Great Throughts Treasury

This site is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Alan William Smolowe who gave birth to the creation of this database.

Walter Lippmann

American Intellectual, Reporter, Teacher, Editor, Journalist and Political Commentator

"Happiness cannot be the reward of virtue; it must be the intelligible consequence of it."

"Success makes men rigid and they tend to exalt stability over all the other virtues; tired of the effort of willing they become fanatics about conservatism."

"The unexamined life, said Socrates, is unfit to be lived by man. This is the virtue of liberty, and the ground on which we may justify our belief in it, that it tolerates error in order to serve truth."

"There is nothing so bad but it can masquerade as moral... The whole speculation about morality is an effort to find a way of living which men who live it will instinctively feel is good."

"Those who use their reason do not reach the same conclusions as those who obey their prejudices."

"Unless the reformer can invent something which substitutes attractive virtues for attractive vices, he will fail."

"We say that the truth will make us free. Yes, but that truth is a thousand truths which grow and change."

"When distant and unfamiliar and complex things are communicated to great masses of people, the truth suffers a considerable and often a radical distortion. The complex is made over into the simple, the hypothetical into the dogmatic, and the relative in to an absolute."

"Where all think alike, no one thinks very much."

"A man cannot sleep in his cradle: whatever is useful must in the nature of life become useless."

"Art enlarges experience by admitting us to the inner life of others."

"For as long as a time as we can see into the future, we shall be living between war and peace, between a war that cannot be fought and a peace that cannot be achieved. The great issues which divide the world cannot be decided by a war that could be won, and they cannot be settled by a treaty that can be negotiated... the power which used to deal with the division and conflicts of the past, namely, organized war, has become an impossible instrument to use."

"Ignore what a man desires and you ignore the very source of his power; run against the grain of a nation's genius and see where you get with your laws."

"It requires wisdom to understand wisdom; the music is nothing if the audience is deaf."

"It is perfectly true that that government is best which governs least. It is equally true that that government is best which provides most."

"Life is an irreversible process and for that reason its future can never be a repetition of the past."

"Many a time I have wanted to stop talking and find out what I really believed."

"No amount of charters, direct primaries, or short ballots will make a democracy out of an illiterate people."

"Only the insider can make the decisions, not because he is inherently a better man, but because he is so placed that he can understand and can act."

"Politicians tend to live "in character," and many a public figure has come to imitate the journalism which describes him."

"Social movements are at once the symptoms and the instruments of progress. Ignore them and statesmanship is irrelevant; fail to use them and it is weak."

"Successful democratic politicians are insecure and intimidated men. They advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle, or otherwise manage to 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. Politicians rationalize this servitude by saying that in a democracy public men are the servants of the people."

"The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on."

"The opposition is indispensable. A good statesman, like any other sensible human being, always learns more from his opponents than from his fervent supporters. For his supporters will push him to disaster unless his opponents show him where the dangers are. So if he is wise he will often pray to be delivered from his friends, because they will ruin him. But though it hurts, he ought also to pray never to be left without opponents; for they keep him on the path of reason and good sense. "

"The thinker dies, but his thoughts are beyond the reach of destruction. Men are mortal; but ideas are immortal."

"The uprooting of human beings from the land, the concentration in cities, the breakdown of the authority of family, of tradition, and of moral conventions, the complexity and the novelty of modern life, and finally the economic insecurity of our industrial system have called into being the modern social worker. They perform a function in modern society which is not a luxury but an absolute necessity."

"There is but one bond of peace that is both permanent and enriching: the increasing knowledge of the world in which experiment occurs."

"True opinions can prevail only if the facts to which they refer are known; if they are not known, false ideas are just as effective as true ones, if not a little more effective."

"You cannot endow even the best machine with initiative the jolliest steamroller will not plant flowers."

"A better distribution of incomes would increase that efficiency by diverting a great fund of wealth from the useless to the useful members of society. To cut off the income of the useless will not impair their efficiency. They have none to impair. It will, in fact, compel them to acquire a useful function."

