Recent headlines bear witness to a backlash against the prevalence of therapeutic language in everyday life. “Is therapy-speak changing the way we talk about ourselves?” asks the Guardian. “‘Instagram therapy’ creates a moral vortex,” warns the New York Times. “Around every corner, trauma, like the unwanted prize at the bottom of a cereal box,” complains Katy Waldman in the New Yorker. While therapy as a practice no doubt helps millions, we seem to be coming to terms with its limitations as a worldview. Conceiving of our deepest selves in terms of neuroses, disorders, and traumas sends us continually back on ourselves in a way that may reproduce rather than redress our anguish.
The worries about therapy-speak recall Philip Rieff’s criticisms of what he called “therapeutic culture” in his 1966 book The Triumph of the Therapeutic. For Rieff, a sociologist and conservative cultural critic, Freud was not only an analyst of the deep structure of the psyche; his work also offered the portrait of a new cultural type, which Rieff called “psychological man.” Psychological man was formed by the slow death of traditional authority, on the one hand, and the rise of democratic and consumer choice, on the other. Together, these cultural forces created subjects whose subordination to a higher authority, like traditional religion or philosophy, was replaced with an absorption in the self and its desires. For Freud—both prophet and, to some degree, father of psychological man—therapy is needed to help modern subjects understand and reconcile their desires with the real world of obligations, limitations, and unchosen attachments.
Where Freud, according to Rieff, tried to ease the mental anguish caused by cultural and familial repression—to “soften the collar” of the existing culture—his followers sought “to take it off.” The result is that they turned Freudianism into an “anti-culture” of atomizing “self-worship” that seeks to liberate modern subjects from the prohibitions that Rieff thought necessary for culture to flourish. For the rising therapeutic anti-culture, the “corporate identities and communal purposes” that once animated religious traditions could serve, at most, as “purely therapeutic devices” for deracinated individuals. As Rieff put it: “Religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased.”
One doesn’t have to (indeed, one shouldn’t) adopt Rieff’s sometimes affected apocalypticism or his sometimes uncritical celebration of authority to concede that he was nonetheless on to something. Everywhere are unmistakable signs of suffering from a lack of communal ethical structure: not just rising rates of loneliness, anxiety, depression, addiction, and suicide, but also conspiratorial delusion, political extremism, and even religious fundamentalism. The inability to commit to something outside oneself is often punctuated by spasms of fanatical commitment.
But we also see efforts to find in the religious and philosophical traditions of the past the resources to mitigate atomism and alienation. Psychological man may have been born to be pleased, but of late, it seems, it is his pleasure to be saved. Witness, for example, the proliferation of (often commoditized or medicalized) spiritual practices like yoga and meditation, books devoted to adapting ancient wisdom for modern discontents, or “trad” lifestyles that turn religion into culture-war performance. From Rieff’s perspective, most, if not all, of these efforts amount to little more than items on the menu of “therapeutic devices.” Instead of leading out of the self, these traditions become consumed and assimilated into projects of monomaniacal self-creation and curation.
Three recent books attempt, with varying degrees of success, to sketch pathways out of this predicament. In Ars Vitae, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn surveys the resurgence of interest in ancient traditions and their modern analogs, including Gnosticism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, and her favored solution, Platonism. In The Age of Guilt, Mark Edmundson, like Rieff, turns to Freud for diagnosis and treatment of an out-of-control superego that he finds at the root of many of our psychosocial problems. And in Happiness in Action, philosopher Adam Adatto Sandel offers an alternative to modern striving in Aristotle’s concept of self-possession.
Lasch-Quinn suspects that in the return and reinterpretation of traditions like ancient Stoicism there might be a “sign of latent cultural vibrancy.” But she’s also sensitive to the possibility Rieff warned of—that these traditions will become co-opted by the tendency toward therapeutic diagnosis and treatment they were meant to help overcome.
The most common—and counterproductive—trend Lasch-Quinn identifies is the return of Gnosticism. A diffuse tradition, Gnosticism emerged in the Roman world in the first and second centuries AD as a competitor to the early Church. Gnostics believed the world was created not by a loving God but by a lesser deity who fabricated a material reality that is illusory and evil. The true God is entirely beyond the created universe, and knowledge (gnosis) of the true reality is available only to an enlightened elite.
