I don’t think many would dispute that Philip Rieff was one of the most perceptive and creative intellectuals of the second half of the twentieth century. His justly famous 1959 Freud: The Mind of the Moralist has never gone out of print, and rightly so, because it remains the definitive interpretation of the cultural significance of the Freudian project. His 1965 classic, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (also perpetually in print), anticipated with remarkable insight what scholars now call the postmodern condition: ironic detachment, rejection of moral certainties and rebellion against cultural norms, as well as the new strategies of self-management that have replaced old-fashioned forms of self-discipline.
Rieff receded from view in the 1980s and 1990s as his always-complicated relationship with conventional academic scholarship reached a bitter crisis. The publication of his bracing, polemical reflections on contemporary culture, My Life Among the Deathworks , just before his recent death, and now Charisma , has brought him back into the public eye. This is a very fortunate, because to my mind Rieff was not only an interesting social theorist and cultural critic; he was and remains one of the most important.
Charisma will not rank as Rieff’s best or most influential book. Drafted in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a sequel to The Triumph of the Therapeutic , Rieff abandoned the project. Toward the end of his life, he allowed former students to edit his manuscripts into presentable form. The results are uneven. Some chapters are incomplete; others need trimming. Long passages read more like extended expository notes to himself than finished work, and the same clauses crop up again and again, as if to signal places to which Rieff knew he had to return in order to reorganize and deepen his analysis. Most of all, one feels the relative absence of the consistent power of expression that makes his other writing so exciting to read. But a less than perfect book from Philip Rieff is still head and shoulders above the usual fare these days, and for Christian intellectuals who want to understand how to engage the legacy of modern social theory, Charisma provides expert guidance.
By Rieff’s analysis, the central and defining purpose of culture is to regulate the always-troublesome relation between the No-imposing voice of commandment and the Yes-seeking desires of the individual. According to Rieff, the traditional approach to the felt difficulties of bringing personality into coordination with authority involves internalizing and intensifying cultural norms. Religious at their core, traditional cultures stamp our inner lives with their creeds and, in so doing, deliver the human animal from its slavery to instinct. Charisma, then, describes the gift of what Rieff calls a "high" and "holy terror," which installs the power of divine command so deeply in the soul that we can bear the thought "of evil in oneself and in the world." A charismatic gives this gift with special force. He or she is an exemplar and virtuoso of personality fully governed by creedal authority. St. Francis energized and haunted the medieval world, not because he was an original genius, but instead because his inner life was so completely defined by imitation of Christ that even his body was marked by stigmata. As Rieff writes, "There is no charisma without creed," and the gift of life gains precisely in proportion to the power of the creeds that grip our souls.
Max Weber looms large, because like so many modern theorists of culture, he pushes in the opposite direction. In his theory of religion, charisma denotes a sui generis power of personality that has the ability to compel an immediate and enthusiastic obedience. This charismatic authority, Weber speculated, fills a human need for directed purpose, but, in the context of existing cultural frameworks, charisma is made routine by disciples who seek to give lasting institutional form to the original genius of the founding personality. The existential problem, Weber suggests, is that an institutionalized charisma lacks the warm immediacy of the founder. It becomes conventional, a matter of routine obedience rather than fully personal involvement.
Rieff plays the normal role of critical scholar when he points out the historical sources of Weber’s theory. "The whole argument on routinization," writes Rieff, "is a version of the Protestant argument against the Roman Church as itself somehow a contradiction of the early Christian message." One need only read Ernst Troeltsch’s widely influential study of the social sources of Christian moral teachings to see how easily Weber’s theory could be folded back into the agenda of Protestant anti-Catholicism¯or even against itself. (See Adolph von Harnack’s categorization of every creedal aspect of Luther’s theology as "residual Catholicism.") Today, more than one hundred years later, many New Testament scholars continue to assume that all mention of institutional forms indicates "late developments." Like Weber, they presuppose that apostolic authority necessarily originates from the personal, charismatic originality of Jesus, and anything resembling a church is a subsequent decline into social structures.
But Rieff is not interested in a game of historicist gotcha. (Although he does enjoy making fun of the pathetic ignorance of contemporary sociologists who retail Weber’s theory as a hard-won scientific discovery.) Instead, sounding very much like Joseph de Maistre and the long tradition of recusant anti-modernists, Rieff’s wants to expose "the Protestant pathos" of post-traditional culture. Weber is important, because he reversed the approach to life that, from time immemorial, gave precedence (and power) to creeds. In Weber’s theory of religion, all forms of social authority can be traced back to the ecstatic, inner resources of personality. The charismatic renews culture in and through his magnetic personality. He is the Nietzschean superman who shatters ordinary limits and remakes our ideals. Creeds are simply dead reminders of powerful personalities.
Weber was a sober rationalist, and like Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor he saw the institutionalization and domestication of charisma as an inevitable social necessity. Man cannot live by inspiration alone. Rieff was a brilliant social critic because he could distinguish between the logic of arguments and the conclusions individual thinkers drew. As Rieff observes, in the aftermath of Weber’s theory, "authority becomes suspect not only in its ends but in its origins." It is not just that selfish, venal men have gained control over the many cultural institutions that socialize us; reformers since the beginning of time have said as much. Rather, according to Weber, the very nature of culture itself¯its need for routine, for law, for institutions¯destroys true charisma, destroys the life-giving gift of inspiration.
