What I Believe

 by E.M. Forster
from Two Cheers for Democracy


I do not believe in Belief. But this is an Age of Faith, and there 
are so many militant creeds that, in self-defence, one has to 
formulate a creed of one's own. Tolerance, good temper and 
sympathy are no longer enough in a world which is rent by 
religious and racial persecution, in a world where ignorance rules, 
and Science, who ought to have ruled, plays the subservient pimp. 
Tolerance, good temper and sympathy - they are what matter 
really, and if the human race is not to collapse they must come 
to the front before long. But for the moment they are not 
enough, their action is no stronger than a flower, battered be
neath a military jackboot. They want stiffening, even if the 
process coarsens them. Faith, to my mind, is a stiffening process, 
a sort of mental starch, which ought to be applied as sparingly as 
possible. I dislike the stuff. I do not believe in it, for its own sake, 
at all. Herein I probably differ from most people, who believe in 
Belief, and are only sorry they cannot swallow even more than 
they do. My law-givers are Erasmus and Montaigne, not Moses 
and St Paul. My temple stands not upon Mount Moriah but in 
that Elysian Field where even the immoral are admitted. My 
motto is: "Lord, I disbelieve - help thou my unbelief.

I have, however, to live in an Age of Faith - the sort of epoch 
I used to hear praised when I was a boy. It is extremely unpleasant really. It is bloody in every sense of the word. And I 
have to keep my end up in it. Where do I start?

With personal relationships. Here is something comparatively 
solid in a world full of violence and cruelty. Not absolutely solid, 
for Psychology has split and shattered the idea of a "Person", and 
has shown that there is something incalculable in each of us, 
which may at any moment rise to the surface and destroy our 
normal balance. We don't know what we are like. We can't 
know what other people are like. How, then, can we put any 
trust in personal relationships, or cling to them in the gathering 
political storm? In theory we cannot. But in practice we can and 
do. Though A is not unchangeably A, or B unchangeably B, there 
can still be love and loyalty between the two. For the purpose of 
living one has to assume that the personality is solid, and the 
"self" is an entity, and to ignore all contrary evidence. And since 
to ignore evidence is one of the characteristics of faith, I certainly 
can proclaim that I believe in personal relationships.

Starting from them, I get a little order into the contemporary 
chaos. One must be fond of people and trust them if one is not 
to make a mess of life, and it is therefore essential that they should 
not let one down. They often do. The moral of which is that I 
must, myself, be as reliable as possible, and this I try to be. But 
reliability is not a matter of contract - that is the main difference 
between the world of personal relationships and the world of 
business relationships. It is a matter for the heart, which signs no 
documents. In other words, reliability is impossible unless there 
is a natural warmth. Most men possess this warmth, though 
they often have bad luck and get chilled. Most of them, even 
when they are politicians, want to keep faith. And one can, at all 
events, show one's own little light here, one's own poor little trembling flame, with the knowledge that it is not the only light that is 
shining in the darkness, and not the only one which the darkness 
does not comprehend. 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. Such a choice may scandalize the 
modern reader, and he may stretch out his patriotic hand to the 
telephone at once and ring up the police. It would not have 
shocked Dante, though. Dante places Brutus and Cassius in the 
lowest circle of Hell because they had chosen to betray their 
friend Julius Caesar rather than their country Rome. Probably 
one will not be asked to make such an agonizing choice. Still, 
there lies at the back of every creed something terrible and hard 
for which the worshipper may one day be required to suffer, and 
there is even a terror and a hardness in this creed of personal 
relationships, urbane and mild though it sounds. Love and 
loyalty to an individual can run counter to the claims of the State. 
When they do — down with the State, say I, which means that the 
State would down me.

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 assump
tion 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.

What about Force, though? While we are trying to be sensitive 
and advanced and affectionate and tolerant, an unpleasant ques
tion pops up: does not all society rest upon force? If a govern
ment cannot count upon the police and the army, how 
can it hope to rule? And if an individual gets knocked on 
the head or sent to a labour camp, of what significance are 
his opinions? 
This dilemma does not worry me as much as it does some. I realize that all society rests upon force. But all the great creative 
actions, all the decent human relations, occur during the intervals when force has not managed to come to the front. These 
intervals are what matter. I want them to be as frequent and as 
lengthy as possible, and I call them " civilization ". Some people 
idealize force and pull it into the foreground and worship it, 
instead of keeping it in the background as long as possible. I 
think they make a mistake, and I think that their opposites, the 
mystics, err even more when they declare that force does not 
exist. I believe that it exists, and that one of our jobs is to prevent 
it from getting out of its box. It gets out sooner or later, and then 
it destroys us and all the lovely things which we have made. But 
it is not out all the time, for the fortunate reason that the strong 
are so stupid. Consider their conduct for a moment in TheNibelung's Ring. The giants there have the guns, or in other words 
the gold; but they do nothing with it, they do not realize that 
they are all-powerful, with the result that the catastrophe is de
layed and the castle of Valhalla, insecure but glorious, fronts 
the storms. Fafnir, coiled round his hoard, grumbles and grunts; 
we can hear him under Europe today; the leaves of the wood 
already tremble, and the Bird calls its warnings uselessly. Fafnir 
will destroy us, but by a blessed dispensation he is stupid and slow, 
and creation goes on just outside the poisonous blast of his breath. 
The Nietzschean would hurry the monster up, the mystic would 
say he did not exist, but Wotan, wiser than either, hastens to 
create warriors before doom declares itself. The Valkyries are 
symbols not only of courage but of intelligence; they represent the 
human spirit snatching its opportunity while the going is good, 
and one of them even finds time to love. Bruennhilde's last song 
hymns the recurrence of love, and since it is the privilege of art to 
exaggerate she goes even further, and proclaims the love which is 
eternally triumphant, and feeds upon freedom and lives.

