If we had an Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, the level to which our public culture has dropped might be charted by the fact that in the summer and autumn quarters of 1990, our dominant cultural elites were unable or unwilling to explain why the exhibition of photographs of a man with the handle of a bull whip in his anus should not be subsidized by the national government. Indeed, those who insisted that this was not an achievement worthy of collective support were angrily and contemptuously characterized by most of the cultural establishment as intellectual Neanderthals, too primitive to comprehend the nature of culture, which we were told must necessarily be committed to the exploration of ever-new areas of experience. This reveals a deficit of moral resources far deeper and more troubling than our more noted budget and trade deficits.
Perhaps the most acute analyst of the sources and consequences of this cultural deficit is the social critic Philip Rieff, whose work of the last four decades has warned repeatedly of the conflict between the dominant trends among modern intellectuals and the maintenance of moral decency. “If every limit can be seen as a limitation of personality, the question with which we may confront every opportunity is: after all, why not?,” he has written. “Our smarts lead to more and more discoveries of exceptions to every rule. Such smartlichkeit cannot prevail over menschlichkeit without destroying it.”
While Rieff has had his share of the honors which American academic life offers—in addition to a chair in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, he has taught at Berkeley, Harvard, and Oxford, and has held prestigious lectureships at Yale, Princeton, and Columbia—his renown is hardly commensurate with his intellectual achievement. A decade and a half ago, Joseph Epstein referred to the title of Rieff’s second book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, as “prophetic,” and indeed the phrase is now widely used—but with no sense of its provenance. For Philip Rieff is far from a household name, even in the most learned of households. While Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind was a best-seller, Rieff’s Fellow Teachers, which made many of the same points with great poignancy some fifteen years earlier, has remained a hot tip.
Rieff’s limited readership may be regretted, but it is not entirely a mystery. To begin with, there is his style. My initial exposure to Rieff came with The Triumph of the Therapeutic, and my first reaction was that it was a fascinating work, which merited translation into English. Rieff’s subsequent books and essays have on the whole been even more difficult. Yet this difficulty is neither incidental not unintended. In challenging the unquestioned assumptions of the dominant culture of the academy, Rieff has adopted a style aphoristic, allusive, and ironic all at once. His Socratic approach leaves it to the reader to discover his key insights, which are less often stated outright than suggested by dramatic examples.
Since 1979, the University of Chicago Press has quietly, all too quietly, reissued Rieff’s three major works—Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959); Fellow Teachers: Of Culture and Its Second Death (1973); and The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966)—in new editions which include important subsequent reflections. They have gone virtually unreviewed. Now, thanks to Jonathan Imber, we have a new collection of his essays, first published in a variety of journals or as critical introductions to the writings of figures as diverse as the German Protestant theologian Adolf Harnack, the American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley, and Oscar Wilde.1 While readers already convinced of Rieff’s intellectual stature are very much in Imber’s debt, his introduction to The Feeling Intellect is unfortunately likely to turn new readers away. Rather than providing a translation of key terms and a pathway into Rieff’s concerns, Imber assumes a knowledge of what Rieff has written. Still, the publication of these collected essays, which span the last four decades, does offer an occasion to review the oeuvre of one of the most profound conservative minds in America, and to suggest that the intellectual and moral profit to be gained from his works merits the investment of time and mental energy they demand.
For the source of Rieff’s central concern, one can turn to his 1952 review of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. In that book Rieff found the notion that the mass murders in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia were “a revelation of the abyss of possibility.” “Man emancipated from his particularity becomes not human but demonic,” he wrote. It is this presentiment—of the reality of the deeply embedded human inclination to do evil—which underlies much of Rieff’s subsequent writing. The barrier that keeps men from sliding into the “abyss of possibility” Rieff calls “culture.”
While most contemporary theorists have followed Clifford Geertz in stressing the aesthetic or symbolic nature of cultures, Rieff by contrast has insisted upon the centrality of moral demands in cultural systems. According to Rieff, cultures are based on a shared vision of ideal behavior, including behavior which is forbidden. Following common usage, he conceives of this shared vision in spatial terms: that which is most moral is “highest”; that which is absolutely forbidden is “lowest.” The highest warrant for each cultural system Rieff calls its “god-terms”; forbidden behavior he terms the culture’s “transgressive depths.”
