Philip Rieff (1922 – 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 a number 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
The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966)
- The dialectic of perfection, based on a deprivational mode, is being succeeded by a dialectic of fulfillment, based on the appetitive mode.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. … Psychoanalysis is full of such mad logic; it is convincing only if the student of his own life accepts Freud’s egalitarian revision of the traditional idea of a hierarchical human nature.
- 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.
- 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.
- The ascetic was limited, and often broken, in his organizational usefulness by a naïve dedication to principle.
- 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.
- 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.
- The United States and the post-Stalinist Soviet Union … share the same cultural aims. Both 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 belief in the efficacy of wealth. Quantity has become quality. The answer to all questions of “what for?” is “more.”
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.