The Curse of Modernity
Philip Rieff’s problem with freedom
July 1, 2007
Jul 1, 2007
16 Min read time
“Isn’t it curious,” my theology teacher used to say with a sly smile, “that beyond good and evil is always . . . evil?” This is traditionally the last resort, the trump card, of the orthodox: there is no honor among unbelievers, or at least no security for their honor. Why should someone who doesn’t love God, or at least fear his judgment, be moral? In God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens recalls a debate between the philosopher A.J. Ayer and an Anglican bishop about the existence of God. Apparently out of arguments, the bishop exclaimed that if Ayer really believed all that, “then I cannot see why you do not live a life of unbridled immorality.” It hadn’t occurred to his grace that a skeptic, even a skeptical Oxford philosopher, could be anything but wicked.
Contemporary social science has pretty well established that believers and unbelievers commit unbridled immorality in roughly equal proportions. Nevertheless, the assumption that one cannot be reliably good without God persists in the United States, explicitly or implicitly, to the extent that a declared unbeliever almost certainly cannot be elected to national office. Around half the population identify themselves as born-again Christians and believe in angels, miracles, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the special creation of the Earth within the last 10,000 years. So if (as everyone seems to agree) America is in decline morally, an excess of skeptical rationalism is probably not to blame. Still, the modern world is undeniably more secular than the premodern one, especially among the educated, and that fact must surely have large psychological, if not behavioral, consequences. What have been, and will be, the effects of the Enlightenment on the individual and collective moral psychology of the West?
For five decades, until his death in July 2006, Philip Rieff pondered that question intently, learnedly, and eccentrically. Though Rieff was a sociology professor, he was not a social scientist; he was a social theorist in the line of Durkheim and Weber, an erudite synthesist. All three were social psychologists of religion, but Rieff was a social psychologist of irreligion as well. Equally important, he had an analytical resource they did not: Freudian psychoanalysis.
Rieff’s first book (his best, in my opinion) was a penetrating and imaginative study, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959). At the time, most people considered Freud an immoralist—a proponent of liberation. Morality was supposedly what made us ill, posing unreasonable demands on behalf of “civilization” and forcing our healthy instinctual passions underground, into the unconscious, from which they tried to escape by way of “symptoms.” These symptoms were strangled protests against the tyranny of culture over nature. The psychoanalytic cure was a protracted guerrilla campaign, aiming to take over one inner stronghold after another without provoking an all-out counterattack in the form of a nervous breakdown.
Freudian therapy was an indifferent success, but Freudian theory was enormously influential. The lesson most people took from it was a strong suspicion of moral authority and a reluctance to exercise it over young children. Inhibition, repression, and conformity were assumed to be unhealthy; spontaneity, individualism, and self-expression to be healthy. The prestige of “order” plummeted; that of “freedom” soared.
The Mind of the Moralist was a vigorous dissent from this standard interpretation. Rieff’s point was not just that, unlike his noisier disciples, Freud was temperamentally conservative, rating order as highly as freedom and restraint as highly as expression. This stance could be (and regularly was) dismissed as reflexive Victorian/Viennese caution. On the contrary, Rieff argued, Freud’s caution was well-founded. He understood that he had not really explained away our primal, nameless sense of guilt, which lay beneath the more superficial and intelligible constraints imposed by culture, with the implausible hypothesis of a primal crime. And yet, for this resolute unbeliever, such guilt could have no rational basis—who, after all, was humankind accountable to?
Rieff’s explanation of what there is to be guilty about was repeated in many books over many years, with increasing urgency (and, it must be said, portentousness). Human possibilities are limitless; about this he seemed to agree with Freud’s liberationist successors. But what excited them terrified him—and, he claimed, everyone else, at least before the triumph of the therapeutic ethos. Our primal endowment—formless, destructive, uncontrollable instinct—paralyzes and isolates us. We cannot trust ourselves or one another until a firm structure of interdictions has been installed in everyone’s psyche. These must be expounded by an interpretive elite, ratified through a calendar of rituals, and enforced by stern authority. Every culture is a dialectic of prohibition and permission, renunciation and release. Freud would have agreed; but whereas his followers concluded that the original “yes” of instinct was silenced, or at least muted, by the “no” of repressive authority, Rieff countered that instinct was cacophonous and only the original, creative “no” gave it a distinct voice. As he put it in The Mind of the Moralist—his style, already a little melodramatic, foreshadowing his later, full-blown apocalyptic abstractions—the primal self is “in a panic to express the fecundity of its own emptiness” and must be mastered by “unalterable authority.” For if “everything could be expressed by everyone identically,” then “nothing would remain to be expressed individually.” Hence the “irreducible and supreme activity of culture” is to “prevent the expression of everything,” thereby precluding “the one truly egalitarian dominion: nothingness.”
