Is “greatness” still possible?
‘The therapy of all therapies is not to attach oneself exclusively to any particular therapy, so that no illusion may survive of some end beyond an intensely private sense of well-being to be generated in the living of life itself. That a sense of well-being has become the end, rather than a by-product of striving after some superior communal end, announces a fundamental change of focus in the entire cast of our culture — toward a human condition about which there will be noting further to say in terms of the old style of despair and hope.’¹
The future grieved Philip Rieff. ‘When so little can be taken for granted,’ he wrote, ‘and when the meaningfulness of social existence no longer grants an inner life at peace with itself, every man must become something of a genius about himself.’² It has been argued throughout the works of O.G. Rose that increasingly today everyone must “be a philosopher” and that everyone is suffering from ever-worsening existential anxiety, all of which Philip Rieff predicted. To Rieff, for humans to find themselves in this state is for humans to find themselves in psychological agony, and it is at least partially possibly because we are in this state (or something like it) that we today struggle to “belong again.”
‘Psychoanalysis, harbinger of the new age, replaced the ‘binding commitment’ of the traditional culture with the ‘critical detachment’ of an ‘analytical therapy.’ ’³ We all live increasingly “in the world but not of it,” like philosophers or monks, and yet few have training for this philosophical and psychological challenge; also, few ever made the choice directly to live like this, which is to say it is increasingly “thrown” upon people as a result of “the triumph of the therapeutic,” not God or “a calling,” risking alienation. The principle “forbidden to forbid” makes anything go, and as Barry Schwartz has written on, such a world is psychologically taxing and likely to cause unhappiness. Rieff knew this, and in his pessimistic spirit, made it clear in his book Charisma that he was happy that he would ‘not live to see exactly how a cultureless society work[ed].’⁴
‘The therapeutic is an experiment in the permanent subversion of authority […] The capacity to keep making new orientations of all attitudes implies that there are no fixed lines beyond which action becomes transgressive.’⁵ Rieff was disturbed by this, and lamented that presently ‘therapy functions as a prophylaxis against greatness.’⁶ ‘No great man will appear in such a radical democracy,’ he said, and if what we have argued so far in light of Hunter’s work is correct, indeed, we will have no Bonhoeffers.⁷ But there will also be no Hitlers, nor any “banality of evil” — surely this is worth the trade? Perhaps, but Rieff didn’t seem to believe this trade-off existed: for him, “the triumph of the therapeutic” could lead to totalitarianism, but following the work of Hannah Ardent (as described earlier), I’m not sure he was correct. However, Rieff made a strong point: a culture that believes overcoming restrictions is always good for the human psyche is a society that’s ‘only possible form of greatness is transgressive,’ and there ‘Stalins and Hitlers are more than possible.’⁸
‘Anything that is uniquely unalterable horrifies us even to imagine,’ Rieff wrote dramatically, sounding like Edmund Burke on the French Revolution, ‘because we are living, acting transgressions. We are the horror. To us, nothing is sacred — not even the feeling intellect.’⁹ In this sociological environment, where freedom of the inner will is the main goal and hence where societal constraints will fall away, where we value those scholars, academics, and leaders who challenge standards, values, and norms over those who help establish them, where we “renounce renunciation,” and where the culture and community that make character and human fulfillment possible (according to Aristotle) are erased in the name of character and human fulfillment, we will attempt to stabilize the inner and mental life by removing the restraints which make stability possible, attempt to achieve a utopia of freedom by creating a psychologically terrifying world, and consequently will increase the probability of populist uprisings (like Trump and Brexit) against the psychological and existential instability we have created, one that will likely favor various degrees of authoritarianism for the sake of restoring existential stability and escaping psychological torment.¹⁰ This is why Rieff worried that our world was courting a return to incompressible evils like Nazi Germany, and why we might be wrong to think that a world without community is a world where horrors like Nazism are not possible. Indeed, perhaps a world without community is a world without Bonhoeffer but not without Hitler, where “the banality of evil” is less likely but more dire and widespread. Hard to say.
But maybe pessimistic Rieff was wrong: maybe it is exactly in a world where it is “forbidden to forbid” and where “the therapeutic triumphs” that we Cosmopolitans finally “belong?” If it is indeed repressions that keep us from realizing our true selves, and if it is because we lack that realization that we don’t belong, then yes, but if that psychoanalytical idea is false, then no. But if we create a “limitless world” and find that limitlessness precisely worsens our condition, will it be possible to go back to “a limited world?” Once Pandora’s Box is opened, can it be closed? To find out, we’d have to remove the lid.
We have ‘miles to go before [we] sleep’ — such is “the life of the mind,” and why it can cause such existential and psychological horror that impedes “belonging” and “rest” — we have ‘miles to go before [we] sleep.’¹¹
¹Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 223.
²Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 25.
³Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Introduction by Elisabeth Lash-Quinn. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: XV.
⁴Rieff, Philip. Charisma. New York, NY: First Vintage Books Edition, 2008: 181.
⁵Rieff, Philip. Charisma. New York, NY: First Vintage Books Edition, 2008: 214.
⁶Rieff, Philip. Charisma. New York, NY: First Vintage Books Edition, 2008: 215.
⁷Rieff, Philip. Charisma. New York, NY: First Vintage Books Edition, 2008: 215.
⁸Rieff, Philip. Charisma. New York, NY: First Vintage Books Edition, 2008: 216.
⁹Rieff, Philip. Charisma. New York, NY: First Vintage Books Edition, 2008: 180.
¹⁰This sentence was inspired by “Episode 19 — Therapeutic Culture (12. 13. 16),” as can be found here: https://soundcloud.com/firstthings/episode-19-therapeutic-culture-12-13-16
¹¹Allusion to Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost.