Ancient Philosophy's Return Amidst the Triumph of the Therapeutic

What we have today is a fragile culture centered on the self’s needs and wants, which sociologist Philip Rieff aptly called therapeutic. In his 1966 classic The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud, he observed modern changes in the deep structures of custom and belief as resulting in a whole new outlook. Rieff’s work was one of the first sustained efforts to make sense of the transition from a culture based on faith to a culture based on therapy. In this book and his earlier intellectual biography of Freud, he traced the rise of “psychological man” and the replacement of shared commitments of traditional religious communities with the quest for individual fulfillment, personal freedom, and “impulse release.”

In Philip Rieff’s view, at the heart of any culture—the very definition of culture—is a particular set of interdictions and permissions, what one can and cannot do. These are not a set of simplistic precepts but a matter of elaborate complexity. An entire framework of understanding surrounds them, even providing possibilities for a letting up of those strictures through what he called acceptable “remissions.” In many ways what gives life meaning and satisfaction in a particular cultural system is that it helps address the question so fundamental to the human condition: How and why should we rein in our strongest and most urgent instincts, impulses, and desires? This is where culture steps in, giving meaning and essential supports for our struggles.

In Rieff’s view, culture gives people a means of “controlling the infinite variety of panic and emptiness to which they are disposed.” In the form of books, music, and love, for example, culture “gives back bettered” what it has taken away by restraining impulse and curbing certain emotions, or at least limiting their expression. What infuses the “interdictions” with possibilities for well-being, and gives people the motivation to accept limits on their desires and behaviors, is some kind of transcendent referent, a collective commitment higher than the self that is deemed sacred. In the absence of such a framework of meaning, individuals have the appearance of being free but in fact are awash in anxiety, disconnection, and “disease.”

In After Virtue, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre agrees that to pursue the questions humans have about their purposes and existence requires some kind of coherent moral framework that has a sense of the telos or goal of a human life as necessarily involving goodness. In his rendering, what we have now amounts instead to little more than a set of fragments we have inherited from various past systems; we lack the basic capacity to communicate about issues of pressing concern because we have no “moral language” or agreed-upon basis for “moral reasoning.”

In MacIntyre’s view, the closest thing we have is “emotivism,” our new default setting, which comes down to appealing to “expressions of personal preference” as the “only basis of evaluative judgments.” In this framework there is no basis for solving disagreements, as each party is entitled to his or her opinion, as the common phrasing goes. No individual can appeal to a foundation for judgment shared with others. Thus, instead of articulating reasons to attempt to persuade others, the sole recourse becomes manipulation of the feelings of other people. “What is the key to the social content of emotivism?” MacIntyre asks, answering that “it is the fact that emotivism entails the obliteration of any genuine distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations.”

Critics of the therapeutic have charted its ascension over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when it joined forces with consumerism in heaping attention, new in both degree and kind, on the needs and wants of the individual. Together, these powerful mentalities—it can be hard to tell where one ends and the other leaves off—have pervaded nearly every sphere of life. The emphasis on what seems therapeutic for the individual validates and rewards excessive self-concern—combining both meanings of self-regard and self-interest—and encourages extreme forms of emotional unleashing. Other critics trace the problems into the heart of American society and culture, where they observe a new Gnosticism, a culture of narcissism, or even a crumbling of culture itself.

The stakes are higher than they might appear. In leisure and entertainment personal preferences seem innocuous, and in politics even salutary, where the right of the individual or group to dissent provides the basis of our liberty. But in the absence of appeals to shared principle and basic checks and balances for some forms and degrees of self-assertion, such as aggression and antisocial impulses, emotivism can bring the erosion of those very rights and freedoms. Without solid foundations for our higher principles, appeals to justice, truth, and humanity can give way to assertions of raw power and desire by the few. Techniques of manipulation of feeling provide legendary assistance.

