The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

February 21, 2019

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.

The best spirits of the twentieth century have thus expressed their conviction that the original innocence, which to earlier periods was a sinful conceit, the new center, which can be held even as communities disintegrate, is the self. By this conviction a new and dynamic acceptance of disorder, in love with life and destructive of it, has been loosed upon the world. Here literature and sociology converge; for the ultimate interest of sociology, like that of psychiatry when it is not lost in a particular patient, turns on the question whether our culture can be so reconstructed that faith—some compelling symbolic of self-integrating communal purpose—need no longer superintend the organization of personality.

So long as a culture maintains its vitality, whatever must be renounced disappears and is given back bettered; Freud called this process sublimation. But, as that sage among psychiatrists Harry Stack Sullivan once said, “if you tell people how they can sublimate, they can’t sublimate.” The dynamics of culture are in “the unwitting part of it.” Now our renunciations have failed us; less and less is given back bettered. For this reason, chiefly, I think, this culture, which once imagined itself inside a church, feels trapped in something like a zoo of separate cages. Modern men are like Rilke’s panther, forever looking out from one cage into another. Because the modern sense of identity seems outraged by imprisonment in either old church or new cage, it is the obligation of sociologists, so far as they remain interested in assessing the quality of our corporate life, to analyze doctrinal as well as organizational profiles of the rage to be free of the inherited morality, the better to see how these differ from what is being raged against. I shall attend to a few of the exemplarily enraged, and to the sense in which it may be said that they express general sentiments.

If the question “How are we to be saved?” cannot be asked in traditional ways, or need not be asked at all, then it is still the professional obligation of sociologists, who are specially interested in the behavior of collectivities, to investigate the ensuing honest silence in which the communal gods have imitated the most cultivated men. And, indeed, this is the sort of investigation that sociologists have pursued ardently, from the time of Comte through that of Weber to my contemporaries. Perhaps no other problem than that of the changing moral configuration of modern culture has so engaged the interest of sociological theorists.

During the nineteenth century, when sociology helped in a major way to construct the central experience of deconversion toward an anti-creedal analytic attitude, that discipline suffered from a vast overconfidence both about its own advance and about the progress of the culture, which it understood as undergoing varieties of such deconversions. “Progress,” wrote Spencer, “is not an accident, but a necessity. Surely must evil and immorality disappear; surely must men become perfect.” A basic transformation of culture appeared both inevitable and desirable.

Running parallel with and in the opposite direction from the process of deconversion was that process of conversion to a superior system of symbols—Science—which would supply the next predicate for the cultural organization of personality. Comte, for example, understood his own time as one of transition between two cultures. It was more generally proposed by students of our collective condition not merely that the old religious culture was dying but that the new scientific one had quite enough power already to be born. Thus Comte concluded that only because of the “coexistence” of these two cultures did the “grand crisis now experienced by the most civilized nations” persist. Freud was less sanguine. He believed that the crisis of coexistence was probably a permanent mode of the relation between personality and culture.

I question whether the “grand crisis,” our deeper trouble, can be attributed to “coexistence,” as major figures among the nineteenth-century intellectuals, culminating in Freud, insisted. It is less the lingering of the old culture than the emergence of the new that needs diagnosis. In fact, evil and immorality are disappearing, as Spencer assumed they would, mainly because our culture is changing its definition of human perfection. No longer the Saint, but the instinctual Everyman, twisting his neck uncomfortably inside the starched collar of culture, is the communal ideal, to whom men offer tacit prayers for deliverance from their inherited renunciations. Freud sought only to soften the collar; others, using bits and pieces of his genius, would like to take it off. There have been forerunners of this movement—Rousseau, Boehme, Hamann, or Blake. But 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 without realizing that they, self-considered the cultural elite, have actually 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, individualists. 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. Freud was neither an eroticist nor a democrat. His theory of culture depended upon a crossing between his idea of moral authority and an elitist inclination. “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.” By “mass” Freud means not merely the “lazy and unintelligent,” but, more importantly, those who “have no love for instinctual renunciation” and who cannot be “convinced by argument of its inevitability.” 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—those intellectuals, whether of the left or right, 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.

