Remembering a Great “Jew of Culture” *

Posted on Jun 29, 2016

July 1 marks the tenth yahrzeit of my teacher, Philip Rieff, one of the most important sociological theorists of his generation. This is the 50th year since the publication of his book The Triumph of the Therapeutic, which gave the world a name for—and theory of—contemporary culture: “therapeutic.” It is a word that from this vantage point seems a prescient account of our country and its election campaign in 2016. I will never forget Philip Rieff, and hope that America will remember the lessons that he tried relentlessly to teach.

Rieff was above all else a teacher. I became his student during my senior year at the University of Pennsylvania, in a seminar that (if memory serves) began at 4:00 p.m. each Monday and ended whenever Rieff said it did. The reading that semester consisted entirely of a bare handful of paragraphs in Max Weber’s credo essay, “Science [or Scholarship] as a Vocation” (1918). The going was slow—we read line by line—and Rieff had a rule that students could not use words we were not prepared to define.

One day I remember someone made the mistake of using the word “institution.” We stayed quite late that evening. I did not mind. Rieff had entranced me with his basso profundo voice, precise diction, studied formality, and impeccable three-piece suits. His lectures were typically as brilliant as his masterpiece, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959). I felt at home in his classroom, I think, because his method of reading brought to mind Hebrew school classes where we read the Torah, word by word, with Rashi’s commentary.

I stayed in touch with Rieff through graduate school, and when I assumed my first position as a “fellow teacher”—the title of a classic Rieff essay from 1972—I regularly took the train from New York to Philadelphia to see my parents and study with Rieff. He tutored me in Weber, Nietzsche, and Freud, the lessons always interspersed with good meals, good wine, and conversation that went back and forth from texts to what Rieff called “text analogues”—events in the news or recent cultural developments that illumined or illustrated the texts. I vividly remember discussions about politics, universities, art, literature, Israel, and Judaism. On several occasions after my mother’s death I took my father along, and had the pleasure of watching him and my teacher exchange jokes. Rieff’s demeanor was normally stern. He loved to depart from it in uproarious laughter.

It’s no surprise that a scholar of Freud should enjoy a good joke, or even a bad one; Rieff’s analysis of culture, like Freud’s, paid careful attention to the elements of daily life in which personal and societal character stand revealed. The central problem of our time, he believed, was that our culture had lost its bearings, ceasing to provide the norms and behavior required to nurture ethical selves and give just order to society. Distinctions between Right and Wrong, Good and Evil, Truth and Lies, had given way to relativism and deconstruction. What mattered in public and private life, much of the time, was what Rieff called therapy: feeling good, living comfortably, getting along. One did not want to judge others, lest we be judged in return. The worst we might say of a person’s behavior is that it was “inappropriate.” Triumph of the Therapeutic argued that the loss of faith in a Commanding God, loss of confidence that justice could ever be achieved in this world (or that we could ever agree on what justice meant), and loss of hope in reward or punishment in a world to come, had led modern individuals and our societies to settle for lesser salvations. We too often aim at mere fulfillment of pleasures and desires, some noble, some not. Our culture, Rieff wrote, proclaims that “the therapy of all therapies, the secret of all secrets. . . is not to attach oneself exclusively or too passionately to any one particular meaning, or object.” We “are now committed, culturally as well as economically, to the gospel of self-fulfillment” (Triumph, 59, 252).

Rieff’s ideal character type—the one he himself tried to live up to and describe, despite failings in both departments; the polar opposite of the “therapeutic” who disdains fixed norms and rejects hierarchies of High and Low—was the “Jew of Culture.” That person did not have to be a Jew, but he or she did have to follow the example of the Ten Commandments in saying “no” to lower urges, and saying “yes” to just authority. Rieff had utmost respect for personal courage, ethical striving, care for the poor, devotion to God, and the discipline required to produce great art, in whatever culture these are found. The building blocks of culture were universal, in his view—all the more reason to bemoan the fact that “Jews of culture” everywhere were under siege.

The evidence for that claim, which of course could never be demonstrated empirically, seemed to Rieff to be all around us. Rieff’s most frequent “text analogue” was the daily newspaper, rife with accounts of corrupt powers, transgressive behavior, and the tearing down of any and all authority. My teacher was firmly conservative in his orientation. Like Hobbes, he valued order above freedom when forced to choose between them. But he was no advocate for unthinking obedience to the powers that be, and understood that culture (any culture) survives only when its tenets are challenged and its practices altered from within in response to changing circumstances. Rieff was certainly no apologist for the American status quo. (I remember him telling me proudly that in the 1968 presidential election he had voted for the African-American comedian and civil rights leader Dick Gregory.) But he was unrelenting in his criticism of Freud for explaining away much of humanity’s highest achievement in terms of our lowest desires. By the same token, he taught me to understand why we so often see human beings—like the murderers of ISIS—justifying the very lowest deeds of which a person is capable in terms of the highest authority a person can conceive: God.

Rieff was never surprised when he saw transgressive behavior move from the realm of art or humor— where it belongs, in his view—to that of life, where it is destructive of right order. I know how he would have reacted to a candidate for president bragging about the size of his sexual organ and his adulteries from the stage of a campaign debate. The vulgarity itself was a challenge to authority, a loosening of the restraints that hold society together. The same was true of winking at the violence of one’s supporters, or mocking immigrants and the disabled. Power unrestrained by submission to the Right and the Good, bullying of the weak, was every bit as much a danger as rioting and orgy. Rieff knew the Bible inside out, and alluded to it frequently. Respect for the poor and the stranger was to him no laughing matter. When a culture succumbs to its lower urges, thereby becoming what Rieff called an anti-culture, one has to resist.

“We mere teachers, Jews of culture, influential and eternally powerless, have no choice except to think defensively: how to keep ourselves from being overwhelmed.” (Fellow Teachers, 126) One often feels overwhelmed, these days. Jews faithful to our people and our tradition may feel especially so, given events in America and Israel. Rieff’s analysis and example offer his fellow teachers understanding, guidance, and the comfort of companionship. I loved him for that, in all his “human, all too human” imperfections (a phrase, and a condition, that I learned from Nietzsche through Rieff’s teaching). May the therapeutic in each of us get the help we need from one another to resist, to rise up against base urges, and to serve the Good and the True.

*For more on this concept and on Rieff’s complicated relationship to Judaism, see Philip Rieff, The Jew of Culture: Freud, Moses and Modernity, edited by Arnold M. Eisen and Gideon Lewis-Kraus (2008).