The Anthem Companion to Philip Rieff

The Anthem Companion to Philip Rieff

by Jonathan B. Imber

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Philip Rieff (1922–2006) was a preeminent American social and cultural theorist. The original essays in The Anthem Companion to Philip Rieff offer an important new assessment of the major works of Philip Rieff by leading writers in the fields of social and cultural theory. These essays are the first to assess Rieff’s influence and significance as a master theorist and teacher, drawing on the contributors’ long interest in the broad scope of his work, from Freud: The Mind of the Moralist to The Triumph The Mind of the Moralist to The Triumph of the Therapeutic to his posthumous work, Sacred Order/Social Order.

Anthem Companions to Sociology offer authoritative and comprehensive assessments of major figures in the development of sociology from the last two centuries. Covering the major advancements in sociological thought, these companions offer critical evaluations of key figures in the American and European sociological tradition, and will provide students and scholars with an in-depth assessment of the makers of sociology and chart their relevance to modern society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783085057
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 04/10/2018
Series: Anthem Companions to Sociology
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 244
File size: 416 KB

About the Author

Jonathan B. Imber is the Jean Glasscock Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, USA. The editor-in-chief of Society since 1998, Imber is the author of Abortion and the Private Practice of Medicine (1986) and Trusting Doctors: The Decline of Authority in American Medicine (2008) as also the editor of The Feeling Intellect: Selected Writings of Philip Rieff (1990).

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John Carroll

One of Philip Rieff's favourite paintings was Poussin's The Adoration of the Golden Calf, in the National Gallery in London. It shows an angry Moses thundering down the mountain about to dash the stone tablets of the law to pieces in outrage at his fickle people dancing around and worshipping a huge statue of a golden calf. Rieff strongly identified with this Moses, the bearer of the law – the Thou Shalt Nots – sent from God. In Poussin's scene, the people renounce the authority of the Old Testament divinity and turn to the leisurely fun of dancing and feasting, worshipping a pagan pleasure god. Poussin had provided an uncanny parable for Rieff's own working life.

To my mind, the most striking thing about Rieff's work, when one stands back to take stock, is the deadly seriousness with which it takes culture, and the role of the cultural elites, or the clerisy – its custodians. Culture is the housing structure for God, and his later sublimations – a structure without which he could not exist. Rieff stands diametrically opposite to the mainstream of the times, which set about deconstructing culture, turning it from the central bearer of the truths that matter to a mask for power, exploitation and disadvantage. The task of culture for Rieff is to enchant and repress; the task for most of his academic contemporaries was to disenchant and liberate.

Rieff's work is also compelling because of its intellectual virtuosity, its originality, its blend of analytical insight and grander theme, and for the farrago of brilliant aphorisms peppered through it. There are types of intelligence and lucidity that have their own charisma.

There was a teaching virtuosity too. His students – of which I was never one – report the painstaking care with which he would proceed through his chosen texts. In 1980 he delivered a two-hour lecture as the finale to a Sociology of Culture Conference at my university in Melbourne. The title would have surprised no one familiar with his later work: 'Authority and Culture'. In a darkened room, speaking without notes, he held the audience spellbound, mesmerized by an entirely new experience, even though 90 per cent of the 200 present would have found the content an appalling anathema – if they had understood it – proclaimed in raw-edged violation of almost everything intellectual they held dear. Here was somebody speaking in the academy who actually believed in something, and did so with such seriousness and intensity that his very presence threw down an existential gauntlet, raising the issue of whether those present moved in sacred order, as he termed it, obedient to its demands, the state of their souls at stake, or whether they belonged to the tidal wave of transgression which characterized the times. Drawing on the seemingly secular Western canon, from Plato to Shakespeare, from Greek tragedy to Renaissance art, the oblique reference was to salvation or damnation. In the dark, this voice, deep and resonant, enunciating with slow deliberation its educated American East Coast accent beguilingly alien yet charming, was as close to deadly intent as words can get in the post-church world.