So that is what I feel about force and violence. It is, alas ! 
the ultimate reality on this earth, but it does not always get to 
the front. Some people call its absences "decadence"; I call 
them "civilization" and find in such interludes the chief justifica
tion for the human experiment. I look the other way until fate 
strikes me. Whether this is due to courage or to cowardice in my 
own case I cannot be sure. But I know that, if men had not 
looked the other way in the past, nothing of any value would survive. The people I respect most behave as if they were immortal 
and as if society was eternal. Both assumptions are false: both of 
them must be accepted as true if we are to go on eating and working 
and loving, and are to keep open a few breathing-holes for the 
human spirit. No millennium seems likely to descend upon 
humanity; no better and stronger League of Nations will be 
instituted; no form of Christianity and no alternative to Christianity will bring peace to the world or integrity to the individual; 
no "change of heart" will occur. And yet we need not despair, 
indeed, we cannot despair; the evidence of history shows us that 
men have always insisted on behaving creatively under the 
shadow of the sword; that they have done their artistic and scien
tific and domestic stuff for the sake of doing it, and that we had 
better follow their example under the shadow of the aeroplanes. 
Others, with more vision or courage than myself, see the salva
tion of humanity ahead, and will dismiss my conception of civilization as paltry, a sort of tip-and-run game. Certainly it is pre
sumptuous to say that we cannot improve, and that Man, who 
has only been in power for a few thousand years, will never learn 
to make use of his power. All I mean is that, if people continue to 
kill one another as they do, the world cannot get better than it is, 
and that, since there are more people than formerly, and their 
means for destroying one another superior, the world may well 
get worse. What is good in people - and consequently in the 
world - is their insistence on creation, their belief in friendship 
and loyalty for their own sakes; and, though Violence remains and 
is, indeed, the major partner in this muddled establishment, I 
believe that creativeness remains too, and will always assume di
rection when violence sleeps. So, though I am not an optimist, I 
cannot agree with Sophocles that it were better never to have 
been born. And although, like Horace, I see no evidence that 
each batch of births is superior to the last, I leave the field open 
for the more complacent view. This is such a difficult moment to 
live in, one cannot help getting gloomy and also a bit rattled, and 
perhaps short-sighted.

In search of a refuge, we may perhaps turn to hero-worship. 
But here we shall get no help, in my opinion. Hero-worship is a 
dangerous vice, and one of the minor merits of a democracy is 
that it does not encourage it,  or produce that unmanageable type 
of citizen known as the Great Man. It produces instead different 
kinds of small men - a much finer achievement. But people who 
cannot get interested in the variety of life, and cannot make up 
their own minds, get discontented over this, and they long for a 
hero to bow down before and to follow blindly. It is significant 
that a hero is an integral part of the authoritarian stock-in-trade 
today. An efficiency-regime cannot be run without a few heroes 
stuck about it to carry off the dullness - much as plums have to 
be put into a bad pudding to make it palatable. One hero at the 
top and a smaller one each side of him is a favourite arrangement, 
and the timid and the bored are comforted by the trinity, and, 
bowing down, feel exalted and strengthened.

No, I distrust Great Men. They produce a desert of uniformity 
around them and often a pool of blood too, and I always feel a 
little man's pleasure when they come a cropper. Every now and 
then one reads in the newspapers some such statement as: "The 
coup d'etat appears to have failed, and Admiral Toma's where
abouts is at present unknown." Admiral Toma had probably 
every qualification for being a Great Man - an iron will, personal 
magnetism, dash, flair, sexlessness - but fate was against him, so 
he retires to unknown whereabouts instead of parading history 
with his peers. He fails with a completeness which no artist and 
no lover can experience, because with them the process of crea
tion is itself an achievement, whereas with him the only possible 
achievement is success.

