The Great Barrier Rieff: Stemming the Tide of Destruction in American Culture and Public Life

October 27, 2015

Outside of sociological circles, not many people these days have heard of Philip Rieff. But Rieff stands as one of the twentieth century’s keenest minds, and remains one of the greatest gifts—even if a complicated and challenging gift—to Western society.

I discovered Rieff as I suppose many people stumble across great ideas and great thinkers—almost accidentally. Just a couple of years ago, I found myself in the mahogany-paneled sitting room of a hotel in Amsterdam at 3:00 a.m., swilling a brew of Camellia sinensis in the vain hopes of counteracting an onerous case of jet lag.

Looking for something to pass the time (or, perhaps, to put me to sleep), I rooted about in my book bag, and finally selected a small blue hardback, My Life among the Deathworks, by Rieff. A friend had recommended it to me on several occasions, pointing out that Rieff was an especially perceptive thinker and exemplary writer. And so in the hours leading up to dawn, while the rest of Amsterdam slept, I read my first Rieff volume.

Any hopes of dozing off with a dull book in my hands were short-lived. Rieff’s work was stunning. It was sociology on a grand scale—sociology as prophecy—diagnosing the ills of our shared life in the West and offering a prognosis for the future.

Rieff’s prognosis was not rosy. In reading Deathworks and other volumes, one gets the sense that Rieff is a tomb-raider, plundering the necropolis that is our twenty-first century Western culture. After having read Deathworks, I retraced Rieff’s career, accompanying Rieff on his other epistolary tomb-raiding journeys. The progression of his thought over the course of his life sheds light on Rieff’s enduring significance, as well as offering us some vital wisdom for evaluating American culture today.

Early Career (Sigmund Freud and the Rise of Therapeutic Culture)

From the very beginning of Rieff’s academic career, others recognized him as exceptionally bright. While still an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago, he was offered a faculty position there. He accepted the offer, and in short order finished not only his undergraduate degree, but also his M.A. and Ph.D. His area of expertise was Sigmund Freud, and in particular Freud’s reception in America. His dissertation was published as Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959).

In 1961, Rieff joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania and, just two years later, was appointed University Professor. Then, in 1967, at the age of 44, he was made the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Sociology. Rieff became the recognized doyen of Freud and cultural change during an era defined by therapy and cultural change.

In his most influential early publications, including The Mind of the Moralist and The Triumph of the Therapeutic, we find Rieff arguing that Freud’s view of neurosis was key to Freud’s cultural analysis. When Freud explored neurosis, he was really at a deeper level exploring authority. Western man was beginning to realize that the traditional Western notion of authority—divine authority—was based on a chimera. God didn’t exist (or so the cultural narrative went); ergo, he could not act as a legitimate authority.1

Freud believed that the high degree of neurosis in the Western world stemmed from this loss of authority. Freud therefore discerned a causal relationship between religion’s decline and neurosis’s rise. Instead of healing neurosis by reviving religion, however, he sought to heal it by teaching the patient to live without it. This psychotherapeutic view of modern man served 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 Freudian therapeutics, on the other hand, could not countenance authoritative frameworks and normative moral codes. In a therapeutic culture, authority disappears. In place of God and morality, we are left with art and sociology. The tradeoff would not be a fruitful one. For this reason, later in his career Rieff would describe Washington, D.C. (rather than, say, Moscow) as the epicenter of Western cultural deformation.2

Mid-Career (Disillusionment and Disappearance)

By the 1970s, Rieff was a rockstar public intellectual. His essays were published in the major literary magazines (Commentary, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, The American Scholar, The New York Times Book Review, among others) and he was sought after by the great interviewers of his day. But he mysteriously withdrew from public sight in the eighties, never to return. He continued to speak in public venues, giving distinguished lecture series at Yale, Princeton, and Columbia; but his writing essentially dried up and disappeared. He published a mere seven articles and reviews during that entire decade.

