Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

A balanced assessment of the work of Christopher Lasch will not be possible for some time. For many, Lasch was above all the author of The Culture of Narcissism (1979), an unrelenting indictment of contemporary society. National Review, for example, concluded its obituary notice—one notably generous to a figure identified with the left throughout his career—by characterizing Lasch as one who, “though capable of lighting candles, was best at cursing the darkness.”

Those for whom Christopher Lasch provided a model of intellectual integrity must regard such a summing up as misleading at best. Yes, Lasch’s lifelong critique of a liberalism seeking “painless progress toward the celestial city of consumerism” remains unmatched; yes, he was one of the few social critics who questioned the tacit assumption that underlies so much progressive thinking, that “men and women wish only to enjoy life with a minimum of effort.”

Lasch’s greater significance, however, lies in his slow, painstaking journey to a deeper view of both human beings and reality. One of his favorite terms of praise was “hard-won,” and Lasch’s own attainment of insights beyond the reach of mainstream liberalism was “hard-won” even by his own high standards. His career reveals the moral and spiritual depth that becomes possible when an intellectual disdains the consolations offered by the intellectuals’ view of themselves as morally and mentally superior to the rest of humanity.

In The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution (1962) Lasch began the analysis of liberalism from within that he would continue and deepen throughout his career. He noted shrewdly that liberal illusions about the Russian Revolution were based on a theological mistake; the idea, if not the reality, of the Russian Revolution would remain irresistible to Western liberals “as long as they clung to the dream of an earthly paradise from which doubt was forever banished.” Lasch would amplify this point in the last book published before his death, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics (1991), where he noted that the petty bourgeoisie—the “middle Americans” so glibly denounced by liberal critics—at least “are unlikely to mistake the promised land of progress for the true and only heaven.”

At first, however, it was to Marx and Freud that Lasch turned in search of a more profound view of life. In the work that established his reputation as an intellectual, The New Radicalism in America (1965), religion appears almost exclusively as a source of obfuscation. Lasch found then that it was “the religious roots of progressive doctrine” that were the source of “its main weakness,” which he diagnosed as an anti-intellectual willingness to use education “as a means of social control” rather than a basis for enlightenment. The book held out the hope that “a radical critique of American society” might yet be fashioned by integrating Marxism and psychoanalysis, perhaps along the lines of Herbert Marcuse in Eros and Civilization and One-Dimensional Man.

Throughout the seventies Lasch worked through the ideas of Marx and Freud, an effort that culminated in The Culture of Narcissism. Already, however, there were hints that he would never rest content with any worldview that these figures and their successors might provide. In The World of Nations, a 1973 collection of essays, Lasch emphasized his “antipathy to Whiggish or progressive interpretations of history.” In an essay on the Mormons, he resisted the temptation to expatiate on the follies of religious fanaticism and instead pointed out that the assimilation of the Mormons was being “achieved by sacrificing whatever features of their doctrine or ritual were demanding and difficult,” specifically “the conception of a secular community organized in accordance with religious principles.” Without accepting Mormon theology, Lasch emphasized the more influential error of the mainstream religious liberalism that Mormonism had originally opposed, “the comforting illusion that religion is an affair of the spirit alone having nothing to do with the rest of life.”

Haven in a Heartless World (1977) offered a passionate critique of the “enlightened opinion” which ratified “the substitution of medical and psychiatric authority for the authority of parents, priests, and lawgivers.” In The New Radicalism in America, Lasch had noted the tendency of progressives to identify social control with freedom, but now it was not socialist revolution but the traditional family that seemed to provide the best hope for staving off the “new forms of domination.” Lasch discovered a latent strength in the family and its “old-fashioned middle-class morality,” noting that the decline of the family meant also “the decline of romantic love” and “the decline of transcendent ideals in general.”

The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch’s only bestseller, represented an attempt to integrate such insights within a Marxian politics and a Freudian mode of analysis. Most readers, presumably including President Jimmy Carter, noticed only the overwhelming sense of national “malaise” that the book communicated so powerfully and missed Lasch’s indictment of “the system of corporate capitalism” and his call for “a socialist revolution.” The neglect was understandable, for if Lasch was correct, there seemed to be little any of us could do about anything anyway. Under the culture of narcissism even art and religion, “historically the great emancipators from the prison of the self,” had lost their liberating power, and finally even sex had lost its “power to provide an imaginative release.”

The book seemed to mark a dead end, but for Lasch himself, surprisingly, it became a turning point. Having reached a nadir of pessimism, Lasch was nevertheless unwilling to surrender to a fashionable postmodernist cynicism. In an exchange over The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch announced the direction he had chosen, one that would put him at odds with former allies and invite misunderstanding from would-be friends. He declared that the left had “chosen the wrong side in the cultural warfare between ‘middle America’ and the educated or half-educated classes, which have absorbed avant garde ideas only to put them at the service of consumer capitalism.” Hereafter his critique of the illusions congenital to enlightened opinion would become ever more incisive. Lasch did not slide into bitterness, however, since he was now ready to search for truths overlooked or decried by progressive ideologies.

