A Preface to Morals

by Walter Lippmann

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Historical Context

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The Industrial Revolution
Lippmann’s central argument in A Preface to Morals concerns the status of religion in the ‘‘modern age,’’ or the ‘‘age of modernity.’’ Lippmann does not define precisely when he considers modernity to have begun but makes broad generalizations regarding historical trends in the West over the past several centuries. However, he frequently makes reference to the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, by which many date the coming of the modern age. The Industrial Revolution broadly de- fines developments that gained momentum in the early nineteenth century, first and foremost in England, which encouraged rural, agrarian economies to become urban, industrial economies.

The Progressive Era
Lippmann’s early writing and political thought is frequently associated with the outlook of the Progressive Era in American history. The Progressive movement names a trend in American political activism that began in the 1890s as a response to economic depression in both rural and urban areas. Progressivism, which achieved many successes over a twenty- to thirty-year period, was characterized by a push for social reform and the placement of legal limitations on the power of industrialists. Social services were organized to aid the poor and underprivileged, while legal measures were instituted to curb industrial monopolies. In 1894, the National Municipal League was organized to clean up corruption at the level of local government. Other Progressive movement concerns included workers’ rights and benefits, such as child labor laws. The presidential terms of Theodore Roosevelt (from the assassination of President McKinley in 1901 through the 1904 election to 1908) was characterized by great strides in Progressive movement issues. The two terms of President Woodrow Wilson (1912–1920) were also characterized by a strong showing of Progressive movement concerns.

World War I
World War I was a major concern early in Lippmann’s career as a journalist and public policy maker. When the war broke out in Europe in 1914, the American policy was firmly one of neutrality, but as the war wore on the United States became increasingly (unofficially) sympathetic to the Allies and increasingly defensive toward Germany. A series of incidents functioned to turn the tide of American popular opinion, as well as government policy, toward military intervention in Europe. In May 1915, a German submarine sank the British Lusitania, an unarmed liner, without warning, killing 128 Americans (as well as others). Early in 1917, Germany opted for extensive submarine warfare against nonmilitary as well as military vessels, as a result of which the United States broke diplomatic relations with Germany. After the Germans began sinking American ships, the United States was drawn into the war in April of 1917. The entry of the United States on the side of the Allies led to victory against the Central Powers late in 1918.

President Wilson and the Paris Peace Conference
Early in 1918, President Wilson presented to Congress the Fourteen Points that became the signature of his presidency. Lippmann had been recruited as one of the members of the Inquiry, a think-tank organized by Wilson to research, formulate, and write the Fourteen Points, which spelled out Wilson’s recommendations for postwar world peace. Among these points was a call for self-determination among nations currently struggling for national independence and for the organization of a League of Nations to protect world peace. In January 1919, the Paris Peace Conference met to determine the outcome of World War I, based on Wilson’s recommendations in the Fourteen Points. Lippmann was invited to join Wilson’s delegation to Paris but soon resigned his post due to his disillusionment with the peace negotiations. The Versailles Treaty was the document that resulted from international...

(This entire section contains 636 words.)

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negotiations over the Fourteen Points, many of which were retained, though others were compromised or dispensed with. However, the United States Congress voted twice against signing the Treaty of Versailles, and America never became a member of the League of Nations. Critical Ov

Literary Style

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Writing Style
Lippmann has been critically acclaimed for his lucid writing style, by which he translates complex ideas, as well as historical and political analysis, into thoughtful, easily readable prose. Critics agree that this stylistic virtuosity largely accounts for Lippmann’s popularity and vast readership, of both his journalistic columns and his books of political philosophy. Ronald Steel, in Walter Lippmann and the American Century, praises Lippmann for his ‘‘superbly lucid literary style.’’ Barry D. Riccio, in Walter Lippmann, mentions that Lippmann ‘‘wrote in the vernacular rather than in the argot of the specialist.’’ D. Steven Blum, in Walter Lippmann, observes that Lippmann ‘‘tackled enduring political and moral controversies in an unaffected idiom, accessible to the general educated reader.’’ Hari N. Dam, in The Intellectual Odyssey of Walter Lippmann, makes note of ‘‘the superb craftsmanship’’ of Lippmann’s writing style, commenting, ‘‘Lippmann’s writing has all the classical virtues— balance, precision, purity and clarity.’’ David Elliot Weingast, in Walter Lippmann, characterizes the essence of Lippmann’s impressive style as ‘‘clear, logical, and inevitably persuasive.’’ John Patrick Diggins, in a 1982 introduction to A Preface to Morals, likewise describes Lippmann’s literary style as ‘‘at once relaxed, lucid, crisp, and unencumbered by heavy philosophical jargon.’’ Diggins adds, ‘‘As a journalist as well as an author, Lippmann displayed a felicity of expression that often rose to epigrammatic brilliance.’’

