Living in the deathworks
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.
I feel as if this explanation is one of the most important things I’ve read this year. I have set reminders to re-read it every week until I’ve internalized it.