The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 24, 2019

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Toward a Theory of Culture
Philip Rieff - 10/24/08

The following is an excerpt from The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud by Philip Rieff (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006), $18.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

—W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming” 1920

Literature and sociology have long supplied eloquent and knowing professional mourners at the wake for Christian culture. After Matthew Arnold, much of modern poetry constitutes an elegiac farewell (mixed with powerful feelings of good riddance) 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. The long period of deconversion, which first broke the surface of political history at the time of the French Revolution, appears all but ended. The central symbolism of personal and corporate experience seems to me well on its way to being differently organized, with several systems of belief competing for primacy in the task of organizing personality in the West. Beyond its concern with the dynamics by which Christian culture has been displaced, the present volume will concentrate upon a struggle within the camp of one among these displacing systems of belief; I intend drawing certain implications for the reorganization of Western culture and personality from the divergence between Freud and those of his most powerful successor-critics studied in this book—C. G. Jung, Wilhelm Reich, and D. H. Lawrence. In Freud’s analytic attitude and in the efforts exerted by his successor-critics to go beyond it, to post-communal faiths, there are concentrated some aspects of a theoretical problem that interests me greatly, well beyond the limits of this book: the problem of explaining cultural change. These preliminary studies in the psychohistorical process are not aimed primarily at fellow theorists interested in the problem, but at those troubled readers in whose minds and hearts one culture is dying while no other gains enough power to be born.

As cultures change, so do the modal types of personality that are their bearers. The kind of man I see emerging, as our culture fades into the next, resembles the kind once called “spiritual”—because such a man desires to preserve the inherited morality freed from its hard external crust of institutional discipline. Yet 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. Spiritualizers of religion (and precisians of science) failed to take into account the degree of intimacy with which this comprehensive interior understanding was cognate with historic institutions, binding even the ignorants of a culture to a great chain of meaning. These institutions are responsible for conveying the social conditions of their acceptance by men thus saved from destructive illusions of uniqueness and separateness. Having broken the outward forms, so as to liberate, allegedly, the inner meaning of the good, the beautiful, and the true, the spiritualizers, who set the pace of Western cultural life from just before the beginning to a short time after the end of the nineteenth century, have given way now to their logical and historical successors, the psychologizers, inheritors of that dualist tradition which pits human nature against social order.

Undeceived, as they think, about the sources of all morally binding address, the psychologizers, now fully established as the pacesetters of cultural change, propose to help men avoid doing further damage to themselves by preventing live deceptions from succeeding the dead ones. But, in order to save themselves from falling apart with their culture, men must engender another, different and yet powerful enough in its reorganization of experience to make themselves capable again of controlling the infinite variety of panic and emptiness to which they are disposed. It is to control their dis-ease as individuals that men have always acted culturally, in good faith. Books and parading, prayers and the sciences, music and piety toward parents: these are a few of the many instruments by which a culture may produce the saving larger self, for the control of panic and the filling up of emptiness. Superior to and encompassing the different modes in which it appears, a culture must communicate ideals, setting as internalities those distinctions between right actions and wrong that unite men and permit them the fundamental pleasure of agreement. Culture is another name for a design of motives directing the self outward, 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 in England. It is to be expected that some instruments appropriate to our inherited organization of permissions and restraints upon action 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 Dostoevski put it: “Can civilized men believe?” Rather: Can unbelieving men be civilized?

To raise again the question of nihilism, as sociologists since Auguste Comte have done, demonstrates a major change in tone: the note of apprehension has gone out of the asking. We believe that we know something our predecessors did not: that we can live freely at last, enjoying all our senses—except the sense of the past—as unremembering, honest, and friendly barbarians all, in a technological Eden. Comte would have substituted a religion of humanity for its enfeebled predecessor; Max Weber proposed no substitute religion. Matthew Arnold could still listen for distant echoes of the sea of faith; Yeats knew there was a desert where once that sea might have been. To raise up faith from its stony sleep encourages the possibility of living through again the nightmare history of the last half century. Yeats did not hope for either restoration or parody of the established faiths. Rather, he prayed for a very modern sort of Second Coming, in which men would recover their innocence, chiefly by accepting the fact that it is self-delighting, self-appeasing, self-affrighting—“and that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will.” In our recovered innocence, to be entertained would become the highest good and boredom the most common evil.

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