A Preface to Morals

by Walter Lippmann

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Defining Asceticism and Humanism

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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 Although some of his information may be outdated by the discoveries in quantum physics and psychology that have taken place in the seventy plus years that have passed since his book was published, his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...

(This entire section contains 2351 words.)

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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 longer certainty in a god to fear, a god who knows all thoughts and will pronounce the last judgment. Although people can themselves conceive ethical codes, there no longer exists a belief in a power strong enough to demand compliance with those codes. Humans are fallible; therefore, their ethical codes would be fallible. If God is an uncertainty, then the punishment for disobeying the codes as well as the rewards for obeying them are uncertain. With this cloud of uncertainty prevailing over modern society, with no definite God looking over and watching their every move and thought, people feel they no longer have a sense of self-importance. It is from this lack of importance that the hole, or vacant feeling, is created.

This questioning, uncertainty, and feeling of insignificance intensifies the ‘‘separated activities’’ of modern people. There is nothing remaining that pulls people together. From the disintegration of the church follows the disintegration of state and family. In earlier times, the laws of a single god governed everything from government to family, art, science, and morality. In modern times, everyone works toward his or her own separate interest. Therein lies another problem for the moralist. Not only is there no remaining authority to demand obedience to a code of ethics; no longer is there infallible belief in the old code; but also there no longer is anything strong enough to pull people together to even think about creating a new, unified code. In modern society, there are only individuals left to their own devices to define their own private codes. These individuals are also left with only a vague sense of punishment or reward as consequences to either breaking or following those codes.

It is from this state of confusion and individualism that Lippmann suggests humanism, a philosophy that puts a positive spin on this situation, recognizing not the weaknesses of individuals but rather the potential ability of an individual to define a viable code of morals for him- or herself. Humanists believe in a morality in which virtue is not commanded by an outside divine force, but rather virtue ‘‘must be willed out of the personal conviction and desire’’ of the individual. In other words, a person must will him- or herself to know and to act upon the difference between what they believe is right and wrong. But how do individuals come to these conclusions? How do they come to understand themselves well enough to make rational definitions about something as abstract as morals? To these questions, Lippmann offers the remaining chapters of his book.

‘‘In a world where no man desired what he could not have, there would be no need to regulate human conduct and therefore no need for morality,’’ states Lippmann. But modern society is in no way close to that utopia. People have needs. People have desires. And not all needs and desires can be fulfilled. There is a belief, however, that modern society appears to have assumed, and it is a belief that ‘‘the human passions, if thoroughly liberated from all tyrannies and distortions, would by their fulfillment achieve happiness.’’ This is a false belief, according to Lippmann, because he believes that there are not enough resources in this world to satisfy the needs of every person. ‘‘Desires are . . . unlimited and insatiable, and therefore any ethics which does not recognize the necessity of putting restraint upon naive desire is inherently absurd.’’ And it is at this point in his discussion that Lippmann turns to his definition of asceticism and shows how it can be used in conjunction with the philosophy of humanism to help individuals define a code of morality.

Asceticism is a practice or discipline that helps to curb desires. It is not a total dismissal or denouncement of desires, as is popularly held, but rather a ‘‘discipline of the mind and body to fit men for the service of an ideal.’’ No one can make a list of what is good and what is bad because this would be ‘‘an attempt to understand something which is always in process of change.’’ The task of disciplining, defining, weighing, and interpreting, according to humanism, relies totally on the individual; and the individual must rely on ‘‘his own intuitions, commonsense, and sense of life.’’ The goal of asceticism is maturity. Toward this goal, Lippmann suggests, the education of the individual should be set up. The educators should base their lessons on the teachings of the sages of ‘‘high religion,’’ who include great thinkers such as Spinoza, Confucius, Jesus Christ, and the Buddha. Through the teachings of these sages, one would learn the art of living, which would show every individual how ‘‘to pass gracefully from youth to old age,’’ and eventually, ‘‘to learn to die.’’

