The Triumph of the Therapeutic

The Triumph of the Therapeutic
by: Philip Rieff

Excerpts and thoughts of mine on the preface and introduction.

From the Preface is Rieff quoting two historians summary of his work:
"If the dominant character type of the twentieth century is really what Rieff calls 'psychological man,' the consequences for western society are quite incalculable."
This is certainly true. If man is a psychological creature than we must use the weapons of psychology to turn him to toward the defensive weaponry of Christianity, ethnic solidarity, epistemology, etc. Simply concentrating on VanTillian presuppositionalism will do no good when men are no longer motivated by philosophies, but by psychologies.

From the Introduction:
Literature and sociology have long supplied eloquent and knowing professional mourners at the wake for Christian culture. After Matthew Arnold, much of modern poetry [he quotes Yeats in the very beginning of the Intoduction] constitutes an elegiac farewell... ...to the religious culture of the West. After Auguste Comte, much of modern sociology has struggled for diagnostic ideas refined and yet wide enough to encompass the spectacle of a death so great in magnitude and subtlety. Now the dissolution of a unitary system of common belief, accompanied, as it must be, by a certain disorganization of personality, may have run its course.
Rieff seems to be stating in this passage that the central crisis of our time - this dissolution of personhood and entropy of personality - is a culture war where the combatants are fighting to "organize" (this has the faint smell of technocratic and bureaucratic totalitarianism parading itself as scientific management with disinterested and rationalized dispassionate concern only for the psychological well being of mankind) the human psyche.

He goes on to state that the:
...long period of deconversion, which first broke the surface of political history at the time of the French Revolution, appears all but ended.
and that:
several systems of belief (are) competing for primacy in the task of organizing personality in the West.
Hence, the "culture war." The "cult" is the cult of personality.

On the preservation of culture:
A culture survives principally, I think, by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons which sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood -- with that understanding of which explicit belief and precise knowledge of externals would show outwardly like the tip of an iceberg... binding even the ignorants of a culture in a great chain of meaning.
This idea of Rieff's, in my opinion, eventually germinated and sprouted into his idea that if a man is aware of his repressions, they aren't. The iceberg itself isn't cognizant of what is underneath itself under the water; it only sees its own reflection which is, in Rieff's words the directed and outward projection "toward those communal purposes in which alone the self can be realized and satisfied."

A reorganization of those dialectical expressions of Yes and No the interplay of which constitutes culture, transforming motive into conduct, is occurring throughout the West, particularly in the United States and England. It is to be expected that some instruments appropriate to our inherited organization of permissions and restraints upon action [monogamy, fidelity, obeying the spirit of the law, etc] will not survive the tension of fundamental reorganization. But, suppose the tension is driven deeper--so deep that all communications of ideals come under permanent and easy suspicion? The question is no longer as Dostoevsky put it: Can civilized men believe?" But rather: Can unbelieving men be civilized?
Rieff goes on to state that restoration of a past faith will inevitably bring on the reliving of the nightmare of the first half of the twentieth century and that the great poets all wished for what those of us know is a radically un-Christian idea of a return to initial, or original innocence, which is a concept that is fundamentally at odds with our espoused Calvinism.
In our recovered innocence, to be entertained would become the highest good and boredom the most common evil.
I'm all for restoring the "sense of play" in acts of creation and invention at the loom, till, craft and trades in the Laschian sense, but Rieff seems to suggest something different here. I can't quite put my finger on it. Rieff scandalously suggests that this inversion of the doctrines of Total Depravity and Original Sin is the longed for "centre" of Yeats and is capable of holding the self together in these psychologically trying times.

He recklessly, foolishly and Judaically abandons psychology to the express purpose of
(reconstructing) culture so... that faith--some compelling symbolic of self-integrating communal purpose--need no longer superintend the organization of personality.
I think perhaps this is at odds with some of his later work and ideas where he expressly calls for the re-imposition of a massive and constrictive super-ego that is essentially Calvinistic in outlook but lacks the Christ. He wants all the benefits of Christianity but none of the Christ!

