the offices that he held, he was Prime Minister of South Africa and Field Marshal in the British Army.


  • The groans of the dying and the blanched set faces of the dead ... were enough to drive away all unwholesome feelings of exultation, and to remind one of the grim reality that war is. And even though these were the faces and the sufferings of our enemy, one had ... a deeper sense of the common humanity which knows no racial distinctions.
    • Smuts in Memoirs of the Boer War, p. 151, as cited in Antony Lentin, 2010, Jan Smuts – Man of courage and vision, p. 15. ISBN 978-1-86842-390-3
  • The war was fought throughout and ultimately won, not only by the usual military weapons in the narrower sense, but by the whole economic, industrial, and financial systems of the belligerent Powers. Food, shipping, metals and raw materials, credit, transport, industries and factories of all kinds played just as important a part as guns, rifles, aeroplanes, tanks, explosives and gas, warships and submarines.
    • The League of Nations - A Practical Suggestion, C: The League and World-Peace, Hodder and Stoughton, 1918
  • The grand success of the British Empire depends not on its having followed any constitutional precedent of the past but on having met a new situation in history with a creation in law; and as a matter of fact the new constitutional system grew empirically and organically out of the practical necessities of the colonial situation.
    • From The League of Nations - A Practical Suggestion, 1918, pp. 37-38, as cited by W. K. Hancock in SMUTS 1: The Sanguine Years 1870-1919, p. 502
  • At the vital moment there seems to be a failure of leadership, and also a failure of the general human spirit among the peoples. I hope I am wrong, but I have a sense of impending calamity, a fear that the war was only the vanguard of calamity ... I cannot look at that draft treaty without a sense of grief and shame.
  • I view it as a thoroughly bad peace – impolitic and impracticable in the case of Germany, absolutely ludicrous in the case of German Austria. Indeed I have not been able to read the comments of the Austrian delegates on our draft terms without deep emotion. I have fought this Peace from the inside with all my power, and have no doubt been able in the end to secure some small openings of hope for the future.
  • It was the human spirit itself that failed at Paris. It is no use passing judgments and making scapegoats of this or that individual statesman or group of statesmen. Idealists make a great mistake in not facing the real facts sincerely and resolutely. They believe in the power of the spirit, in the goodness which is at the heart of things, in the triumph which is in store for the great moral ideals of the race. But this faith only too often leads to an optimism which is sadly and fatally at variance with actual results. It is the realist and not the idealist who is generally justified by events. We forget that the human spirit, the spirit of goodness and truth in the world, is still only an infant crying in the night, and that the struggle with darkness is as yet mostly an unequal struggle…. Paris proved this terrible truth once more. It was not Wilson who failed there, but humanity itself. It was not the statesmen that failed, so much as the spirit of the peoples behind them.
    • Smuts in a letter dated 8 January 1921, published in the New York Evening Post, 2 March 1921
  • If there was to be equal manhood suffrage the whites would be swamped all over South Africa by the blacks and the whole position for which whites have striven for 200 years or more would be given up.
    • Statement at the Imperial Conference (1921)
  • The Mountain is not merely something eternally sublime. It has a great historical and spiritual meaning for us ... From it came the Law, from it came the Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount. We may truly say that the highest religion is the Religion of the Mountain.
    • When he unveiled the Mountain Club War Memorial at Maclear's Beacon on the summit of Table Mountain (1923), as cited by Alan Paton in his final essay, A Literary Remembrance, published posthumously in TIME, 25 April 1988, p. 106
  • You cannot defeat Russia. Napoleon learned this to his cost and so will the rest of the world. I do not know whether Bolshevism is advancing or subsiding. There comes a time when the fiercest fires die down. But the best way to revive or rally all Russia to the Soviet Government is to invade the country and to annex large slices of it.
