The Moral Critic

Kristol, Irving. "The Moral Critic." Review of E.M. Forster, by Lionel Trilling. Enquiry, April 1944. Reprinted in Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves, edited by John Rodden (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1999).


[I]n that very same article Mr. Trilling incorporated two distinct chidings. He was angry with the Left for having surrendered its traditional moral vision, and at the same time accused it of allowing this vision to blind it to the true principles of humanism…The distinguishing feature of modern radical thought, wrote Mr. Trilling, “is that consideration of means has taken priority over consideration of ends–…immediate ends have become ultimate ends.”

The liberal flatters himself upon his intentions, problems, “and prefers not to know that the good will generates its own problems, that the love of humanity has its own vices and the love of the truth its own insensibilities.” He is paternal and pedagogic, smug in knowledge of his righteousness, and sure of the adequacy of his program. He revels in the abstract goodness of the masses and in the abstract badness of Reaction; his art merely dramatizes these axiomatic convictions. Human beings are denigrated into terms for his syllogisms which are then dressed up in fictional form. An insidious cruelty is at work, in which all men are expendable in order to make a point.

In contrast to this facile moralism, E.M. Forster’s “moral realism” is extolled, for “he is one of the thinking than people who were never led by thought to suppose they could be more human and the who, in bad times, will not become less.” Moral realism is aware of paradoxical found quirks of morality; it knows that good-and-evil are more often to be than good vs. evil. Though dissatisfied, of course, with the ways of men, it foresees no new virtues, but, at best, a healthier distribution of the old. It is non-eschatological, skeptical of proposed revisions of man’s nature, interested in human beings as it finds, them, content with the possibilities and limitations that are always with us. Dodging the sentimentality of both cynicism and utopianism, it is worldly, even sophisticated. It is partial to the comic manner, which dashes cold water on extremities of sentiment, and yet pursues doggedly its own modest goals. Forster’s novels are in a personal, lucid style, omitting the glamorous facades of the tragic-romantic; he is always in the novel, skillfully at work, never hidden behind the screens manipulating invisible pulleys. Preoccupied with moral questions, he is neither overbearing nor sententious,. Too sensible and ironic to be “great,” he can afford to do his subject matter justice.

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