As Lasch-Quinn notes, the political philosopher Eric Voegelin, writing in the 1960s, found a version of Gnosticism at the root of the twentieth century’s destructive ideologies, including fascism, communism, and scientism. In times of upheaval, people seeking to ease their confusion and distress easily lapse “from uncertain truth into certain untruth,” as Voegelin put it. They are eager to believe that the chaos is due to secret forces or mass delusion that they and their fellow believers are uniquely able to see through. Whether the false world is constructed by ethnic enemies (fascism), class enemies (communism), or religion and humanism (scientism), Gnostics believe they can transcend it and reach a truer world.
In our own unsettled times, Lasch-Quinn argues, Gnosticism has blended with new-age therapeutic tropes. The evil material world is now constructed not by group enemies but by the subject’s personal history, which chains her to an illusory existence; gnostic therapy helps her discover the truth and liberate the self. Rather than the true God of classical Gnosticism or the ideological clarity of twentieth-century Gnosticism, the patient finds the true self that has been buried under layers of repression or trauma. Lasch-Quinn finds the tendency toward Gnostic escapism in contemporary therapeutic approaches and in popular culture, specifically movies like The Matrix, The Truman Show, and The Da Vinci Code, whose protagonists not only puncture false worlds but discover their true selves in the process.
Sandel identifies the popularity of some of the same films as a sign of something closely related: withdrawal from committed action in the world. The implication of these films, he writes, “is that we may have no rapport with reality until we have undergone a long, self-reflective process of overcoming delusion.” In other words, Gnostic therapies are a cop-out: they retreat from the messy world out there and reduce moral life to a self-involved inner narrative of overcoming that produces unambiguous, uncontestable solutions. But, as Lasch-Quinn puts it, “[T]here are no cures to life other than living.”
An inability to accept reality is fostered not only by chaotic times, but also by a consumerist fixation on an optimizable life and on technologies that allow us to imagine, and to some extent live in, alternative worlds. They can make escapist, Gnostic visions—for example, of tech-facilitated immortality—seem realistic. Gnosticism also finds its way into our political life, which is increasingly conceived of as a contest not of ideas but of different visions of reality. Some leftists, for example, describe themselves as awakened to the fact that everyday reality is imbued with racist or colonialist ideas that the uninitiated must be therapeutically cleansed of. Similarly, many on the Right describe themselves as “red-pilled,” Matrix-inspired shorthand for awakening to a false cultural reality created by evil liberal elites. These Gnostic politics do not bother with persuasion—those who live in false worlds cannot be persuaded. Only a form of conversion will do the trick.
Lasch-Quinn thinks another ancient philosophy is perhaps more influential than Gnosticism on the Right: Stoicism, the subject of intense interest in recent years. The appeal is easy to see. In a culture sick with freedom—in shopping, entertainment, work, travel, romance—a philosophy that counsels recognition of limits and acceptance of fate is sure to find new adherents. But as Lasch-Quinn points out, the message of Stoicism changes when it is removed from its original setting, where material want and tragic misfortune were much more common than they are in the developed world today.
The basic insight of Stoicism, as Pierre Hadot explains in What is Ancient Philosophy? (1995), is the tragedy of fate. We seek happiness in contingent states like health, love, and wealth that are bound to remain beyond our reach or to reverse themselves in time. The Stoic solution is to focus on the one thing that is under our control: “The will to do good and act in conformity with reason.” This will to do good, Hadot writes, “is an unbreachable fortress which everyone can construct within themselves. It’s there that we can find freedom, independence, invulnerability, and that eminently Stoic value, coherence with ourselves.”
Lasch-Quinn believes that, in the translation of Stoicism to a modern therapeutic context, this moral component—“the will to do good”—goes missing. Where the Stoics assumed most things lay in the domain of fate and concentrated on the moral substance of what lay outside it, we find much more lying in the domain of freedom. This leads to a modern version of Stoicism fixated on the lesson that some things are out of our control and must be accepted as such. Lasch-Quinn writes:
Stoicism was in antiquity more a system for figuring out what was good and what was not by determining whether it was relevant to one’s moral character, and thereby worth acting upon. Now the decision is about what can and cannot be controlled, or what is relevant to our psychological comfort or sense of power.
