Therapeutic Man

Around the time that I was reading Christopher Lasch's books, in 2005, I saw a few interviews with Philip Rieff at AL Daily. There is a long, penetrating essay about Dr. Rieff's work by George Scialabba, "The Curse of Modernity, Philip Rieff's problem with freedom" in the Boston Review. Much of Rieff's work involved the continuing reevaluation of the insights of Marx, Nietzsche, Weber and Freud into religion as a social force. In Rieff's 1959 book on Freud, he suggested, in Sciallaba's words:

Until the twentieth century ... three character types had successively prevailed in Western culture: political man, the ideal of classical times, dedicated to the glory of his city; religious man, the ideal of the Christian era, dedicated to the glory of God; and a transitional figure, economic man, a creature of Enlightenment liberalism. Economic man believed in doing good unto others by doing well for himself. This convenient compromise did not last long, and what survived of it was not the altruism but the egoism. Psychological man was frankly and shrewdly selfish, beyond ideals and illusions, at best a charming narcissist, at worst boorish or hypochondriacal, according to his temperament.

There is some force to some of these ideas.

The suggestion that character types prevailed in history must be limited to European and American history, and it refers more to the attitudes of the ruling classes than to the values of entire societies. It is influenced by the understanding that political theory and social attitudes, from the time of the ancient Greek polis, through medieval times, tended to value the strong hero, the benevolent king and the wise and pious priest over the busy merchant as the models of the good public person. I think we can't say that any character type was prevalent at any time, because there was always tension between piety and power.

The idea that the character type of the economic man became prevalent after the Renaissance and the Enlightenment has considerable merit. Political theory favoured rational self interest and equality, and social values discouraged both heroic or aristocratic pretension, and religious zeal.

I don't think that psychological man is a separate character type from economic man. Psychology has become an industry based on the management of feelings and the validation of status. It has become a tool to manipulate employees, customers and citizens to produce, consume and comply. It has become a theory of morality which defines the good as that which satisfies the needs of the moment - to get the right response and to feel good about it.

What appeals to psychological man is stability and security in economic and social relations, which is achieved by success in finding the social resources - friends, protectors, allies and clients or customers - to achieve the economic goods - food, shelter - to feel safe and happy and to take care of a family. Occasional sex is in there as a social good. Perhaps psychological man is in touch with his feminine side. Psychological man is not that interested in risks and adventures.

At the same time, economic man and psychological man want to be seen as heroes. In the Romantic era, artists began to portray themselves as visionary heroes striving to succeed in dangerous ventures. This has carried over into modern stories about successful merchants and about discovering a person's own character and living from day to day. In modern stories, every one is not only the leading character, but a hero in his own drama.

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This page contains a single entry by Tony Dalmyn published on August 27, 2007 6:45 AM.

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