Some historians and social critics have called the therapeutic at heart a resurgence of Gnosticism. Taking hold in the late nineteenth-century spiritual crisis, this sensibility helped provide the cultural underpinnings for industrialization—its mores and social relations. In American Feminism and the Birth of New Age Spirituality, Catherine Tumber builds on the work of Warren Susman and Donald Meyer, who connected the new sensibility with these wider historical developments. In a study of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century New Thought or “mind cure” movement, the launching pad for late twentieth-century therapeutic movements and New Age spirituality, Tumber wrote that “‘mind cure’ helped usher in a new ‘modal self’ compatible with consumer spending, corporate success, and mass culture.” This therapeutic self came to maturity in the spiritual crisis precipitated by advanced consumer capitalism, helping to accommodate dissident subcultures to new economic imperatives. Today this ideology of positive psychology saturates much of our culture, mostly without our knowing.

For Rieff, an incoherent moral framework beyond individual wants and needs—any shared sense that something is sacred— means the very requisites for a culture are lacking. Absent a sense of communal purpose that makes our efforts to rein in self-gratification understandable and manageable as guidelines for behavior, cultural chaos ensues. The unmoored self is left with little in life to go on apart from “manipulable” feelings. Paving the way for both political and personal instability, such conditions invite susceptibility to political manipulation and a chronic sense of insult, offense, and disrespect that threatens community and individual happiness.

Rieff’s influential critique of the therapeutic was joined, in the decades since Triumph of the Therapeutic, by the work of other scholars who often drew on his analysis to help understand both large cultural currents and particular realms of society in which they saw the therapeutic at work. Jonathan Imber’s edited volume Therapeutic Culture: Triumph and Defeat, which features the work of some of these writers, such as Ellen Herman and James Davison Hunter, suggests that by the 1990s there had arisen a cluster of scholars, if not a school of thought, we might think of as the therapeutic critics. Herman’s Romance of American Psychology and Hunter’s Death of Character broke new ground in their analyses of just how far the psychologization of society had gone and at what cost. The focus of these writers is not as much psychotherapeutic practice as a “more widespread cultural system or code of moral understanding.” Frank Furedi argued that stoic strains in British culture gave way to a pervasive therapeutic culture by the end of the twentieth century, with a “form of personhood whose defining feature is its vulnerability.”

One of these critics, the sociologist James Nolan Jr., whose work focuses on the ways in which the therapeutic approach has influenced the criminal justice system, lays out what he sees as a working definition of the therapeutic:

(1) a pronounced cultural preoccupation with the individual self, (2) a notable concern with the place of emotions in making sense of oneself and one’s place in the world, (3) the emergence of a new class of counselors, psychologists, and therapists who have been socially recognized as those most qualified to guide the emotion-laden self through the complexities of modern social life, (4) the reinterpretation of a growing number of behaviors through the pathologically determined heuristic of addiction, disorder, and dysfunction, and (5) the unique cultural salience of the “language of victimhood.”

The very features Nolan identifies as components of the therapeutic might be those that the New Stoicism aims to address. In fact, the therapeutic critics sometimes exhibit a bit of the New Stoicism themselves when foregrounding the role of emotion. My expanded definition of the therapeutic would include a view of the self as top priority and endpoint; interpersonal relations as instrumental toward that end; the self’s pursuit of projects of self-Interest; mandated self-expression without structure and inhibition; enlistment of emotion and reason in furtherance of those projects; manipulative relations with others and with the self; an externalist vantage point on the self, as if seeing the self through the eyes of others; the dominance of the health paradigm as the basis for self-assessment; a functionalist physical and psychological model of health (health as the ability to function within an unquestioned social order); pop psychology as explanatory apparatus; a process orientation and programmatic solutions; social engineering; the monopoly of professional expertise over life skills; a seesaw between dependence and independence in place of interdependence; moral nonjudgmentalism; deprivatization of personal life; a rarified level of self-consciousness; and the absence of a transcendent commitment beyond the individual.

The resulting therapeutic ethos pervades individuals’ lives in an almost invisible fashion, shaping the external living conditions they face and the internal resources they have or do not have to navigate those conditions. It is a way of thinking that exacerbates self-objectification (the view of the self as a problem to be solved or thing to be acted upon), objectification of others (the view of others as instruments in the self’s own projects), and a sense of self-alienation (the view that the self lacks a kind of owner’s manual—the resources to understand and develop efficacious approaches to outside circumstances).

These characteristics of the therapeutic culture, its manner of self-perpetuation, and its ultimate costs can be summed up as a loss of inwardness. The lack of inwardness as a source of personal and collective regeneration deprives individuals of the ability to mount a resistance to these and other debilitating ways of thinking and to the external challenges they face. The therapeutic thus spells a systematic derision of the individual’s own ability to become adept at the art of living.