As Jonathan Imber notes, Rieff was protesting “against the vainglorious encounter he saw at work between intellectuals and the public.”3 In his writings and lectures during the latter part of his career, therefore, Rieff took care to display the sort of public modesty that he thought behooved intellectuals.

Late Career (Sacred Order / Social Order)

Three decades after removing himself from the public eye, Rieff surfaced again with the publication of My Life among the Deathworks. Deathworks was the first volume of the “Sacred Order / Social Order” trilogy, and the only one to be published before Rieff’s death. The remaining two volumes, The Crisis of the Officer Class and The Jew of Culture, were published posthumously.

In the trilogy, Rieff argues that modernity’s ills are caused by its dysfunctional relationship with the sacred. In particular, they stem from modernity’s radical attempt to reorganize society by abolishing the sacred. As Rieff had argued early in his career, this abolition was catalyzed in no small part by Freud. Freud’s aim through psychotherapy was to transform a person’s inner life. Unlike Christianity, which seeks to conform the believer to Christ, Freud sought to transform his patients to a radically irreligious view of the world.

The problem with such a patently irreligious view, as Rieff notes, is that religion cannot really be abolished. We can no more live without a religious framework than we can communicate without a linguistic framework, or breathe without a pulmonary framework. Religion is in man’s blood, and attacking overt religiosity only serves to create concealed religiosity. Freud’s notion of the “unconscious,” for instance, lets the divine in through the backdoor even after kicking it out the front. Rieff writes, “Freud thought of the unconscious as somewhat like a hidden god—indifferent, impersonal, unconcerned about the life of its creation.”4 Freud wanted to abolish myth but ended up creating his own.

Three Cultural Worlds

In the decades following the publication of Triumph, Rieff developed a conception of Western history in which there have been three cultural “worlds.” Each “world” stood for a period of Western history (not a separate sphere of existence). Thus the first cultural world was the pagan world, enchanted by its many gods. This was followed by the second cultural world, one dominated by monotheisms. The second cultural world had recently given way to the third cultural world, the present one, in which humanity wishes to do away with the gods en toto.

As Rieff saw it, the world’s civilizations had always conceived of social order as being underlain by sacred order. Sacred order always and necessarily funded social order by providing for it a world of meaning and a code of permissions and prohibitions. It translated its own truths into the tangible realities of the social order. Sacred order exerted its influence on social order through culture. Thus culture-makers and cultural products were the middlemen between sacred order and social order, between God and society.

But the spirit of the third cultural world seeks to undo all of this. In the third cultural world, the most powerful of the culture-makers are seeking to abolish sacred order altogether. In historically unprecedented fashion, they wish to leave social order to stand on its own, bereft of the sacred foundation it has always known. Or, to put a sharper point on it than Rieff did, these cultural elite (perhaps unconsciously) place themselves in the stead of God, producing works of culture that shape social order in their own likeness.

Deathworks in Our Third Cultural World

Rieff viewed the products of this third cultural world deleteriously, describing them as deathworks. These cultural products were not, as they should have been, vehicles of life, but were rather subversive agents of destruction, undermining the very society and culture from which they arose. Rieff provides a glittering array of exempla, usually from the humanities, including especially the works of Freud, Joyce, Picasso, and Mapplethorpe. He points to the cultural assaults on traditional understandings of sexuality, especially the negative attitudes toward the traditional heterosexual family unit. These assaults represent, for Rieff, a subversion of traditional Western cultural codes and an abrogation of their underlying sacred order.

Each of the first two cultural worlds sought to form personal, social, and cultural “identity” vertically from above. But our third world rejects the vertical and seeks to constitute identity horizontally below. The effect of this rejection is nihilism. “Where there is nothing sacred,” Rieff notes, “there is nothing.”5

Christianity as a Second Cultural World

Although Rieff was sharply critical of Christianity in his younger years, by the end of his career he showed his commitment to monotheism (second world social order) and embraced the positive role Christianity should play in society. In a second world Western social order (undergirded by Judeo-Christian monotheism), sacred order comes via revelation, and through traditions that stem from that revelation. Sacred order provides a world of meaning replete with a normative code of permissions and prohibitions. This moral code causes society to flourish, and fosters the well-being of individuals within the broader social order.6 The individual learns from an early age to identify himself within this world of meaning, and to respect its virtue and vice in such a way that it shapes his instinctual desires. Significantly, sacred order also demands that the culture uphold social order by foregoing decadence in their social and cultural lives.

