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Books: The Mandate of Heaven

5 minute read

THE PUBLIC PHILOSOPHY (189 pp.)—Walter Lippmann — Atlantic — Little, Brown ($3.50).

In the summer of 1938, Columnist Walter Lippmann, brooding about the “mounting disorder in our Western society,” began to put his concern into book form. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he laid aside his manuscript to see what was going to happen to the world. When he returned to his task after war’s end, he found that “something had gone very wrong in the liberal democracies . . . They were unable to make peace and to restore order.”

In The Public Philosophy, Pundit Lippmann comes to some challenging conclusions about the ills that plague the democracies. He weakens his argument by not differentiating between the democracies—between the chronically sick French variety, for instance, and the vigorous but complex American form. But his diagnosis is well worth listening to: 1) public opinion is dominating the executive branch of democratic governments to the point of enfeeblement and paralysis, and 2) the democracies have abandoned the philosophy on which they were founded, i.e., the principle of the natural law.

“Insecure & Intimidated.” Public officials in the democracies, Lippmann complains, are forever feeling the public pulse to judge their own political condition.

“Successful democratic politicians are insecure and intimidated men. They advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle or otherwise . . .

manipulate the demanding and threatening elements in their constituencies. The decisive consideration is not whether the proposition is good but whether it is popular—not whether it will work well and prove itself but whether the active talking constituents like it immediately.” The “people” are not always right: “Strategic and diplomatic decisions call for a kind of knowledge—not to speak of an experience and a seasoned judgment—which cannot be had by glancing at newspapers, listening to snatches of radio comment, watching politicians perform on television, hearing occasional lectures, and reading a few books. It would not be enough to make a man competent to decide whether to amputate a leg, and it is not enough to qualify him to choose war or peace, to arm or not to arm . . . to fight on or to negotiate.” Philosophy & Politics. A big part of public-opinion pressure exerted on the executive is routed through the legislative branches. In this Lippmann sees serious danger: “The executive is the active power in the state, the asking and the proposing power. The representative assembly is the consenting power, the petitioning, the approving and the criticizing, the accepting and the refusing power . . . This duality of function . . . has a certain resemblance to that of the two sexes . . . If this function is devitalized or is confused with the function of the other sex, the result is sterility and disorder.” What the executives in democratic governments are forgetting, Lippmann says, is that they owe their primary allegiance to the law and to the office, not to the electorate. This leads logically to his second point: the people of democratic countries have forgotten that the natural law is the basis of democracy, have descended into agnosticism and neutralism. When a people abandons the principle that there is a natural law behind the system of earthly law, “it is impossible to reach intelligible and workable conceptions of popular election, majority rule, representative assemblies, free speech, loyalty, property, corporations and voluntary associations.” Ultimately, says Lippmann, politics are based on philosophy and theology. When philosophers teach that the good society is merely a changeable arrangement based on the values that Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre tells each man to invent for himself, and when religion is regarded as a purely psychological phenomenon, public policy—hence politics—must decay. The U.S. must again learn that the principles of the good society are not “invented and chosen [but] are there, outside our wishes, where they can be discovered by rational inquiry . . .”

Paternal or Fratricidal? The great danger today, as Lippmann sees it, is that more and more people in democracy, witnessing disorder and confusion, will be ready prey for dictatorship—”will choose authority, which promises to be paternal, in preference to freedom which threatens to be fratricidal.” Author Lippmann sees only one way to halt this disastrous trend: restore to its place of honor the basic public philosophy of the democracies.

Part of The Public Philosophy is standard Walter Lippmann. He has written this new book in his usual scholar’s style, which means that it will reach only a very small percentage of the people who, he believes, are in such dire need of knowledge. But the basic tone of The Public Philosophy is new. In his day Lippmann has been a champion of the New Deal’s invented and chosen theories, a writer admittedly guided often by “hastily improvised generalizations.” Never before has he shown such firm and specific regard for the natural law and for basic religious principle. This emphasis is the key value of Lippmann’s important book. He concludes: “Political ideas acquire operative force in human affairs when . . . they bind men’s consciences. Then they possess, as the Confucian doctrine has it, ‘the mandate of heaven.’ In the crisis within the Western society, there is at issue now the mandate of heaven.”

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