Like Gnosticism, modern Stoicism becomes a therapy for coping with feelings of chaos and powerlessness. At its worst, it excuses injustices as things simply “out of our control” and advocates for bare action independent of moral consequences. Stoic CEOs use the philosophy to justify brutal business practices, Lasch-Quinn writes. Meanwhile, edge-lord culture critics espouse a “knee-jerk” “hypermasculinity” that “lends itself to political reaction and social exclusion, hierarchy and domination.” Lasch-Quinn may be thinking here of figures such as Jordan Peterson and Andrew Tate, who offer lost young men performative forms of discipline, propose simple id-driven solutions to complicated social problems, and associate emotion with feminine weakness and chaos. While this hardened form of Stoicism may seem like a reaction against therapeutic culture, Lasch-Quinn argues persuasively that it’s more of the same. The reaction against a “soft” culture excuses a similarly self-involved denial of human emotional connection and the development of a fetishized inner sanctum.
Lasch-Quinn is careful to differentiate ancient Stoicism from its modern versions, but Sandel, who frames Stoicism as a foil for his concept of Aristotelian self-possession, sees even in its ancient practitioners an abdication of responsibility. The Stoics go too far, he thinks, “ced[ing] agency entirely to nature,” which they conceive of as an “eternal, all-powerful force” that either “cares nothing for what we do” or “uses us for its own purposes.”
But Sandel neglects the considerable effort the Stoics devote to distinguishing between human and cosmic Reason. While, for the Stoics, cosmic Reason or Fate determines what ultimately happens, human or “discursive reason,” as Hadot describes it, “has the power, in judgments…to give meaning to the events which Fate imposes upon it and the actions it produces.” The Stoics, far from ceding all agency to nature, sought to align their intentions and actions with a clear-eyed conception of the scope of human reason within a universe whose ultimate direction remains outside human control. Somehow Sandel arrives at the absurd conclusion that “Stoicism fails to conceive of human activity in terms of practical wisdom and the striving for wholeness.”
Many have noted that Freud was a modern Stoic. He saw the ego tragically torn between instinct and culture, tormented by fantasy, and constantly thwarted by a harsh reality—or Fate. In response, he counseled emotional control, acceptance of limitations, and a tempered pursuit of “ordinary unhappiness” rather than the “hysterical misery” that results from both repression and uncontrolled desire.
One important source of this misery is the superego, the unconscious residue left behind after the child has endured the severe paternal conflicts of the Oedipal stage. It is filled in later by various parental, cultural, and religious prohibitions. For Freud, part of therapy involves examining the repressive, irrational dictates of the superego and attempting to replace them with the more reasoned thinking of the ego. As Edmundson puts it in an earlier book, modifying a comment of Freud’s, “‘Where super-ego was, there ego shall be.’… Where unconscious, cruel judgment was, reasonable self-evaluation will be.”
But for cultural conservatives like Rieff, the superego is necessary; the rise of psychological man and his problems coincides with its decline. Therapeutic culture after Freud wrongly seeks to release the patient entirely from “a tyrannical cultural super-ego.” The result is an anti-religion that “worship[s] the releases instead of the controls.” In this upside-down theology, “the sacred becomes symptom” of a disease from which the self is to be liberated.
In his 1984 book The Minimal Self, Christopher Lasch (Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn’s father) construes Rieff as a representative of an ideal type he calls “the party of the superego,” which endorses what Rieff called a “renascence of guilt.” Unlike some on the religious Right today, this “party” advocated not for authoritarian controls imposing morality from without, but a “deeply internalized” morality passed down by “parents, teachers, preachers, and magistrates.”
Though he was influenced by Rieff, Lasch found that this position both overestimated the superego and overlooked its affinities with “the very impulses it seeks to repress.” For Lasch, a culture’s moral strength is not simply the product of the superego’s threatening prohibitions. In fact, reliance on repression signals weakness—as it does with a tyrant trying to maintain a tenuous grip on power:
If the “transgressive sense” is breaking down in our society, the reasons for this lie not only in authorities’ failure to insist on firm moral guidelines but in their failure to provide the security and protection that inspire confidence, respect, and admiration.... In a rapidly changing and unpredictable world, a world of downward mobility, social upheaval, and chronic economic, political, and military crisis, authorities no longer serve very effectively as models and guardians.
