Os Guinness, Peter Berger, Max Weber, and Jacques Ellul have assisted me in checking the toxicity levels, and now I need to add another--Philip Rieff. Truthfully, he is the most challenging in both the way he writes and at times what he says. Sometimes what he says is difficult to mentally grasp and other times I fear I understand him all too clearly.
Rieff is best known for his superlative scholarship on the life, writings, and influence (helpful and destructive) of Sigmund Freud. Rieff is one of those rare contemporary authors who is conversant with ideas and authors well beyond the bounds of his area of expertise. Reading Rieff is a full education in that one encounters Rieff's reflections and connections with cultural history, literature, the arts, philosophy, and the social sciences. In the Sacred Order/Social Order series, printed by the University of Virginia Press the reader meets a more aphoristic Rieff. I was reminded of certain writings by Friedrich Nietzsche in style much more than content.
Among the many keen insights from Rieff, his assertion that we have moved through three successive cultures is central. The first, historically speaking, is the pagan, or pre-Christian world. The second is essentially the Christian culture with related mono-theistic religions. Rieff contends that little is left of this culture except aesthetics and weak socially assimilated institutions. And finally the present culture war, which is the third culture and is characterized by a radical skepticism and disdain for authority beyond the diminished autonomous person. This culture (not really a culture) contends vigorously against the second culture's sense of identity grounded in transcendence. However, the hallmark of this non-culture is its hollowness and crippled condition.
In the beginning of Vol. II(The Crisis of the Officer Class) Rieff states, "This book is written against those theorists who have sought in vain to liberate us from the sacred order by teaching that it does not exist. It is written to reveal again the eternal commonplace: there is nothing outside sacred order in the range of its authority. Authority cannot die. It can only shift up and down its veridical." So if Rieff is correct and if authority is shifting down to the level of the barbarians, time is short as we are living in the moment when we see the immanent victory of thanatos.
I remember once reading that Max Weber was asked why he thought about the things with such depth and intensity considering it often lead him to a state of depression. Weber responded, "I want to see how much I can stand." Reading Rieff is a bit like this, especially if Rieff is correct in his diagnosis of our social and cultural ills. On the other hand, for those who affirm belief is a transcendent sacred order, one's social order must include faith, hope, love, and joy.