  • The free creativeness of mind is possible because, [...] the world ultimately exists, not of material stuff, but of patterns, of organization, the evolution of which involves no absolute creation of an alien world of material from nothing. The purely structural character of reality thus helps to render possible and intelligible the free creativeness of life and mind, ... The energy which is being dissipated by the decay of physical structure is being partly taken up and organized into life structures ... Life and mind thus appear as products of the cosmic decline, ... Our origin is thus accidental, our position is exceptional and our fate is sealed, with the inevitable running down of the solar system. Life and mind, [...] are thus reduced to a very casual and inferior status in the cosmic order [...] – a transient and embarrassed phantom in an alien, if not hostile universe. [...] The human spirit is not a pathetic, wandering phantom of the universe, [...] but meets with spiritual hospitality and response everywhere. Our deepest thoughts and emotions are but responses to stimuli which come to us not from an alien, but from an essentially friendly and kindred universe.
    • Smuts expounding a confrontation of opposites in his presidential address to the British Association in September 1931, as cited by W. K. Hancock in SMUTS 2: The Fields of Force 1919-1950, p. 232-234
  • The international horizon is seriously overcast by what has happened in Berlin. I noted your wise remarks in the House of Commons, and only hope that the panic which seems to have taken hold of France and Italy does not spread to the smaller fry in Europe. There seems to me to be a serious danger that with all the inflammable material about, we may be precipitated into a crisis before we know where we are. Much depends upon the attitude of the British Government. If they will keep out of the whirlpool, and remain in a detached position as the peace-makers in Europe, I think their prestige is still great enough to save the situation. We have been far too complacent hitherto, and much of the evil drift in Europe has been due to this complacency. If we resolutely back peace, and a peaceful settlement in Europe, I think we can succeed. The clumsiness of Germany is unspeakable. But even so, she has received very great provocation in all the delays of the last years. And in any case, the peace of Europe must be our predominant consideration, whatever the mistakes of others.
  • The House, which was free to have decided otherwise, takes a stand for the defence of freedom and the destruction of Hitlerism and all that it implies. … The interests of South Africa, however, are our primary concern. … It was for the interests of South Africa that Parliament freely decided to sever our relations with Germany. We pledge our moral support for a common cause. … The Union has no quarrel with the German people as such. Its aim is to assist in the destruction of a system which is seeking to impose on the world a domination of violence and force in international affairs – a system which, as the facts of the past two years have proved, knows no respect for good faith between nations, which does not hesitate to dishonour its plighted word, if convenient to do so, and which threatens the liberty of every state throughout the world.
    • Smuts expounding the war proclamation of Wednesday, 6 September 1939, as quoted in South Africa at War: How she will help, Staffordshire Sentinel of 7 September 1939, p. 1
  • We did so, and I think not without some success. Gradually we have seen emerging out of these discordant elements the lineaments of a new South Africa. We have not yet the whole, we have not yet a really unified South Africa, we have not yet attained to the unity which is our ideal. There is still too much of the old division and separation in our national elements, but still the effort has been made, and you see today in South Africa the biggest problem facing us being solved along holistic lines.
    • Smuts on the rebuilding of South Africa after the Boer War, in The Theory of Holism, 1940, p. 133
  • While these things were going on in South Africa – one of the greatest dramas in the recent history of the world – the same conditions were reproducing themselves in the greater world outside. From the Boer War onwards a new spirit seemed to have permeated the nations of Europe. The nineteenth century had been called the century of nationality, but the early years of the twentieth century were years of intense nationalism, morbid nationalism. Nations lost their heads in efforts at self aggrandisement, and this had become so intense and so selfish that a clash became inevitable.
        Again you see a problem in holism. Where there should have been a united family of nations we saw the elements drifting apart, we saw disunity and disruption, and we saw in the end the greatest crash in the history of the world. When the Great War ended there was the same problem in holism. I think the League of Nations is a genuine effort in reconstructing the broken front of European civilisation, of once more reforming unity out of division and discord.
    • Smuts in The Theory of Holism, 1940, pp. 133-134
  • Some of you will not come back. Some of you will come back maimed. Those of you who do come back will come back changed men. That is war!
  • Whatever shall we do in future? The nation that does not arm continuously is lost – as France has been lost, as Britain will be lost but for the Grace of God. In this mechanistic age where bravery and improvised organization at the last moment will not help. The only alternative is a League of the Nations or of some nations strong enough to withstand aggression ...
