“A Theological Sickness Unto Death – Philip Rieff’s Prophetic Analysis of our Secular Age” is the title of a paper published in TGC’s Themelios journal. I have read Rieff’s My Life Among the Deathworks and am working my way through the related A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. For evangelists and apologists wondering what is going on in our culture, and wanting to survey the cultural landscape in order to better strategise our evangelism and apologetics, this article may be helpful.
In Rieff’s view, therapeutic ideology, rather than Communism, was the real revolution of the twentieth century. Compared to Freud, the neo-Marxists were cultural conservatives who still believed in the notion of authority and the idea of a cultural code. The proponents of Freudian therapeutics, on the other hand, would not countenance authoritative frameworks and normative moral codes. In a therapeutic culture, authority disappears. In place of theology and ethics, we are left with aesthetics and the social sciences. Thus, therapeutic culture was born. This tradeoff would turn out to be so destructive that Rieff would describe the United States and Western Europe (rather than the Soviet Union) as the epicenter of Western cultural deformation.
In contrast to the first and second world cultures whose social order is undergirded by a world beyond the visible and a moral authority beyond the self, third world cultures (contemporary Western cultures) sever the connection between sacred order and social order, limiting the “real” world to the visible and locating moral authority in the self. Similarly, whereas each of the first two worlds sought to construct identity vertically from above, our third world rejects the vertical in favor of constructing identity horizontally from below. Rieff knew the result of this rejection would be nihilism: “Where there is nothing sacred, there is nothing.
The construction of a fourth world will involve a recovery of sacred order and, by extension, recoveries of revelation and authority, and of transcendent meaning and morality. Recoveries such as this do not enact themselves; they await a people who will speak and act responsibly. This fourth world “people,” Rieff argues, must articulate and embody seemingly defunct notions of truth and virtue, a formidable task in our radically disenchanted and morally permissive third world culture. Nonetheless, in spite of the formidable challenges posed by third world order, there are already cracks in the foundations; although it once seemed liberating to fire God from his post and live without limits, the third world will soon realize that a world without boundaries is a frightening—not a freeing—place. Thus, a responsible people must arise to manifest the beauty of the “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.”
Jordan Peterson has recently become an influential figure in modern culture, especially among young men, especially those young men who have previously found themselves at odds with feminism, progressive culture, etc. I think much of this admiration is misplaced, and that there are good criticisms to make of Peterson. However I think it’s also important to understand what it is that’s drawing people to him.
I find myself in two communities here. First I am part of the community of conservative young men. Men who have strong criticism of modern culture, who feel that the direction of progress is wrong, who feel like people have become soft, weak, shallow and thoughtless. A group of people who have grown up in a world lacking direction, purpose, or meaning. A world which is hostile to the nature of young men.
Second, on the outskirts of the academic philosophy community, engaging with it as an amateur and autodidact. Here, Peterson is widely considered to be a moron, who thinks he has engaged with important issues but has thoroughly missed the point.
I think these second people are right. Peterson is a psychologist, who was unknown until he started a controversy about the use of transgender pronouns. This was picked up by the alt-right, who used Peterson as a figurehead for their own opposition to transgenderism. He also fuels their rage against “post-modernism”, which I think both they and Peterson misunderstand, and “cultural Marxism”, which isn’t a real thing at all. In fact, Marx would be thoroughly modernist, not post-modern. But I don’t want to get into those things here, instead, I’ll just encourage anyone reading this to research modernism, post-modernism, and Marxism yourself. I am indeed thoroughly opposed to post-modern thought and to Marxism, but I doubt most of Peterson’s fans understand these topics. I do not think Peterson does either. This is why academics do not like Peterson in general.
But most of the people who like Peterson do so for reasons unrelated to his philosophical positions. Young men have grown up in a world of coddling, victim-mentality, and weakness. As a young man, I’ve felt this too. We are encouraged to have a weak will, to blame others when we fail, we’ve been told: “believe in yourself and you can do anything, because you’re unique like a snowflake”. We live in a culture that glorifies narcissism, fragility, and an external locus of control. A culture that raises what C.S. Lewis calls “Men without chests”.
Peterson has been adopted as the intellectual of the right-wing movement because he speaks against this. He tells young men to grow up and take responsibility. To grow a backbone, to do hard things because you know they’re right, to act with honour and integrity. To not worry about your rights being violated (since rights exist to protect weak and vulnerable) and instead worry about your own competence (since the competent never need to refer to their rights). Some people are weak and vulnerable and should be protected, but you should do whatever you can to take yourself out of that category. Virtue requires a strong will.
Peterson is right about these things. Young men especially should grow a backbone, accept responsibility, and forge themselves into strong, honourable, skilled men. This is what appeals to young men. They fundamentally know this is right.
But this isn’t a good reason to revere Peterson. Many have said this before, many have said it better, and many have said it without bringing in misunderstandings of philosophical and literary narratives, or without Peterson’s rather strange metaphysical background.