Philip Rieff

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Both Socrates and Christ taught economic man to be at least slightly ashamed of himself when he failed to sacrifice the lower capacity to the higher. Freud is America’s great teacher, despite his ardent wish to avoid that fate. For it was precisely the official and parental shams of high ideals that Freud questioned. In their stead, Freud taught lessons which Americans, prepared by their own national experience, learn easily: survive, resign yourself to living within your moral means, suffer no gratuitous failures in a futile search for ethical heights that no longer exist—if they ever did. ... The alternatives with which Freud leaves us are grim only if we view them from the perspective of some past possibility. ... The grimness is relieved by the gaiety of being free from the historic Western compulsion of seeking large and general meanings for small and highly particular lives.
In classical cultures, an ascended class had to justify itself before those now below in the social structure. But the culture revolution of our time has eliminated this need for class- as well as self-justification. Nevertheless, those below still seek to emulate the ascendant social class, without being convinced of its superiority.

Philip Rieff (December 15, 1922 – July 1, 2006) was an American sociologist and cultural critic, who taught sociology at the University of Pennsylvania from 1961 until 1992. He was the author of books on Sigmund Freud and his legacy.


  • In the slow accretion of self-images that is the mortar between periods in the history of our civilization, a third character ideal emerged, in part from the failure of the previous two [political man and religious man]: economic man, one who would cultivate rationally his very own garden, meanwhile solacing himself with the assumption that by thus attending to his own lower needs a general satisfaction of the higher needs would occur. A moral revolution was the result: what had been lower in the established hierarchy of human interests was asserted to be higher.
    • "Reflections on Psychological Man in America," The Feeling Intellect (1990), p. 4
Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, 3rd edition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979)
  • Reason cannot save us, nothing can; but reason can mitigate the cruelty of living.
    • Preface, p. xii
  • Surely the romantic and now permanent revolution against the ancient regime of reason is against a regime largely invented by the revolutionaries themselves.
    • Ch. 4: "The Tactics of Interpretation", § VI, p. 146
  • Depth psychology has demolished the optimistic faith of democrats in the rationality of a free citizenry, by discovering that the average citizen (in or out of a crowd) is not rational. But this is no reason to despair. There remains what is for Freud perhaps the highest rationality: knowledge of the irrational, a knowledge which may be used […] to arrive at rational decisions essential to democracy.
    • Ch. 7: "Politics and the Individual", § III, p. 242
  • Freud was overimpressed, it now appears, with the monolithic repressiveness of culture, and unable to perceive that our own culture might become highly permissive in the sphere of private sexual morals—the better to enforce its public repressions. The combination of a repressive political order with a permissive moral order is not unheard of in human history.
    • Ch. 10: "The Emergence of Psychological Man", § II, p. 338

The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (1966)