Of course, this suicide is intended only as an exciting pose. Renunciations of instinct, as Freud wrote, “necessarily must remain.” For these renunciations, the individual must be compensated by pleasures at once higher and more realizable than the pleasure of instinctual gratification. In compensation, and in place of where faith once was, men are offered Art and/or Science. It is true that new religions are constantly being born. But modern culture is unique in having given birth to such elaborately argued anti-religions, all aiming to confirm us in our devastating illusions of individuality and freedom. I suspect the children of Israel did not spend much time elaborating a doctrine of the golden calf; they naïvely 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. Now, although there is some dancing again, the intellectuals mainly sit around and think in awe about the power and perversity of their instincts, disguising their rancorous worship of self in the religion of art. 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.

In my chapters on Reich and Lawrence, I shall represent some ways in which art and science have come to serve the contemporary aversion to culture. This aversion has grown less naïve, more doctrinal, and therefore more dangerous. For these are doctrines of psychological man—the latest, and perhaps the supreme, individualist—opposed in depth to earlier modes of self-salvation: through identification with communal purpose. Jung is the most interesting case. As a cultural conservative, his psychology is para-religious, striving as it does to re-establish various corporate identities and communal purposes as purely therapeutic devices. In contrast to the conservative Jung, Reich and Lawrence are moral revolutionaries in a more straightforward way: neither proposes to defend common purposes which once persisted through the individualization of those energies called “conscience,” generated for the saving of selves precisely by means of a communal purpose.

The debts incurred by conscience through warped and atrophied communal purposes are now being paid off at a usurious rate of interest. The lingering death of authoritarian love has left behind hatred and violence, twin widows of dead love, free to stimulate in the culturally impoverished or disenchanted energies emancipated from conviction. It is not class or race war that we have to fear so much as deadly violence between the culture classes. But the upper culture classes have already lost this most fundamental of all class struggles by their admiration for the “vitality” of the lower, that vitality being a mirror image of their own earlier dynamism. A social structure shakes with violence and shivers with fears of violence not merely when that structure is callously unjust, but also when its members must stimulate themselves to feverish activity in order to demonstrate how alive they are. That there are colonies of the violent among us, devoid of any stable sense of communal purpose, best describes, I think, our present temporarily schizoid existence in two cultures—vacillating between dead purposes and deadly devices to escape boredom.

A full transition to a post-communal culture may never be achieved. It is a persuasive argument, still, that maintains there are safeguards, built into both human nature and culture, limiting the freedom of men to atomize themselves. Perhaps human nature will revolt, producing yet another version of second nature with which to fend off and curb the vitality of the present assault upon the moralizing functions of our past. 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. With more or less considered passion, men submit to the moral demand system—and, moreover, to its personifications, from which they cannot detach themselves except at the terrible cost of guilt that such figures of authority exact from those not yet so indifferent that they have ceased troubling to deny them.

Now, contradicting all faiths, a culture of the indifferent is being attempted, lately using a rhetoric of “commitment” with which to enlarge the scope of its dynamism. Such a credo of change amounts to a new faith—more precisely, to a counter-faith. This counter-faith intimates the next culture; for faith, or its negative, is always and everywhere the generating and corrupting agent of culture. This is not to say that contemporary culture is corrupt; what appears to some as corruption indicates the generation of yet another culture, for none is immortal. While disassociating itself from the high costs of old doctrinal seriousness and lonely lives, the emergent culture nevertheless produces books and music, art and science, an endless ambiance of fun and boredom—everything in fact, including moral passion and communal purpose, as varieties of an antitypal therapy of self. To call corrupt a culture purchased at lower cost to our nerves, and at larger magnitudes of self-fulfillment, would show a lamentable lack of imagination. The look of the future need not be blank and pitiless. Intelligence may work more efficiently, after all, than compassionate solidarity. Counter-transference may succeed where less calculated loves have failed. If the religious imagination is purblind, and its obstinate visionaries take risks resulting in such personifications of the Parousia as Yeats saw slouching toward Bethlehem, then we will have to make our way to a more pleasant city, using our secular vision of comforts that render all salvations obsolete.

