Charisma by Philip Rieff
The short essay below is Daniel Frank and Aaron Manson's foreword to Philip Rieff's last book Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us and is reproduced with the kind permission of both authors.
“I don’t need any guide, I already know the way. Remember this, I’m your servant both night and day.”
The importance of religious faith in Western culture has been a continuous and central concern in Philip Rieff’s work. His first two books described how the religious culture of the West has been under critical attack for the last century, and how that attack seeks to “liquidate” the very possibility of faith. In Freud: the Mind of a Moralist (1959). Rieff argued that Freud’s theories laid the intellectual groundwork for the assault on established moral order, and he explored the consequences of Freud’s theories on faith and unbelief in Western civilization. In The Triumph of the Therapeutic: The Uses of Faith after Freud (1966), he tried to anticipate what new social types would emerge beyond the old culture based on faith. He named that new character type, “the therapeutic.” In 1970, Rieff turned his attention to an investigation of the significance of faith over the entire extent of Western civilization, from the ancient Hebrews to the present day. He did not intend to dwell nostalgically on an irretrievable past, but to understand how genuine faith has been lost in modern times, and what has been lost in the process. Rieff analyzed this process through the lens of charisma, a concept that united his theological interest in the meaning of faith with his sociological interest in what constituted authority.
Charisma was originally an obscure concept that the great German sociologist Max Weber lifted from the work of the Protestant theologian Rudolph Sohm. Without Weber, the term would have disappeared in the oblivion of obsolete nineteenth-century theological polemics. Today, charisma has become a ubiquitous term that has, in Rieff’s words, “been battered to death.” The difference between its original meaning and its modern use is the subject of this book.
In Rieff’s view, charisma has been transformed from the gift of grace into the gift of evil. Christ was once the prototype of charismatic authority. The modern charismatic is his polar opposite: a “purely political animal,” a performer, whose actions, whether aesthetic or political, are divorced from ethical considerations. As a political leader, he is often criminal, destructive, and violent. Rieff believes that the political divisions of Left and Right are obsolete. The only distinction that matters is between those who seek to defend and restore a genuinely charismatic culture and the false charismatics whose authority is the authority to deal death. Again and again in his work, Rieff returned to the thinkers who led the modern intellectual attack on religious faith. Nietzsche, Weber, and Freud are the supreme anti-religious theorists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the “transitional geniuses” who announced the death of divine authority and who called into question the very possibility of faith and true charisma. They are the true heralds of “the therapeutic.” They are also the theorists that Rieff admires the most. Charisma is Rieff’s defense of the traditions they attack. It is his attempt, he told us, “to develop a theology that doesn’t reject modernity. It was my intention to resurrect theology from within modern sociology.”
By 1973, Rieff had abandoned work on this project, even acknowledging in Fellow Teachers the likelihood of failure. When we asked him why he had not completed this work, he said, “There was no constituency for the book. Something in America had changed. We live in an anti-theologic age.”
Fortunately he changed his mind. He helped us to assemble the manuscripts and supervised our editorial work. Four weeks before he died, we asked him again why he had not finished Charisma. “Perhaps I was wrong,” he said. “There is always a constituency.”