The West is a Third World Country: The Relevance of Philip Rieff

Rieff is today justly famous for his 1966 book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud.

Cultural conservatives face a time when it is not simply a question of debating the nature of our culture on some commonly agreed foundation. It is a time when we face the complete transformation of our culture into an anti-culture.


Perhaps one of the most confusing aspects of this present age is the sheer speed with which unquestioned orthodoxies—for example, the nature of marriage, or the tight connection between biology and gender, or the vital importance of free speech to a free society—are either crumbling before our eyes or have been completely overthrown. If cultural conservatives are to respond to these changes, it is not enough to address each of them as isolated, discrete phenomena. We must first understand them as symptomatic of deeper cultural pathologies; and that requires a broader theoretical framework that sets the iconoclasm of today in the context of wider, deeper, social and cultural changes.

One thinker who can help us with this is Philip Rieff. Rieff is today justly famous for his 1966 book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud. With this remarkably prescient analysis of how personal, psychological well-being would become the primary purpose of life, Rieff spoke more truth than he could possibly have anticipated. The world in which we live today, where everything—even biological sex—is to be subordinated to how we feel inside, was barely conceivable in 1966. Today it is hard to imagine a world where the therapeutic is not normative.

Yet Rieff’s significance as a cultural critic is broader and greater than his analysis of Psychological Man, and it is here where he can help address that question of why we now have so much cultural iconoclasm of such speed and intensity. The key text is his posthumously published trilogy, Sacred Order/Social Order, where he reflects on the emerging culture of the West in a way that helps to clarify why our age subverts so much those institutions, beliefs, and practices that have traditionally defined Western civilization. The reason, Rieff argues, is a seismic change in how our society justifies its beliefs and practices, a change hundreds of years in the making whose results are now arriving thick and fast in the public square.

Sex, Religion, and Civilization

To grasp the underlying thesis of Sacred Order/Social Order, it is first helpful to understand something of Rieff’s debt to Sigmund Freud. Rieff was a scholar (and admirer) of Freud. His first major work was Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959), and his cultural criticism reveals debts to the psychoanalyst at several key points.

First, Rieff agrees with Freud that civilization is the result of a trade-off. For human beings, sex is the key to happiness; but if all human beings indulged their sexual instincts as they wished, there would be total chaos. Civilization therefore involves repressing and redirecting sexual urges so that people can live together in relative harmony. Nobody will enjoy perfect happiness—hence the “discontents” in the title of Freud’s famous essay, Civilization and Its Discontentsbut more people will enjoy more happiness for longer than in a world of sexual anarchy. All that repressed sexual energy will go into cultural projects, such as art, music, and commerce.

We might summarize the implications of this by saying that, for Freud (and subsequently for Rieff), civilization is defined by what it forbids, particularly in the sexual realm. Culture is defined by that set of institutions, practices, and beliefs that inculcate and transmit these prohibitions from one generation to the next.

This leads to Rieff’s second debt to Freud in the realm of cultural criticism: the role of religion. For Freud, religion was an illusion. That is not primarily a statement about its metaphysical truth—though Freud was himself an atheist. Rather, it means that religion fulfills a specific purpose. It offers a picture of the world that grounds the prohibitions that constitute civilization in a transcendent order of being. For example, the Ten Commandments in the Bible are designed to reflect the character of God. They are therefore not presented as arbitrary, and they possess authority, not because they reflect the immanent concerns of Jewish culture, but because they are spoken by a creator and redeemer God.

Sacred and Social Orders

In Sacred Order/Social Order, Rieff offers a historical scheme for categorizing cultures in light of these basic insights. Rieff calls these First, Second, and Third World cultures. First Worlds are characterized by a variety of myths that ground and justify their cultures through something that transcends the immediate present. These might be the tales of the gods and heroes in the Iliad or the Norse sagas, the philosophy of Plato, or the mythic stories of origin found in Native American societies. Whatever their specific content, what they share in common is that they make the present culture accountable to something greater than itself. Rieff says that a belief in fate is perhaps the key here.

Second Worlds are characterized not by a belief in fate but by faith. The great examples would be Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, where cultural codes are rooted in the belief in a specific divine and sovereign being who stands over and above creation, and to whom all creatures are ultimately accountable. First and Second Worlds are similar in that both set their social order upon a deeper, even sacred, order. It is the Third World that represents a decisive rupture on this point.

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