A Preface to Morals

by Walter Lippmann

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Critical Overview

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Lippmann’s Influence
Walter Lippmann is generally considered to be the most important, most popular, and most widely influential political journalist of the twentieth century.

Clinton Rossiter and James Lare, in The Essential Lippmann, consider him ‘‘perhaps the most important American political thinker of the twentieth century’’ and ‘‘a major contributor to the American way of life and thought.’’ D. Steven Blum, in Walter Lippmann, asserts that Lippmann is ‘‘the century’s foremost political journalist’’ and ‘‘the preeminent chronicler of the political events of the age.’’ Ronald Steel, in Walter Lippmann and the American Century, asserts that Lippmann ‘‘was without a doubt the nation’s greatest journalist.’’

In addition to his critical acclaim, Lippmann’s books of political philosophy and regular newspaper and magazine columns were extraordinarily popular. Marquis Childs, in Walter Lippmann and His Times, describes Lippmann as ‘‘a critic who, more than any other American today, has achieved through his pen a worldwide audience.’’ Lare and Rossiter concur, ‘‘his audience has been the largest and most insatiable ever to pay the homage of thoughtful attention to a serious-minded American writer.’’ Larry L. Adams, in Walter Lippmann, states that Lippmann was ‘‘beyond question the most widely read American social thinker of the twentieth century and one of the most respected.’’ David Elliott Weingast, in Walter Lippmann, likewise declares that Lippmann’s influence ‘‘has helped to determine the opinions of the American people on many urgent issues.’’

While popular among a worldwide audience of readers, Lippmann remained, throughout his career, extremely influential among major political figures in the United States and abroad. As quoted in Walter Lippmann and the American Century, when Lippmann was only twenty-five, Theodore Roosevelt dubbed him the ‘‘‘most brilliant young man of his age in all the United States.’’’ Steel goes on to describe the scope of Lippmann’s political influence, noting, ‘‘Influence was Lippmann’s stock-intrade ... what made him a powerful public figure.’’

He commanded no divisions, but he did have enormous power over public opinion. This in turn gave him a power over Presidents, politicians and policymakers. They did not, by any means, always do what Lippmann advised. But they listened to him and sought his support—and they learned not to take his opposition lightly. Lippmann commanded a loyal and powerful constituency, some ten million of the most politically active and articulate people in America. Many of these people literally did not know what they ought to think about the issues of the day until they read what Walter Lippmann had said about them. A politician could ignore that kind of power only at his own risk.

Lare and Rossiter further describe Lippmann’s high-ranking political influence:

in most of the great political and moral dialogues of modern America, Walter Lippmann has been a leading participant. In his own style, at his own pace, and largely on his own terms, he has spoken out on the issues of the age—and spoken with an authority that persuades presidents, premiers, foreign ministers, and perhaps even cardinals and commissars to pause and listen.

Praise for A Preface to MoralsA Preface to Morals, first published in 1929, was an immediate success and remained Lippmann’s most popular book. Within the first year of publica tion, six editions were sold out, and the book was translated into a dozen different languages. A Preface to Morals was soon selected for the extremely popular Book-of-the-Month Club. Several critics have tried to account for the book’s success. Michael Kirkhorn in Dictionary of Literary Biography referring to it as ‘‘one of the most, if not the most, profoundly knowing’’ of Lippmann’s books,...

(This entire section contains 1200 words.)

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observes, ‘‘The book struck a chord for a generation seeking recovery from the disillusionment of the late 1920s.’’ Steel notes thatA Preface to Morals was none less than ‘‘a popular sensation’’ and was ‘‘perfectly attuned to its times, codifying anxieties of a generation.’’ Steel goes on to explain,

Lippmann had put his finger on the problem of the moment, laid it out in terms simple to grasp, phrased it in a vocabulary that flattered the reader’s intelligence, and proposed a self-sacrificing but noble way out of the maze.

In addition to its timeliness upon initial publication, A Preface to Morals remains an important commentary on current societal concerns. John Patrick Diggins in a 1982 introduction to A Preface to Morals asserts that Lippmann’s ‘‘heroic book speaks forcefully to us today.’’ Diggins continues, ‘‘every generation interested in the relationship of politics to morals must come to terms with Lippmann’s seminal work.’’ Further, Diggins observes,

it is a measure of a great book that, in addition to reflecting the immediate context in which it was written, it illuminates issues that transcend the context, issues not less universal than alienation, authority, knowledge, and morality.

Diggins concludes, ‘‘It is precisely because the problems he raised remain unresolved today that we need to consider them.’’

Criticism of A Preface to MoralsA Preface to Morals, however, received its fair share of criticism. Reviewers in religious periodicals criticized Lippmann for being too disdainful of religion while atheistic reviewers criticized him for espousing religiosity. His own teacher and mentor, George Santayana, even offered harsh criticism of Lippmann’s work. While praising the work on many counts, Blum concurs that A Preface to Morals ‘‘was gravely flawed.’’ Common criticisms of Lippmann’s broader body of work were also applied to A Preface to Morals. Steel notes that Lippmann ‘‘was not always right and he was not universally popular.’’ The most common criticism of Lippmann’s work is that it is inconsistent, even characterized by self-contradiction. Adams observes, ‘‘Most students of Lippmann’s work have been troubled by what they find to be a lack of consistency in his work, contradictions which reach his fundamental assumptions.’’ Weingast comments, ‘‘Although Lippmann has clarified countless individual issues for his readers, he has offered a number of interpretations of dubious merit’’ and cautions readers to read Lippmann with a degree of skepticism:

Any tendency to rely on him as a source of final authority is unmerited. He is to be read with skepticism, with the feeling that his views are the serious reflections of a highly literate, well-informed mind, but also with the feeling that he has been wrong before and will very likely err again.

However, Adams asserts, ‘‘The inconsistencies in Lippmann’s lifework are interesting and important; but of more enduring interest is their underlying unity, which mirrors his own search for meaning and coherence in a chaotic century.’’ Weingast concludes that, although Lippmann’s body of journalism and political philosophy is of singular merit, ‘‘his views, nevertheless, are to be taken as suggestive rather than definitive.’’

Lippmann’s Legacy
Hari N. Dam in The Intellectual Odyssey of Walter Lippmann sums up Lippmann’s legacy as a political philosopher of the modern age:

Whatever the verdict of posterity, Lippmann, with his hatred of tyranny and oppression, with his passion for freedom and justice, with his mellowed sapience and charity, with his abundant optimism and earnestness, with his serene temper and calm dignity, is today and will always be a source of comfort, hope and inspiration for free men in this troubled world of ours.


Essays and Criticism