Philip Rieff was a professor of sociology for all of his mature working life, a fact which needs keeping in mind, given the number of academic disciplines within which he might have been placed (including psychology, philosophy, theology, art history and politics), and the number of roles beyond the academy that he might have assumed – I shall return to this later. He was a sociologist à la lettre, as the calling ought to be, taking up the central challenge of the discipline, as it had been left by Max Weber in his vocation lectures of 1918, and not advanced significantly since then. Weber had centred the discipline on the laying bare of the logic that had founded and driven modernization, from the English Industrial Revolution onwards – a logic that was, in its essence, cultural. Weber then proceeded to examine the contemporary costs, as the culture drove onwards, undermining the beliefs that had guided it through its formation and its development and into its decline in a secularized and inevitably profane maturity.

The question was broader than sociology, having been put first, and most cogently, by Nietzsche in the 1870s: the question of how to counter nihilism in a post-Christian era. Once the traditional monotheistic God is dead, all metaphysics begin to wobble, nothing is certain, and, in a world stripped of its traditional absolutes, individuals are threatened by the absurdity of existence. This is the prevailing modern condition. In literature, the Nietzsche question had been taken up most eloquently by Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land, F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby and Samuel Beckett in Waiting for Godot.

After the First World War, a series of commanding philosophical and literary figures made their own personal responses to the Nietzsche question. Georg Lukács, arguably the shrewdest and best-read intellectual of his generation, and a close friend of Max Weber, decided in 1918 that life was intolerable without something binding in which to believe: he joined the Communist Party and spent much of the rest of his long life as an apologist for Stalin. Writing in English, the two foremost poet diagnosticians of the modern predicament, T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, both took a leap of faith out of their respective wastelands and joined the Anglican Church. Simone Weil developed her own singular meditations on the possibilities of spirit and conscience in the modern world, advocating an asceticism of spirit and body, which took her to the brink of joining the Catholic Church. Rieff belongs to this post-First World War lineage, a generation or so later.

Then there was George Orwell, the person who leads directly, in chronology and in character, to Rieff. Four years after Orwell's death in 1950, Rieff wrote a revealing essay on him and his appeal to the left-liberal imagination. Orwell is the honest man in a post-religious world. Orwell retains the Christian ethic of brotherliness and compassion, while having lost any Christian belief – his intelligence making faith impossible. Yet he can still act in the world, if with deep resignation. Rieff interprets this combination of action and resignation as the key to his appeal. Orwell was a secular saint, remaining a socialist for want of anything better to believe in. Socialism is the last form of faith in the liberal-Christian era, although shadowed by its alter ego, even in the case of Orwell himself – a conservatism that defends good old values as it charts their decline. As Rieff gets older, he will head in this conservative direction, if with a radically different inflection.

Standing on this same precipice of cultural exhaustion and despair, Max Weber had proclaimed, in 1918, the last command as that of intellectual integrity, a mast to which he tied himself, although he had made clear that it was in itself absurd if there are no ultimate values left to which it might subordinate itself. There can be no plausible ultimate ends in a godless universe. Orwell embodied Weber's intellectual integrity, in combination with a Christian ethic, and some capacity for action, all of which taken together appealed to a left-liberal intelligentsia which yearned for a practical, this-worldly antidote to its own lethargy.

Rieff would turn towards the conservatism he saw in Orwell, while realizing it needed a metaphysical armature if it wasn't going to implode into the nihilist vacuum. He referred to himself, on occasion, as a post-Jew, by which he meant someone whose cultural and biological heritage was Jewish – a fact which pervaded his identity – but at the same time someone who had lost faith in the God and the religious practices of his people. Post-Christians found themselves in the same identity predicament, whether they were alternatively, and more specifically, post-Catholic or post-Protestant – a schism within the followers of Jesus which arguably separated them as much from each other as it did from the Jews. The analytical cue had come from Max Weber, and his argument that the Protestant character and its work ethic were the key to the making of the modern world: in its wake, modern Western decadence was characterized by the character and the ethic continuing on long after the Protestant God had died. We, the chosen heirs, were the prisoners trapped in an iron cage of profane rationalization, automated in our daily pursuits by the ghosts of dead religion. Rieff was keenly attuned to the ghosts of the dead religions, and their continuing presence.