    • As quoted by W. K. Hancock in SMUTS 2: The Fields of Force 1919-1950, p. 360
  • Nazism ... destroys the very soul of our civilization ... I have not taken the same grave view of Bolshevism, for it never was clear to me that Bolshevism, in spite of its brutalities and cruelties, really threatened the essentials of our ethical civilization. And after all it was a revolution of a semi-barbarous people against a rotten government and an effete church. Nazi-ism in highly cultured Germany is a very different affair.
    • As quoted by W. K. Hancock in SMUTS 2: The Fields of Force 1919-1950, p. 358
  • I don't suppose any first-class work in science is done now outside of the war work ... Of course ... science has fallen into discredit. It has brought no solution to our human problems, and has added greatly to our engines of destruction in this war. Not that science is to blame for this misuse, but people judge by results, and by that standard science has a heavy account to liquidate. Science so far has had far too much to do with the things of sense and of matter, and the things of the spirit have been by-passed.
    • As quoted by W. K. Hancock in SMUTS 2: The Fields of Force 1919-1950, p. 395
  • It is the cleanest, neatest, most sudden and spectacular victory of the war, and in size is quite comparable to the German defeat before Stalingrad.
    • At the conclusion of the North African Campaign in May 1943, as quoted by W. K. Hancock in SMUTS 2: The Fields of Force 1919-1950, p. 380
  • ... I fail to believe that Hitler's war – the most terrible in history – was merely due to economic causes, and not to something deeper and more sinister in human outlook and beliefs. ... It was an ideology and not merely materialism. It was an ideological obsession, a madness, which can operate as disastrously in nations as in individuals. ...
    • Addressing the Canada Club in Ottawa on 29 June 1945, after the United Nations Charter was finalized, as quoted by Louise W. Holborn (ed., 1948) in War and Peace Aims of the United Nations, p. 719
  • The idea that the Natives must all be removed and confined in their own kraals is in my opinion the greatest nonsense I have ever heard.
    • In August 1946, as quoted by James Barber in South Africa in the Twentieth Century, p. 134
  • Just as we preach a "black peril" so they will begin to speak of a "white peril" and of the hostility the white men have toward them.
    • In June 1947, addressing the head committee of the United Party in Transvaal, cited by Tom MacDonald (1948) in Jan Hofmeyr: Heir to Smuts, p. 219
  • ... Chaim Weizmann, the scientist, the great Zionist, the indomitable leader who, after his people had been all but wiped out in the greatest purge of history, assembled the remnants, led them back to the ancient homeland in face of the heaviest opposition, and welded them once more into a sovereign state among the nations. Surely his achievement bears comparison with that of Moses!
    • In November 1949, as quoted by W. K. Hancock in SMUTS 2: The Fields of Force 1919-1950, p. 520
  • Let us not be fanatical about our past and romanticize it. Only on the basis of taking from the past what is beautiful can fruitful co-operation and brotherhood between the two white communities be built. And only on this basis can a solution be found for the greatest problem which we have inherited from our ancestors, the problem of our native relations. [...] This is the most difficult and the final test of our civilization.
    • In December 1949 at the opening of the Voortrekker Monument, as paraphrased by Hermann B. Giliomee in The Afrikaners, p. 488. cf. Smuts Papers, vol. 7, pp. 332-333.
  • Myself, when young, loved nature rather than sport, and took to Botany as a hobby. Gradually I began to realise that the Family of Grasses was the most important of all, and did my best to become acquainted with that perhaps most difficult of all plant families. ... it is one of the largest of all families in botany, and the flowers are mostly very small and insignificant, and often call for the use of lenses to distinguish them properly. No wonder that other easier, more gaudy and attractive families are preferred by botanical beginners. But once you take a little trouble ... their attraction and their glory grow on you, until at last you surrender completely to their charm.
    • Foreword (dated 15 May 1950) to The Grasses & Pastures of South Africa, D. Meredith (ed.), 1954
  • We do not want new orders. What the world wants is an old order of 2,000 years ago – the order of the man of Galilee.
