A Preface to Morals Essay - Essays and Criticism

Walter Lippmann

Essays and Criticism

Defining Asceticism and Humanism

Walter Lippmann wrote A Preface to Morals in 1929, so it might be necessary for some readers to practice some forgiveness in reference to Lippmann’s sometimes elitist and sexist attitude. That being said, there is no denying that Lippmann was an intelligent man with a wide scope of interests that spanned topics in philosophy, theology, psychology, sociology, and science. Although some of his information may be outdated by the discoveries in quantum physics and psychology that have taken place in the seventy plus years that have passed since his book was published, his insights and his understanding of human nature far exceed his time. His inquiry into the history of theology and its implications for modern society still hold a valid position today. His discussion of the demise of popular religion based on old orthodoxy offers an explanation for a continued uneasiness felt in contemporary society; and his theories of humanism based on a self-regulated asceticism, provide an interesting and stimulating discussion of human nature.

Lippmann claims, in his opening remarks, that there is an increasing number of people in modern society, ‘‘who feel that there is a vacancy in their lives.’’ And it is to these people, the so-called unbelievers, that Lippmann directs his thoughts. For those who are ‘‘perplexed by the consequences’’ of their lack of religion or disturbed by the hole that the lack of religion has placed in their lives, Lippmann digs into his own repertoire of collected knowledge in an attempt to extract some new insights. His attempts are aimed at putting a sense of significance and morality back into the soul of the unbeliever, qualities that are lost when a religion no longer makes sense to people who find that the teachings of the old orthodox churches no longer apply to their modern concepts of life.

By the old orthodoxy, Lippmann refers to religions that are based on a somewhat literal interpretation of the Bible, a book they believe was created with ‘‘wisdom backed by the power of God himself.’’ These religions teach that the Bible contains the truths of life that cannot be wrong. They also teach that there is a Supreme Being, ‘‘who is more powerful than all the kings of earth together.’’ He is also the ‘‘ultimate judge of the universe.’’ For these believers, God is a ‘‘magical King’’ who rules the universe and issues all commands for living a good life. If followed, the commandments will lead the believers to salvation. For these believers, life has meaning, and that life is built on a solid foundation of morality that is defined through the church by the word of God. These people ‘‘felt themselves to be living within the framework of a universe which they called divine because it corresponded with their deepest desires.’’ For this ‘‘common man,’’ as Lippmann puts it, life is more satisfying because rules are laid out, and the dictates of life are sancti- fied. A person knows what they have to do to make it through this life and eventually reap the benefits of a ‘‘concrete world hereafter.’’ Believing in a god who not only knows a person’s ‘‘deeds but their motives’’ means that there is ‘‘no hole deep enough into which a man could crawl to hide himself from the sight of God.’’ Morality, then, in this kind of belief is easily defined. All a person has to do is bend his or her own will to the will of God. People who believe in this type of religion have no choice but to obey this divine and omniscient ruler. Their codes of morality include all distinctions between what is considered good and what is evil, as well as how they should conduct themselves in private life and in their society.

A way of life driven by the laws of God survives without much interpretation or questioning as long as people lived close to the soil, states Lippmann. Their ‘‘ways of living changed little in the course of generations,’’ and because their ways rarely changed, there were always at hand typical solutions to every problem, based on practical experiences from the past. But it is not so easy for the modern population who live, more than likely, in an urban society that is far removed from family and their stories of generational experience. Added to this is the fact that in the last four hundred years, and more significantly since the nineteenth century, there have been many influences that have ‘‘conspired to make incredible the idea that the universe is governed by a kingly person.’’

Lippmann does not mean to say that most people living in modern cities do not believe in God. What he does mean is that many people now ‘‘no longer believe in him simply and literally.’’ They ‘‘can no longer honestly say that he exists.’’ At best, the modern person is left with what Lippmann refers to as an indefinite God. In addition to this, science, with its strong influence on modern society, has made people believe that before something can be stated as a fact, it has to be proven. This concept has eroded the possibility of modern society accepting anything without first questioning it. This weakens religious beliefs and once the basic beliefs of religion are weakened, ‘‘the disintegration of the popular religion begins.’’ In the place of all people living under the dictates of one, true religion, modern society is made up of many ‘‘detached individuals.’’

As a result of this disintegration, old religious orthodoxy becomes at best a ‘‘somewhat archaic . . . quaint medley of poetry, rhetoric, [and] fable.’’ The lessons of the Bible might still ring true, but the authority behind the words is missing, and there exists no basis for a functioning morality because there is no...

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Relationship Between Art and Religion

In a chapter of Walter Lippmann’s A Preface to Morals entitled ‘‘Lost Provinces,’’ Lippmann discusses three areas of human...

(The entire section is 1350 words.)

Themes and Critical Responses

When Walter Lippmann’s book, A Preface to Morals, was published in 1929, many people in American society were perplexed by a growing...

(The entire section is 2124 words.)