What Makes a Hero and the True Measure of the Human Spirit: Walter Lippmann’s Stunning Tribute to Amelia Earhart
By Maria Popova
What is it that gives the human spirit wings to soar above the trenches of tradition, above the flatlands of convention, above even the highest peaks of the probable into ever-greater altitudes of possibility?
That’s what the great journalist and essayist Walter Lippmann (September 23, 1889–December 14, 1974) explores in a beautiful piece published in his New York Herald Tribune column, Today and Tomorrow, on July 8, 1937 — six days after Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean, leaving behind a decades-long comet tail of courage that has since inspired generations.
Lippmann’s requiem, eventually included in The Essential Lippmann: A Political Philosophy for Liberal Democracy (public library), stands as a counterpart, perhaps even a precondition, to Alexander Flexner’s wonderful defense of “the usefulness of useless knowledge.” What Lippmann crafts is a beautiful case for the usefulness of useless curiosity and courage, through the sieve of which all truly useful knowledge and human achievement must pass.
Half a century before Joseph Campbell conceived of his eleven stages of the hero’s journey and before pioneering biochemist lamented how how the excessive pragmatization of science is sapping its courage and poetic curiosity, Lippmann considers the heroism of unbridled curiosity:
I cannot quite remember whether Miss Earhart undertook her flight with some practical purpose in mind, say, to demonstrate something or other about aviation which will make it a little easier for commercial passengers to move more quickly around the world. There are those who seem to think that an enterprise like hers must have some such justification, that without it there was no good reason for taking such grave risks.
But in truth Miss Earhart needs no such justification. The world is a better place to live in because it contains human beings who will give up ease and security and stake their own lives in order to do what they themselves think worth doing. They help to offset the much larger numbers who are ready to sacrifice the ease and the security and the very lives of others in order to do what they want done.
Writing on the cusp of World War II, Lippmann admonishes against mistaking force for fortitude and argues that “synthetic heroes” and “men in bulletproof vests surrounded by squads of armed guards” are the measure not of humanity’s strength but of our weakness. Heroes like Amelia Earhart offer a different, truer conception of courage. He writes:
It is somehow reassuring to think that there are also men and women who take the risks themselves, who pit themselves not against their fellow beings but against the immensity and the violence of the natural world, who are brave without cruelty to others and impassioned with an idea that dignifies all who contemplate it.
Lippmann ends with a sentiment that transcends Earhart’s particular feat and extends to triumphs of the human spirit as diverse as the invention of the world’s first computer, the first polar expeditions, and the century-long quest to hear the sound of spacetime:
The best things of mankind are as useless as Amelia Earhart’s adventure. They are the things that are undertaken not for some definite, measurable result, but because someone, not counting the costs or calculating the consequences, is moved by curiosity, the love of excellence, a point of honor, the compulsion to invent or to make or to understand. In such persons mankind overcomes the inertia which would keep it earthbound forever in its habitual ways. They have in them the free and useless energy with which alone men surpass themselves.
Such energy cannot be planned and managed and made purposeful, or weighted by the standards of utility or judged by its social consequences. It is wild and it is free. But all the heroes, the saints, the seers, the explorers and the creators partake of it. They do not know what they discover. They do not know where their impulse is taking them. They can give no account in advance of where they are going or explain completely where they have been. They have been possessed for a time with an extraordinary passion which is unintelligible in ordinary terms.
No preconceived theory fits them. No material purpose actuates them. They do the useless, brave, noble, the divinely foolish and the very wisest things that are done by man. And what they prove to themselves and to others is that man is no mere creature of his habits, no mere automaton in his routine, no mere cog in the collective machine, but that in the dust of which he is made there is also fire, lighted now and then by great winds from the sky.
All of Lippmann’s cultural observations gathered in The Essential Lippmann emanate these transcendent overtones of lyrical and lucid idealism. Complement this particular portion with this modern manifesto for nurturing tomorrow’s Amelias and Earhart herself on marriage, motivation and human nature, and sticking up for yourself.
For a contemporary embodiment of Lippmann’s “useless, brave, noble… divinely foolish… very wisest” pursuits, devour the exhilarating story of LIGO and the quest to detect gravitational waves.
Published September 8, 2016