Lippmann begins each of the three parts of A Preface to Morals with an epigraph or brief quote. Each epigraph sums up in a few words the essence of Lippmann’s message within the proceeding section of the book. Part I, ‘‘The Dissolution of the Ancestral Order,’’ opens with ‘‘Whirl is King, having driven out Zeus,’’ a quote from the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes. Zeus thus represents the God of an ancient belief system, or ‘‘ancestral order,’’ which has been ‘‘driven out’’ of or dissolved by modern culture, leaving only ‘‘Whirl,’’ or chaos, in its place. This idea mirrors Lippmann’s central argument that the ‘‘acids of modernity’’ have dissolved faith in traditional religion, leaving a moral vacuum in its place. Part II, ‘‘The Foundations of Humanism,’’ opens with ‘‘The stone which the builders rejected / That same is become the head of the corner,’’ from Luke XX:17. Through this quote, Lippmann implies that humanism ought to become the cornerstone of a new structure of moral authority in the modern age. Part III, ‘‘The Genius of Modernity,’’ opens with ‘‘Where is the way the light dwelleth?’’ from Job 38:19. Whereas the first two epigraphs are statements, the third is a question. It poses to the reader the question of where the ‘‘light’’ of moral authority can be found if not in traditional religion. It is interesting to note that, while Lippmann’s central argument poses that traditional religions are no longer viable in the modern age, he begins two of the three main sections of A Preface to Morals with epigraphs drawn from Biblical sources. Lippmann thus appeals to the role of religion in addressing certain timeless human concerns although he argues that religion is no longer able to satisfy these concerns adequately.

Compare and Contrast

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1890s: Economic depression in the United States helps to spark a mass movement toward economic and social reform known as the Progressive movement.

1930s: Just months after the publication of Lippmann’s A Preface to Morals, the stock market crash of 1929 begins the Depression era in the United States. Increased production as a result of Europe’s entry into World War II lifts the United States out of the Depression.

1990s: The United States enjoys a period of economic prosperity characterized by low unemployment as well as many average Americans profiting from stock market investments.

1914–1918: World War I breaks out in Europe. The United States enters the war in 1917, helping to turn the tide in favor of the Allied forces. The postwar peace negotiations are made in 1919 at the Paris Peace Conference. Lippmann attends the Paris Peace Conference as a member of President Wilson’s special delegation but is disillusioned by the terms of the peace treaty and resigns his post.

1939–1945: World War II breaks out in Europe. The United States enters the war in 1941 after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Lippmann serves as a war correspondent in Europe.

1990–1991: In August 1990, Iraq, under President Saddam Hussein, invades the neighboring oil-rich nation of Kuwait. The Persian Gulf War begins on January 16, 1991 when the United States, along with forces from British, French, Egyptian, and other nations, leads an air offensive against Iraq in a military operation known as Desert Storm. The armed conflict ends on February 28, 1991 with the liberation of Kuwait from Iraq.

1914: Lippmann is one of the founding editors of the New Republic, a weekly magazine promoting the values of the Progressive movement.

1917–1919: Lippmann engages in war-related government service, taking an unofficial hiatus from his editorial position at the New Republic.

1946: Former Vice President Henry A. Wallace becomes editor of the New Republic but is asked to resign due to his leftist political stance.

1980s: The New Republic becomes less liberal in political orientation, reflecting a range of political stances.

1990s: The New Republic continues to be a highly influential journal of political commentary.

1919: The League of Nations is established as part of the Treaty of Versailles. The League of Nations is an organization designed to promote ‘‘collective security’’ among the nations of the world. The world headquarters are established in Geneva, Switzerland. The United States, however, never joins the League of Nations.

1940s: During World War II, the League of Nations has no power or influence over international conflicts and is dissolved. In 1946, the United Nations is established to replace the League of Nations. The United Nations includes the United States, and the world headquarters are located in New York City.