Clinical practitioners and theorists sensitive to such problems have shifted their emphasis from an individual to a relational model or have embraced cognitive behavioral therapy as a corrective. But it is questionable whether these strategies have successfully broken the hold of the worst traits of the therapeutic. The damage has been done in a more diffuse way beyond the purview of therapists themselves. Using the zoom lens of this broader definition of the therapeutic, we can see how not just the so-called helping professions but many other institutions and practices are steeped in the therapeutic, from business to art, music, education, the military, religion, and beyond. The therapeutic constitutes an entire worldview, causing us to interpret our experiences through it.

Though some criticism faults the therapeutic for an excess of emotion, it is not emotion that is the problem. Emotion is not the same thing as emotivism, which is the loss of any shared vantage point and basis for judgment beyond individual subjective desires. While emotivism can come in the guise of emotion, it often works in the service of or as a cover for calculated self-interest. We see this in the epidemic of passive aggression, defensiveness, and the practice of reasoning one’s way into rather than out of aggrievement. Though it might appear so at times, the therapeutic culture is not necessarily at root overly emotional and merely in need of a correction from rationality.

The question is not whether emotion or reason drives us. We use both in all of our pursuits. Whether self-interest is rationally calculated or emotive—greed is a case in point, as it combines both—it is still self-interest. The key question is whether emotion or reason is impressed into service of manipulating everyone and everything around us, even the environment, all of which we hope and expect will sustain us. The overarching problem with the therapeutic is the assumption of self-interested ends. The cruelty of the validation of this particular notion of ends, its inhumanity, is not only that it uses other people and things in selfish pursuits but also that these ends can never release people from the sources of their yearning and the dependence on instrumentalist forms and mechanisms. Modern therapies are a vicious cycle, providing neither deliverance nor salvation, creating unintended consequences in the process.

The ubiquity of the self-help infrastructure itself, from personal pursuit to billion-dollar industry, can give a wide hearing to any approach that strikes the right chord at the right moment. In “The Power of Positive Publishing: How Self-Help Ate America,” Boris Kachka quotes William Shinker, the publisher of Gotham Books and editor who discovered Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, as saying, “There isn’t even a category officially called ‘self-help.’”

This is true. There no longer needs to be a separate category. Self-help is imperial metropole, the rest colonized periphery. As Kachka writes,

Twenty years ago, when Chicken Soup for the Soul was published, everyone knew where to find it and what it was for. Whatever you thought of self-help—godsend, guilty pleasure, snake oil—the genre was safely contained on one eclectic bookstore shelf. Today, every section of the store (or web page) overflows with instructions, anecdotes, and homilies. History books teach us how to lead, neuroscience how to use our amygdalas, and memoirs how to eat, pray, and love.

Kachka, a journalist and cultural critic who wrote Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, says this in a gem of an essay that weds a pithy history of self-help publishing trends with a critique of a new kind of “high-brow self-help.” For Kachka, these latest forms, from social science studies to “the trend of essayistic self-help,” often by journalists, might look more serious—and often have better “data”—but merely hawk the usual types of self-help in another guise. He interprets an observation by literary agent Linda Loewenthal, previously editor and VP of Random House’s self-help publisher, Harmony Books, and executive director of Three Rivers Press, as meaning “that we are in a new era of mass self-help, wherein the laboratory and the writer work together to teach us how to change ourselves, rather than our world.”

Admittedly vague, Loewenthal’s own words were “An increasing segment of the market wants to read about the synthesis of different modalities.” While the crossover boom certainly signals the seeping of self-help into other fields—whether we see it as intrusion or infusion—this interest in bringing together different disciplinary approaches and modes of self-help suggests that many readers might be looking for something deeper than the usual fare. Against this still-expanding terrain of the therapeutic culture, it comes as something of a surprise to see a resurgence of interest in schools of philosophical thought from other places and times, including from Greco-Roman antiquity, and what I see as a return of the ancient arts of living. In addition to the more obvious instances such as the self-proclaimed New Stoicism with its annual Stoic Week, subtler influences of those ancient schools of thought appear both in our rarified intellectual culture and in our more boisterous popular culture, if often in debased, selective, or even contested form.