I believe in aristocracy, though - if that is the right word, and 
if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon 
rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all 
nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret 
understanding between them when they meet. They represent 
the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer 
race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in 
obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others 
as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being 
fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and 
they can take a joke. I give no examples - it is risky to do that - 
but the reader may as well consider whether this is the type of 
person he would like to meet and to be, and whether (going 
further with me) he would prefer that this type should not be an 
ascetic one. I am against asceticism myself. I am with the old 
Scotsman who wanted less chastity and more delicacy. I do not 
feel that my aristocrats are a real aristocracy if they thwart their 
bodies, since bodies are the instruments through which we 
register and enjoy the world. Still, I do not insist. This is not a 
major point. It is clearly possible to be sensitive, considerate and 
plucky and yet be an ascetic too, and if anyone possesses the first 
three qualities I will let him in! On they go - an invincible army, 
yet not a victorious one. The aristocrats, the elect, the chosen, 
the Best People - all the words that describe them are false, and 
all attempts to organize them fail. Again and again Authority, 
seeing their value, has tried to net them and to utilize them as the 
Egyptian Priesthood or the Christian Church or the Chinese 
Civil Service or the Group Movement, or some other worthy 
stunt. But they slip through the net and are gone; when the door 
is shut, they are no longer in the room; their temple, as one of 
them remarked, is the holiness of the Heart's affections, and their 
kingdom, though they never possess it, is the wide-open world.

With this type of person knocking about, and constantly cros
sing one's path if one has eyes to see or hands to feel, the experi
ment of earthly life cannot be dismissed as a failure. But it may 
well be hailed as a tragedy, the tragedy being that no device has 
been found by which these private decencies can be transrnitted 
to public affairs. As soon as people have power they go crooked 
and sometimes dotty as well, because the possession of power 
lifts them into a region where normal honesty never pays. For 
instance, the man who is selling newspapers ourtside the Houses 
of Parliament can safely leave his papers to go for a drink, and 
his cap beside them: anyone who takes a paper is sure to drop a 
copper into the cap. But the men who are inside the Houses of 
Parliament - they cannot trust one another like that, still less can 
the Government they compose trust other governments. No 
caps upon the pavement here, but suspicion, treachery and 
armaments. The more highly public life is organized the lower 
does its morality sink ; the nations of today behave to each other 
worse than they ever did in the past, they cheat, rob, bully and 
bluff, make war without notice, and kill as many women and 
children as possible; whereas primitive tribes were at all events 
restrained by taboos. It is a humiliating outlook - though the 
greater the darkness, the brighter shine the little lights, reassuring 
one another, signalling: "Well, at all events, I 'm still here. I 
don' t like it very much, but how are you ?" Unquenchable lights 
of my aristocracy! Signals of the invincible army! "Come along 
- anyway, let's have a good time while we can. "I think they 
signal that too.

The Saviour of the future - if ever he comes - will not preach 
a new Gospel. He will merely utilize my aristocracy, he will make 
effective the goodwill and the good temper which are already 
existing. In other words, he will introduce a new technique. In 
economics, we are told that if there was a new technique of 
distribution there need be no poverty, and people would not 
starve in one place while crops were being ploughed under in 
another. A similar change is needed in the sphere of morals and 
politics. The desire for it is by no means new; it was expressed, 
for example, in theological terms by Jacopone da Todi over six 
hundred years ago. "Ordena questo amore, tu che m'ami, " 
he said ; "O thou who lovest me set this love in order." His 
prayer was not granted, and I do not myself believe that it ever 
will be, but here, and not through a change of heart, is our 
probable route. Not by becoming better, but by ordering and 
distributing his native goodness, will Man shut up Force into its 
box, and so gain time to explore the universe and to set his mark 
upon it worthily. At present he only explores it at odd moments, 
when Force is looking the other way, and his divine creativeness 
appears as a trivial by-product, to be scrapped as soon as the 
drums beat and the bombers hum.

Such a change, claim the orthodox, can only be made by 
Christianity, and will be made by it in God's good time: man 
always has failed and always will fail to organize his own good- 
ness, and it is presumptuous of him to try. This claim - solemn 
as it is - leaves me cold. I cannot believe that Christianity will 
ever cope with the present world-wide mess, and I think that such 
influence as it retains in modern society is due to the money 
behind it, rather than to its spiritual appeal. It was a spiritual 
force once, but the indwelling spirit will have to be restated if 
it is to calm the waters again, and probably restated in a non- 
Christian form. Naturally a lot of people, and people who are 
not only good but able and intelligent, will disagree here; they 
will vehemently deny that Christianity has failed, or they will 
argue that its failure proceeds from the wickedness of men, and 
really proves its ultimate success. They have Faith, with a large 
F. My faith has a very small one, and I only intrude it because 
these are strenuous and serious days, and one likes to say what 
one thinks while speech is comparatively free; it may not be free 
much longer.

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.