30 Aug

Rieff Revisited

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 08/30/07

If you were intrigued about our features on volume 82 about Philip Rieff and would like to know more about his ideas before committing to reading him, a pithy summary of Rieff's views by critic George Scialabba appeared in a recent issue of the Boston Review. The occasion for Scialabba's article is the posthumous book by Rieff called Charisma: The Gift of Grace and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us. Rieff draws on (and disputes) Max Weber's idea of charisma, which was in Weber's formulation a form of authority. Rieff insists that there can be no charisma in Weber's sense apart from some sense of sacred order, no charisma without creed is how Rieff summarizes his view.

Philip Rieff always maintained that the point of culture was to provide authority, to set limits against which individuals could come to understand the world and their place in it. But the crisis of modernity is specifically the loss of the plausibility of any authority. Rieff believed (in Scialabba's summary) that: For most educated (and even many uneducated) Westerners, however, all formerly unalterable authorities now lie in the dust, like Ozymandias. Science has banished the supernatural, technology has vanquished scarcity, and so, having lost its parents, ignorance and misery, morality is now an orphan. This is the triumphalist view of modernity, and Rieff shared it, only instead of a triumph, he thought it a catastrophe.

A review essay of the anniversary edition of Rieff's The Triumph of the Therapeutic appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of The University Bookman. In the essay, James G. Poulos (who dubs Rieff America's most obscure critical genius) examines the question of how to best live in the present world. In a society where genuine community seems withered and perverted, and where the wisdom and habit of traditional culture is often repudiated by popular publicity, is the moral dissident to fight or flee? Put more specifically, is it our duty to struggle to engage a culture that has soured to our tastes, or are we better off abandoning, in Rieff's term, the anti-culture that surrounds us?

Full disclosure requires my acknowledgment that Mr. Poulos discusses the work of MARS HILL AUDIO as being influenced by Rieff, in our continuing effort to address (in Poulos's words) the dilemma of engaging the culture without being lost to it.

Posted by Ken Myers on 8/31/07