At the same time, there has been a growing movement to connect philosophy with the concerns we face in the course of everyday life. Besides magazines, journals, and degree programs in practical or applied philosophy, institutions such as websites, blogs, e-zines, book clubs, and conversation groups such as the Socrates Café (discussion groups designed with the goal of sharing different philosophical views) have proliferated. The Point, founded in 2008, is one such journal, describing itself as a “magazine of the examined life.”

This movement for the relevance of philosophy has also appeared in treatments of the philosophical ideas in a particular movie, television show, or graphic novel, especially in the action hero genres. Of uneven quality, these efforts sometimes fall prey to the dominant self-oriented culture, and what might seem like a way to make philosophy more public can end by making it more private. In a misunderstanding that what makes it public is simply appealing to more people, many take pains to make philosophy interesting by connecting it to private, personal concerns. I think this is inside out.

While it is true that self-concern is already everywhere in this era of constant social media sharing, ultimately the question is not so much whether to focus on the self but how to do so. Those ways most dominant now avert our attention from the parts of the self in dire need of cultivation and toward externals. Think Facebook. Meanwhile, crucial forms of self-cultivation receive little sustenance and support or even outside validation as something real.

Mark Greif leads off his essay collection Against Everything with a brief “Against Exercise” in which he explores the idea of exercise as self-help. He depicts today’s gym as a place where people dress and act, with grunts and sweat, in ways once deemed private: “It is atomized space in which one does formerly private things before others’ eyes, with the lonely solitude of a body acting as if it were still in private.” When people run for exercise outside, it is even worse because it takes the “proselytizing” implied by the runner’s activity into a shared public space: “It lays the counting, the pacing, the controlled frenzy, the familiar undergarment-outer-garments and skeletal look, on top of the ordinary practice of an outdoor walk.” This is a genuine paradox, and “Our practices are turning us inside out” because people are showing to others just that part of them that has become most associated with their selves, now understood as the outer self: “Though the exerciser acts on his self, this self becomes ever more identified with the visible surface.”

Attention to this version of the self today often comes at the cost of others. In a Washington Post op-ed, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela and Christine B. Whelan argue that the American self-help industry has, more often than not, had an antagonistic relation with social movements. Self-help focuses on the problems of the individual as failures of will, rather than injustices perpetuated by society, and thus encourages “solipsism at the expense of social change.”

For example, Tony Robbins, a self-help guru, initially called #MeToo a case of women who “choose victimhood,” before backpedaling in haste. What happened in the interim was that a video filmed at his “Unleash the Power Within” seminar in San Jose went viral in which he criticized the movement against sexual harassment. Petrzela and Whelan’s criticism of the $11 billion self-help industry describes “the self-serving ‘me’ trumping any regard for the collective ‘we.’” They see earlier best-sellers like Ralph Waldo Trine’s In Tune with the Infinite (1897) and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), which trumpeted the success available to anyone who willed it, in this light.

Cooked in the cauldron of the 1960s, the human potential movement focused on the individual as the way to bring about change through “self-actualization.” Petrzela and Whelan concede that people can work on their own problems “in order to combat the injustices that surround us,” as they think feminism did in the 1970s and 1980s. Of the self-help books over time spanning secular and religious realms, “The best of these books extolled character and virtue, but too many had an insidious underlying structure” of blaming victims for their problems, not identifying collective problems and potential solutions.

The problem is not the turn inward, but the question of how and why we look within. If the turn inward ultimately aims to serve both the human person and collective purposes, that end differs drastically from the goal of serving individual success and self-promotion. The culprit is not personal achievement by itself but the larger context of elitism and exclusion that goes with a zero-sum culture that has no recourse to a greater good or public interest, a culture of wealth at any cost and fame for any reason. Only if it takes place within a moral framework does personal achievement transform from a purely private matter to a public good.

The therapeutic culture operates according to a concept of the self it inherited from an earlier era of secular Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. Its ministrations rest on a shaky foundation. The source of much suffering is not that the therapeutic culture caters only to the emotional side of the self but that it holds the underlying assumption that there is such a thing as a separate physical self, apart from the other faculties that make up the human person.