The principle underlying this educational process is that individuals need to recognize the meaning of their desires. In doing this, they will learn that their emotions are often irrational. Many desires are remnants from childhood that are carried over into adult life. Once these desires are made rational, the individual would realize that many of the immediately desirable objects are not quite as desirable as once thought. Also, with a rational understanding, the undesirable would become more tolerable. When the emotions and desires of a child are carried over into the adult world, the consequences are that the individual begins to assume, when things go wrong, that the world is out to get him or her and that life owes him or her something. The immature individual also grabs at everything that passes by and covets it in fear that someone might someday take it away.

In contrast, the mature person, having disciplined his or her emotions, will learn to want ‘‘what he can posses . . . learn to hold on to things which do not slip away . . . to hold on to them . . . not by grasping . . . but by understanding them and by remembering them.’’ Through the alteration of immature emotions, people learn that being good is not good just because God demands it, but because through experience they will come to find that being good ‘‘yields happiness, serenity, wholeheartedness.’’ Salvation, according to the teachings of the high religion, is not achieved by appeasing an almighty judge but rather ‘‘a condition of the soul which is reached only by some kind of selfdiscipline.’’

So if asceticism is a discipline that makes people fit for the service of an ideal, the final question to be answered would necessarily be, what is the ideal? Lippmann defines his concept of the ideal in his last chapter. First he describes the role of the moralist, who cannot, in a time of unsettled customs such as in modern times, ‘‘teach what is revealed,’’ for there are no revelations that fit contemporary models, but rather, ‘‘he must reveal what can be taught. He has to seek insight rather than to preach.’’ Lippmann then refers to Aristotle, who lived in an age that also was unsettled, somewhat similar to contemporary society. The function of the moralist, states Aristotle, is to ‘‘promote good conduct by discerning and explaining the mark at which things aim.’’ An individual as well as a whole nation, must know what its ideals are to understand why the discipline is needed in the first place. It is through the moralist that people need to be reminded what they are moving toward. In general, by quoting Confucius, Lippmann states the goal of human effort as following ‘‘what the heart desires without transgressing what is right.’’ Lippmann calls this the ‘‘religion of the spirit.’’ It is a religion that does not depend on commandments, does not profess to know the truth, and is only concerned with ‘‘the quality of human desire.’’

Lippmann does not direct his comments to everyone. He realizes that many people are very comfortable in their beliefs. But to those who are searching for answers, his book provides stimulating insights into questions that may have begun with Aristotle, but continue to haunt contemporary society. By looking back into history, as well as ahead to possible consequences if answers are not found, Lippmann opens the mind of the reader and in essence says, here, if you are confused or feeling empty about life, why not try this one.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on A Preface to Morals, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Relationship Between Art and Religion

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In a chapter of Walter Lippmann’s A Preface to Morals entitled ‘‘Lost Provinces,’’ Lippmann discusses three areas of human society that are ‘‘lost provinces’’ of religious authority: business, the family, and art. Of the three, Lippmann reserves his most extensive discussion for the history of artistic creation in relation to the history of religion. He argues that while art was for centuries almost entirely dictated by religious doctrine, in the modern age art has lost its moorings to religion and now drifts in the realm of philosophical uncertainty and chaos. Although Lippmann’s discussion of art represents a small section of A Preface to Morals, it serves as a concrete example of the far-reaching impact that the status of religion in the modern age has upon all aspects of human society. In the course of his discussion, Lippmann makes reference to several centuries of the history of the relationship between art and religion. A closer look at Lippmann’s brief discussion of art will help to illuminate his broader argument about the place of religion in the modern world.

