I have been reading EM Forster’s essay “What I believe”, and if you don’t know who EM Forster is, all I can say is ‘Howard’s End’. He wrote that book. Now, because of the film, you probably know who this author. He looks nothing like Jeremy Irons though.
This essay was written in 1938 and was published in the American Magazine The Nation. In it Forster lays out a case for his belief in humanism, sympathy, democracy and tolerance.
This brings me along to Democracy, “Even love, the beloved
Republic, That feeds upon freedom and lives”. Democracy is not
a beloved Republic really, and never will be. But it is less hateful
than other contemporary forms of government, and to that
extent it deserves our support. It does start from the assumption that the individual is important, and that all types are needed
to make a civilization. It does not divide its citizens into the
bossers and the bossed – as an efficiency-regime tends to do. The
people I admire most are those who are sensitive and want to
create something or discover something, and do not see life in
terms of power, and such people get more of a chance under a
democracy than elsewhere. They found religions, great or small,
or they produce literature and art, or they do disinterested
scientific research, or they may be what is called “ordinary
people”, who are creative in their private lives, bring up their
children decently, for instance, or help their neighbours. All
these people need to express themselves; they cannot do so unless
society allows them liberty to do so, and the society which allows
them most liberty is a democracy.
Democracy has another merit. It allows criticism, and if there
is not public criticism there are bound to be hushed-up scandals.
That is why I believe in the press, despite all its lies and vulgarity,
and why I believe in Parliament. Parliament is often sneered a
because it is a Talking Shop. I believe in it because it is a talking
shop. I believe in the Private Member who makes himself a
nuisance. He gets snubbed and is told that he is cranky or ill-
informed, but he does expose abuses which would otherwise
never have been mentioned, and very often an abuse gets put
right just by being mentioned. Occasionally, too, a well-meaning
public official starts losing his head in the cause of efficiency, and
thinks himself God Almighty. Such officials are particularly
frequent in the Home Office. Well, there will be questions about
them in Parliament sooner or later, and then they will have to
mind their steps. Whether Parliament is either a representative
body or an efficient one is questionable, but I value it because it
criticizes and talks, and because its chatter gets widely reported.
So two cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety
and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite
enough: there is no occasion to give three. Only Love the
Beloved Republic deserves that.
It is an interesting, personal essay that touch a lot of issues that are relevant even today. Particularly today when it seems that democracy is sneered at by large portions of the population. It is also a powerful polemic against organised religion, and this in a time when Christianity was a powerful force in the country.
His rejection of religion is much more muted, much more sympathetic and tolerant than one from Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins or even Stephen Fry. The rejection is described softly, carefully, pensively – but it is nevertheless there, and it is powerful
The above are the reflections of an individualist and a liberal
who has found liberalism crumbling beneath him and at first felt
ashamed. Then, looking around, he decided there was no special
reason for shame, since other people, whatever they felt, were
equally insecure. And as for individualism – there seems no way
of getting off this, even if one wanted to. The dictator-hero can
grind down his citizens till they are all alike, but he cannot melt
them into a single man. That is beyond his power. He can order
them to merge, he can incite them to mass-antics, but they are
obliged to be born separately, and to die separately, and, owing
to these unavoidable termini, will always be running off the
totalitarian rails. The memory of birth and the expectation of
death always lurk within the human being, making him separate
from his fellows and consequently capable of intercourse with
them. Naked I came into the world, naked I shall go out of it!
And a very good thing too, for it reminds me that I am naked
under my shirt, whatever its colour.