Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Rieff on The Modern Era, Affirming GKChesterton

James Hitchcock wrote an essay in the Fall '07 Adoremus Bulletin which describes some of the work of Philip Rieff. Interesting stuff. While Hitchcock's article relates the 'therapeutic culture' to the "Liturgeist Culture" rampant in the Church from ~1965-date, these out-takes will be more general.

Rieff’s theory of history broadly identified three successive cultures, each of which had some kind of moral idea at its heart. The First (primitive) Culture regarded law merely as “taboo” — fear of magical forces in the universe. The Second Culture, beginning with the ancient Israelites, made law into morality or “interdict” — sacred prohibitions — based on an authority that came from on high. The Third Culture (“Deathworks”) is the modern assault on the Second Culture in the name of human autonomy, fueled by “transgressions” against interdicts — deliberate attacks on sacred laws.

E Michael Jones often mentions Nietzsche's "transvaluation of all values"--which sounds suspiciously like what animates Rieff's "Third Culture."

Rieff was opposed to the Third Culture, (also called the "Therapeutic Culture.")

Unlike the religious culture that it superseded, the therapeutic culture has neither demons nor villains, so that the therapeutic individual opposes nothing and practices everything. “Toleration” becomes the highest virtue and “rigidity” the gravest fault.

Therapeutic culture reduces interdicts merely to taboos, that is, to essentially irrational and neurotic compulsions arising out of fear and ignorance...

And Rieff identified the American national neurosis:

Because therapeutic man needs a wide range of releases, a culture of amusement dominates, assaulting the interdicts in order to break the stultifying demands of daily life. The culture particularly condemns the “sin” of boredom, making entertainment one of its highest goods.

...But ultimately, the command of the therapeutic culture is not mere tolerance but “thou shalt not believe”: not the beginning of a new faith but the dissolution of all faith.

Rieff includes a warning to the Libertarians:

The culture of impulse, based on an infinite number of wants elevated to the level of needs, requires the self to find salvation precisely in the breaking of corporate identities, a suspicion of all normative institutions, the transgression of interdicts, “elaborately argued anti-religions”, all aiming to confirm men in their “devastating illusions of individuality and freedom”.

And, perhaps, he shows us the root-cause of the "political mess" in DC and Madison:

The death of culture begins with the inability of those elites to communicate its ideals in inwardly compelling ways. Freud, however, taught authority to see in itself only the vestiges of taboo, causing many of the cultural elite unwittingly to go over to what he called the “mass” — those who have no love for instinctual renunciation — in the most elaborate act of cultural suicide Western intellectuals have yet staged.

The crisis of culture thus flows from the top down. Children cannot be obedient if their parents are not; but the new model is the relentlessly supportive parent for whom, as the child soon discovers, “no” often means “yes”. Interdicts are likely to be broken most readily by those who hold office, so that the most basic obligation of leaders is to discipline themselves. The highest use of the interdicts is to punish the powerful, since if fear is instilled in them the powerless will follow.

In other words, leaders who are incapable of self-discipline and who become part of the "mass" of those who cannot 'instinctually renunciate' are, in fact, leading society into suicide--while trumpeting their Therapeutic Credentials.


In the therapeutic culture the only possible greatness is transgressive, which makes the destruction of received forms the essence of “creativity”. For example, there can no longer be religious art except things like Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, which fuses the highest images with the lowest, with the aim of making the Second Culture disgusting.

Or the "entitlement Government," wherein leaders lack the self-discipline to restrain spending for the good of the country's future. This is, by the way, both Bush-ite and Ted Kennedy-ite; similarly, it was Tommy and Chuckie BOTH who spent Wisconsin into deep debt, and it is Doyle and Gard who continued the party, bringing Wisconsin's bond-rating to 47th of 50 States.

And in a salute to another favorite author:

The past then becomes a burden that threatens the present and must be mastered, so that the unique modern achievement is to be sprung loose from all historical memory. But, Rieff demands, “How dare we dismiss the authority of the past as if we understood it? From the past we gain our regulating weight, to hold against the lightness of our acts.”

That, folks, is G K Chesterton's "democracy of the dead" brought to our doorstep.

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