    • On "a post-war new world order" envisaged by the Allies during World War II, as cited in Antony Lentin, 2010, Jan Smuts – Man of courage and vision, p. 144. ISBN 978-1-86842-390-3
  • I find our modern emphasis on 'rights' somewhat overdone and misleading ... It makes people forget that the other and more important side of rights is duty. And indeed the great historic codes of our human advance emphasised duties and not rights ... The Ten Commandments in the Old Testament and ... the Sermon on the Mount ... all are silent on rights, all lay stress on duties.
  • If a nation does not want a monarchy, change the nation’s mind. If a nation does not need a monarchy, change the nation’s needs.

Holism and Evolution (1926)

Holism and evolution (1926)
  • The intimate rapport with nature is one of the most precious things in life. Nature is indeed very close to us; sometimes closer than hands and feet, of which in truth she is but the extension. The emotional appeal of nature is tremendous, sometimes almost more than one can bear.
    • p. 337
  • In all the previous cases of wholes, we have nowhere been able to argue from the parts of the whole. Compared to its parts, the whole constituted by them is something quite different, something creatively new, as we have seen. Creative evolution synthesises from the parts a new entity not only different from them, but quite transcending them. That is the essence of a whole. It is always transcendent to its parts, and its character cannot be inferred from the characters of its parts.
    • p. 342
  • (Holism is) the tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution ...
  • Having no human companion I felt a spirit of comradeship for the objects of nature around me. In my childish way I communed with these as with my own soul; they became the sharers of my confidence.

Quotes about Smuts

Its looks as if he were fated, despite his reluctance [...] to be a Saviour of Society, as well as an Organizer of Victory. – W. L. Courtney
  • Height 5 ft 9 ins., slim and well set-up; 30 yrs old; light brown hair and moustache; now wearing close cut beard; blue eyes, high forehead and prominent under lip. Has a slight burr in speech; good-looking, gentlemanly appearance. Married; excitable; good leader; very strict; he flogs his men and makes them walk for punishment. Well liked on Commando, and has pet name of "Oom Jannie". Speaks English, High Dutch, and the "Taal" well; reads Latin and Greek in the original; was an advanced student of Law.
    • From the Boer Army List, British Intelligence, Cape Town, 30 November 1901. Original in Aliwal North Museum. Quoted by A. V. Oosthuizen in Rebelle van die Stormberge – Tweede Vryheidsoorlog 1899-1902, 1994
  • Op de verjaardag van de moord van Jopie Fourie wensch ons die moordenaar Happy Xmas Gedenk die moord van Jopie Fourie Die veraaier en vervolger van zyn eigen natie Jan Smuts die schandvlek van die Africaanders Judas Jingo mag die duivel jou ziel genadig wees voor wat jy en die schurk Botha aan jou eigen volk en bloed gedaan het.
  • On the anniversary of the murder of Jopie Fourie we wish the killer Happy Xmas. Remember the murder of Jopie Fourie. The traitor and persecutor of his own nation, Jan Smuts, the disgrace of the Africaanders. Judas Jingo, may the devil be merciful to your soul for that which you and the villain [Louis] Botha did to your own people and blood.
    • Anonymous letter card (date-stamped 22 December 1915) addressed to "Jannie Smuts Esq, Irene" by an Afrikaner resident of Potchefstroom on the anniversary of the execution of the rebel Jopie Fourie. Letter card held in Box 197 of the Jan Smuts Papers housed at the National Archives in Pretoria. Box 197 contains all private letters to and from Smuts for 1915.
  • We recognize that in the reconstruction of most things – national, international, social, political – he is destined to play a commanding part. ... Its looks as if he were fated, despite his reluctance – for he is a modest man and his ambition, whatever it may be, is carefully concealed – to be a Saviour of Society, as well as an Organizer of Victory.
  • He has untiring industry. He has great constitutional strength. He is a thoughtful statesman. He is a clever opportunist. He has some degree of wit. He is a soldier of the most modern type. He is a skillful strategist. He has organizing ability. He can stoop to conquer without losing his dignity. He is something of an orator. He is personally brave. He has read a good deal and thought a good deal. He is deeply versed in law. He has dabbled in metaphysics and is a disciple of Kant. He has much personal charm. His instincts are domestic. His private life is blameless. He is academic among men of the world, and a man of the world among academics. Last, but not least, he has a saving sense of humour.