Rieff takes a bit of a turn toward the fascistic elitism of the neo-Pagans and others here: [quote]
Never before has there been such a general shifting of sides as now among intellectuals in the United States and England. Many have gone over to the enemy... and ...have become spokesmen for what Freud called the instinctual "mass." Much of modern literature constitutes a symbolic act of going over to the side of the latest, and most original, individualist. This represents the complete democratization of our culture.

It was in order to combat just such talented hostility to culture that Freud emphasized coercion and the renunciation of instinct as indispensable elements in all culture... "It is just as impossible," he writes, "to do without control of the mass by a minority as it is to dispense with coercion in the work of civilization."... ...That such large numbers of the cultivated and intelligent have identified themselves deliberately with those who are supposed to have no love for instinctual renunciation, suggests to me the most elaborate act of suicide that Western intellectuals have ever staged... ...I suspect the children of Israel did not spend much time elaborating a doctrine of the golden calf; they naively danced around it, until Moses, their first intellectual, put a stop to the plain fun and insisted on civilizing them, by submerging their individualities within a communal purpose... ...Confronted thus with a picture gallery as the new center of self-worship, civilized men must become again anti-art, in the hope of shifting attention toward modalities of worship wholly other than that of self.
He goes on to elaborate on what could be considered a healthy and properly conservative, cultural dynamic here:
Every culture must establish itself as a system of moralizing demands, images that mark the trail of each man's memory; thus to distinguish right actions from wrong the inner ordinances are set, by which men are guided in their conduct so as to assure a mutual security of contact. Culture is, indeed, the higher learning, But, this higher learning is not acquired at universities; rather, it is assimilated continuously from earliest infancy when human beings first begin to trust in those familiar responses others make to their overtures. In every culture, there stands a censor, governing the opportunity of recognizing and responding to novel stimuli. That governor, inclined always to be censorious about novelty, we may call "faith." Faith is the compulsive dynamic of culture, channeling obedience to, trust in, and dependence upon authority.
A strong and healthy conservative culture will fight against the injection of novelty into the social landscape instinctively and with great vigor. This is a basic principle articulated most thoroughly and most competently by many, but initially by men like de Maistre and Burke.

This is also a place where Hannah Arendt's concept of historical "break" comes into play in my opinion. What we have now is an entirely new phenomenon under the sun, it is a group of cultural creators who are indifferent and they express this through the rigorous defense of pluralism, relativism and nihilism. They contradict all faith by contradicting the very idea of faith. Hence, the push to glorify homosexuals, pederasts, and all other forms of psychological and sexual perversion. They are the welcoming hosts of all things exotic and as Rieff stated before, the most eloquent defenders of the teeming mass of the diverse everyman; an everyman who is his own king, prophet, priest and lawyer completely atomized and disconnected from any greater fabric than that of the cloak of his own ego.

Hence the "No person is illegal" slogan. It reveals much more about the psyche of the individuals repeating this platitudinal mantra than they themselves realize since it is a moral judgment and not simply political sloganeering. They've internalized the "anti-culture" and are exporting it from the abundance of their hearts.

Rieff begins, at this point, to despair:
The culture to which I was first habituated grows progressively different in its symbolic nature and in its human product; that double difference and how ordained augments our ambivalence as professional mourners. There seems little likelihood of a great rebirth of the old corporate ideals. The "proletariat" was the most recent notable corporate identity, the latest failed god. By this time men may have gone too far, beyond the old deception of good and evil, to specialize at last, wittingly, in techniques that are to be called, in the present volume, "therapeutic," with nothing at stake beyond a manipulatable sense of well-being.
Dwell on that last sentence for a while. That is directly where erudite, Godless, idolatry leads.

