Tolerance By E.M. Forster

A Brief Introduction to the Author

Edward Morgan (E.M.) Forster (1879-1970) is a well-known twentieth-century novelist and critic. From among his several novels, A Passage to India (1924) has attracted particular attention in this country because of its Indian locale. Aspects of the Novel is a valuable introductory guide to the critical study of the novel.

Forster, as member of the influential Bloomsbury group of writers and intellectuals, helped shape the literary intellectual canons of his age. He was honoured with the Order of Merit in 1969, just one year before his death in 1970.

Main Points / Summary

This essay was published soon after the end of World War II in 1945. The war had caused great destruction and every nation suffered the consequence. Everybody was talking about reconstruction. Forster felt that nothing enduring could be constructed or reconstructed without a sound state of mind. Diplomacy, economics or trade conferences could not function without fulfilling this basic requirement.

Forster does not agree with those people who believe that love is needed to rebuild civilization. While admitting that love is a great force in private life, Forster puts forward the view that it does not work in public affairs. One can only love what one knows personally, says Forster, and one cannot know much. It is, therefore, absurd to expect nations or business concerns or marketing boards to love one another.

According to Forster, in public affairs, in the rebuilding of civilization, what is needed is not something so dramatic and emotional as love but tolerance. By ‘tolerance’ Forster means to be able to put up with people, to stand things. In the post-war situation, one may not be able to love but one can tolerate. Tolerance is very dull and boring and negative but it is the sound state of mind needed after the war.

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Forster is of the opinion that in the present-day world, there are only two ways of dealing with people and nations. One is the Nazi way. The Nazis killed the people they didn’t like. The other is the democratic way. One may not like some people, but one can put up with them. Forster prefers the democratic way.

Forster admits that tolerance is not as divine a principle as love. But in an overcrowded and overheated world, it is the only workable substitute. One cannot love total strangers. Therefore love generally gives out as soon as one moves away from one’s home and friends. However, tolerance can carry on even when one cannot love.

Question And Answers

Q.1. What, according to E.M. Forster, is the prerequisite for building a new world? Explain.

Ans. According to E.M. Forster, a sound state of mind is the prerequisite for building a new world. He believes that architects, contractors, marketing boards, etc., will never be able to build a new world by themselves. They must be inspired by the proper spirit. The people for whom they are working must also have the proper spirit. Unless the people are worried about it, a new world cannot be constructed.

The proper spirit cannot be love although most people will say so. Forster explains that love is a great force in private life but it does not work in public affairs. It has been tried again and again. It has always failed. It has failed because we can only love what we know personally. And we cannot know much. He says that tolerance is the quality most needed for building a new world after the war. This is the sound state of mind which will enable different races and classes who may not love each other to settle down to the work of reconstruction.

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Q.2. How does Forster draw a comparison between ‘love’ and ‘tolerance’ as a desirable state of mind? What arguments does he put forth?

Ans. Love, according to E.M. Forster, is a great force in private life. It is the greatest of all things. But it does not work in public affairs. It has been tried again and again and it has always failed. He is of the opinion that it is absurd, unreal, even dangerous to suggest that nations, business concerns or marketing boards or people of whom one has never even heard may love one another. It is indulging in vague sentimentalism to expect Germans and the British, who had been fighting during the war, to love each other. But, in the post-war world, they have to live with each other. They must learn to tolerate each other because one cannot exterminate the other. Forster further says that one can only love what one knows personally. The world is full of people. And one cannot know much.

Tolerance, in Forster’s opinion, is ideal in public affairs, in the rebuilding of civilization. It is much less dramatic and emotional. It may be called very dull, even boring. It merely means putting up with people, being able to stand things. But this, says Forster, is the quality most needed after the war, for it will enable different races, classes and interests to settle down together to the work of reconstruction.

Q.3. What are the two solutions to the problem of living with people one doesn’t like? Is there a third solution? If so, Why doesn’t the author accept it?

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Ans. One solution is to segregate people one doesn’t like and to kill them. The other solution is to put up with such people as well as one can. The first is what the Nazis did and the second is the way of the democracies.

Forster’s own preference is for the second solution. He sees no other foundation for the post-war world. Most people will say that men and nations must start to love one another. Forster, however, strongly disagrees with this solution simply because it is not possible. It has been tried again and again and it has always failed. One can only love what one knows. And one cannot love what one knows and does not like.

Q.4. What kind of negative virtues are desirable? What positive phrases does the author find disgusting? Why?

Ans. Tolerance is a very dull, boring and negative virtue according to Forster. Yet this is the quality most needed after the war. The post-war world needs negative virtues like not being huffy, touchy, irritable, revengeful. Forster finds positive militant phrases like ‘I will purge this nation’, ‘I will clean up this city,’ terrifying and disgusting. He explains that when there were fewer people in this world, these phrases might not have mattered. However, when one nation is mixed up with another, when one city cannot be organically separated from its neighbours, they have become horrifying. Today, if such militant ideals are sought to be put in practice, there will be tremendous damage both in terms of life and material.

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