I, too, aspire to see clearly, like a rifleman, with one eye shut; I, too, aspire to think without assent. This is the ultimate violence to which the modern intellectual is committed. Since things have become as they are, I, too, share the modern desire not to be deceived. 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. This is the unreligion of the age, and its master science. What the ignorant have always felt, the knowing now know, after millennial distractions by stratagems that did not heighten 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 fully to realize for themselves.


In the regular acting out of mandatory therapies of commitment built into the charter of his society, man, as a creation of affectionate and censorious authority, once organized for himself modes of willing obedience, or faith, in which he found his sense of well-being and, also, his freedom from that singular criterion. Culture without cultus appears, in almost all historical cases, a contradiction in terms. Within the mechanisms of cult, culture was organized, consisting mainly of ritual efforts to elicit and produce stable responses of assurance to more or less fixed wants—fleshly and spiritual, as it used to be said. There was, then, a standard range of expectations from which reassurance was elicited, even though the responses of the eliciting agencies, rendered “sacred” by their supreme function of organizing a life worth living, might at any moment offer admonitions rather than consolations to the seeker. Thus the sacred socializing agencies composed a moral order.

One main clue to the understanding of social organization is to be found in its symbolic of communal purpose; this, in turn, operates through a social system enacting that symbolic in a way at once admonitory and consoling. Each culture is its own order of therapy—a system of moralizing demands, including remissions that ease the pressures of communal purposes. Therapeutic elites before our own were predominately supportive rather than critical of culture 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.

Until the present culture rose to threaten its predecessor, our demand system could be specified by the kind of creedal hedges it raised around impulses of independence or autonomy from communal purpose. In the culture preceding our own, the order of therapy was embedded in a consensus of “shalt nots.” The best never lacked binding convictions, for they were the most bound, mainly by what they should not do—or even think, or dream. “Thou shalt” precipitated a sequence of operative “shalt nots.” Cultic therapies of commitment never mounted a search for some new opening into experience; on the contrary, new experience was not wanted. Cultic therapy domesticated the wildness of experience. By treating some novel stimulus or ambiguity of experience in this manner, the apparently new was integrated into a restrictive and collective identity. Cultic therapies consisted, therefore, chiefly in participation mystiques severely limiting deviant initiatives. Individuals were trained, through ritual action, to express fixed wants, although they could not count thereby upon commensurate gratifications. The limitation of possibilities was the very design of salvation.

To the ironic question “And, being saved, how are we to behave?” Western culture long returned a painfully simple answer: “Behave like your Savior.” Christian culture, like other organizations of moral demand, operated, however imperfectly, through the internalization of a soteriological character ideal carrying tremendous potentials for fresh intakes of communal energy; the highest level of controls and remissions (which together organized systems of moral demands) experienced an historical and individualized incarnation. Such euhemerist processes may have been indispensable to the vitality of the old culture. To adjust the expression of impulses to the controlling paragon, or character ideal, defines the primary process in the shaping of our inherited culture; the arts and sciences define the secondary process, in which exemplary modes of action are extended further, into a central moralizing experience, thus transforming individual into institutional action.

In the classical Christian culture of commitment, one renunciatory mode of control referred to the sexual opportunism of individuals. Contemporary churchmen may twist and turn it while they try to make themselves heard in a culture that renders preaching superfluous: the fact remains that renunciatory controls of sexual opportunity were placed in the Christian culture very near the center of the symbolic that has not held. Current apologetic efforts by religious professionals, in pretending that renunciation as the general mode of control was never dominant in the system, reflect the strange mixture of cowardice and courage with which they are participating in the dissolution of their cultural functions. Older Christian scholarship has known better than new Christian apologetics.