It may be useful to distinguish four distinct Rieff modes. I shall not take account of the two books published at the end of Philip Rieff's life, as they reflect a marked decline in quality, and at times they read like parodies of the earlier writings. Mind, one of the titles, My Life among the Deathworks, is vintage Rieff.

Rieff the Interpreter of Texts

In the written work, this is notably the Rieff of Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959), and of his earlier essays. The posited task is to interpret the times through the lens of the greatest literary and philosophical wrestlings from within the culture writ large – the culture of the West. The aim is understanding and diagnosis.

Faced by the Nietzsche problem, and the slant that had been put upon it by Weber, Rieff's pedagogical response was two-pronged: to develop a theory of culture (which I shall consider in the following sections) and to select great texts from the Western tradition that help penetrate into the mysteries that underlie the human condition, engaging with them in close intellectual embrace. Thorough encounters with the texts were a means for finding roots, anchors that would not drag in the shifting sands of the modern condition. The theory came later than the earlier interpretative work, as if an instinct had drawn the hermeneutician to the territory in which he would spend the rest of his working life, close to the potentially revelatory texts. In Rieff's case, it was literature, philosophy and painting that predominated. I have myself been strongly influenced in my teaching methods by the way Rieff used art works.

The guiding assumption drew on the Plato of The Republic, that the good society depends upon the rule from above by philosopher kings, ones who have been scrupulously educated, over decades, in the master works and disciplines. Consequently, the most important social elites were the teaching elites; the most important institution in the society, as Plato held, was the one that taught the teachers.

Teachers, who formed the core of the cultural elites, were custodians of the great texts. Rieff moved close to the perspective developed by the English literary critic, F. R. Leavis, a quarter-century earlier, whose school, based in Cambridge, taught a generation of lecturers in English literature throughout the Anglosphere. The Leavis model was predicated on the confidence that deep familiarity with the great literature of a culture – its canon – would produce young men and women who were of a finer sensibility and more moral character. Great literature helps shape, and even form, character. The influence of such literate graduates would spread through the society, elevating its people. The Leavisite movement had strong affinities with the Calvinist divines, who, based in the same university four centuries earlier, had driven the English Reformation – steeped as it was in a similar intensity of pious moral purpose. In practice, Leavisite literary criticism would train several generations of university literature students in textual analysis, a virtue that seems shiningly admirable from the dismal perspective of its near complete absence today. Rieff shared Leavis's high-culture idealism centred on the practice of a painstaking training of students in the canon.

The decisive and exemplary figure for Rieff, and from early on, was Freud. Given what was to follow, the choice was not obvious. The possible reasons include attraction to the twentieth century's most brilliant theorist; to the master diagnostician of character and motivation; and, by the close of Rieff's Freud book, to the opening of a more sociological hypothesis that the defining modern type was 'psychological man', as most insightfully analysed by Freud. Maybe the fact that Freud was Jewish also counted. Rieff had been pitched into a lifelong wrestling with psychoanalysis and its founder.

Rieff had, in his cultural theory, more in common with Jung, in attributing the sources of modern sickness to loss of faith, rather than to the parent problem – to disenchantment, not Oedipal anxiety. Nevertheless, Rieff wrote Jung off as 'a master in the puppetry of traditions', and dedicated a highly dismissive chapter in The Triumph of the Therapeutic to his work. Perhaps this wasn't just an objective judgment – plausibly contemptuous of Jung's fascination with a plethora of obscure religions, including alchemy, and his dabbling in god-terms; his inferiority to Freud as a theorist, and as a writer; and for the comparative fuzziness of his interpreting mind. There was, closer to the bone, the ever-present threat for Rieff of becoming a 'sociologist of religion', with that sub-discipline's characteristic mode of believing that religious faith is necessary for humans, and for healthy communal life, but with the sociologist lacking faith himself. Knowledge and faith belong to different and incompatible universes. The Plato of the Laws was the first to assume this pose. So did the younger Kierkegaard, whose way of putting it was that he had faith that faith existed, but he didn't have faith himself. Rieff's later work balances on this cliff-edge of inauthenticity.