Rieff was careful to note that sacred order is not immutable, nor should it be imposed via culture to control social order down to the detail. Sacred order is not to be equated with civil order, even if it does in fact shape the concrete realities of civil order. Indeed, sacred order translates its own intangible order into the tangible realities of social order. It does so through culture and, in so doing, shapes individual identity. “Wherever we may be, in the whatness of our whoness, what we are is constituted by where we are in the sacred order.”7 Standing at the head of sacred order is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and along with God comes his creation, his revelation.

The Deformation of Our Third Cultural World

Third-world elites seek, by means of culture, to deform what God has formed, to cut social order loose from sacred order so that social order floats on its own. “The guiding elites of our third world,” Rieff writes, “are virtuosi of de-creation, of fictions where once commanding truths were.”8 Modern sociologists are at the front of the third-world parade, perpetrating reductionist views of religion by treating it as a merely functional phenomenon. Like Freud before them, they wish to forget religion and rebuild society and culture (irreligiously) from the ground up. The tower of Babel is built, brick by brick, ever anew, and always with fresh hopes of glory.

The attempt to construct a religion-less society is, as we noted earlier, bound to fail. As Rieff notes, “Culture and sacred order are inseparable…No culture has ever preserved itself where there is not a registration of sacred order.”9Yet in the meantime, our third-world project of de-creation involves the creation of deathworks, cultural realities that represent a “final assault on…the sacred orders of which their arts are some expression.” Our deathworks are “battles in the war against second culture.”10 In Rieff’s eyes, the third world culture is busy congratulating itself on its apparent rout.

One of the front lines of the contemporary cultural battle is the notion of truth. The third world perspective abolishes truth, leaving only desire. But desire proves to be as fierce of an authority as any god—and jealous to boot. Third world cultures are relativistic on the surface, but at depth-level they are intensely authoritarian. They rule out the deity. Rieff writes, “The one limiting possibility that the new elites cannot admit, in the world-affirming immanentism of their ‘value’ conventions, is that of a divine creator and his promised redemptive acts before whom and beside which there is nothing that means anything.”11 But nature abhors a vacuum. So the throne on which God once sat does not remain empty; it is simply filled with the god of desire.

In our American third-world culture, almost any desire will suffice, but sexual desire acts as trumps. Drawing upon his work with Freud, Rieff notes how the attempt to replace the deity centers itself, surprisingly, on resistance to the heterosexual family. Rieff argues that the Western movement to normalize homosexuality represents an attack on the heterosexual family, with significant and negative implications for society. This movement is “a polymorphic perversity that is scarcely understood by the masses of those who are merely hunkered down in silent and, in a great degree, intimidated acceptance of homosexuality as if it were somehow another lifestyle without further significance in society.”12 The problem of homosexuality, as Rieff sees it, goes much deeper than sexual ethics. It is a matter of defiance against the sacred order, and so long as that defiance reigns supreme, culture can only expect deathworks.

Onward to a Fourth World

Instead of trying to retrieve the lost Christendom of another age, Rieff pushes us forward to envision a fourth world, one in which sacred order once again underlies social order, and in which elite influencers uphold sacred order rather than undermining it. The construction of a fourth world would involve a recovery of revelation, and by extension a recovery of authority, direction, and meaning—all casualties of the third cultural world. Although the third world may seem to be at its peak, Rieff foresees its erosion. The therapeutic effort to kill the faith instinct will necessarily fail. “[The faith instinct] simply cannot be killed. That ‘simply cannot’ means that we simply cannot not live—cannot live as if life were meaningless, without purpose; as if life were merely material or mechanical or not spiritual.”13

The key to the successful cultivation of a fourth world is to restore culture to its rightful function connecting the sacred to the social. This restoration will not enact itself; it awaits a people who will speak and act responsibly and proleptically. This people must recover a code of permissions and prohibitions, a recovery that will become increasingly possible as our culture undergoes a “radical disenchantment” with the permissiveness of third world culture.14 It seemed so liberating to fire God from his post and live without limits. But a world without boundaries is a frightening—not a freeing—place. We must recover the beauty of the “thou shall” and “thou shall not.”