  • There has always been in the South that intellectual elite who saw the Negro problem clearly. They have always lacked and some still lack the courage to stand up for what they know is right. Nevertheless they can be depended on in the long run to follow their own clear thinking and their own decent choice. Finally even the politicians must eventually recognize the trend in the world, in this country, and in the South. James Byrnes, that favorite son of this commonwealth, and Secretary of State of the United States, is today occupying an indefensible and impossible position; and if he survives in the memory of men, he must begin to help establish in his own South Carolina something of that democracy which he has been recently so loudly preaching to Russia. He is the end of a long series of men whose eternal damnation is the fact that they looked truth in the face and did not see it; John C. Calhoun, Wade Hampton, Ben Tillman are men whose names must ever be besmirched by the fact that they fought against freedom and democracy in a land which was founded upon democracy and freedom. Eventually this class of men must yield to the writing in the stars. That great hypocrite, Jan Smuts, who today is talking of humanity and standing beside Byrnes for a United Nations, is at the same time oppressing the black people of South Africa to an extent which makes their two countries, South Africa and the American South, the most reactionary peoples on earth. Peoples whose exploitation of the poor and helpless reaches the last degree of shame. They must in the long run yield to the forward march of civilization or die.
  • What a man! His sense of values takes one away from Paris and this greedy turmoil.
  • His words touched their hearts.
    • W. K. Hancock, his biographer, on a 1923 address by Smuts at a World War I memorial in Cape Town, Smuts, 1962 / 1968
  • His memorandum on the League of Nations, drawn up after the Armistice, became in substance the Covenant of the League. … A keen botanist and a profound philosopher, he is the author of an important philosophical work, Holism and Evolution.
    • Editors of The New Standard Encyclopedia, 1936, Odhams Press Limited
  • Genl. Smuts en sy aanhangers het sonder enige weifeling al hul veelgeroemde strewe na versoening en die skepping van een volk uit Afrikaans- en Engelssprekendes op die altaar van die Britse Ryk gelê. Helder staan dit uit dat hul strewe nie was om 'n waarlik Suid-Afrikaanse volk te laat ontstaan nie, maar 'n vertakking van die Engelse volk woonagtig in Suid-Afrika. Daarin moes die Afrikanerdom opgelos word. Hierdie oorlogskrisis was nodig om dit vir almal glashelder te stel.
  • Genl. Smuts and his followers, without any hesitation, laid all their much-celebrated quest for reconciliation and the creation of one nation of Afrikaans and English speakers on the altar of the British Empire. It is clear that their aim was not to create a truly South African people/volk, but a branch of the English people living in South Africa. And in it Afrikanerdom had to be dissolved. This war crisis was necessary to make that transparent to everyone.
    • Hendrik Verwoerd, editorial of the Die Transvaler on 6 September 1939, as quoted by N. F. Hefer & G. C. Basson in Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, Pictorial Biography 1901-1966, p. 30. Voortrekkerpers (1966)
  • A wonderful clear grasp of all things, coupled with the most exceptionable charm. Interested in all matters, and gifted with the most marvellous judgment.
    • Sir Alan Brooke reminiscing on Smuts on 23 August 1942, as quoted by W. K. Hancock in SMUTS 2: The Fields of Force 1919-1950, p. 408
  • At one moment he set out [...] to expound to us his favourite philosophy of holism, based, I understand, on the paradox that the whole is not the sum of, but is greater than, its component parts. It is certainly true enough of the British Empire.
  • ... during the Great War [Smuts] stood out as the most intellectually alert, and in some respects the most distinguished figure among the array of nation-guiders with whom I talked, and I interviewed them all. I saw him as he sat in the British War Cabinet when the German hosts were sweeping across the Western Front, and when the German submarines were making a shambles of the high seas. I heard him speak with persuasive force on public occasions and he was like a beacon in the gloom. He had come to England in 1917 as the representative of General Botha, the Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, to attend the Imperial Conference and to remain a comparatively short time. So great was the need of him that he did not go home until after the Peace had been signed. He signed the Treaty under protest because he believed it was uneconomic and it has developed into the irritant that he prophesied it would be.