At bottom, only a single point was dealt with, abstinence from sexual relationships; everything else was secondary: for he who had renounced these found nothing hard. Renunciation of the servile yoke of sin (servile peccati iugum discutere) was the watchword of Christians, and an extraordinary unanimity prevailed as to the meaning of this watchword, whether we turn to the Coptic porter, or the learned Greek teacher, to the Bishop of Hippo, or Jerome the Roman presbyter, or the biographer of Saint Martin. Virginity was the specifically Christian virtue, and the essence of all virtues; in this conviction the meaning of the evangelical law was summed up.

Historically, the rejection of sexual individualism (which divorces pleasure and procreation) was the consensual matrix of Christian culture. It was never the last line drawn. On the contrary, beyond that first restriction there were drawn others, establishing the Christian corporate identity within which the individual was to organize the range of his experience. Individuality was hedged round by the discipline of sexuality, challenging those rapidly fluctuating imperatives established in Rome’s remissive culture, from which a new order of deprivations was intended to release the faithful Christian believer. Every controlling symbolic contains such remissive functions. What is revolutionary in modern culture refers to releases from inherited doctrines of therapeutic deprivation; from a predicate of renunciatory control, enjoining releases from impulse need, our culture has shifted toward a predicate of impulse release, projecting controls unsteadily based upon an infinite variety of wants raised to the status of needs. Difficult as the modern cultural condition may be, I doubt that Western men can be persuaded again to the Greek opinion that the secret of happiness is to have as few needs as possible. The philosophers of therapeutic deprivation are disposed to eat well when they are not preaching. It is hard to take Schopenhauer at his ascetic word when we know what splendid dinners he had put on, day after day, at the Hotel Schwan in Frankfort.

The central Christian symbolic was not ascetic in a crude renunciatory mode which would destroy any culture. Max Scheler described that culture accurately, I think, when he concluded that “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.” That renunciatory mode, in which the highest powers of personality are precisely those which subserve rather than subvert culture, appears no longer systematically efficient. The spiritualizers have had their day; nowadays, the best among them appear engaged in a desperate strategy of acceptance, in the hope that by embracing doctrinal expressions of therapeutic aims they will be embraced by the therapeutics; a false hope—the therapeutics need no doctrines, only opportunities. But the spiritualizers persist in trying to maintain cultural contact with constituencies already deconverted in all but name. Even the Roman Catholic clergy must now confront their own constituencies, as their Protestant and Jewish colleagues have had to do long before. Nevertheless, the religious professionals have reason to hope for survival, precisely because they have come to be aware of their situation and are seeking ways to alter it, in the direction of a fresh access of communal purpose, centered in the Negro protest movement, or in some other movement of protest against the effects of that very dead culture which they think, by protesting so belatedly, to survive.

The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves. Many spokesmen for our established normative institutions are aware of their failure and yet remain powerless to generate in themselves the necessary unwitting part of their culture that merits the name of faith. “Is not the very fact that so wretchedly little binding address is heard in the church,” asked Karl Barth, rhetorically, in 1939, “accountable for a goodly share of her misery—is it not perhaps the misery?” The misery of this culture is acutely stated by the special misery of its normative institutions. Our more general misery is that, having broken with those institutionalized credibilities from which its moral energy derived, new credibilities are not yet operationally effective and, perhaps, cannot become so in a culture constantly probing its own unwitting part.

It may be argued against this position that Western culture was never deeply believing—at least not in the Christian manner which, in a number of its most persuasive varieties, encouraged the seeking after individual salvations at the expense of a collective one. Even so, Christian culture survived because it superintended the organization of Western personality in ways that produced the necessary corporate identities, serving a larger communal purpose institutionalized in the churches themselves. Ernst Troeltsch was correct in his institutional title for the moral demand system preceding the one now emerging out of its complete ruin: a “church civilization,” an “authoritarian and coercive culture.” What binding address now describes our successor culture? In what does the self now try to find salvation, if not in the breaking of corporate identities and in an acute suspicion of all normative institutions?