In a section entitled ‘‘The Disappearance of Religious Painting,’’ Lippmann describes the traditional relationship between art and religion, and the dissolution of this relationship by the ‘‘acids of modernity.’’ Lippmann argues that religion is no longer the predominant theme in modern art because ‘‘the great themes of popular religion have ceased to inspire the imagination of modern men.’’ He traces the course of this disillusionment from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries. Lippmann explains that, by the end of the fifteenth century, art began to reflect the fact that religious faith was no longer ‘‘naively believed’’ as it had once been. In the sixteenth century, he continues, with the Reformation and Counter Reformation, as well as with the rise of industrial capitalism, artists became increasingly less concerned with religious themes. He concludes that, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, artists have engaged in ‘‘feverish experimentation’’ in the context of ‘‘our present bewilderment’’ over the loss of religion as an organizing principal for artistic creation. Lippmann argues against the theory that artists have ceased to paint religious themes because those with the power and money to buy art are no longer interested in religion. Rather, he asserts, religion is no longer the central thematic concern of artists in the modern age because ‘‘the will to produce’’ such works has been dissolved by ‘‘the acids of modernity.’’

In a section entitled ‘‘The Loss of Heritage,’’ Lippmann further points out that the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter Reformation have functioned to his dissolve the traditional rela tionship between religion and art. He observes that, in a world without religious doubt, the artist was free to represent religious themes in concrete images, such as depicting God as ‘‘a benign old man.’’ However, during the Reformation and Counter Reformation, religious doctrine became more complex and abstract in response to new expressions of religious doubt. Artistic representations of religious themes could no longer be represented through concrete and simple images. Lippmann asserts that the growth of religious ‘‘skepticism’’ thus ‘‘dissolves the concreteness’’ of religious imagery with the expression of abstractions. He notes that although this separation between art and religion has developed over some four hundred years, it is only in recent generations that its effect has been manifested. Thus, only in the last hundred years has the artist been faced with the task of representing ‘‘a world without any accepted understanding of human life,’’ once supplied by religious doctrine.

In a section entitled ‘‘The Artist Formerly,’’ Lippmann explains the historical circumstances that dictated artistic representation of religious themes up to the modern age. He notes that while originally the work of the artist was to be kept within certain guidelines of religious doctrine, in the beginnings of the modern age religious authorities felt the need to determine more strictly the exact specifications of the artist’s representation of religious themes. In particular, he observes the religious doubt initiated by the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century completely changed the relationship of art to religion. The Catholic Counter Reformation, coming on the heels of the Reformation, attempted to counteract this trend by further codifying the role of the artist in depicting specific religious images.

In a section entitled ‘‘The Artist as Prophet,’’ Lippmann observes that in the modern age artists have been left to their own devices to define their relationship to society. He notes that two possible solutions to this dilemma have been offered: either that artists are themselves ‘‘prophets’’ of spiritual insight or that artists have no connection to the expression of greater meaning and create art only for ‘‘art’s sake.’’ Addressing the first solution, Lippmann argues that artists are indeed not prophets. He asserts that, in general, artists are not ‘‘thinkers,’’ and they have no particular claim to ‘‘wisdom’’ but are merely craftsmen with a talent for representing objects in a visual medium. He goes on to note that in the absence of religious themes by which artistic creations derive greater meaning, ‘‘the modern painter has ceased not only to depict any theory of destiny but has ceased to express any important human mood in the presence of destiny.’’

In a section entitled ‘‘Art for Art’s Sake,’’ Lippmann explores the second solution to the question of the role of art in modern society: ‘‘art has nothing to do with prophecy, wisdom, and the meaning of life, but has to do only with art.’’ This conception of art, born of the age of modernity, is known as ‘‘art for art’s sake.’’ Lippmann contends that most modern artists subscribe to the concept of ‘‘art for art’s sake,’’ which implies that it is not the role of the artist to imbue life with any greater meaning. He goes on to observe, however, that no art is without philosophical implications, as ‘‘some sort of philosophy is implied in all human activity.’’ He thus concludes that modern ‘‘art for art’s sake’’ expresses an essentially atheistic philosophy, whereby ‘‘Experience has no underlying signifi- cance, man himself has no station in the universe, and the universe has no plan which is more than a drift of circumstances, illuminated here and there by flashes of self-consciousness.’’

