What I Believe

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"What I Believe" is the title of two essays espousing humanism, by Bertrand Russell (1925) and by E. M. Forster (1938), respectively.

Several other authors have also written works with the same title, alluding to either or both of these essays.

Forster's essay[edit]

E. M. Forster says that he does not believe in creeds; but there are so many around that one has to formulate a creed of one’s own in self-defence. Three values are important to Forster: tolerance, good temper and sympathy.

It was first published in The Nation on July 16, 1938.

Personal relationships and the state[edit]

Forster argues that one should invest in personal relationships: “one must be fond of people and trust them if one is not to make a mess of life”. In order to do so, one must be reliable in one’s relationships. Reliability, in turn, is impossible without natural warmth. Forster contrasts personal relationships with causes, which he hates. In an often quoted sentence he argues: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country”. He goes on to explain:

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.

Democracy[edit]

Forster cautiously welcomes democracy for two reasons:

  • It places importance on the individual (at least more than authoritarian regimes).
  • It allows criticism.

Thus, he calls for "two cheers for democracy" (also the title of the book which contains his essay) but argues that this is "quite enough" and that "there is no occasion to give three."

Forster goes on to argue that, although the state ultimately rests on force, the intervals between the use of force are what makes life worth living. Some people may call the absence of force decadence; Forster prefers to call it civilization.

Great men, Forster’s aristocracy and public life[edit]

The author also criticises hero-worship and profoundly distrusts so-called “great men”. Heroes are necessary to run an authoritarian regime in order to make it seem less dull “much as plums have to be put into a bad pudding to make it palatable”. As a contrast Forster believes in an “aristocracy”, not based on rank or influence but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. For Forster it is a tragedy that no way has been found to transmit private decencies into public life:

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?"

Individualism[edit]

Forster concludes by stating that these “are the reflections of an individualist and a liberal" who has "found liberalism crumbling beneath him", taking comfort from the fact that people are born separately and die separately. Therefore, no dictator will be able to eradicate individualism.

Russell's essay[edit]

His essay may be summed in his quote: "The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge".

He does not claim this is a logically necessary belief, but instead he wishes to convince the most people to believe in it by providing examples and its consequences.

I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man's place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.

Quoted in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, 2006, ISBN 978-0-618-68000-9, pp354

See also[edit]

What I Believe - E. M. Forster's essay [abridged]

References[edit]