For most educated (and even many uneducated) Westerners, however, all formerly unalterable authorities now lie in the dust, like Ozymandias. Science has banished the supernatural, technology has vanquished scarcity, and so, having lost its parents, ignorance and misery, morality is now an orphan. This is the triumphalist view of modernity, and Rieff shared it; only instead of a triumph, he thought it a catastrophe. The dimensions of this catastrophe dawned on him gradually. The last chapter of Freud is “The Emergence of Psychological Man,” a tentative sketch of what modernity had wrought. Until the twentieth century, in Rieff’s account, three character types had successively prevailed in Western culture: political man, the ideal of classical times, dedicated to the glory of his city; religious man, the ideal of the Christian era, dedicated to the glory of God; and a transitional figure, economic man, a creature of Enlightenment liberalism. Economic man believed in doing good unto others by doing well for himself. This convenient compromise did not last long, and what survived of it was not the altruism but the egoism. Psychological man was frankly and shrewdly selfish, beyond ideals and illusions, at best a charming narcissist, at worst boorish or hypochondriacal, according to his temperament.
But the worst thing about psychological man was his children. Raised without repressions, they were incapable of renunciation and regarded all authority as illegitimate. Rieff’s second book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966), raised the alarm about their “devastating illusions of individuality and freedom.” A society without hierarchy, whose members “cannot conceive any salvation other than amplitude in living itself,” must end in moral squalor, chaos, anomie, and universal boredom. Nor will it help to “disguise their rancorous worship of self in the religion of art,” for art too depends on renunciation. Here Rieff quotes Nietzsche at length (in what is for me the most illuminating passage in Rieff’s entire corpus):
Every system of morals is a sort of tyranny against “nature” and also against “reason”; that is, however, no objection, unless one should again decree, by some system of morals, that all kinds of tyranny and unreasonableness are unlawful. What is essential and invaluable in every system of morals is that it is a long constraint. . . . The singular fact remains . . . that everything of the nature of freedom, elegance, boldness, dance, and masterly certainty, which exists or has existed, whether it be in thought itself or in administration, or in speaking and persuading, in art just as in conduct, has only developed by means of the tyranny of such arbitrary law; and in all seriousness, it is not at all improbable that precisely this is “nature” and “natural” and not laisser-aller! . . . The essential thing “in heaven and earth” is apparently (to repeat it once more) that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.
Muscular strength is built gradually, for example by overcoming the resistance of progressively heavier weights. Moral and psychological strength also require resistance—the pressure of cultural interdicts, dictating what is not to be done or even thought of. Such discipline simplifies our lives and economizes our energies. Without an unquestioned moral demand system, based on guilt, fear, and faith and generating obedience, trust, and dependence, there can be no spiritual hygiene, no communal purpose. And that is what the triumph of the therapeutic ethos makes impossible. Nowadays “the religious psychologies of release and the social technologies of affluence do not go beyond release and affluence to a fresh imposition of restrictive demands. This describes, in a sentence, the cultural revolution of our time. The old culture of denial has become irrelevant to a world of infinite abundance and reality.” In the absence of strict, even harsh, limits (to use a plain word Rieff himself, puzzlingly, so seldom used that one is led to wonder whether his elaborately artificial prose style was itself meant as a discipline), we cannot thrive.
While Rieff was writing The Triumph of the Therapeutic in the early 1960s, the New Left and the counterculture were still gathering force. When the storm broke in the mid- and late ’60s, he was aghast. In 1971 he gave an interview to the editors of Salmagundi. When they asked him to edit the transcript for publication, he responded with a book-length open letter, "Fellow Teachers" (1973), denouncing students and teachers alike, the former for their ignorant impatience of all discipline and sacred authority, the latter for their irresponsible acquiescence.
Students can bring us no hope at all until the protest style, as Love of Humanity and Power to the People, is seen through. With the vision of this horror, we will see in true light the craven aping and interminable apologies for the transgressive types at the bottom: the perverts, the underclass, all those who can do no wrong because they have been wronged. . . . I repeat what I have said often: immediately behind the hippies are the thugs. They occupy the remissive space opened up by the hippies, deepening it from an aesthetic into a politics. The self-absorbed therapy of the hippies clears the way for the mass-murder therapy of the thugs.
