Philip Rieff: The Mind of the Moralist

Bryan Wandel

“That Philip Rieff was a great scourge is plain.”

Moral Demand Systems and their Assailants

Philip Rieff was a sociologist. Though his 2006 obituaries described a range of abilities – theology, psychology, philosophy – that sociological tread defined the cultural diagnosis he masterfully limned.

To Rieff, “moral demand systems” are the content and engines of culture, whose real purpose is to speak about and tutor the soul. It is not simply that the self finds purpose, but that the self finds itself a soul. For the dynamics of these systems, Rieff uses the sociological terminology of interdicts, remissions, and transgression. The assault against this fabric has been characterized and punctuated by Nietzsche, Weber, and Freud.

“That 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 – those intellectuals, whose historic function it has been to assert the authority of a culture organized in terms of communal purpose, through the agency of congregations of the faithful.”

While salvation was once found in corporate identities, it is now found in breaking those identities. When Rieff wrote these words in 1966, he was known as a preeminent analyst of Sigmund Freud. The book in the words are found though, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, marked a wide turn Rieff was making through his understanding of the cultural implications of Freudian psychology. Beside an emphasis on sex, Rieff saw in Freud’s work the creation of a new kind of man: the Therapeutic. Rather than transgressing the moral demand system within a framework of guilt, the therapeutic does so in a self-creating act of liberation. The sociological implications are profound, and indicated in the quote above.

Sociology and Theology

Pause for a moment: does this diagnosis seem trite? Have we heard it before? “The liberation movement is a false freedom.” We must admit that in 1966, Rieff had not yet seen 1979 – the Iranian Revolution shook many intellectuals (like Michel Foucault), who could not fathom a modern revolution leading to a non-democratic theocracy. Shouldn’t this fact put an end to those, on left or right, who shout incessantly: “Liberation is the key fact of the modern age!”

Rieff’s sociology, though, was giving him a new framework for the analysis of culture. Through a deep understanding of Freud (and often on the latter’s terms), Rieff was embarking on a project to “develop a theology that doesn’t reject modernity. It was my intention to resurrect theology from within modern sociology.”

By 1970, Rieff was following up Triumph of the Therapeutic with a broad-strokes analysis of Western culture painted in view of the insights he was gaining via this increasingly disenchanted perspective on the Freudian/therapeutic project. This new work was never finished, and only published in disjointed fragments at the end of his life as Charisma: The Gift of Grace and How It Has Been Taken Away From Us. Rieff’s mind became set upon the project, How has my inwardness been lost? And why am I unable to believe? By understanding inwardness through the sociological lens of the moral demand system, Rieff outlays a vision for the soul – not based in ontology, but in the sociological activity of the complicated psyche. The result can be no rationalizing flowchart, but rather a system of “interdicts” (moral demands) through which the self confronts the agonizing change of the world around it.

The Soullish-Academic Questions

The transgressive, individualistic Therapeutics attack culture. However, they cannot help but set up something new. “Those who break old circles are the makers of new ones, whether they like it or not.” Elsewhere, Rieff says:

“The next culture may be viable without being valid; on the other hand, the old faiths could be judged valid even by those who consider them now no longer viable. A sociological vocabulary keeps a certain distance … [though] sociological jargon is a curse, first of all upon the intellectual lives of sociologists.”

Rieff understands that the analysis excludes participation, and thereby hinders understanding. However, his educated mind cannot help but analyze.

This paradox is deep, but deeper still is the relationship of sociology to psychology, and psychology to the soul. In these questions, Rieff seems to be adumbrating the Holy Grail of cultural understanding: how can we talk about the social group’s relationship to the individual psyche without destroying one of them, and how do we import the truths of our prior culture in the context of modern science? Can sociological terminology actually give us a new understanding of theology, or will one eat the other? Rieff himself could never have the faith that was inherent in previous moral demand systems. Which modern knowledge are we forced to deal with, and which must be repealed?

In these matters, Rieff trod a path frightful for its call to interdictory culture, and yet lighted our own eyes upon a wider scope of the therapeutic disintegration that has formed us. Whatever the prognosis, the diagnosis has become somewhat clearer.

“That Philip Rieff was a great scourge is plain,” said Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn. “But it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that at his best he could also be a sacred messenger.”

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