  • Smuts, with his uncanny sense of prophecy, foretold the economic consequences of the peace. Looking ahead he visualized a surly and unrepentant Germany, unwilling to pay the price of folly; a bitter and disappointed Austria gasping for economic breath; an aroused and indignant Italy raging with revolt—all the chaos that spells "peace" today. He saw the Treaty as a new declaration of war instead of an antidote for discord. ... Smuts signed the Treaty but, as most people know, he filed a memorandum of protest and explanation. He believed the terms uneconomic and therefore unsound, but it was worth taking a chance on interpretation, a desperate venture perhaps, but anything to stop the blare and bicker of the council table and start the work of reconstruction.
  • Smuts neither drinks liquor of any kind nor smokes, and he eats sparingly. He admits that his one dissipation is farming. ... Without carrying his religious convictions on his coat-sleeve, he has nevertheless a fine spiritual strain in his make-up. He is an all-round dependable person, with an adaptability to environment that is little short of amazing.
  • ... I hope that you are now on good way to recovery and that in years to come you will still be able to offer the world such wisdom and leadership in world affairs as you have given in the past. I need not say how much your encouragement and sympathy in the difficult war years meant to me.
    • Niels Bohr writing to Smuts in June 1950, as quoted by W. K. Hancock in SMUTS 2: The Fields of Force 1919-1950, p. 436
  • We had two masters of the spoken word in South Africa, General Smuts and his lieutenant J. H. Hofmeyr, whose life I wrote. Smuts spoke in a high-pitched voice, not the kind of voice that one would expect from a famous soldier, but he too could hold an audience in the hollow of his hand, partly because he was Smuts, partly because he could say nothing trite or shallow, partly because he knew how to speak to ordinary men and women.
    • Alan Paton on Smuts's oratory, in Paton's final essay, A Literary Remembrance, published posthumously in TIME, 25 April 1988, p. 106
  • This old military building, originally an officer's mess in the South African War, perfectly illustrates Smuts's indifference to luxury and ease of living. He was above such things. It never occurred to him to build a mansion though he could well have afforded to do so. He wanted a house "where the veld came right up to the front door."
    • Guy Brathwaite, who bought the Doornkloof house and 25 morgen of surrounding land, and oversaw its conversion into the Smuts House Museum, The Star, Thursday, July 14, 1960.
  • I cared more that he had helped the foundation of the League of Nations, promoting freedom throughout the world, than the fact that he had repressed freedom at home.
    • Nelson Mandela, cited in Ronald Hyam, 2010, Understanding the British Empire, p. 347

Quotes about Holism


See also: Holism

  • Holism is the theory which makes the existence of “wholes” a fundamental feature of the world. It regards natural objects, both animate and inanimate, as wholes and not merely as assemblages of elements or parts. It looks upon nature as consisting of discrete, concrete bodies and things and not as a diffusive homogeneous continuum. And these bodies or things are not entirely resolvable into parts; in one degree or another they are wholes which are more than the sum of their parts, and the mechanical putting together of their parts will not produce them or account for their characters and behaviour. The so-called parts are in fact not real but largely abstract analytical distinctions, and do not properly or adequately express what has gone to the making the thing as a whole.
  • Holism is therefore a viewpoint additional and complementary to that of science, whose keywords are continuity and mechanism. The ideal of science is continuity, and its method is based on the analysis of things into more or less constant elements or parts, the sum of whose actions account for the behaviour of these things. Things, thus become mechanisms of their parts; and the interactions of their invariable parts in a homogeneous time and space according to the rules of mechanics are sufficient to account for all their properties. This mechanistic scheme applies even to living bodies, as their material structures determine the functions which constitute life characters. Mind is similarly, though much more doubtfully, based on physical mechanisms and functions. Life and mind are thus considered as derivative and epiphenomenal to matter.
"Holism" in The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Fourteenth Edition, (1929), p. 640–644
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