At the same time, in its striving for moral order, the fourth world’s recovery of permissions and prohibitions must be hospitable to the “other.” We seek, as Rieff notes, “the creation of a world in which its inhabitants may find themselves at home and yet accommodate the stranger without yielding their habitus to him.”15

Concluding Reflections: Formation, Deformation, and Reformation

Rieff’s work is not easy to read. His strategy is to make his reader work hard to understand his text, just as the reader will have to work hard to discern the deathly contours of third world culture and to help build a fourth world. But Rieff has worked harder than the reader, and for those willing to do some heavy mental lifting, reading Rieff pays off in many ways. I will here mention just two, as well as a brief critique.

First (and preliminarily), in reading Rieff’s works, one encounters an exemplary scholar. He read widely, and even a cursory glance at his trilogy shows that he had “at his fingertips” a broad cadre of culture-makers such as Nietzsche and Derrida, Freud and Jung, Picasso and Mapplethorpe, Joyce and Kafka. More than that, however, he had subjected the works of these culture-makers to a deep reading. He not only understood them; he reflected upon them over the course of years until he “owned” them.

Second, beyond the rigor of his scholarship, one appreciates the result of his investigations—a perceptive evaluation of Western culture and an illumining, though insufficient, prognosis for the future. One way to appreciate the substance of his work is to evaluate it in light of the biblical pattern of formation-deformation-reformation.

Rieff is at his gimlet-eyed best when it comes to deformation, discerning the manifold deformities of third world culture. He spent the second half of his career trying to diagnose what had gone so badly wrong with contemporary Western society. His answer was prophetic and true: we are in the midst of an unprecedented attempt by the cultural elite to rip sacred order out from underneath social order, leaving social order to float on its own, slowly but surely toward death. When we, in the wake of Rieff’s analysis, read and re-read the events of our own time, we are able to recognize many cultural products of our time as deathworks, and the authors of those products as subversive agents undermining social order.

Indeed, Rieff has prepared us to do the hard work of interpreting our own times, even in these years so soon after his death. In his analysis of deathworks, Rieff tended to focus (though not exclusively) on the creative class as the most subversive creators and purveyors. However, in recent years, we recognize the emergence of a new band of creatives—the Supreme Court majorities of the 1973 Roe v. Wade and 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decisions. Even though these majorities were composed of unelected lawyers appointed to interpret the Constitution, in effect they became a part of the creative class, using their imaginations to author new “rights” (abortion and same-sex marriage), deathworks that undermine and subvert our social order.

As helpful as Rieff is in identifying the deformation of today’s society, his analysis is lacking when looking too far forwards or backwards. For instance, Rieff found it necessary to look backward, speaking to that which came before the deformation (i.e. formation). Rieff points out that, historically, sacred order has always underlain social order, funding it with meaning and a moral code. His answer, as far as it goes, is good and helpful. Or, we could say, it is helpful but “thin.” Even better, or “thicker,” would be a full doctrine of creation, reflections on the goodness and order of the created world, and indications of how that goodness and order connects to human flourishing.

Similarly, Rieff found it necessary to look forward, speaking of that which must come after deformation (i.e. reformation). He recognized that the medicine for our sickness is theological, that society must once again allow sacred order to fund social order. It must do so through a cultural elite who restrain themselves from decadence, and who produce culture that renews society rather than undermining it. It must do so without regressing to Christendom, with its monochrome uniformity, or lapsing into multiculturalism, with incipient relativism. In a phrase, it must foster a sort of societal pluralism without lapsing into relativism. What Rieff provides, in fact, is a sort of eschatology, one that is perceptive and fruitful in its call for the reintroduction of sacred order, accompanied by moral restraint and principled pluralism.