In a section entitled ‘‘The Burden of Originality,’’ Lippmann argues that the very notion of the artist’s claim to ‘‘originality’’ is a symptom of the modern age. Throughout most of history, artists have been required to depict images derived from traditional religious doctrine. Therefore, ‘‘originality’’ was never considered to be the domain of the artist. However, in the modern age, artists are required to be ‘‘original’’ because they have no tradition from which to draw their subjects and themes. He observes that the very notion of the artist as a tortured ‘‘soul’’ undergoing ‘‘storm and stress’’ is a symptom of the modern artist’s unprecedented task of creating ‘‘order out of the chaos of experience’’ to create a work of art. He goes on to say that, as religion no longer functions to provide an overarching sense of meaning upon which artists can base their work, artists are left to flounder in a chaotic world of disconnected ideas and philosophies out of which the significance of their art must be gleaned. Because these ideas are no longer universal or generally understood, Lippmann claims, modern art is often ‘‘uninteresting’’ and ‘‘confusing’’ to most people.

Lippmann’s discussion of the changing relationship between art and religion that developed in the age of modernity serves as an extended example of his larger thesis regarding the effects of the ‘‘acids of modernity’’ on the role of religion in modern life. He asserts that ‘‘What was happening to painting is precisely what has happened to all the other separated activities of men.’’ In art, as well as in other realms of modern life, the dissolution of religious faith has meant the loss of a sense of ‘‘cosmic order’’ unifying all of human activity and experience.

Source: Liz Brent, Critical Essay on A Preface to Morals, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Themes and Critical Responses

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When Walter Lippmann’s book, A Preface to Morals, was published in 1929, many people in American society were perplexed by a growing sense of alienation and disillusionment. Old religious values, faith in the forward progress of science, and optimism no longer seemed appropriate in a world that had seen the unprecedented horrors of World War I—horrors that were unrelieved by religion accompanied by carnage that was assisted, not prevented, by modern science. Many people, like Lippmann, felt that the old sources of authority in society—the church, the government, and other traditional authorities such as the family and class structure—were no longer relevant and that faith in them had been irretrievably corrupted by the changes of modern life. Some of these people advocated that people return to more orthodox, traditional religions as an antidote to the despair so prevalent in modern life, but Lippmann believed it was too late for that.

As Lippmann points out, many people in earlier ages who believed wholeheartedly in traditional religion had a sense of order and destiny. They may have argued about the details and even had wars over them, but, he writes, ‘‘They had no doubt that there was an order in the universe which justified their lives because they were a part of it. The acids of modernity have dissolved that order for many of us.’’ As critic Edmund Wilson remarks, Lippmann believed that the churches, and belief in them, have become ‘‘impossible’’ for most modern people.

Some people are unperturbed by their loss of faith, but for many others this loss of authority and meaning is a problem. ‘‘Among those who no longer believe in the religion of their fathers, some are proudly defiant, and many are indifferent. But there are also a few, perhaps an increasing number, who feel that there is a vacancy in their lives,’’ Lippmann writes. He also notes that, when questioned, most of these people would say that without a religious faith they have no certainty that there is any significance or value to their lives or that anything they do really matters in the larger scheme of things—since there apparently is no larger scheme of things. In other words, without the compelling moral codes handed down by tradition and religion, how do people determine what is right or wrong? How do people decide what to do with their lives? How do people find meaning in the way they spend their time?

Lippmann was not interested in attacking the faith of those who were religious; he notes at the beginning of the book that if some people still have a traditional faith, then he is happy for them, but his book is addressed specifically to unbelievers who are trying to answer these questions.

In addition to traditional religion, Lippmann also questions traditional political views and obedience to them. He asks readers to consider words such as ‘‘the state, sovereignty, independence, democracy, representative government, national honor, liberty and loyalty,’’ and he comments that very few people could define these terms but that despite this lack of understanding, most would fight to the death to defend them. These terms, like religious ideas, have become mere ‘‘push buttons’’ that set off ‘‘emotional reflexes,’’ and blind patriotism, like blind faith, is no longer an option for most people.