Western culture has had a literary canon, through which its character ideals were conveyed. What canons will replace the scriptural? None, I suppose. We are probably witnessing the end of a cultural history dominated by book religious and word-makers. The elites of the emergent culture—if they do not destroy themselves and all culture with a dynamism they appear unable to control—are being trained in terminologies that have only the most tenuous relation to any historic culture or its incorporative self-interpretations.

It needs to be noted that in particular on the geographic margins of our moral demand system, and in the Orient, the rejection of religious culture, even in principle, is far from complete. By contrast, the Communist movement may be viewed as culturally conservative, belonging to the classical tradition of moral demand systems. The revolution in the West is profoundly cultural whereas that in the East, withal its defensive doctrine of the cultural as a mere superstructure of the techno-political class system, has been less certainly so. Of the two, our revolution is, I think, the more profound one. Communist culture, no less than the Christian, is in trouble; it cannot stave off a revolution coming out of the West, in part as a repercussion, in that it renounces the renunciatory mode of Communism. The Russian cultural revolution is already being signaled by the liberation, however grudgingly, of the intellectuals from creedal constraints.

The new religiosity is remissive. It represents no mere literary challenge, as in the time of the Enlightenment. The would-be instinctual Everyman and his girl friend are the enlightened ones now; a Freud would be quite superfluous, specially in view of the fact that he sought to find ways other than neurotic of supporting renunciations.

Indeed, Freud has already receded into history. His problems are not ours. The psychoanalytic movement, no less than its rationalist predecessors, has been ruined by the popular (and commercial) pressure upon it to help produce a symbolic for the reorganization of personality, after the central experience of deconversion, of which Freud was the last great theorist, had been completed. Fixed as they are at the historical stage of deconversion, responsible psychotherapists continue to struggle confusedly to discover their own proper attitude toward renunciatory moral demand systems even as the normative character of their abandonment has altered both the theoretical and working conditions of clinical practice. So confused, psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, in their hospitals and consulting rooms, stand almost as helpless as their functional predecessors and sometime cultural opponents, the clergy. But other therapeutic elites are not in a better condition, as I have tried to bring out more elaborately in the final chapter.


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. If this re-structuring 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 will have ceased to seek any salvation other than amplitude in living itself. Faith can then grow respectable again, as one entertainable and passing personal experience among others, to enhance the interest of living freed from communal purpose. The significance Marx attached to the division of labor for the organization of society may have bearing in our emergent culture on the variety of entertainments. To paraphrase Marx and Engels, all morality, be it ascetic or hedonistic, loses its force with a therapeutic outlook.

Like its predecessors, the emergent culture must formulate its own controls, no less than the preceding one defined its own remissions; it is ein the process of doing so already. We are, I fear, getting to know one another. Reticence, secrecy, concealment of self have been transformed into social problems; once they were aspects of civility, when the great Western formulary summed up in the creedal phrase “Know thyself” encouraged obedience to communal purposes rather than suspicion of them. Self-knowledge again made social is the principle of control upon which the emergent culture may yet be able to make itself stable. Indeed, with the arts of psychiatric management enhanced and perfected, men will come to know one another in ways that could facilitate total socialization without a symbolic of communal purpose. Then the brief historic fling of the individual, celebrating himself as a being in himself, divine and therefore essentially unknowable, would be truly ended—ending no less certainly than the preceding personifications of various renunciatory disciplines. Men already feel freer to live their lives with a minimum of pretense to anything more grand than sweetening the time. Perhaps it is better so; in cultures past, men sacrificed themselves to heroic and cruel deceptions, and suffered for glories that once mirrored their miseries. Not until psychological men overcome lives of squalor can they truly test their assumption that the inherited ideals of glory are no longer required. Affluence achieved, the creation of a knowing rather than a believing person, able to enjoy life without erecting high symbolic hedges around it, distinguishes the emergent culture from its predecessor. The new anti-culture aims merely at an eternal interim ethic of release from the inherited controls.