He could not refrain from the ultimate epithet: “Released from sacred fear by our remissive teaching elites, transgressives carry their peculiar authority with more right and less shame than ever before in the history of our misery. Hence Hitler and Holocaust . . . Gulag and Dachau, torture and terror, are the dry-eyed children of our enlightenments.”
Despairing, Rieff fell silent until his death 33 years later. (One of his students, Jonathan Imber, published The Feeling Intellect, a valuable collection of Rieff’s occasional writings, in 1990.) He did not, however, cease working. He left behind a mass of manuscripts, which several former students were helping him ready for publication. Charisma is one of them. Another, My Life Among the Deathworks, the first volume of a projected trilogy, Sacred Order/Social Order, appeared last year.
Charisma is not Rieff at his best. The book is repetitive, dense with jargon, impatient of exposition, and more than occasionally intemperate. In form, it is an extended quarrel with Max Weber’s sociology of religion, which relies on the concept of charisma but, according to Rieff, radically misunderstands it. Weber conceived charisma as one of three kinds of legitimate authority—traditional, charismatic, and legal—that characterize all organizations, including religious ones. Traditional authority, typical of primitive societies, derives from inertia and aims at continuity. Legal authority, typical of modern societies and their bureaucracies, derives from methodical reasoning and aims at efficiency. Charismatic authority is untypical and unpredictable; it derives from a singularly compelling, dynamic figure, seemingly gifted by God, and aims at radical reform or innovation. The charismatic figure arises when a tradition or bureaucracy stagnates, and his legacy is inevitably regularized by his uncharismatic successors. Since Weber, the term has been drastically vulgarized and is now mostly employed by journalists or publicists to puff politicians and pop-culture personalities.
Rieff deplores this progressive secularization of charisma and insists on its fundamentally religious significance. “My position is . . . no charisma without creed.” For Rieff, a creed is not primarily theological but moral: a “particular order of interdicts and remissions.” Genuine charisma is not transgressive; it does not abolish limits or license lawlessness. Rather, it imposes new interdicts, a “new organization of avoidances and of salvations through avoidances.” Charismatics satisfy “the need for love in its prototypical form, as a craving for authority, reorganizing its expression within a fresh content of ambivalences.” As he writes, in one of all too many suggestive but obscure passages:
The suffering that is the predicate for a charismatic situation is therefore not material suffering as such, but the deprivation of that authority that is inseparable from the love relation. The revolutionary authority of the charismatic is not a cure when viewed from the perspective of a therapeutically sophisticated culture, but rather, another symptom of the prototypal series with the resistances reorganized to express yet different repressions.
Besides Weber, Rieff engages with the Old Testament prophets, Saint Paul, and Kierkegaard. His exegeses are ingenious and original, and they all yield the same conclusion: religion is prohibition, culture is inhibition, authority is salvation, submission is wisdom, transgression is folly, and criticism of anything but the pretensions of critical reason is impiety. Modern American society has so completely forgotten these lessons that one is constantly expecting to hear Rieff exclaim, like Heidegger, “Only a God can save us.”
• • •
In all his books—indeed, on virtually every page—Rieff propounded a single thesis: the urgent necessity of a “sacred order,” promulgated by a “creedal organization,” consisting of “interdicts and remissions,” admitting of no appeal and no criticism—except, if it should decay, from prophets who either purify and reaffirm the old interdictory order or establish a new one. Without this, he warned continually, no greatness of soul, no lasting happiness, no common life is possible.
And yet Rieff never—not once—suggested what the basis of a plausible sacred order might be. The old faiths, he acknowledged, have lost their hold on Western elites; but he offered no hint, scarcely even any hope, of a new one. It was as though a prophet came among the people, foretold a terrible future, and admonished, “You must believe and obey, or you are lost.” And when the people cried out in earnest, “We cannot abide that future; tell us, then, what to believe and whom to obey,” he replied, “It matters not what or whom; only believe and obey.”