The Minimal Self (1984) made explicit Lasch’s recognition that the insights of traditional religion retained their vitality while the moral and intellectual authority of Marx, Freud, and their epigones withered. Rejecting mere psychic “survival” as a meaningful goal, Lasch argued that “Self-affirmation remains a possibility precisely to the degree that an older conception of personality, rooted in Judeo- Christian traditions, has persisted alongside a behavioral or therapeutic conception.” He added that it was this form of “self- affirmation” which alone seemed to offer genuine hope for “democratic renewal.” While to many opinion-makers the memory of Auschwitz seemed to justify a “survival ethic” in a meaningless world, Lasch argued that “the only lessons Auschwitz has to offer” are “the need for a renewal of religious faith, the need for a collective commitment to decent social conditions.” Lasch pointed out that a reading of memoirs from Auschwitz prisoners reveals that, by and large, survivors did not themselves turn to any survivalist ethic; they “found strength in the revealed word of an absolute, objective, and omnipotent creator . . . not in personal ‘values’ meaningful only to themselves.”

The concluding words of The Minimal Self summed up the new importance Lasch assigned to religion. Couching his thesis in general terms and carefully refusing to capitalize references to divinity, he refrained, as usual, from displaying his personal emotions, but his words are eloquent nonetheless: “In the history of civilization . . . vindictive gods give way to gods who show mercy as well and uphold the morality of loving your enemy. Such a morality has never achieved anything like general popularity, but it lives on, even in our own enlightened age, as a reminder both of our fallen state and of our surprising capacity for gratitude, remorse, and forgiveness, by means of which we now and then transcend it.”

In The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics, Lasch not only provided a powerful critique of a view of progress whose culminating hope is a “vision of men and women released from outward constraints” but, even more important, sketched the outlines of an alternative tradition. Examining such disparate figures as Jonathan Edwards, Orestes Brownson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Carlyle, William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King, Lasch searched for a conception of “hope” that could be distinguished from the shallow optimism of progressive thought. In contrast to the liberal view of human beings as consumers, he recalled the “heroic conception of life” articulated, for example, in Orestes Brownson’s Catholic radicalism. Lasch noted that Brownson and the early republican tradition shared “a suspicion that life was not worth living unless it was lived with ardor, energy, and devotion.” Agreeing that the suspicion was justified, Lasch argued that a truly democratic culture requires a shared commitment not to diversity for its own sake but rather to “a demanding, morally elevating standard of conduct.” He noted that “political pressure for a more equitable distribution of wealth can come only from movements fired with religious purpose and a lofty conception of life.”

In one of his most impressive chapters, Lasch illuminated the greatness of Martin Luther King, who addressed the nation as a whole but “also spoke the language of his own people, which incorporated their experience of hardship and exploitation yet affirmed the rightness of a world full of unmerited hardship.” Like Lincoln, King drew strength from “a popular religious tradition whose mixture of hope and fatalism was quite alien to liberalism.” In a separate essay, Lasch attributed “the collapse of the civil rights movement” to the liberal insistence, even among pastors, that racial issues be confronted “with arguments drawn from modern sociology and from the scientific refutation of racial prejudice” rather than confronted on the moral and religious grounds that King had articulated so compellingly.

Perhaps the most provocative passages in The True and Only Heaven are those in which Lasch moved beyond his critique of political and even cultural liberalism to recover conceptions of reality familiar to past generations but discarded by progressives. Lasch noted that progressive optimism is easily shaken when things go wrong; “the disposition properly described as hope, trust, or wonder, on the other hand-three names for the same state of heart and mind-asserts the goodness of life in the face of its limits. It cannot be defeated by adversity.” The “disposition” Lasch evokes is fostered by ideas shared by the great religious traditions but rejected by enlightened opinion: “The power and majesty of the sovereign creator of life; the inescapability of evil in the form of natural limits on human freedom; the sinfulness of man’s rebellion against those limits; the moral value of work, which at once signifies man’s submission to necessity and enables him to transcend it . . . .”

Such affirmations are not original, but they offer something better than mere originality: the recovery for us, today, of the insights of the past as the reward for Lasch’s persistent engagement with and against the ideologies of the present. The career and the journey of Christopher Lasch remind us that intellectual integrity and reflective independence remain possible even under the sway of postmodernist nihilism. As we mourn the death of Christopher Lasch, we can also be grateful for the candles he lit.

James Seaton, a new contributor to First Things, teaches in the Department of English at Michigan State University.