A Preface to Morals Summary


Walter Lippmann was an influential journalist and political theorist of the twentieth century. A Preface to Morals, his most well-known and influential book, was first published in 1929.

In A Preface to Morals, Lippmann argues that in modern society traditional religious faith has lost its power to function as a source of moral authority. He asserts that ancient religious doctrine is no longer relevant to the conditions of modern life: governments have become increasingly democratized, populations have moved from rural to urban environments, and tradition in general is not suited to the dictates of modernity. Further, the democratic policy of the separation of church and state has created an atmosphere of religious tolerance, which suggests that religious faith is a matter of preference. In addition, the development of scientific method has created an atmosphere of doubt as to the claims made by religious doctrine.

Lippmann offers humanism as the philosophy best suited to replace the role of religion in modern life. He notes that the teachers of humanism are the wise men or sages, such as Aristotle, Buddha, Confucius, Plato, Socrates, and Spinoza, and that it is up to the individual to determine the value of their wisdom. He goes on to observe that one of the primary functions of religion is to teach the value of asceticism, or voluntary self-denial, as essential to human happiness. Lippmann describes an attitude of ‘‘disinterestedness’’ as essential to the develop ment of a humanistic morality. Disinterestedness, for Lippmann, is an approach to reality that puts objective thought before personal desire. He claims that the role of the moralist in modern society is not, as in traditional religions, to chastise and punish but to teach others a humanistic morality that can fulfill the human needs traditionally filled by religion.

Lippmann’s central themes in A Preface to Morals concern religion, modern society, moral authority, and humanism.

A Preface to Morals Summary

Religion in the Modern World
Lippmann addresses what he sees as a crisis facing modern society due to the increasing number of people whose lives are no longer ordered by religious conviction. He asserts that modern humanity in increasingly democratic secular societies needs to look to some form of ‘‘new orthodoxy’’ by which to live. He notes that it is certainly true that many in the modern world still believe in God. However, he argues, the nature of this belief, even among the clergy, is of a different nature from what it once was so that now people make a distinction between the factual world and the spiritual world. Lippmann observes that fundamentalism in religion is the exception that proves this rule: fundamentalist movements arise in reaction to the overwhelming trend in modern society toward religious doubt. He notes that this ‘‘loss of certainty’’ regarding religion had led to a change in how the Bible is understood. Whereas it was once understood by most as literal (yet also symbolic), it has come to be interpreted as literary analogy. Further, it is only in modern history that the concept of a conflict between religion and reason evolved. He argues that, even among the faithful, there is a seed of doubt, based upon the conception of faith as less certain than rational, scientific knowledge. He goes on to argue that a society’s concept of God is always a reflection of that society’s governmental system—so that, in a monarchical society God is conceived as a kingly ruler; in a feudal society, as a landholding lord, and so forth. Lippmann thus notes that in a modern democratic society, conceptions of God have lost the image of all-powerful, patriarchal authority. Further, he asserts that the modern crisis in faith is due to the fact that, over the past four hundred years, daily life has resembled less and less the conception of the universe put forth by religion.

Faith and Tradition in Modern America
Lippmann focuses on the particular character of America by pointing out a variety of reasons for the loss of religious faith that characterizes modernity. The rapid pace of change in modern society has left people without permanent landmarks by which to make sense of a religion that is based on an ancient society. Further, because America is a nation of immigrants, socially and geographically mobile, the old religions no longer resemble anything in modern life. In addition, he argues, whereas agrarian life, dependent on tradition and subject to the forces of nature, is in keeping with religious tradition and conviction, urban life dispenses with tradition and is beholden to technology rather than the natural world. Finally, Lippmann puts forth, figures of authority in American society are merely a class of wealthy socialites who possess no moral high ground in the eyes of the masses.

Separation of Church and State
Lippmann goes on to observe that the crisis of faith in modern society is partly due to changes in the relationship between church and state. The separation of church and state results in a society in which the church is no longer the overarching societal authority. Particularly, the policy of ‘‘tolerance’’ among religions implies that no one religion can assert supreme authority over all citizens. As a result, the individual citizen, even while faithful to his or her own religion, does not consider it to be the dominant...

(The entire section is 1399 words.)