Rieff finally lets on as to what the stone masons and architects of our Babylon are really undertaking to build:
What the ignorant have always felt, the knowing now know, after millennial distractions by stratagems that did not heighten [or pan out at all, ever] the more immediate pleasures. The systematic hunting down of all settled convictions represents the anti-cultural predicate upon which modern personality is being reorganized, now not in the West only but, more slowly, in the non-West. The Orient and Africa are thus being acculturated in a dynamism that has already grown substantial enough to torment its progenitors with nightmares of revenge for having so unsettled the world. It is a terrible error to see the West as conservative and the East as revolutionary. We are the true revolutionaries. The East is swiftly learning to act as we do, which is anti-conservative in a way non-Western peoples have only recently begun to fully to realize for themselves.
With what, at first glance, seems like stunning prescience and foresight, Rieff predicts the decade of the 70's (although from the vantage point of the late 60's, I'm not that impressed) with particular acumen as a response to hyper-critical elitism:
Each culture is its own order of therapy--a system of moralizing demand, including remissions that ease the pressures of communal purposes. Therapeutic elites before our own were predominately supportive rather than critical of cultures as a moral demand system. Admonitions were the expectable predicates of consolations; that is what is meant, nowadays, by "guilt" culture. Whenever therapeutic elites grow predominately critical then a cultural revolution may be said to be in progress. Ours is such a time. The Occident has long been such a place.
With a little luck, our counter-revolution may be underway, precipitated in our era by the election of Obama combined with rapid demographic transformation and the economic stagnation we are experiencing. People scapegoat. It is a theological necessity, inescapable concept and imperative inherent in the human psyche and soul, placed there as a part of the very image of God that He burned into our souls. We seek absolution through the death and destruction of substitutes. The current crop of hyper-critical elites scapegoat us poor and simple White folk without realizing that it is a two way street and without understanding the great power this process can stimulate in the masses.

I will refrain from making a judgment about the actual level of Jewish culpability for the standard charges against them, but the typical historical European reaction against the Jews - whether completely justified or not - is a fitting and appropriate example of this phenomenon. Expulsion of the other, the placing of them outside the camp to symbolize their guilt.

Really, the process of cultural revolution, in my opinion, is a Christophony of sorts. The revolutionaries transfer their guilt onto their substitutes and are atoned. Once cleansed, they begin to rebuild the torn down temples of the guilty parties. This is why Christ goes alone to His death; we all killed Him and we repeat this "cyclically" in the Spenglerian sense throughout our history.

Rieff goes on to quote Max Scheler in describing what I think is a Scriptural definition of the underlying purpose for the Christian drive to denounce sin and repent:
Christian asceticism--at least so far as it was not influenced by decadent Hellenistic philosophy--had as its purpose not the suppression or even extirpation of natural drives, but rather their control and complete spiritualization. It is positive, not negative, asceticism--aimed fundamentally at a liberation of the highest powers of personality from blockage by the automatism of the lower drives.
The real and ugly head of atheistic existentialism has finally reared itself violently upward, defiant and unwavering in its mission to be unruled and unorganized. Rieff again:
Our cultural revolution does not aim, like its predecessors, at victory for some rival commitment, but rather at a way of using all commitments, which amounts to loyalty toward none. By psychologizing about themselves interminably, Western men are learning to use their internality against the primacy of any particular organization of personality.
Indeed, Western men are learning how to use their internality to do battle against all. Bellum unus contra omnes!

This is the egalitarian fantasy unmasked.