The idea that an individual is divided between the mind and the body, the Cartesian self, rooted in the seventeenth-century ideas of René Descartes, yields a certain self-concept. This notion of what it means to be a self in turn leads to a certain concept of other people and our relation to them. The triumph of the therapeutic does not represent a countermovement to Enlightenment rationalism, a pendulum swing to emotion, from mind to body. Rather, it is a blend of notions of the rational and emotional self that lacks the intellectual groundwork to bring them into one human being.

This tension between mind and body has escalated to an all-out war, exacerbated by modern institutions that thrive on the conflict. Pressures toward irresolution keep the wounds open, and markets, now the dominant purveyors of norms, capitalize on the conflict, selling products on the grounds that the body is out of control and needs products catering to the mind or that the mind is out of control and needs products catering to the body. Advertisements bombard potential consumers with visions of fast food one minute and fad diets the next. The tension between reining in our desires and giving them free rein lies at the heart of modern consumerism. It has escalated to the level of a full-blown embodiment crisis.

In Ilham Dilman’s critique in Love and Human Separateness, the Cartesian self underscores the idea that the modern individual is inherently isolated from others and thus is the fundamental unit of society. Even prior to its separation from others, the self is separate from itself. The mind looks to the body as a stranger, as an entity it must exert control over to get it to serve the mind’s wishes. This view equates the mind with the self. In Descartes’s view, the mind and the body are completely separate. From this separation stems separation of the individual self from others. In ensuing interactions with others, the individual cannot know others because our thoughts and feelings are within, thus hidden from others. For Descartes, because we cannot know other people, we do not have any real evidence of their existence. And because they are their minds, and their minds are closed off to us, and their minds are even closed off from their own bodies, the only thing we can verify is our own existence.

The mind/body division underlies the modern embodiment crisis. The body does not do what the mind wants, nor do other bodies. We can see this self-concept at work in modern individualism. It makes everything relative in the world, everything outside the self subjective and fundamentally unreliable, by undermining the notion that any shared understanding can emerge between people. We can only deduce the existence of others by inference, through analogy with our own, as though our separateness were merely a cognitive matter.

This is both an outer and an inner war. The external Hobbesian war of all against all has moved within. Majorities of those polled even report dissatisfaction with their own bodies. The embodiment crisis manifests itself in the frequency with which people turn to everything from elective operations to so-called enhancement or performance drugs, yet such endeavors pale next to the epidemics of eating disorders, addiction, and self-harm. Unscrupulous marketers capitalize on the anxiety we as limited beings can have about our natural flaws and on the incompleteness that is part of the human condition. Ideals for how to think of the self, those missing from moral discussion, reappear in the form of twisted and truncated messages in advertisements. Many people look at themselves from the point of view of a judgmental and even cruel stranger. When they do not, judgmental and even cruel strangers on social media are happy to oblige.

To take issue with the assumptions underlying the modern therapeutic culture does not require abandoning the question of what is therapeutic in the sense of healing or restorative. Each society has its own therapeutic culture, and to unveil the detrimental effects of the triumph of the therapeutic suggests the lack of effectiveness or unintended consequences of the particular approach that has come to the fore in recent history. We need a vocabulary to distinguish between desirable and undesirable notions of what is therapeutic, and in Greco-Roman philosophy we can find such a vocabulary.

Ancient notions of what is therapeutic differ greatly from the modern notions of therapy underlying the therapeutic culture. In part that comes from different diagnoses of the source of what ails us as human beings and in part from different prescriptions for cures. But in even larger part the difference stems from this modern medical analogy itself. If medicine means addressing physical symptoms alone, this medical analogy does not fit our larger quest for healing. If medicine extends to our fuller selves, this medical analogy might fit better. The contemporary search for preventive treatments and holistic cures suggests a felt need for something that takes the bigger picture of a person’s life into account. Even then, stopping at the search for treatments and cures confines our notions of what is ultimately therapeutic to individual fulfillment. In the writings of the ancient philosophers, as I demonstrate in detail in my book Ars Vitae, we find a completely different interpretation of what is wrong and what would help.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is an excerpt from the Introduction to Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Featured Image: Giovanni Paolo Panini, Gallery of Views of Modern Rome, 1759; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn is professor of history at Syracuse University. She is the author of a number of essays and books, including Race Experts and Ars Vitae.

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