- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 31, 2007


By Philip Rieff

Pantheon, $26.95, 271 pages


Philip Rieff’s “Charisma” isn’t about that much-talked-about yet intangible quality that’s supposed to render certain political figures irresistible to millions of voters. Mr. Rieff sees that kind of charisma as superficial, a “spray-on” kind of quality.

No, in this rich, complex book, Mr. Rieff, who died in 2006 at the age of 83, takes up a far more profound subject: the terrible spiritual loss we moderns have experienced by our (very often eager and proud) embrace of modernity.

The book’s subtitle sums up Mr. Rieff’s theme: “The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away From Us.” So do the chapter headings: “Evil Angels Have All but Seized Control of the World,” for example, or “The Repression of Meaning.”

Mr. Rieff, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, authored among other books and articles the widely-read and respected “The Triumph of the Therapeutic: The Uses of Faith After Freud.”

This book takes up where that one, published four decades ago and still in print, left off, further developing Mr. Rieff’s belief that such concepts as the sacred, sin, holiness and evil — largely banished from the modern lexicon or given radically diminished meaning — are essential to man and culture.

True charismatics — Moses or Christ — instilled in their followers rules that clearly defined what was not to be done, Mr. Rieff argues. They helped mankind to delineate the sacred, and to know what was sinful. The rules became part of the inwardness of Jews and Christians, and can be forsaken only at great cost, Mr. Rieff avers. Yet forsaking and abandoning them is precisely what the modern world, and particularly its educated elite, has done.

Mr. Rieff sees the attack that led to the destruction of traditional values as having come in two waves. First to arrive was a group of 19th- and early-20th-century writers Rieff dubs the “mystifiers of the break.” These included such influential thinkers as the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher and the sociologist Max Weber.

These progressives argued that modern man must shed primitive religious belief and practice as remnants of an ignorant and unsophisticated past. Then, in their wake, came the therapeutics — whose number is now legion — offering a host of therapies from psychoanalysis to primal scream, these being always touted as answers to life’s problems.

But all of these therapies are equally hollow, according to Mr. Rieff. The reason they are worthless, he writes, is that none of them explain to their adherents what must be avoided; none of them define man’s limitations or an understanding of sin.

Rather, these therapies offer the opposite. They show how man can be free of the old law, free of any regard for sacred things, free to be and do anything he wants, free of the old limitations. “No therapy can admit the sacred,” Mr. Rieff writes, because the sacred “always and everywhere” demands reverence and profound respect; the contemporary world undermines respect for the past, valuing only the present. In a therapeutic society old virtues go by the way, and “justice, love, and faithfulness” lose “their meanings as elements in any discipline of obedience.”

But this — the way we live today — is a condition of genuine savagery in Mr. Rieff’s opinion. True “savagery comes after the success of the liberal and critical attack … on the assumption that all prohibitions are somehow primitive and unjustifiable,” he writes. The attack on traditional morality has now reached the stage where, far from honoring the wisdom of the past, our society honors those who overturn its inherited concepts of right and wrong or expresses hostility toward established ways.

The outlaw is the endlessly admired subject of our cinema and literature, and of rock music. This is a symptom, according to Mr. Rieff, of “a culture destroying itself… by the approving of all transgressors as creative, or at least not ‘uptight.’”

What can be done to restore health? Mr. Rieff wants serious punishment dealt to those who violate society’s laws, something we don’t do now because we have no strong sense of what’s right and wrong, no notion of how crime truly threatens society. A “stable order,” he writes, depends on “the creative act of severe punishment.” Real punishment “could again give its irreplaceable meaning to criminality”

Mr. Rieff wants us also to place much less faith in politics and the superficial charisma of politicians. “The political hero never acts in a self-renunciatory mode;” he notes, “on the contrary, his act is always a form of self-deification… .”

And Mr. Rieff sees a need for more self-discipline, much less self-indulgence. “The revolutionary rich, and their undisciplined children, genteel, still inhibited, unbelievers, cannot grasp the demonic energies released by their own exemplary preaching of every conceivable freedom.”

But above all Mr. Rieff wants his readers to recognize the centrality of religion and tradition to culture. “Perhaps the best place to begin is with the suggestion that holiness is entirely interdictory,” he writes.

By this he means that holiness is always aware of what must never be done. It never teaches man’s limitlessness as modernity does. “For our charismatics [the false ones of today] are engaged in no wrestling of angels, but rather, with the obeying of demons.”

More than once in this extraordinary book Mr. Rieff quotes the famous verse from the prophet Micah: “Yahweh seeks nothing from you except that you do justice, love faithfulness, and walk humbly with your God.”

This is the essence of tradition for Mr. Rieff. “To walk humbly with your God once carried the full discipline of obedience in a single phrase.”

In a personal aside, Mr. Rieff writes, “I have learned that I am opposed to all therapies.” In another, he concludes: “This book I may offer as a life-act, a rattling of dry bones in what is probably a losing war against the radical contemporaneity of our culture.”

That contemporaneity “is the work of a true barbarian … For barbarism is not some primitive technology and naive cosmologies, but a sophisticated cutting off of the inhibiting author of the past.”

Mr. Rieff closes the book with a long quotation of one of John Keats’ letters. Keats wrote of this world, with its trials and tribulations, as a place of “soul-making.” Mr. Rieff agrees totally. It’s not a world whose final goal is pleasure and an end to pain, the aim of therapy.

It’s a place of discipline, where there are things that are sacred and things that should not be done. “Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?” wrote Keats.

Stephen Goode is a writer and critic in Milton, Del.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide