This I Believe

Perry, Ralph Barton


  • Professor Emeritus of Harvard University, Ralph Perry describes his belief in believing - the quality that transforms idle thinking into action and his belief that humans can distinguish between right and wrong.
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And now, This I Believe. Here is Edward R. Murrow.
This I Believe. Ralph Barton Perry is a philosopher who refused to stay in an Ivory Tower. A professor at Harvard, he has written My General Theory of Value and, with urgency, has applied his theory to our social institutions and many works, including Puritanism and Democracy and The Citizen Decides. He is also the author of the Pulitzer Prize biography, Thought and Character of William James. Here are the personal beliefs of Dr. Ralph Barton Perry.
Let me say, first of all, that I believe in believing. Ideas can have no effect on action unless they are believed. Otherwise thinking is an idle game. As far back as I can remember it has been my idea of my own life that I
wanted to leave the world a little better for my having lived in it. This has not meant that I believed I could count for a great deal, but only that I could count for something on the right side. I believe, furthermore, that we usually know which is the right side. This belief and this attitude were in my early years associated with the expectation of entering the Christian ministry. They have been confirmed by my later philosophical studies and reflection, and they have formed the core of my vocation as a teacher.
I have always believed that history is made not by “historical forces,” so-called, or by mechanical necessity, or even by a superior being working outside of men, but by human individuals, acting sometimes alone at some critical point, but
more often in concert, combining their efforts and their skills under individual leadership. This is the fundamental belief which underlies my political beliefs. In the kind of human society which I like to think of as democracy, individuals form their own opinions on matters of public policy. Because I believe in the creation of public opinion by the inter-stimulation and cross-fertilization of individual minds, resulting in a voluntary agreement, I deplore not only the authoritarianism which imposes opinions from above, but the imitativeness and hysteria by which the individual minds merely echo one another or succumb to the pressure of the mass. If we do not find ways of counteracting this tendency man’s last and best hope of life on earth must be abandoned.
I believe that the ideal society is that in which decisions are made by individuals in order that individual men, women, and children may develop what is in them, and achieve happiness. The fundamental right, the right of all rights, is the right of individuals to so much of the good life as their capacities permit. It follows that if I am to be entitled to my happiness I must not only earn it for myself but dispense it. I believe, therefore, that the last word is love–self-love, yes, in the sense of personal effort and self-reliance, but self-love limited by the love of others, and infused with sympathy and good will.
All of these ideas enter into my beliefs concerning the universe at large. Human experience has proved that within
limits the physical world can be controlled by mind. The remarkable advances of science have not destroyed, or even restricted, the area of faith. Indeed as the circumference of human knowledge has been enlarged so has the area of unknown possibilities.
And here, I believe, man has every right to believe what he cannot prove, provided it is not disproved, and provided such belief fortifies his moral will. Here he may allow his hope and his charity to dictate his faith-faith in that ultimate cosmic triumph of good which is what he calls “God”: a power in ourselves that makes for righteousness and perfection.
That was Ralph Barton Perry, professor emeritus of Harvard University.