Where, then, should we now turn for the gift of life? Because Weber theorized religious cultures as institutional domestications of original genius, he tacitly directs us toward a new charisma, the gift of life that is to be found in the power of personality, a power beneath and at the source of creedal authority, a power that knows itself superior and has the confidence to transgress and remake social norms in its own image. The result, however unforeseen and unintended by Weber and any number of other modern social scientists, is the anti-creedal, therapeutic agenda of modernity: Personality is the beginning and end of all that matters in life, and the great spiritual project is self-culture, an oxymoron that necessarily devolves into self-management.
Drafted decades ago, Charisma can sound dated when Rieff reminds us of the old gurus Timothy Leary and Norman O. Brown, who preached "weightlessness to us." But one of the most striking features of all Rieff’s books is their deeper, ongoing relevance. David Brooks has written a witty description of the sixties come of age, Bobos in Paradise . We are all the more unburdened for not even knowing our spiritual fathers and their transgressive fantasies. The upshot is a society that makes Rieff tremble with fear. The most educated and most powerful people in the most powerful nation in the world now live¯as they wish. We are bohemians, limited only be the bourgeois disciplines of health, fashion, and economic competition that operate across the surfaces of our lives. "Barbarism," Rieff reminds us, "is not some primitive technology and naïve cosmologies, but a sophisticated cutting off of the inhibiting authority of the past."
I’m fairly sure that the always-sensible David Brooks would scoff at the notion that the Bobos he so amusingly portrayed are barbarians. They pay their taxes. They raise their children and worry about the environment. Their desire for wealth drives our economy forward, and their embrace of the good things of life have given us hard crust bread and better coffee. In fact, many readers of Rieff who appreciate his earlier work find his later musings overly hyperbolic and unpleasantly violent. Charisma is the project that seems to have stimulated this transition, and Rieff may have abandoned efforts to bring it to publication because he recognized that, although his analytic commitments had remained largely the same since his groundbreaking study of Freud, his worries had intensified and his loyalties had shifted. The perceptive observer of late modern American culture, himself an increasingly self-aware purveyor of the new charisma of critical self-understanding, was becoming a bitter antagonist, and the book he began with one purpose in mind shifted toward another.
And what was that other, antagonistic purpose? "In this book," Rieff tells his readers at the very outset in lines I suspect were written toward the end of his life, "I have tried to work through, critically, toward an understanding of how my inwardness was lost to me." The paradox of modernity is painful. The gift of grace brings the possibility of fuller life. Our modern-day charismatics, social theorists such as Weber who promise critical insight included, tell us that originality and uniqueness give this gift. Yet, by Rieff’s analysis, to live for the sake of personality gains us something far less. If we try to give ourselves the gift of grace, we end up with a soulless world without inner constraints, a "cultureless society" populated by clever, technically sophisticated animals whose lives are dominated by the need for survival, the desire for pleasure, and the dark urge to dominate.
"Without an authority deeply installed," writes Rieff, restating what he regards a fundamental, analytic truth about the human condition that traditional creedal societies have always recognized and modern culture has rejected, "there is no foundation for individuality." The truth was well known to Henry James, another extremely complicated man who, like Rieff, could neither believe nor embrace his unbelief. James’ spectral, labyrinthine sentences wind their way through the interior life of his characters in his great novel The Golden Bowl, as they navigate the felt constraints of a prohibition against adultery and the fearful consequences of its transgression. But James was not simply interested in exploring the inner life of men and women under the thumb of social authority. Maggie Verver, the central character, is the heroine, not because she questions authority or rebels against convention, as if personality could declare its rights as a sovereign king of its own destiny after the fashion of a character in a D.H. Lawrence novel. Maggie is animated by a "holy fear," and she triumphs because she leads those she loves through thickets of social expectation. A true charismatic, her individuality is deepened and strengthened by an authority deeply installed.
A cultureless culture such as our own encourages us to save for retirement, and we are hectored to quit smoking and always use condoms. Demand and limitations are inevitable parts of social existence. Prudence survives the death of God. But the single greatest feature of our society is our systematic refusal to install authority deeply within the soul. We are reluctant to judge, and we soften the language of good and evil with endless critical qualifications¯"From the perspective of western culture . . . " or, even more weakly, "From my point of view . . . " Refusing to give commandments their full and proper form as an unqualified No is the actual effect of so-called critical thinking, and it is the deepest meaning and purpose of multicultural education.
By Rieff’s analysis, our refusal to teach the commandments of God to our children and ourselves leads us to destroy what we promise to cherish and nurture¯personality. "Our would-be charismatics," writes Rieff, referring to the many academic therapists who promise insight without faith and wisdom without creeds, "are better understood as terrorists." They have attacked our inner lives with the neutron bombs of critique, and we now have naked private souls to populate our naked public square. This banal evil, unnoticed because the eyes of faith have gone dark in our time, tortured Rieff and gives all his later work its own darkened tone. His only hope was in a creed that he could not believe, which as he knew was no creed at all. Read Rieff, the great reader of our modern legacy. Read him and pray, not only for his soul, but also for your own.
R.R. Reno is a professor of theology at Creighton University