“A desirable spiritual exercise”

Any moral ideal ought to push us to be more than we are. However, an ideal necessitates we become something we cannot possibly be is to be discarded, before the continual and inevitable failure to live up to it leads to guilt, distortion, and laxity of virtue.

The notion of “universal love” I take to be such an impossible standard. Despite the insistence of a “universal family” in much of our discourse, the rest of our moral language gives hint to the unattainability of this communion; would we really waste time cultivating a sense of “duty” or “obligation” if we could teach ourselves to love everyone? Obviously not; those things love obliges us to undertake do not feel like “obligations,” but are undertaken freely and with joy.

 We can tolerate people, both their existence and their needs which need fulfilling; if we cannot do this, there is no hope for civilization, because we will not be able to love them.

I was relieved to learn I was not alone in this opinion. The undeniably E.M. Forster repudiated love as a civic virtue, and recognized tolerance, this “dull, boring, negative virtue” as the most necessary of things. As England was rebuilding after the Second World War and the Blitz, he composed a remarkable essay on the topic, which I quote here:

Love is a great force in private life; indeed, the greatest of all things; but love in public affairs does not work. It has been tried again and again: by the Christian civilizations of the Middle Ages, and also by the French Revolution, a secular movement which reasserted the Brotherhood of Man. And it has always failed. The idea that nations should love one another, or that business concerns marketing boards should love one another, or that a man in Portugal should love a man in Peru of whom he has never heard—it is absurd, unreal, dangerous. It leads us into perilous and vague sentimentalism. “Love is needed,” we chant, and the world goes on as before.

The fact is, we can only love what we know personally. And we cannot know much. In public affairs, the rebuilding of civilization, something much less dramatic and emotional is needed, namely tolerance.

Tolerance is a very dull virtue. It is boring. Unlike love, it has always had a bad press. It is negative. It merely means putting up with people, being able to stand things. No one has ever written an ode to tolerance, or raised a statue to her. Yet this is the quality which will be most needed after the war. his is the sound state of mind we are looking for. This is the only force which will enable different races and classes and interests to settle down together to the work of reconstruction.

The world is very full of people – appallingly full: it has never been so full before, and they are all tumbling over each other. Most of these people one doesn’t know and some of them one doesn’t like; doesn’t like the colour of their skins, say, or the shapes of their noses, or the way they blow them or don’t blow them, or the way they talk, or their smell, or their clothes, or their fondness for jazz or their dislike of jazz, and so on. Well, what is one to do? There are two solutions. One of them is the Nazi solution. If you don’t like people, kill them, banish them, segregate them, and then strut up and down proclaiming that you are the salt of the earth. The other way is much less thrilling, but it is on the whole the way of the democracies, and I prefer it. If you don’t like people, put up with them as well as you can. Don’t try to love them: you can’t, you’ll only strain yourself. But try to tolerate them. On the basis of that tolerance a civilized future may be built. Certainly I can see no other foundation for the post-war world.
For what it will most need is the negative virtues: not being huffy, touchy, irritable, revengeful. I have lost all faith in positive militant ideals; they can so seldom be carried out without thousands of human beings getting maimed or imprisoned. Phrases like “I will purge this nation.” “I will clean up this city” terrify and disgust me. They might not have mattered when the world was emptier: they are horrifying now, when one nation is mixed up with another, when one city cannot be organically separated from its neighbours. And, another point: reconstruction is unlikely to be rapid. I do not believe that we are psychologically fit for it, plan the architects never so wisely. In the long run, yes, perhaps: the history of our race justifies that hope. But civilization has its mysterious regressions, and it seems to me that we are fated now to be in one of them, and must recognize this and behave accordingly. Tolerance, I believe, will be imperative after the establishment of peace. It’s always useful to take a concrete instance: and I have been asking myself how I should behave if, after peace was signed, I met Germans who had been fighting against us. I shouldn’t try to love them: I shouldn’t feel inclined. They have broken a window in my little ugly flat for one thing. But I shall try to tolerate them, because it is common sense, because in the post-war world we shall have to live with Germans. We can’t exterminate them, any more than they have succeeded in exterminating the Jews. We shall have to put up with them, not for any lofty reason, but because it is the next thing that will have to be done.
I don’t then regard tolerance as a great eternally established divine principle, though I might perhaps quote “In my Father’s house are many mansions” in support of such a view. It is just a makeshift, suitable for an overcrowded and overheated planet. It carries on when love gives out, and love generally gives out as soon as we move away from our home and our friends and stand among strangers in a queue for potatoes. Tolerance is wanted in the queue; otherwise we think, “Why will people be so slow?”; it is wanted in the tube, or ‘”Why will people be so fat?”; it is wanted at the telephone, or “Why are they so deaf?”; or conversely, “Why do they mumble?” It is wanted in the street, in the office, at the factory, and it is wanted above all between classes. races, and nations. It’s dull. And yet it entails imagination. For you have all the time to be putting yourself in someone else’s place. Which is a desirable spiritual exercise

 “On Tolerance” was collected in Two Cheers for Democracy, an anthology of Forster’s writings on politics and culture, now tragically underread. If I were asked to elucidate my political philosophy, I would hand my inquirer a stack of Spinoza, Mill, Popper, Berlin, back issues of The Economist, with Forster’s remarkable book on top. It is a modest but stalwart defense of civilization, irony, liberty and humanism. The prose is lucid but never quite beautiful; but Forster would probably tell us any political language designed to be beautiful is to be approached with skepticism. And I would agree.


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