A Theological Sickness unto Death: Philip Rieff’s Prophetic Analysis of our Secular Age

Editors’ note: 

This excerpt is from Themelios 43.1. The new April 2018 issue has 168 pages of editorials, articles, and book reviews. It is freely available in three formats: (1) PDF, (2) web version, and (3) Logos Bible Software.

The great American sociologist Philip Rieff (1922–2006) stands as one of the 20th century’s keenest intellectuals and cultural commentators. Rieff did sociology on a grand scale—sociology as prophecy—diagnosing the ills of Western society and offering a prognosis and prescription for the future. Although he was not a Christian, his work remains a great gift—even if a complicated and challenging one—to Christians living in a secular age.

In his work, the Western church will find a perceptive diagnosis of Western society and culture and an illumining, though insufficient, prognosis and prescription.

1. A Therapeutic Revolution

Rieff began his academic career in the 1950s and 60s by focusing on the work of Sigmund Freud.

In The Mind of the Moralist and The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Rieff argued that Freud’s exploration of neurosis was really an exploration of authority, as Western man was coming to view the notion of divine authority as an illusion. If God does not exist, appeals to divine authority are illegitimate. Freud recognized that as belief in God was fading, psychological neuroses were multiplying. He posited a cause-and-effect relationship between the two phenomena but, instead of healing neurosis by pointing persons back to God, Freud sought to heal it by teaching his patients to accept this loss of authority as a positive development.

This psychotherapeutic view of modern man came to serve as a unified theory of modern society. In Rieff’s view, therapeutic ideology, rather than Communism, was the real revolution of the twentieth century. Compared to Freud, the neo-Marxists were cultural conservatives who still believed in the notion of authority and the idea of a cultural code. The proponents of Freudian therapeutics, on the other hand, would not countenance authoritative frameworks and normative moral codes. In a therapeutic culture, authority disappears. In place of theology and ethics, we are left with aesthetics and the social sciences. Thus, therapeutic culture was born. This tradeoff would turn out to be so destructive that Rieff would describe the United States and Western Europe (rather than the Soviet Union) as the epicenter of Western cultural deformation.

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