London: Chatto and Windus Ltd.
  • The higher dividends are essentially symbolic in nature. They are, in Freudian terms, the cultural equivalents of dividends which might be experienced more directly—if only a culture could stand the strain of immediate satisfactions. By setting a limit on the functional value of the higher dividends for most men, Freud declared that the religious question, in its inherited form, as a self-abnegation achieved with moral artistry, was no longer worth asking. This total rejection of the religious question gives even Marxism a pious look. By such a rejection psychoanalysis contributes to that symbolic impoverishment which is the only poverty a culture, as distinct from either a society or an individual, may suffer.
    ...Heretofore, the saving arrangements of Western culture have appeared as symbol systems communicating demands by stoning the sensual with deprivations, and were thus operated in a dynamically ambivalent mode. Our culture developed, as its general technique of salvation, assents to moral demands that treated the sensual part of the self as an enemy. From mastery over this enemy-self there developed some triumphant moral feeling; a character ideal was born. Every man was thus born twice, the second time as a creature aspiring to a moral artistry trained by deprivations. In sum, the classical character ideals were all personifications of a release from a multitude of desires.
    ...Not only our Western system but every system of integrative moral demand, the generative principle of culture, expressed itself in positive deprivations—in a character ideal that functioned to commit the individual to the group. Culture was thus the establishment and organization of restrictive motives. Men engaged in disciplines of interdiction. The dialectic of deprivation and remission from deprivation was in the service of those particular interdicts by which a culture constituted itself. ... The dialectic of perfection, based on a deprivational mode, is being succeeded by a dialectic of fulfillment, based on the appetitive mode.
    • p.48-50
  • Since no firm social standards for treatment have yet been erected, some grave ambiguities persist regarding the question of just who should be treated. There may be a kindness that is neurotic, if it develops out of unconscious compulsions, and a cruelty that is normal, if it is freely and consciously determined upon. So far as sainthood is determined by unconscious and uncontrolled motives, it is neurotic; so far as sinning, as usually understood, is determined by conscious and rational choice, it is normal. One difficulty with the criteria of rationality and consciousness is that Eichmann, for instance, might well be considered quite without need of treatment. He knew what he was doing; indeed, he wanted to be a great success in his career. Freud was honest enough to discover that there was no inherent relation between normality and the norm, such as had been established, in the age of political and religious man, through the mediating myth that there were natural laws. The analytic attitude has discovered no natural harmony of goals, no hierarchy of value inscribed upon the universe.
    • p.50-51
  • [T]his transitional civilization is becoming one vast suburbia
    • p.52
  • In the time of public philosophies and social religions, the great communities were positive. A positive community is characterized by the fact that it guarantees some kind of salvation to the individual by virtue of his membership and participation in that community. That sort of community seemed corrupt to the economic man, with his particular version of an ascetic ideal tested mainly by self-reliance and personal achievement. The positive community was displaced, in social theory, by the neutral market. Now, in the middle of the twentieth century, the market mechanism appears not so much corrupt as a fiction to psychological man, with his awareness of how decisions are made in the social system. In order to participate self-protectively in the manipulative and acquisitive game, psychological man builds his tight family island, living for the remainder of his time in negative communities. But these collections of little islands surrounded by therapeutic activities, without any pretense at a doctrine of salvation, are themselves infected by the negativity of the larger community and become manipulative arenas themselves, rather than oases of escape from the larger arena.
    The indefinite prolongation of psychoanalytic therapy is itself a form of membership in the negative community. Positive communities were, according to Freud, held together by guilt, they appear attractive only now, in distant retrospect, but the modern individual, faced with the necessity of merging his own life into communal effort, would have found them suffocating. Instead, the modern individual can only use the community as the necessary stage for his effort to enhance himself—if not always, or necessarily, to enrich himself.
    • p.52-53
  • In one certain way, the therapeutically inclined individual resembles his predecessor, the ascetic. That resemblance can be best sketched historically.
    Once launched into some activity, conceiving of himself as an instrument of God’s will, the ascetic did not stop to ask about the meaning of it all. On the contrary, the more furious his activity, the more the problem of what his activity meant receded from his mind. … To meet the demands of the day was as near as one could come to doing the pious thing, in this—God’s—world. To trouble about meaning was really an impiety and, of course, frivolous, because futile. For the question of meaning, therefore, neither the ascetic nor the therapeutic type feels responsible, if his spiritual discipline has been successful. The recently fashionable religious talk of “ultimate concern” makes no sense either in the ascetic or in the therapeutic mode. To try to relate “ultimate concern” to everyday behavior would be exhausting and nerve-shattering work; indeed, it could effectively inhibit less grandiose kinds of work. Neither the ascetic nor the therapeutic bothers his head about “ultimate concern.” Such a concern is for mystics who cannot otherwise enjoy their leisure. In the workaday world, there are no ultimate concerns, only present ones. Therapy is the respite of every day, during which the importance of the present is learned, and the existence of what in the ascetic tradition came to be called the “ultimate” or “divine” is unlearned.
