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TAC Bookshelf for the Week of May 7

Rod Dreher, senior editor: I can’t get Philip Rieff off of my mind. I think he will come to be widely seen as a true prophet of our cultural decline. Rieff, a sociologist and cultural critic who died in 2006, is best known for his 1966 book The Triumph of the Therapeutic, which argues, basically, that with the death of God, our culture has abandoned the pursuit of virtue. Instead, we use faith (and other means) as a form of therapy: to ameliorate our anxieties and increase our comfort. Rieff, a secular Jew, predicted that all the institutions of our culture would eventually be entirely rendered therapeutic, especially the churches. He also said that ours is the first culture in history to have abandoned the core function of all cultures: to proclaim and uphold “sacred order.” To the contrary, we have an “anti-culture,” in which the purpose of culture is to destroy the conditions under which we could have a culture.

There’s a new collection of essays collected as The Anthem Companion to Philip Rieff. I wouldn’t recommend it to newcomers to Rieff; better to start with ISI’s 2006 50th anniversary reprint of The Triumph of the Therapeutic, with its accompanying critical essays. Still, I’m enjoying the Anthem anthology. I believe it’s fair to say that Rieff concerned himself chiefly with the problem of authority in the contemporary world. He observed that in our time, nobody believes in transcendent truths, not even many (most?) of those who used “god-terms”—that is, the religious—for whom religion serves “no other purpose than greater amplitude and richness of living itself.” That is, religion is not seen as a call to transcend the self, but rather instrumentalized as a thing that makes life more pleasant.

Rieff comes across as a Moses figure, standing on the brow of Sinai raging at the Israelites below worshiping the golden calf. I find him utterly compelling, because he diagnoses so unsparingly our condition. In the first essay in the Anthem collection, “Philip Rieff and the Impossible Culture,” John Dickson quotes Rieff’s pitiless observation, one that comes across as a warning:  “Where there nothing is sacred, there everything will be destroyed.”

We are living out those terrible words today. Dickson posits Rieff as an anti-Rousseau, characterizing an aspect of his thought thus: “Again, the same question arises: If repression is abolished and everything expressed, what are we left with—the child or the demon?”

The world as it is, and that is emerging, is ever more demonic (I mean it in both the classical sense and the specifically Christian sense). Personally, I see no prospect of turning back that tide, only creating cultural forms that have a chance of surviving it. That’s what my book The Benedict Option is about, but now I am preparing to begin that book’s successor. I don’t want to say too much about it now because I’m still thinking through the contours of it, but it will be a practical guide to rediscovering the transcendent—or, to be more direct, it will be about how to pierce the darkness of this new Dark Age, and to learn how to perceive the presence of God in the beautiful and the good.

To that end, I’m trying to understand more deeply the nature of our loss. I want to grasp more accurately the geography of the canyon into which we have fallen, so that I might be able to map a way out. Last weekend in Washington, I picked up Between Past And Future, a collection of Hannah Arendt essays about politics in the modern age, after the decisive break in Western tradition. Here is the final sentence of her essay “What is Authority?”:

For to live in a political realm with neither authority nor the concomitant awareness that the source of authority transcends power and those who are in power, means to be confronted anew, without the religious trust in a sacred beginning and without the protection of traditional and therefore self-evident standards of behavior, by the elementary problems of human living-together.

Arendt writes in her book’s preface that “without tradition—which selects and names, which hands down and preserves, which indicates where the treasures are and what their worth is—there seems to be no willed continuity in time and hence, humanly speaking, neither past nor future, only sempiternal change of the world and the biological cycle of living creatures in it.” I accept the accuracy of her statement, and as a Christian, feel an obligation to recover that tradition, as much as it can be, and strengthen my family and my community against the decadence overwhelming the remnants of the West. This is a suicidal catastrophe that so very many people on the Right—even religious conservatives—seem oblivious, as if we were only an election or two away, or a revival or two away, from making everything come right again.

In a question-and-answer session just prior to TAC‘s 15th Anniversary Gala last week, I proposed to Patrick Deneen, author of Why Liberalism Failed, that the loss of binding tradition in late liberalism may be pushing us into a period of political violence. Deneen said that yes, that is a possibility; we have cast off restraints. We have to hope and pray that this will not happen, and have to work against it happening. Nevertheless, we also have to accept the possibility that there is little to nothing that we can do to prevent our civilization from taking the path it has chosen, and that the best we can do is fortify ourselves and our communities against what is to come. To that end, Philip Rieff and Hannah Arendt—both unbelieving Jews—offer us imperishable wisdom.


Grayson Quay, contributor: It’s finals week at Georgetown University, and I’m currently buried under a mountain of terms papers, and the only thing keeping me sane is the fact that some of my papers are actually kind of interesting. I’m currently wrapping up a paper on Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindications of the Rights of Woman, long considered one of the foundational texts of feminism, although its implications reach far beyond issues of gender.

That is not to say that her evaluation of gender issues has nothing to offer. Although third-wave feminists typically denounce her for her opposition to abortion and her emphasis on child-rearing, her advice for the education of girls is as applicable as ever. Girls, she said, should not be trained up to be mere objects of beauty because after they have attracted a husband, the fiery passions of love will soon fade and the man her beauty has entrapped will realize that, however good a lover his wife may have been, she cannot be his friend. At this point, the wife, having been raised to base her self-worth on the appreciation of her beauty will seek out that ardor from new lovers. If I have a daughter someday, I’ll give her this book to read as soon as she’s old enough to understand it.

In my paper, however, I’m particularly focusing on how Wollstonecraft’s religious beliefs inform her politics, neither of which I fully endorse. Wollstonecraft absorbed much of her theology from the Unitarian minister Richard Price, who supported both the American and French revolutions and preached that such revolutions were actually hastening the arrival of the Millennial reign of Christ. In light of Unitarianism’s denial of the divinity of Christ and of the doctrine of original sin, Wollstonecraft’s insistence on the liberation of women becomes a plea for salvation. If humans are unfallen, then we can earn our salvation through our own righteousness, and what Wollstonecraft desires above all is that women be given a fair chance to cultivate that righteousness. This cultivation depends upon personal effort—it cannot be gained through blind submission to the doctrines of an established Church. For this reason, her book is shot through with anti-Catholicism, and she denounces the Church of England as excessively Catholic, writing that the high-church cathedral service produces weak men who are “slaves” to a “childish routine.” Wollstonecraft also links arbitrary, hierarchical churches with arbitrary, hierarchical governments, both of which claim divine authority but actually impede spiritual growth by insisting on obedience and stifling reason.

I’m still thinking through the implications of this connection, but it has certainly made me pause to reconsider my dual identity as a fairly high-church Anglican and a citizen of the American republic.

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