The Freud book raises a conundrum. Why the mind of the moralist? Freud was not principally a moralist – he was only so in a most oblique and occasional sense. Rieff's introductory justification, in his preface, is that Freud's work provides lessons on the right conduct of life. Yes; but if the ultimate goal of psychoanalysis is the reduction of anxiety, the softening of guilt and a better adaptation to the realities of the day, as Rieff himself underscores more lucidly than any other interpreter, then morality is irrelevant. Indeed, for Freud, morality is a symptom of society's need for control over the individual, reduced to no more than necessary functional utility. The ethical has no independent status. Freud, in his major key, is an Enlightenment man, dedicated to the application of dispassionate intelligence to help cure the diseased; he is the Darwin of psychology; and his utopia, if lukewarmly proclaimed, is a post-religious and amoral temple of stoic rationality. The moralist is Rieff not Freud; it is not even Rieff's Freud, but rather it is Freud transmogrified into Rieff, as will become apparent in the later writings.

Rieff never relinquished his love-hate affair with Freud: 'Freud the rarest event in our history – a great mind'.

Rieff the Sociologist

Rieff's second major work, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Uses of Faith after Freud (1966), develops a theory that would have a culture-wide impact and change thinking about the prevailing direction of Western societies. This Rieff was later elaborated in influential works by Christopher Lasch, and Frank Furedi, amongst others – works that, at their best, still lacked Rieff's analytical sophistication and often proceeded with churlishly inadequate attribution.

Rieff provided a new theory of culture to underpin his reading of the rise of psychological man, a theory that would remain at the centre of his work. For him, culture is, at its core, moral. Every culture has two main functions:

(1) to organize the moral demands men make upon themselves into a system of symbols that make men intelligible and trustworthy to each other, thus rendering also the world intelligible and trustworthy; (2) to organize the expressive remissions by which men release themselves, in some degree, from the strain of conforming to the controlling symbolic, internalised variant readings of culture that constitute individual character.

In terms of its sociological parentage, this book is heavily Durkheimian, with a tinge of Georg Simmel's essay 'On the Concept and the Tragedy of Culture'. Terminology is drawn from Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. The language in which the previous definition is written soon after disappears from Rieff's work – as it is a touch ponderous and wordy with academic formality. And, there is little, at this stage, of the stamp of Max Weber's more Nietzschean reflections on culture.


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Table of Contents

Introduction, Jonathan B. Imber; Chapter 1. Philip Rieff : Some Refl ections, John Carroll; Chapter 2. Philip Rieff and the Impossible Culture, John Dickson; Chapter 3. Philip Rieff as Cultural Critic, Steven Grosby; Chapter 4. Philip Rieff as Teacher, Samuel Heilman; Chapter 5. Prophet v. Stoic : Philip Rieff ’s Case against Freud, Howard L. Kaye; Chapter 6. Decline and Fall in the Work of Philip Rieff : “I love the old questions” Beckett, Endgame, Richard H. King; Chapter 7. Philip Rieff as Social/ Cultural Theorist, Elisabeth Lasch- Quinn and Matthew D. Stewart; Chapter 8. Fellow Sons, James Poulos; Chapter 9. Philip Rieff and Social Theory, Charles Turner; Chapter 10. A Kindly Apocalypse: Philip Rieff and the Endgame of the Therapeutic, Peter Y. Paik; Chapter 11. Disenchantment, Authenticity and Ordinary Charisma, Alan Woolfolk; Writings of Philip Rieff; List of Contributors; Index.

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