"A free press is not a privilege but an organic necessity in a great society. Without criticism and reliable and intelligent reporting, the government cannot govern. For there is no adequate way in which it can keep itself informed about what the people of the country are thinking and doing and wanting."

"A country survives its legislation. That truth should not comfort the conservative nor depress the radical. For it means that public policy can enlarge its scope and increase its audacity, can try big experiments without trembling too much over the result. This nation could enter upon the most radical experiments and could afford to fail in them."

"A man who has humility will have acquired in the last reaches of his beliefs the saving doubt of his own certainty."

"A long life in journalism convinced me many presidents ago that there should be a large air space between a journalist and the head of a state."

"A large part of the mischief and folly of the world comes from rushing in, taking a position, and then not knowing how to retreat. There is something about making a speech or writing an article which perverts the human mind. When the utterance is published, the Rubicon has been crossed and the bridges have been burned. It seems to end in the inquiry, after that we almost cease to be interested in the truth, being so preoccupied to prove that we already possess it."

"A useful definition of liberty is obtained only by seeking the principle of liberty in the main business of human life, that is to say, in the process by which men educate their responses and learn to control their environment."

"Advertising, in fact, is the effort of business men to take charge of consumption as well as production. They are not content to supply a demand, as the text-books say; they educate the demand as well. In the end, advertising rests upon the fact that consumers are a fickle and superstitious mob, incapable of any real judgment as to what it wants or how it is to get what it thinks it would like. A bewildered child in a toy shop is nothing to the ultimate consumer in the world market of today. To say, then, that advertising is merely a way of calling attention to useful goods is a gorgeous piece of idealization. Advertising is in fact the weed that has grown up because the art of consumption is uncultivated."

"Ages when custom is unsettled are necessarily ages of prophecy. The moralist cannot teach what is revealed; he must reveal what can be taught. He has to seek insight rather than to preach."

"All achievement should be measured in human happiness."

"All men desire their own perfect adjustment, but they desire it, being finite men, on their own terms."

"Almost always tradition is nothing but a record and a machine-made imitation of the habits that our ancestors created. The average conservative is a slave to the most incidental and trivial part of his forefathers’ glory -- to the archaic formula which happened to express their genius or the eighteenth-century contrivance by which for a time it was served."

"An alliance is like a chain. It is not made stronger by adding weak links to it. A great power like the United States gains no advantage and it loses prestige by offering, indeed peddling, its alliances to all and sundry. An alliance should be hard diplomatic currency, valuable and hard to get, and not inflationary paper from the mimeograph machine in the State Department."

"A regime, an established order, is rarely overthrown by a revolutionary movement; usually a regime collapses of its own weakness and corruption and then a revolutionary movement enters among the ruins and takes over the powers that have become vacant."

"A man has honor if he holds himself to an ideal of conduct though it is inconvenient, unprofitable, or dangerous to do so."

"A press monopoly is incompatible with a free press; and one can proceed with this principle: if there is a monopoly of the means of communications - of radio, television, magazines, books, public meetings - it follows that the society is by definition and in fact deprived of freedom."

"At the core of every moral code there is a picture of human nature, a map of the universe, and a version of history. To human nature (of the sort conceived), in a universe (of the kind imagined), after a history (so understood), the rules of the code apply."

"Because courage consists in transcending normal fears, the highest kind of courage is cold courage; that is to say, courage in which the danger has been fully realized and there is no emotional excitement to conceal the danger."

"Between ourselves and our real natures we interpose that wax figure of idealizations and selections which we call our character. We extend this into all our thinking. Between us and the realities of social life we build up a mass of generalizations, abstract ideas, ancient glories, and personal wishes. They simplify and soften experience. It is so much easier to talk of poverty than to think of the poor, to argue the rights of capital than to see its results. Pretty soon we come to think of the theories and abstract ideas as things in themselves. We worry about their fate and forget their original content."

"Certainly he is not of the generation that regards honesty as the best policy. However, he does regard it as a policy."

"Corrupt, stupid grasping functionaries will make at least as big a muddle of socialism as stupid, selfish and acquisitive employers can make of capitalism."