For Rieff, a morally desirable culture is one in which the system of moral demands is so deeply accepted by individuals that the evil instinctual possibilities of which men are always capable are generally felt to be repugnant: so repugnant that they are not even spoken of directly. Education is the process by which individuals internalize their culture’s “consensus of shalt nots.” The most important educational institution has traditionally been the family, where cultural authority is first instilled. Then, through creeds and institutions, individuals are trained in the necessary limitation of their possibilities. The proper role of those most versed in their culture’s creed—intellectuals—is primarily to aid in the educative process by which our culturally acquired character keeps us from sliding individually or collectively into the “abyss of possibility.”
Now, if much of Rieff’s theory of culture sounds familiar, and even recalls the wisdom of the ages, that, by Rieff’s reckoning, is all to the good. “I am glad to say that I have never had an original thought in my life,” Rieff writes with rhetorical overstatement, “I owe my every thought to some predeceasor.” It is part of Rieff’s enterprise to recover—especially by a close reading of texts ranging from Plato and the Bible through Freud and Kafka—the wisdom that is too often forgotten in contemporary social theory and academic education. Indeed, it is precisely such wisdom which, according to Rieff, his “cultured” contemporaries are least likely to have, and which in today’s institutions of higher education they are least likely to obtain. For the ironic message which pervades Rieff’s work is that modern culture has become not higher but lower; that much of higher education has a lowering effect; and that the growth of a cultural elite which disdains the need to resist transgression and temptation, or which regards such things as primitive “taboos,” has contributed to the spread, precisely, of primitivism.
In this process Freud has played a key if ambiguous role. For almost four decades, Freud has been the most frequent subject of Rieff’s inquiries. His Freud: The Mind of the Moralist remains his best-known and best-selling book; his second book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud, picks up thematically and chronologically where the earlier one left off, and in between Rieff edited a ten-volume series of Freud’s Collected Papers.
The welcome accorded in the late 50’s to Rieff’s exegesis of Freud undoubtedly had something to do, for many intellectuals, with their disillusionment with Marxism. This disillusionment had been chronicled and spurred by Lionel Trilling’s novel of ideas, The Middle of the Journey, published in 1947. But there was no Middle of the Analysis; on the contrary, for those who were now placing their faith in Freud, analysis was interminable, a sort of permanent revolution in one ego. Rieff’s work thus did for Freudianism what Trilling’s had done for Marxism—but it did so in a highly subtle and ironic fashion. Freud: The Mind of the Moralist was among the first works to interpret Freud as a moral and ethical theorist. Using the language of the humanities and social sciences, Rieff lavished on Freud the same exegetical attention traditionally reserved for the great texts of philosophy; in fact, he frequently compared Freud’s views with those of Plato or Augustine.
There is no doubt that Rieff’s work was a milestone in the acceptance of Freud into the American academic canon. Yet Freud: The Mind of the Moralist was an ambivalent work. On the one hand, the book asserted repeatedly that Freud was a great mind, and a rather conservative one at that: in contrast to a widely shared impression of Freud as a legitimator of sexual revolution and instinctual expression, Rieff showed that Freud regarded the social repression of instincts as necessary and inevitable (if, in practice, often overdone). On the other hand, the book contained learned and pointed critiques of the arbitrariness of Freud’s interpretative method and of the fundamental misogyny within his intellectual system. And its deeper thrust was more critical still.
Rieff saw in Freud the catalyst of a new cultural sensibility. Central to this sensibility was the premise that those things which had always been regarded as high or ultimate were actually the sublimated expressions of something lower, in this case the (sexual) instincts. In Freud’s scheme, the feeling of parents toward their children became “parental narcissism,” that of children toward their parents became repressed Oedipal desire, the bond between leader and follower became a neurotic identification, and religion was reinterpreted as mass obsessional neurosis. For those steeped in the Freudian sensibility, to be rational was to learn to see through the veil, to be suspicious of altruism, of public commitments, and of religious belief, all of which were sources of guilt. Whereas the previous dominant culture of the West had taught that a bad conscience was the result of repressing one’s higher, moral nature, Freud maintained that guilt was a result of repressing one’s lower, instinctual nature.
