Reading Philip Rieff (right) is like "chewing ball-bearings". Credit: Duane Howell/The Denver Post/Getty

September 29, 2021   7 mins

A little over a half-century ago, the sociologist Philip Rieff announced the “triumph of the therapeutic” with his 1966 book of the same name. Perhaps because the phrase itself is so striking, it has been widely cited but only rarely understood.

It seems intuitively obvious, almost tautological, to say that we live in a “therapeutic culture”. Even if we no longer speak of our id or superego, our everyday language is filled with pop-psychiatric jargon — trauma, grief, and abuse; narcissism and “borderline personality” and PTSD. When Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described her experience during the January 6 riot to her followers on Instagram, she spoke of her “trauma” and her status as a “survivor” of sexual assault, while accusing Republicans who downplayed the event of using the “tactics of abusers”. Not that she’s alone: the conservative Daily Signal has accused AOC herself of “gaslighting” the public over rising crime rates.

But Rieff’s point was not merely that we had come to view ourselves in therapeutic terms, supplanting older moral and religious modes of evaluation. He was making an argument about the wider implications of this shift in perspective — a shift that he considered to be, without exaggeration, the most important cultural development in the West since the Enlightenment. Indeed, Rieff saw it as nothing short of an apocalypse. Modern therapeutic culture, in his view, had become what he called in his later writings an “anti-culture”: a negation of the very idea of culture that, because it set itself in opposition to everything that had traditionally given human lives meaning, was inherently unstable. It could not reproduce itself indefinitely, and would be succeeded, Rieff predicted, by barbarism and chaos.

Although chiefly remembered today for his brief marriage to Susan Sontag, Rieff was a brilliant, if idiosyncratic, thinker who developed a strange and powerful critique of modern culture. Born in Chicago, in 1922, to Lithuanian-Jewish parents, he flirted with Marxism in his early years — during World War II, he was surveilled by the FBI as a potential subversive —  before shifting his attention to Freud. His first book, 1959’s Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, was a popular success that offered a revisionist account of Freud arguing for his importance as the premier cultural theorist of modernity.

The Triumph of the Therapeutic appeared seven years later, in which Rieff examined Freudian psychoanalysis by contrasting it with the theories of three of his “successor-critics”: Wilhelm Reich, Carl Jung, and D.H. Lawrence. Each of these three, Rieff argued, recognised that Freud had dealt a near-fatal blow to traditional religious morality but were unsatisfied with his refusal to construct a new ethical system in its place; each, in their own way, sought to use the techniques of therapy to create a new surrogate faith. Triumph was also the first glimpse of the polemical anti-modernism that would characterise Rieff’s later work. Though he continued to affect a pose of scholarly detachment, he was clearly disturbed by the apparent victory of the Freudian worldview. As the social critic Norman O Brown, a fan, said of the book: “instead of souls we have neuroses, instead of sacraments we have shows.”

Rieff’s later work would prove reactionary, hermetic, and sparse. In 1973, he published Fellow Teachers, a jeremiad against the counterculture and what he considered to be the degradation of the “sacred” institution of the university. It won a handful of admirers, including Brown and George Steiner, but it was too strange for anything like mass appeal. Rieff subsequently retreated from public life for the remainder of his career. He taught, published little, and concentrated on research for a magnum opus in which he hoped to give a systematic account of his theory of human culture. He eventually abandoned the project and passed what he had completed over to former students. The results were finally published as the trilogy Sacred Order/Social Order, the first volume of which, My Life Among the Deathworks, came out in 2006, the year of Rieff’s death.

Thanks to the cryptic style in which it is written, Sacred Order/Social Order is a tremendously difficult work to read — one critic compared it to “chewing ball bearings; every once in a while there is a cherry”. In it, Rieff does, finally, offer something like a schematic for his theory of culture, delivered in strange expository passages sandwiched in between his close readings of “deathworks”, the sociologist’s term for the modern works of art and literature (Joyce, Kafka, Nietzsche, etc.) which have served to naturalise what he considered to be the therapeutic rebellion against authority.

All societies, in Rieff’s telling, are sacred, in that they point to an authority beyond themselves. The task of “culture” is to “transliterate otherwise invisible sacred orders into their visible modalities — social orders”. This “transliteration” occurs by rendering the moral commandments given in advance by a culture’s highest authority — God, in the case of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim civilisation; the primitive vitality of nature in the case of classical pagan civilisation — into terms that people can understand and internalise, so as to regulate their behaviour in line with their culture’s conception of good and evil. Ensuring that this transliteration takes place is the task of the cultural elite (or “officer class”), who control both the character-forming institutions and the symbolic language through which commandments are expressed within the secular world.

Rieff believed that the commandments of sacred authority always come originally and primarily in the form of “interdicts”, or prohibitions — “Thou shalt not” sleep with your mother or covet your neighbour’s wife. “No” comes before “yes,” and “no” is the ultimate origin of culture. It is only by first restricting the legitimate range of behaviours, and in particular the expressions of instinct or libidinal energy, that cultures can be said to operate on their members. Culture is repression.