Who is to say that these controls are eternal? I do not think so; even Christian theologians no longer say so with any confidence—and some are saying, rather, that new releases are holier than old controls. Yet even among churchmen there are those who understand anew that their religion is nothing if not the organization of communal purpose and the conservation of inherited culture; they therefore place desperate hope in the movement of which Dr. Martin Luther King is chief spokesman. Increasing numbers of churchmen have allied themselves with the Negro religious leader in what they have reluctantly understood must be a common struggle, for the rebirth of their moral demand system, against vastly superior numbers of nominally Christian (or Jewish) barbarians. This slowly reforming Christian cultural elite, apparent fellow travelers of the movement of Negro non-violent protest but in reality its critical aggregate, may yet save the United States from a barbarism long evident in the conduct of their own churches’ members, in ordinary American commercial activity, and in the extraordinary incivilities of the American social manner. Yet there may be little power of Christian renewal in the movement of Negro protest. For the American Negro has been a focus for releasing images in the dominant white culture. Affluent white society, as it grows more affluent, may draw nearer their idea of the Negro as a model enjoyer of the relaxed life, but that idea is profoundly prejudicial to the renewal sought by the religious leadership, black and white.

The present releases, in growing more dominant, must achieve institutional affirmations of the prevalent feeling. Critically to elaborate such affirmations has been the historic function of Western intellectuals. But, not yet able to produce imagery that would mark a trail for many memories, contemporary writers and artists, all those intellectuals slightly ahead of their time, mainly produce moods of solicitude about themselves, as if they could not bear the weight of the freedom from their inherited role upon which they themselves insist. This temper against moralizing has its justifications. The Germans recently manipulated all corporate identities and communal purposes with a thoroughness against which the analytic attitude may be our surest protection.

Under such protection, it may not be possible to organize our culture again as an unwitting dynamic of moral demands claiming the prerogatives of truth, exercised through creedally authoritative institutions. Where family and nation once stood, or Church and Party, there will be hospital and theater too, the normative institutions of the next culture. Trained to be incapable of sustaining sectarian satisfactions, psychological man cannot be susceptible to sectarian control. Religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased. The difference was established long ago, when “I believe,” the cry of the ascetic, lost precedence to “one feels,” the caveat of the therapeutic. And if the therapeutic is to win out, then surely the psychotherapist will be his secular spiritual guide.


However one may judge the validity of the multiple truths at which science and history arrive, my interest is in their social viability. 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. In order to attend fairly to the competing beliefs and unbeliefs, one must struggle to use neutral terms. A sociological vocabulary keeps a certain distance from both new permissions and old inhibitions. This distance is the only possible justification for such jargon as I have used in the present volume; except as a device for gaining perspective, sociological jargon is a curse, first of all upon the intellectual lives of sociologists. Sociological writing itself is ineluctably part of the psychohistorical process, engaged as it is in persuasive redefinitions of action that alter the action.

Can the present releases become the predicates of new controls? Viewed traditionally, the continuing shift from a controlling to a releasing symbolic may appear as the dissolution of culture. Viewed sociologically, the dominance of releasing motifs, in which the releasers themselves evolve as new modes of control, with patterns of consumption as our popular discipline, implies a movement of Western culture away from its former configuration, toward one in which old ideological contents are preserved mainly for their therapeutic potential, as interesting deposits of past motifs of moralizing. No imperative can then develop a monopoly on sentiment, because none will be backed by a deeply ingrained system of inner ordinances.

I do not refer to a “sensualist” culture but to one that prepares for adaptability in matters of the “spirit.” There is no special affection reserved in this volume for the superiority usually claimed for “spiritual” over “sensual” concerns. In the emergent culture, a wider range of people will have “spiritual” concerns and engage in “spiritual” pursuits. There will be more singing and more listening. People will continue to genuflect and read the Bible, which has long achieved the status of great literature; but no prophet will denounce the rich attire or stop the dancing. 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 in the hospital-theater the Verfremdungseffekt, with the therapeutic triumphantly enacting his own discovered will.

The wisdom of the next social order, as I imagine it, 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. But without the discipline of work, a vast re-ritualization of social life will probably occur, to contain aggression in a steady state and maintain necessary levels of attention to activity. The rules of health indicate activity; psychological 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.

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