1990s: The dissolution of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War brings new challenges to the United Nations in mediating international con- flicts as well as violent conflicts between ethnic groups within single nations.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Adams, Larry L., Walter Lippmann, Twayne Publishers, 1977, pp. 9–10.

Blum, D. Steven, Walter Lippmann: Cosmopolitanism in the Century of Total War, Cornell University Press, 1984, pp. 9–11, 97.

Childs, Marquis, Introduction to Walter Lippmann and His Times, edited by Marquis Childs and James Reston, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1959, p. 2.

Dam, Hari N., The Intellectual Odyssey of Walter Lippmann, Gordon Press, 1973, pp. 161–162.

Diggins, John Patrick, Introduction to A Preface to Morals, by Walter Lippmann, Transaction Publishers, 1982, pp. x–xi, xiv, xiv, xxxv–xxxvi, xli.

Kirkhorn, Michael, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 29: American Newspaper Journalists, 1926–1950, edited by Perry J. Ashley, Gale Research, 1984, pp. 174–189.

Riccio, Barry D., Walter Lippmann: Odyssey of a Liberal, Transaction Publishers, 1994, p. xii.

Rossiter, Clinton, and James Lare, eds., The Essential Lippmann: A Political Philosophy for Liberal Democracy, Random House, 1963, pp. xi, xiii.

Steel, Ronald, Walter Lippmann and the American Century, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1980, pp. xiii–xvi, 263.

Weingast, David Elliott, Walter Lippmann: A Study in Personal Journalism, Rutgers University Press, 1949, pp. xiii, 125, 127, 130.

Further Reading
Adams, Larry L., ‘‘The New Morality,’’ in Walter Lippmann, Twayne Publishers, 1977, pp. 123–147. Adams discusses the philosophical, religious, and social underpinnings of Lippmann’s work.

Auchincloss, Louis, Woodrow Wilson, Viking Penguin, 2000. Woodrow Wilson is a biography of the progressive President Woodrow Wilson by whom Lippmann was recruited to develop international policy for peace in postwar Europe.

Cooper, John Milton Jr., Pivotal Decades: The United States, 1900–1920, W. W. Norton, 1990. Pivotal Decades is a history of the United States during the first decades of the twentieth century, the period during which Lippmann’s fundamental political philosophy was developed.

Diggins, John Patrick, ‘‘Introduction to the Transaction Edition: Walter Lippmann’s Quest for Authority,’’ in A Preface to Morals, by Walter Lippmann, Transaction Publishers, 1999, pp. ix–liii. Diggins describes Lippmann’s career as a writer and thinker, as well as factors that make his book an important contribution to American moral philosophy.

Diner, Steven J., A Very Different Age: Americans of the Progressive Era, Hill & Wang, 1998. A Very Different Age is a history of the United States during the Progressive era of the 1890s to 1920s.

Knock, Thomas J., To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for New World Order, Oxford University Press, 1992. To End All Wars provides a historical discussion of the efforts of President Wilson to formulate a program for international peace in the wake of World War I.

Lamont, Corliss, The Philosophy of Humanism, Continuum Press, 1990. Philosophy of Humanism is an introduction to humanism, a moral philosophy that Lippmann advocates as the most appropriate replacement for religion in the age of modernity.

Reston, James, ‘‘Conclusion: The Mockingbird and Taxicab,’’ in Walter Lippmann and His Times, edited by Marquis Childs and James Reston, Harcourt Brace & Co., 1959, pp. 226–238. The book describes Lippmann’s daily life and work habits, in part derived from the conclusions he drew in A Preface to Morals.

Riccio, Barry Daniel, Walter Lippmann: Odyssey of a Liberal, Transaction Press, 1994. In Walter Lippmann, Riccio traces the development of Lippmann’s liberal, humanist political philosophy over half a century of publication.

Wilson, Edmund, ‘‘Walter Lippmann’s A Preface to Morals,’’ in From the Uncollected Edmund Wilson, edited by Janet Groth and David Castronovo, Ohio University Press, 1995, pp. 108–114. This early review of Lippmann’s book originally appeared in the New Republic in July of 1929.

Wolfe, Gregory, ed., The New Religious Humanists: A Reader, Free Press, 1997. The New Religious Humanists is an overview of philosophies of religious humanism in the late twentieth century.

Zieger, Robert H., America’s Great War: World War I and the American Experience, Rowman and Littlefield, 2000. America’s Great War provides a history of United States participation in World War I.


Critical Essays


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