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E M Forster’s essay ‘What I Believe’ was published by the Hogarth Press in 1939. It is one of his best-known essays, and in it he expresses some of his humanistic beliefs. Written in the year of the outbreak of the Second World War, ‘What I Believe’ is a defence of democracy and secular values against the advance of totalitarian regimes in Europe. Forster argues that there are two main advantages to democracy. First, it allows individual expression; secondly, it permits criticism.
Despite the title of his essay, Forster was wary of political declarations and manifestos, and begins his work with a paradoxical statement: ‘I do not believe in Belief’. What Forster believes in is personal relationships, which he sees as something ‘solid in a world full of violence and cruelty’. Forster stresses three values he views as fundamental: tolerance, good temper and sympathy. But ‘What I Believe’ also contained some controversial ideas, such as the well-known extract below:
Personal relations are despised today. They are regarded as bourgeois luxuries, as products of a time of fair weather which is now past, and we are urged to get rid of them, and to dedicate ourselves to some movement or cause instead. I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.
Forster’s words were particularly divisive considering that they were written in a period in which the involvement of Britain in another world war was becoming increasingly inevitable. While Forster was not unpatriotic, he placed a greater importance on personal loyalty than on national belonging.
© The Provost and Scholars of King's College, Cambridge and The Society of Authors as the E.M. Forster Estate. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.
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