It is every man woman and child for themselves in social warfare of epic proportions with no safe port, harbor, trench or fort. The home, the marriage, the school and the church have become a war zone. Rieff states that if this final cultural transformation takes root, if this
restructuring of the Western imagination succeeds in establishing itself, complete with institutional regimens, then human autonomy from the compulsions of culture may follow the freedoms already won from the compulsions of nature. With such a victory, culture, as previously understood, need suffer no further defeats. it is conceivable that millennial distinctions between inner and outer experience, private and public life, will become trivial. The individual heart need have no reasons of its own that the corporate head cannot understand and exploit for some augmentation of the individual's sense of well-being. Thinking need not produce nausea or despair as its final answer to the assessment of communal purpose because men well have ceased to seek any salvation other than amplitude in living itself.
Rieff predicts the astonishingly brisk rise of reality television, social networking (i.e. Facebook, Myspace) and the internet persona:
There will be more theater, not less, and no Puritan will denounce the stage and draw its curtains. On the contrary, I expect that modern society will mount psychodramas far more frequently than its ancestors mounted miracle plays, with patient-analysts acting out their inner lives, after which they could extemporize the final act as interpretation. We shall even institutionalize the hospital-theater the Verfremdungseffekt, with the therapeutic triumphantly enacting his own discovered will.
Interestingly, LaVey believed that emotionally evocative psychodrama had a place within Satanism.

Finally, Rieff concludes the introduction thusly:
The wisdom of the next social order... ...would not reside in right doctrine, administered by the right men, who must be found, but rather in doctrines amounting to permission for each man to live an experimental life. Thus, once again culture will give back what it has taken away. All governments will be just, so long as they secure that consoling plenitude of option in which modern satisfaction really consists. In this way the emergent culture could drive the value problem clean out of the social system and, limiting it to a form of philosophical entertainment in lieu of edifying preachment, could successfully conclude the exercise for which politics is the name. Problems of democracy need no longer prove so difficult as they have been. Psychological man is likely to be indifferent to the ancient question of legitimate authority, of sharing in government, so long as the powers that be preserve social order and manage an economy of abundance. The danger of politics lies more in the ancient straining to create those symbols or support those institutions that narrow the range of virtues or too narrowly define the sense of well-being; for the latter seems to be the real beatitude toward which men have always strained. Psychological man, in his independence from all gods, can feel free to use all god-terms; I imagine he will be a hedger against his own bets, a user of any faith that lends itself to therapeutic use.

Culture as therapy becomes realizable in part because of the increasing automaticity of the productive system... ...The rules of health indicate activity; psychologocial man can exploit older cultural precepts, ritual struggle no less than play therapy, in order to maintain the dynamism of his culture. Of course, the newest Adam cannot be expected to limit himself to the use of old constraints. If "immoral" materials, rejected under earlier cultural criteria, are therapeutically effective, enhancing somebody's sense of well-being, then they are useful. The "end" or "goal" is to keep going. Americans, as F. Scott Fitzgerald concluded, believe in the green light.

I am aware that these speculations may be thought to contain some parodies of an apocalypse. But what apocalypse has ever been so kindly? What culture has ever attempted to see to it that no ego is hurt? Perhaps the elimination of the tragic sense--which is tantamount to the elimination of irreconcilable moral principles--is no tragedy. Civilization could be, for the first time in history, the expression of human contents rather than the consolatory control of discontents. Then and only then would the religious question receive a markedly different answer from those dominant until recently in our cultural history.


  1. A lot of food for thought in your and Rieff's comments. All around me I see the permeating effects in our culture of feminine emotionalism, psychodrama, and the therapeutic.
    Even at church when people are "worshipping" God with the "seven-eleven" contemporary pop songs. These songs have a heavy dose of emotionalism, irrationality, are anti-masculine, and are created for people who want to be entertained.

  2. I started going to a church that practices exclusive, unaccompined, Psalmody.

    No more pop music.

  3. I also hold to exclusive psalmody! Praise God for His loving mercy! I was convinced of this Biblical position on worship about less than a year ago. I ordered every pamphlet on exclusive psalmody from Crown and Covenant Publications. After reading all these helpful little pamphlets in one sitting, I was persuaded. My only objection in the beginning of my study were the words "spiritual songs" in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19. Once I understood what the phrase meant from Holy Scripture my objection melted. Lamentably, there isn't a Church in my city that holds to exclusive psalmody. I do not find any joy in the pop songs and the traditional "hymns". At times, I simply stand and do not sing some of these non-spiritual songs. I need to be obedient to God and find a Church where He is honored in worship. God bless.