Know Your Enemy: Triumph of the Therapeutic, with Hannah Zeavin and Alex Colston

Know Your Enemy: Triumph of the Therapeutic, with Hannah Zeavin and Alex Colston

A discussion on Philip Rieff, a conservative sociologist concerned that society was being driven by therapeutic ideas and psychological institutions rather than by religious or political ones.

Philip Rieff, right, with Tom Kahn, Edward Keating, and David Norsworthy, right to left, at a panel in 1967. (Duane Howell/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Know Your Enemy is a podcast about the American right co-hosted by Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell. Read more about it here. You can subscribe to, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts and Stitcher, and receive bonus content by supporting the podcast on Patreon.

Modern conservatives have long asked the following questions: How can we live together without God? Is there any substitute for religion in cohering a moral community? And if not, what can we do to revive the old sacred authority that reason, science, and liberalism have interred?

These were also the questions that preoccupied Philip Rieff (1922-2006), an idiosyncratic sociologist and product of the University of Chicago, whose thought cast a long shadow over right-wing intellectuals, theologians, and other Jeremiahs of the modern condition (like Christopher Lasch and Alasdair MacIntyre). In the two books that made his name—1959s Freud: Mind of the Moralist and 1966s Triumph of the Therapeutic: The Uses of Faith After Freud—Rieff engaged deeply with psychoanalysis, deriving from Freud a theory of how culture creates morality and, in turn, why modern culture, with its emphasis on psychological well-being over moral instruction, no longer functions to shape individuals into a community of shared purpose.

Rieff, a secular Jew, remained concerned to the very end of his life with the problem of living in a society without faith, one in which the rudderless self is mediated, most of all, by therapeutic ideas and psychological institutions rather than by religious or political ones. Less sophisticated versions of this conundrum haunt conservative thought to this day—from complaints about wokeness as a religion to the rights treatment of sexual and gender transgression as mental pathology.

Two brilliant writers and thinkers, Hannah Zeavin and Alex Colston, help us navigate Rieff, Freud, and the conservative underbelly of psychoanalysis. Hannah is an assistant professor at Indiana University in the Luddy School of Informatics; Alex is a PhD student at Duquesne University in clinical psychology. They are also the editors of Parapraxis, a new magazine of psychoanalysis on the left. We hope you enjoy this (admittedly heady) episode. If you do, consider signing up for a new podcast—on psychoanalysis and politics, of all things—hosted by beloved KYE guest Patrick Blanchfield and his partner Abby Kluchin entitled Ordinary Unhappiness.

Sources and further reading:

Philip Rieff, Freud: Mind of the Moralist, Viking (1959)

The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud, Harper & Row (1966)

Fellow Teachers, Harper & Row (1973)

Gerald Howard, Reasons to Believe, Bookforum (2007)

Blake Smith, The Secret Life of Philip Rieff, Tablet (2022)

George Scialabba, The Curse of Modernity: Rieff’s Problem with Freedom, Boston Review (2007)

Christopher Lasch, The Saving Remnant, The New Republic (1990)

Hannah Zeavin, Composite Case: The fate of the children of psychoanalysis, Parapraxis (2022)

Alex Colston, Father, Parapraxis (2022)

Rod Dreher, We Live In Rieff World, The American Conservative (2019)

Park MacDougald, The Importance of RepressionUnHerd (2021)


…and don’t forget you can subscribe to Know Your Enemy on Patreon to listen to all of our bonus episodes!