In A Preface to Morals, Lippmann tries to create a philosophy of morality and authority that is not based in any religion and is also not based on the traditional sources of authority in Western civilization: the state, class differences, family, law, or custom. All these old structures of authority demand obedience to particular codes of behavior but can not provide logical reasons why their codes should be obeyed; they are much like a parent who says, ‘‘Because I said so,’’ to a questioning child. Lippmann believes that this is not a good enough reason for obedience and indeed that the very notion of obedience to some petty, man-made authority should be tossed out.

Lippmann advocates ‘‘disinterest’’ as the cornerstone of the new, enlightened person; ‘‘disinterest’’ implies detachment from one’s own self-interest. To achieve this state of calm disinterest, he believes that people need to become more selfaware, with the help of modern psychology, which can aid them in becoming aware of their previously unexamined thoughts and feelings and ultimately in becoming detached from them. He writes, ‘‘To become detached from one’s passions and to understand them consciously is to render them disinterested.... This is the principle by which a humanistic culture becomes bearable.’’ He also notes that throughout human history, and in all known religions, the qualities that are most highly valued are based on disinterest: ‘‘courage, honor, faithfulness, veracity, justice, temperance, magnanimity, and love.’’

He also writes that if the reader is able to observe their feelings, they should take note of them, consider them objectively, and determine why they have them, so they can be liberated from them. ‘‘To detach ourselves from our own fears, hates, and lusts, to examine them, name them, identify their origin, and finally to judge them, is somehow to rob them of their imperiousness.’’ Once this conscious awareness and freedom is achieved, the energy formerly wasted on them can be used in more productive pursuits.

He also writes that human suffering is often caused not by an actual event but by our response to that event and the meaning we give to the event. For example, a marathoner approaching the last mile of a 26.2-mile race may be in a great deal of pain but won’t experience the pain as such if she is winning the race. On the other hand, someone forced to run 26.2 miles as a punishment would experience the same physical sensations but would suffer greatly because a very different meaning is attached to all those miles.

Lippmann believes that things and events are not necessarily inherently evil; what is perceived as evil is not an innate quality but comes from an attitude toward the thing or event and a reaction to it. ‘‘For things are neutral and evil is a certain way of experiencing them,’’ he writes. ‘‘To realize this is to destroy the awfulness of evil.’’

Lippmann gives various examples in the book, but he doesn’t say how to respond to events that most people would perceive as truly evil—regardless of the attitude of the participants—such as the Holocaust of World War II, when millions of innocent people were tortured and killed. Could those people simply change the way they responded to their fate and thereby lessen the evil of what happened to them? This is doubtful, and it would seem that, no matter what attitude one took, it would be difficult to ‘‘destroy the awfulness’’ of such events by changing one’s mental attitude or cultivating disinterestedness. Of course, Lippmann wrote his book before the immense atrocities of World War II. On a smaller scale, however, consider the case of a child who is starving to death; it doesn’t seem likely that the child’s suffering could be lessened by a change in attitude.

However, Lippmann’s analysis is true for many events in modern life: attitude is everything. His description of the enlightened modern person seems almost Buddhist at times; in fact, he does mention the Buddha repeatedly, along with other spiritual and philosophical teachers. ‘‘Buddha did, to be sure, teach that craving was the source of all misery, and that it must be wholly extinguished.’’ Lippmann illustrates how a man free from desire is able to live more easily:

The mature man would take the world as it comes, and within himself remain quite unperturbed.... Would he be hopeful? Not if to be hopeful was to expect the world to submit rather soon to his vanity. Would he be hopeless? Hope is an expectation of favors to come, and he would take his delights here and now. Since nothing gnawed at his vitals, neither doubt, nor ambition, nor frustration, nor fear, he would move easily through life.

A Preface to Morals became an immediate bestseller, despite its philosophical subject matter, and was praised by a wide variety of writers and thinkers, as well as by the public, who were captivated by Lippmann’s application of philosophy to ordinary modern life. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. writes in Walter Lippmann and His Times, ‘‘At the depths of the Depression (if my memory is correct), the New Yorker’s ‘Talk of the Town,’ commenting on the reported formation of the Monarchist party in the United States, said that many Americans would be glad to settle for Walter Lippmann as king.’’