Freud was, in Rieff’s term, a “parodist” of previous political and religious cultures, who by creating “a science exhibiting the pathology of moral aspiration” offered an intellectually powerful rationale for self-concern in the narrowest terms. Psychoanalysis delegitimated inherited cultural identities, while helping to create a new cultural ideal—“psychological man”—committed only to “his own careful economy of the inner life.” This new therapeutic type was schooled against binding, permanent commitments; for him the bottom line of every social contract was the escape clause.
For Rieff, the culture of therapy and analysis is the antithesis of high culture: by “deconverting” the individual from inherited religious and historical commands and understandings, it makes the mind open and pliable, rather than stable and trustworthy. The culture of therapy is entirely a “remissive” culture, more adept at excusing or explaining away the “shalt nots” of the past than at offering compelling reasons of its own for moral behavior. It has thus paved the way for a revolt against cultural constraints which Freud himself would not have applauded.
Intellectuals, the first to adopt the culture of therapy, have been most responsible for its diffusion into the larger culture. In Fellow Teachers Rieff explored (among a panoply of other topics) the process of that diffusion. This most unusual book originated in responses to questions about his work posed by the editors of the journal Salmagundi; a loosely linked series of reflections, it proceeds in part by means of comments on texts by a theologian (Kierkegaard), a playwright (Pirandello), and a novelist (John Barth). Fellow Teachers is an allusive, learned, and self-revelatory document, one which sharpened many of Rieff’s earlier themes and presented in aphoristic form the directions of his subsequent work.
To be truly cultured in Rieff’s sense means to draw moral strength and identity from one’s culture and to recognize one’s indebtedness to those from whom one has acquired a knowledge of ultimate truths and ultimate transgressions. Yet according to Rieff, from their teachers in the humanities and social sciences, students today are likely to get the opposite of what they most need. Those who come into the universities with a firm historical or religious identity are encouraged to abandon it for the sake of a critical stance which purports to be rational and universal but is capable only of demonstrating the arbitrariness of inherited authority. Instead of being taught the need for binding commands, students are “transgressively educated; cart is put before the horse, criticism before loyalty to that which is criticized.”
Rieff’s Fellow Teachers lays bare the inner logic of what was soon to become the powerful academic current of “deconstruction.” Uniting the many who lay claim to this label is a belief in the possibility of unmasking all cultural authority as essentially arbitrary and based upon mere power. Retained from Freud is not so much the content of his teaching as his interpretative method, which is used by deconstructionists to reveal how cultural authority is “really” a reflection of the power of those who share one or another ideologically suspect attribute—white skin, male gender, heterosexuality, or whatever. The decision of what to teach and how to teach it then becomes a function of the political power, nowadays very considerable, which can be brought to bear against the old dispensation. The work of the novelist Alice Walker gets into the core curriculum by virtue of the support of the feminist, black, and lesbian caucuses; how many troops has Plato, or Augustine, or Kant?
A pervasive theme of modern social thought to which Rieff calls attention in Fellow Teachers and elsewhere is the reductive explanation of religion, the assertion in a variety of forms that the divine is “really” something else. From Feuerbach to Durkheim, Rieff noted in an early essay, liberals have treated religion as a form of social integration, while other theorists have exposed God as “the dummy acting for social order and especially for the weakest in it.” For Marx, of course, religion was the opiate of the masses; for Freud, God was a projection of infantile helplessness. Related to this theme is the denial that moral standards have any objective basis. As a consequence, Rieff notes, secular intellectuals often share the prejudice that the morally good person is unlikely to be very clever—the good are those who have not caught on to the fact that their morality has no objective warrant. Yet contemporary intellectuals immersed in this critical culture can teach only one critique of meaning after another. They may open the door to “liberation,” but beyond that door lies the personal meaninglessness that comes from having to choose and choose again, without compelling grounds for choice.
On what ground, then, does Rieff himself stand? In Fellow Teachers, Rieff portrayed himself as among those mired in the cultural contradictions of the critical/ therapeutic world view, “stuck with our faith in criticism, only marginally different from popular versions of the endless expressional quest or liberated understandings.” The message of that book was not prophetic but prophylactic: a warning, to those on the road, of the dead end that lay ahead.