And yet the eschatology Rieff provides is not muscular enough to accomplish what he envisions. Only a fully Christian eschatology, rooted in the atonement of Christ and awaiting the triumphant return of Christ, provides what is necessary to push forward toward a “fourth world culture.” Any eschatology like Rieff’s, that lacks the power and promise of the resurrection is destined, as a rule, to end in disappointment. What we see around us in Western culture is not merely a sickness, but a sickness unto death. Thus we need not only a heavenly vision of society, but a supernatural power to bring heaven down to earth.

This is what Christianity, and Christianity alone, offers as we look to the future. The resurrection of Christ teaches us that where death seems to have uttered the final word, this “ending” is penultimate. God will restore the earth, and his kingdom will prevail. What he created, what he mourned over as it reveled in deathworks ranged against him, what he pursued and redeemed—this he will restore, from top to bottom. The Father does not intend to trash his creation or provide a salvation that removes us from it. He will do for creation what he did for his Son, taking what was dead and making it alive. What gives us grounds for hope is that we are privy to this finale before the finale. We have seen a glimpse of the beautiful end, and yet we live in the muddy middle of the script.

As those who know the end of history’s story, Christians can engage in cultural activity with a humble confidence. The realm of culture, as dark as it may often seem, will one day be raised to life and made to bow in submission to Christ. Christ will gain victory and restore the earth, but it will be his victory rather than ours, so we remain confident but humble.

We conclude with a reminder from Lesslie Newbigin, who recognized the profound implications that history’s final act had for contemporary social action, even in the midst of a deformed society. He writes:

The point is that [a transformed society] is not our goal, great as that is. . . . Our goal is the holy city, the New Jerusalem, a perfect fellowship in which God reigns in every heart, and His children rejoice together in His love and joy. . . . And though we know that we must grow old and die, that our labors, even if they succeed for a time, will in the end be buried in the dust of time, and that along with the painfully won achievements of goodness, there are mounting seemingly irresistible forces of evil, yet we are not dismayed. . . . We know that these things must be. But we know that as surely as Christ was raised from the dead, so surely shall there be a new heaven and a new earth wherein dwells righteousness. And having this knowledge we ought as Christians to be the strength of every good movement of political and social effort, because we have no need either of blind optimism or of despair.16

Note: This essay is downloadable in PDF format.

1 Antonius Zondervan, Sociology and the Sacred: An Introduction to Philip Rieff’s Theory of Culture (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2005) 8-10.
2  Philip Rieff, The Crisis of the Officer Class (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia, 2007), 134.
3  Jonathan B. Imber, “Philip Rieff and Fellow Teachers,” Sociology 50 (2013), 61.
4  Philip Rieff, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1959), 35.
5  Philip Rieff, My Life among the Deathworks (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2006), 12.
6 In Charisma, a book written mid-career, but not published until just after his death, Rieff’s central argument is that the New Testament concepts of grace and humility are essential to moral order. Philip Rieff, Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us (New York: Pantheon, 2007), 288.
7 Rieff, Deathworks, 3.
8 Rieff, Deathworks, 4.
9  Rieff, Deathworks, 13.
10  Rieff, Deathworks, 7.
11  Rieff, Deathworks, 58.
12  Rieff, Crisis, 151.
13 Rieff, Crisis, 6.
14 Rieff, Crisis, 169.
15 Rieff, Deathworks, 14.
16 Lesslie Newbigin, Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), 55. Emphasis added.

Bruce Ashford
Bruce Ashford is the Provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Professor of Theology and Culture. He co-authored the recently-released "One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics" (B&H Academic, Dec. 2015) with Chris Pappalardo. Follow him on Twitter @BruceAshford.