Lippmann’s style is remarkably clear, considering his subject matter; he writes in an elegant but almost conversational manner and provides examples from ancient philosophers, modern psychologists and writers, the Bible, and other religious works, as well as from history and modern life, to give readers a clearer understanding of his ideas.

In From the Uncollected Edmund Wilson, in an essay on A Preface to Morals, critic Edmund Wilson describes the book as ‘‘beautifully organized, beautifully clear ... both outspoken and persuasive in bringing news which has been uneasily awaited,’’ and he writes, ‘‘No one else that I have read has performed this task of discrediting traditional religion at once so tactfully and so uncompromisingly as Lippmann.’’ However, he also praises the fact that Lippmann doesn’t simply discredit faith in traditional religion and then leave the reader in despair. He writes, ‘‘I recommend this book as an antidote to... [the work of] critics who tend to despair of modern civilization.’’

Wilson also writes that Lippmann’s criticism of popular religion is unsurprising, given that many other critics have noted the same gap between belief and modern religious attitudes, but that Lippmann’s criticism of government and traditional politics is refreshing and surprising. However, Wilson notes, Lippmann’s belief that everyone in society, and society as a whole, could become enlightened and run on the basis of benign disinterest seems somewhat naïve. Nevertheless, he writes, ‘‘these considerations do not, in any case, damage Lippmann’s principal arguments.’’

In Walter Lippmann, Larry L. Adams writes that A Preface to Morals is one of Lippmann’s ‘‘best received and most widely read books’’ but notes that Lippmann’s former professor and philosophical hero, George Santayana, whose influence Lippmann acknowledges in the book, wrote an ambiguous but ‘‘generally skeptical’’ review of it, in which he implies that Lippmann’s view is naïve. Santayana also remarks, with irony, that it would be interesting to see what will be ‘‘the ruling passions, favorite pleasures, and dominant beliefs of mankind when the hitherto adventurous selfish human animal has become thoroughly socialized, mechanized, hygienic, and irreligious.’’ Adams also comments that one weakness in the book is the fact that Lippmann’s emphasis on disinterest is directly counter to the prevailing values of American culture, which emphasizes individualism and hearty selfinterest as the basis of economic and social freedom. However, Adams writes, Lippmann is correct in pointing out that no society could survive and thrive without some form of moral structure, and he finds Lippmann ahead of his time because he draws wisdom not only from the Western religious and philosophical traditions but also from the sages of other cultures, such as Buddha and Confucius.

In his introduction to the Transaction Publishers’ edition of the book, John Patrick Diggins notes that the great praise lavished on Lippmann’s book is not universal: liberals criticize Lippmann because his vision of a new society doesn’t provide for any restraints on individuals’ desires; other, more radical critics note that this kind of enlightened society, based on benign disinterest, could not succeed until all vestiges of injustice and strife are eliminated. Diggins, like Adams, also comments that although these critics don’t mention it, an inherent conflict exists between Lippmann’s ideal—disinterest and freedom from desire—and the demands of a free, capitalistic society, which of course is based on ‘‘maximiz[ing] desire through the pleasures of consumption.’’

However, Diggins praises Lippmann’s ability to ‘‘turn the mundane issues of life into philosophical riddles’’ as well as his style, which is ‘‘at once relaxed, lucid, crisp, and unencumbered by heavy philosophical jargon.’’ He also praises Lippmann’s ‘‘daring enterprise’’ of attempting to create a framework of moral authority not grounded in old institutions that would not withstand a true intellectual challenge to their orders. Diggins writes, ‘‘That is why his book speaks forcefully to us today, when our emotions feel the need for authority but our mind demands that authority be rational and just.’’

Source: Kelly Winters, Critical Essay on A Preface to Morals, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.


Critical Overview