Why did Rieff consider repression primary? As Antonius AW Zondervan explains in his excellent Sociology and the Sacred, Rieff came to this idea through his study of Freud. In Freud’s theory, repression is triggered when an idea is so intolerable or offensive that it would cause the conscious self — the ego — immense psychic distress to become conscious of it. But, Rieff asked, intolerable or offensive to what? Initially, Freud might have answered: to the superego, the part of our psyche that represents internalised social morality. But, Rieff pointed out, Freud later came to believe that repression was not merely a function of superego prohibitions but could also be triggered by an unconscious part of the ego itself.

Rieff thought Freud’s admission — of the existence of an unconscious ego repressing intolerable thoughts — should revolutionise our understanding of the psyche. It meant that the “interdicts” are not merely “social morality” but are sunk so deeply into the structure of the self as to effectively constitute it; they are what shape a formless mass of instincts into a person. They represent a primal, unconscious morality whose origin Rieff traced to the sacred commandments at the heart of our culture’s religious tradition. We can obey or transgress them but never abolish them.

All this may seem quite esoteric, but it is important for understanding Rieff’s account of therapeutic culture. The modern West, in his telling, is the first culture in history that has attempted to deny the legitimacy of the interdicts and to live without some form of sacred authority. Therapy is our means of getting away with this denial. The therapeutic ethos teaches us to overcome the guilt and shame, especially around sexuality, prompted by what we have come to regard as the unrealistic, unhealthy, and oppressive moral prohibitions inherited from Christianity. But because, for Rieff, these prohibitions are a core part of our psyche, therapeutic culture can only ever lead to their transgression or negation, never to their genuine overcoming. He believed, for instance, that sexual liberation was seen as a positive ideal purely because it transgressed the inherited Christian virtue of chastity. It was good because it was the opposite of what our religion used to teach; it had no positive value in itself.

Indeed, this is how Rieff came to understand our culture war. He believed that the Western elite had abdicated its responsibility to continue transmitting moral commandments, instead embracing an ethic of liberation and transgression designed to free themselves from the too-strict demands of the interdicts. But because this cultural shift had penetrated deeply only among elites, the result was a constant war between the “officer class” and the population at large, who still clung to a basically traditional conception of the moral order. Elite cultural output — both the modernist high art that Rieff analysed and the pop culture of our own day — had become a series of “deconversion therapies” attempting to train the lower classes out of their supposedly primitive superstitions, which in his telling were actually the vestiges of a sacred impulse toward transcendence.

For Rieff, of course, such efforts were doomed to failure. Even if the therapeutic elite succeeded in loosening the hold of the interdicts, they could not create new ones because their moral codes referred to no transcendent authority. Injunctions to be nice and rational, or not to be a “shitty person”, simply cannot burrow their way into our unconscious selves in the same way as commands from God. But without these commands to bind us together into a “saving larger self”, we are subject to persistent existential unease — a small, nagging sense that there should be something more to life, some higher meaning, than earning money and consuming sensory experiences. Indeed, to live according to the therapeutic ethos is, according to Rieff, to deny our nature as human beings. We crave the limitations, and the clarity and meaning, provided by a genuine authoritative culture, and we cannot live without them indefinitely.

Rieff’s is a strange sort of counsel. As both Christopher Lasch and George Scialabba have noted in essays about his work, he is an atheistic defender of the social and existential necessity of religion; Brown compared him, with some justice, to Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, armed with the tools of psychoanalysis rather than Catholic dogma. Others might be inclined to place him alongside Oswald Spengler as a blackpilled mystic of Western decline.

But it is hard not to notice certain resonances between Rieff’s doomsaying and some of the stranger political developments of our own time. On the Left, the rise of wokeness or “cancel culture” can be read as the expression of a longing, among the children of our therapeutic culture, to revive some idea of Good and Evil, to erect taboos and restrictions and impose a new moral order. On the Right, the cultural and intellectual energy is with those who, whether they speak in religious terms or not, denounce the “degeneracy” of the modern West and long for a restoration of traditional authority. Even something as strange as the QAnon conspiracy theory expresses something of the primitive religiosity Rieff believed was built into our psyches: faced with a world they believe is out of joint, Q believers posit an elite cabal guilty of one of the few crimes, paedophilia, for which the old interdicts retain their full force. And that is to say nothing of the results of America’s efforts to transplant therapeutic culture into Afghanistan.

Rieff predicted that the logical endpoint of therapeutic culture was an orgy of violence — “Immediately behind the hippies stand the thugs,” as he wrote in Fellow Teachers. Such an orgy is still nowhere on the horizon. But I suspect we should take seriously his suggestion that somewhere deep in our minds is a longing for, or at least a receptivity to, the demands of the sacred, which also happen to be the one thing that our culture seems genuinely comfortable repressing. And as good therapeutics, we can always count on the return of the repressed.

Park MacDougald is Deputy Literary Editor for Tablet