    • p. 53-54
  • Analytic therapy is thus a form of re-education; Freud specifically called it that. It is re-education so far as it eliminates those symptoms through which the patient has tried, mistakenly, to resolve the contradictions in his life.
    Therapeutic re-education is therefore at once a difficult and yet modest procedure. It teaches the patient-student how to live with the contradictions that combine to make him into a unique personality; this it does in contrast to the older moral pedagogies, which tried to re-order the contradictions into a hierarchy of superior and inferior, good and evil, capabilities. To become a psychological man is thus to become kinder to the self as a whole, to the private parts of it as well as to the public ones, to the once inferior as well as to the formerly superior. While older character types were concentrating on the life task of trying to order the warring parts of the personality into a hierarchy, modern pedagogies, reflecting the changing selfconception of this culture, are far more egalitarian: it is the task of psychological man to develop an informed (ie., healthy) respect for the sovereign and unresolvable basic contradictions that make him the singularly complicated human being he is.
    • p.55
  • Freud’s most important ideas finally may have less to do with the repression of sexual impulses (which explains neither the past discontents of our civilization nor the present ones), than with ambivalence. It is their capacity to reverse feelings that is the human problem and hope. What hope there is derives from Freud’s assumption that human nature is not so much a hierarchy of high-low, and good-bad, as his predecessors believed, but rather a jostling democracy of contending predispositions, deposited in every nature in roughly equal intensities. Where there is love, there is the lurking eventuality of hatred. Where there is ambition, there is the ironic desire for failure. Although he wishes not to know it, a sore loser may be sore mainly because he almost won and is reacting against his wish to lose.
    • p. 55-56
  • On the other hand, he (Freud) hoped that somehow, despite the near equality of our warring emotions, reason would cleverly manage to reassert itself, despite its congenital weakness—not in the high and mighty way preached by Plato and his Christian successors but in a modest, even sly manner that would alternately dazzle and lull the more powerful emotions into submission. This way actually demands, it seems, the kind of character ideal we have called the “therapeutic” in order to contrast it with the more rigid character ideal produced by the moral demand systems preceding modernity. In the age of psychologizing, clarity about oneself supersedes devotion to an ideal as the model of right conduct.
    • p. 56
  • The alternatives with which Freud leaves us are grim only if we view them from the perspective of some past possibility. …The grimness is relieved by the levity of being free from the historic Western compulsion of seeking large and general meanings for small and highly particular lives.
    • p.59
  • [To Freud], [t]he ascetic was limited, and often broken, in his organizational usefulness by a naïve dedication to principle.
    • p.61
  • Symbolic impoverishment ceases to be a problem precisely because the rich have found functional equivalents for a system of compelling moral demands, in analysis and art, which may be said to be a mode of self-reverence.
    the alternative to questionable renewals of religion, taking the form of excessive moral demands, by which this culture has been regularly carried away in the past. Educated as they are, the rich have no need of religious renewals. In classical cultures, an ascended class had to justify itself before those below in the social structure. But the culture revolution of our time has eliminated this need for class - as well as self-justification. Nevertheless, those below still seek to emulate the ascendant social class, without being convinced of its superiority. And just as the rich have lost their idea of superiority, so have the poor lost their idea of religion. Poverty is no longer holy; the poor, insofar as. they are educated in the new doctrine, have no motive for projecting onto society a new set of strict moral demands that might infuse society with the kind of impetus needed to end symbolic poverty.
    • p.64
  • [The United States and the post-Stalinist Soviet Union,] [b]oth issue from the assumption that wealth is a superior and adequate substitute for symbolic impoverishment. Both American and Soviet cultures are essentially variants of the same belief in wealth as the functional equivalent of a high civilization. In both cultures, the controlling symbolism has been stripped down to a belief in the efficacy of wealth. Quantity has become quality. The answer to all questions of “what for?” is “more.” ... Out of this redefinition, Western culture is changing already into a symbol system unprecedented in its plasticity and absorptive capacity. Nothing much can oppose it really, and it welcomes all criticism, for, in a sense, it stands for nothing.
    • p.65

Fellow Teachers (1973)

  • Only cultureless societies can exist without presiding presences. No presence can preside when all are subject to abandonments quick as their adoptions. Our passionate truths are so provisional, they move so quickly with the electrified times, that none can prepare us to receive them deeply into ourselves, as character.
  • The collegiate young are being re-educated before they have been educated. From our collegiate ranks, the therapeutic will appear a re-educated man, one who can conquer even his subtler inhibitions; his final know-how will be to irrationalize his rationality and play games, however intellectualized, with all god-terms in order to be ruled by none. In their moral modestly therapeutics will be capable of anything; they will know that everything is possible because they will not be inhibited by any truth. Far more destructively than earlier interdict-burdened character types, the therapeutic will be the warring state writ small; he may be even cannier, less sentimental, stronger in ego, shifting about his principles and impulses like so many stage props.

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