In Rieff’s subsequent work, however, and above all in a long epilogue (1979) to Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, a new prologue (1985) to Fellow Teachers, and several essays now available in The Feeling Intellect, Rieff has made increasingly explicit a message that can only be called religious, though not in any denominational sense. There is an ultimate warrant for moral action, and men do have some intuitive sense of it which cannot be adequately described in rational or scientific terms but which expresses itself in our sense of guilt. That ultimate authority, in the Jewish and Christian traditions, is the eternal Creator who refers to Himself in Exodus 3:14 as “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh” (“I am that I am”); it is through our apprehension of this authority that, according to Rieff, we are able to repress the evil possibilities within us.
Here Rieff steps outside the role of the sociologist and into the role of the religious apologist, asserting the reality of a God Who is apprehended in a variety of ways in the historical cultures which recognize Him. Rieff asserts that much of modern critical thought is an attempt to deny or repress this reality, which he terms “sacred order,” and the saving guilt which is its most tangible expression and which enables the individual to recognize the power of evil and decide to act against it.
Needless to say, this message is literally incredible in the critical culture in which many of Rieff’s potential readers live. Since their likely response is to laugh it out of court, Rieff must convince them they are laughing in the dark. This may help explain the peculiarity of his prose, and of his pose. The prose has become increasingly poetic, expressing in metaphorical terms a reality which must be felt before it can be intellectualized and which cannot be reached from within the premises of a rationalist social science that does not provide a vocabulary to say what most needs to be said. The pose resembles one described by Rieff himself in an essay of 1959 entitled “The Evangelist Strategy.” The role of the modern religious apologist, he wrote then, is to reach those outside the faith, and to confront them with a choice between “fatal meaninglessness and saving meaning.” This has become Rieff’s chosen role as well, to awaken his cultured readers to the limits of the therapeutic world view.
Since his intended audience is the one least inclined to heed his message, Rieff often resorts to commentary and exegesis of texts that are regarded as holy in their canon. His evangelism is of a very subtle and intellectually demanding variety: far from threatening the “cultured” reader with the torments of a future hell or the possibility of losing life after death, Rieff argues that the repression of moral sense in the culture of the therapeutic leads to a sort of spiritual numbness which is death in life. “We reeducated ones,” he writes in Fellow Teachers, “we are the culturally deprived.”
Rieff also calls attention to the disastrous social effects of the denial of the possibility of transgression. “In the mind of our remissive elites, there is always an excusing reason for everything,” Rieff notes in the most recent essay in The Feeling Intellect. Once the human body is no longer regarded as the temple of God, how long will it be before rape is redefined as a “paraphiliac coercive disorder”? As shamelessness becomes the idealized state of things, who will explain what is not to be done and why? In our public culture, as Rieff has been predicting for decades, “Why not?” has become the most unanswerable of intellectual questions. Rieff has tried to convey the frightening consequences of the inability to answer that question, and to hint at an adequate response.
Philip Rieff has produced no school, he does not have a ready-made constituency, and readers of almost every sort will find much in his work with which to disagree. He straddles ideological lines, disciplinary boundaries, and religious traditions. Some conservatives may object to his disdain for economic improvement. His defense of a sort of generic monotheism may cause discomfort to those committed to the exclusive truth of Judaism or of Christianity, while his suggestion that our body politic requires some sort of religious renewal will lead others to reach for their ACLU cards. Even those convinced by the thrust of Rieff’s analysis will find that it raises questions to which Rieff does not offer answers, such as the limited possibilities of shared cultural consensus in a society which legitimates a high degree of religious and cultural pluralism. Since Rieff has been unwilling to step into the role of prophet, there is no Gospel according to Philip. But even without a full prognosis, he has proved a remarkable diagnostician of our cultural ailments, and his work constitutes a cultural resource which may yet help us to recover from our present moral deficits.
1 The Feeling Intellect: Selected Writings, edited and with an introduction by Jonathan Imber, University of Chicago Press, 401 pp., $19.95.