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What I Believe: Summary

E. M. Forster’s “What I Believe” is interesting in that it reflects a moderated idealism. Throughout the essay, Forster will make a proclamation, such as rationality is good, and subsequently retreat half a step, in this case insisting on the continued necessity of faith. It is an interesting technique and demonstrates much of the complexity of his positions, and arguably those of Bloomsbury insofar as they are a whole. Particularly interesting are his fascination with faith, which forms the bedrock of the argument, and with personal relationships.

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

Personal Relationships and the State

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. 


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 three are not necessary. 

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 

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?" 


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.

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16 September 2015 at 07:23

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14 November 2016 at 17:20

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10 September 2017 at 02:49

very easy to understand.. helped me a lot..thank u so much ๐Ÿ’œ

14 June 2019 at 21:10

Really, it is a tremendous effort and unflagging encapsulation of the essay.

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