Prescribing religion without specifying any particular theology has become commonplace among social critics, particularly communitarians. They have a point. No society—for that matter, no individual—can flourish without a great deal of trust, devotion, solidarity, and self-discipline. Religion often fosters these things, and not only among coreligionists. But not all forms of freedom are equally dangerous, as Rieff seems to imply. Although untrammeled sexual freedom is not a requirement of human flourishing, any more than the untrammeled freedom to accumulate money, untrammeled intellectual freedom most certainly is. Unquestioned authority is not merely undesirable, it is impossible, a contradiction in terms. Authority is what remains after all questions have been asked, all objections posed, all doubts explored. Until then, there is only superstition or cowed silence. Religious orthodoxy, and in particular the theistic hypothesis, has had many centuries to establish its intellectual authority. Its prospects are dwindling. If trust, devotion, and the other requisites of community depend on a general belief in supernatural agencies, then the triumph of the therapeutic is probably permanent.
Well, then, can we be good without God? Certainly some people can. Marcus Aurelius, David Hume, George Eliot, John Stuart Mill, and William James—undoubtedly (all right, it’s just my opinion) the five most perfect human beings—were not theists. But of course, the existence of exceptions has never been at issue. The question is about the rest of us, run-of-the-mill humanity. What can motivate ordinary men and women to behave decently most of the time and heroically in emergencies?
Perhaps it might help to reduce the many temptations to behave otherwise. Chief among these in 21st-century America are the relentless sexualization of advertising and entertainment, the pervasive economic insecurity engineered by business and government (especially Republican) policies, and the enfeeblement of civic life entailed by extreme laissez-faire ideology. These things make it harder to maintain dignity or restraint and to trust or care about other people. None of them are necessary consequences of skepticism or intellectual freedom, and some of them are promoted most vigorously by people who loudly proclaim themselves religious. Only the first has provoked any organized religious opposition, however, and even then has generated only a fraction of the energy and resources wasted on opposing sex education and the teaching of evolution—not to mention the anti-abortion movement, which would surely prevent more abortions by helping to lower the sexual temperature of consumer marketing than by proselytizing unwed mothers and harassing their physicians.
Just as important as avoiding temptation is acquiring the strength to subdue it. Ordinary people must become heroes, and we can. The deepest determinant of contemporary social psychology is not mass unbelief but mass production. Industrialism has decisively undermined the republican ideals of independence, self-sufficiency, and proprietorship—the “modest competence” postulated by early democratic theorists as the basis of civic virtue and civil equality. It is the practice of demanding skills, rather than fragmented and routinized drudgery, that disciplines us and makes mutual respect and sympathy possible. Work that provides scope for the exercise of virtues and talents; a physical, social, and political environment commensurate in scale with our authentic, non-manufactured needs and appetites; and a much greater degree of equality, with fewer status distinctions, and those resting on inner qualities rather than money—these are the requirements of psychic health at present. The alternative is infantilism and authoritarianism, compensated—at least until the earth’s ecology breaks down—by frantic consumption.
Tracing a society’s predicament to its historical and political roots is more difficult than endlessly excoriating or mocking its most outlandish manifestations. It is also more rewarding. That is why, after reading Freud: The Mind of the Moralist and perhaps also The Triumph of the Therapeutic, those in sympathy with Rieff’s complaint should turn to the writings of Christopher Lasch. In a series of invaluable books, notably The Minimal Self (1984), The True and Only Heaven (1991), and The Revolt of the Elites (1995), Lasch diagnosed contemporary narcissism far more rigorously and persuasively than Rieff. It is the worker’s loss of autonomy, Lasch showed—his dependence on a remote, centralized economic authority—that has produced a culture of unlimited consumption and ersatz self-expression; and it is the disappearance of the household economy, which removed the father’s work life from the child’s experience, that has produced the characteristic modern ambivalence about authority, which Rieff can only blame on rationalist hubris and original sin. This exceptional historical insight, along with a robust, unflagging concern for democracy and equality, set Lasch, morally as well as intellectually, above all other recent critics of modernity.
Lasch has also, it happens, written the best essay I have encountered about Rieff, a chapter in The Revolt of the Elites. After much agreement and praise, he gently rebuked Rieff for falling into a practice that Rieff had himself rightly criticized: recommending religion for purely instrumental reasons. “The issue,” Lasch reminded Rieff, “[is] not whether religion [is] necessary but whether it [is] true.” For that reason, “an honest atheist is always to be preferred to a culture Christian.” Notwithstanding Rieff’s uncompromising anathemas, honest believers and honest unbelievers will need one another if contemporary American society is to be redeemed.
While we have you...
...we need your help. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, help us keep it free for everyone by making a donation. No amount is too small. You will be helping us cultivate a public sphere that honors pluralism of thought for a diverse and discerning public.
July 01, 2007
16 Min read time