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.

Forster and the importance of personal relations

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.