It is not mainly permissiveness, but fecklessness and hypocrisy that drive the decline in authority and the cultural superego. Even a milder conservative reaction that espouses the non-coercive transmission of moral authority is too narrow-minded, neglecting the broader instability—much of it fostered by conservative economic policy—that undermines authority.
According to Lasch, these conditions don’t cause a decline of the superego exactly; rather, they prompt the “creation of a new kind of superego in which archaic elements predominate.” A superego that lacks the structure provided by trusted sources of authority goes haywire, giving free reign to its “aggressive, dictatorial elements” and making it “more difficult than ever for instinctual desires to find acceptable outlets.”
In The Age of Guilt, Edmundson picks up on exactly this line of reasoning—though, curiously, he does not mention Lasch, whom he’s criticized elsewhere. Still, like Lasch, he identifies a new superego that survives the decline of authoritative morality and becomes “toxic.” Picking up on Nietzsche’s analysis of nihilism, Edmundson calls this superego an “angry, spiteful…ghost of God,” left over after God’s death and the rise of secularism. Edmundson finds this untethered cultural superego at the root of many contemporary ills, including Trumpism, misguided social-justice activism, and explosions in rates of depression and anxiety.
As Edmundson shows, Freud identified the authoritarian dangers that could accompany the decline of public authority. Without a clear sense of what to value, modern people are tormented by an untamed superego that imposes unreasonable and changeable demands that lack a coherent moral framework. Charismatic authoritarian leaders attract and then, as Freud puts it, “hypnotize” followers by way of an unshakeable sense of certainty. Hence, the infallibility claimed by mid-century fascism and totalitarian communism and, more recently, by right-wing populists like Trump. Followers put “the leader in the place of the super-ego,” freeing them of their moral confusion and, temporarily at least, stabilizing their senses of self.
While some turn over their powers of judgment to an authoritarian leader, so-called “social-justice warriors”—Edmundson prefers to call them “super-ego warriors”—overcome their own self-punishing, unbridled superegos by projecting them on the world as a whole. Thus, on certain corners of social media, those purporting to act on behalf of the oppressed turn minor deviations from orthodoxy into unconscionable infractions and drum up fleeting mobs to mete out viral justice.
Edmundson offers similar diagnoses for resentful white working-class conservatives, identity-obsessed liberals, overtaxed college students curating their professional “brands,” those battling depression, and addicts of all kinds (alcohol, Adderall, beauty, exercise). According to Edmundson, all these groups are searching for some form of relief from an overbearing superego constantly telling them that they aren’t enough. At points, this analysis verges on overkill: every item in the extensive archive of social dysfunction becomes a nail for Edmundson to hammer with his thesis.
Still, Edmundson offers an appealingly deflationary interpretation of the superego, following the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein understood Freud’s system not as a science—the way Freud himself insisted he be read—but as a mythology, where the id and superego are more akin to the ancient Greeks’ Dionysian and Apollonian than to strict causal explanations. For Wittgenstein and Edmundson, “mythology” is not a pejorative term. Wittgenstein regarded psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic enterprise, where the analyst tries to persuade patients to see things in a particular way, not because it’s the “scientific” truth, but because seeing them in this way might positively influence their feelings and behavior. Similarly, Edmundson writes:
The ultimate test of Freud’s thinking is its power to illuminate and transform. Does the myth of the super-ego...ring true to our experience? Does it persuasively describe consequential aspects of life that we have yet to fully understand? Does it add…to our stock of available reality? If so, we want to know if the myth can lead us forward to a better life: more sane, less afflicted, more useful to others.
Might the renewal of another myth, philosophy, or religious tradition also help “lead us forward to a better life”? For all three of these authors, the answer seems to be found in Plato—though they each have their own interpretations of his insight, its influence, and how it can be best taken up today.
Sandel’s main concern is helping us overcome a particular modern conception of the good life—namely, a fetish for productivity or “goal-oriented striving.” For too many of us, life consists of pursuits taken on with a view to their extrinsic rewards: money, power, social esteem. Even child-rearing, leisure, and health become projects with external targets (school acceptances, Instagram likes, step counts) instead of goods in themselves. (Interestingly, Sandel himself has pursued what some might consider a reductio ad absurdum of goal-oriented striving: from 2018 to 2020 he held the Guinness world record for the most pull-ups in a minute.)
In place of the race for baubles like social-media likes and world records, Sandel proposes we adopt Aristotle’s concept of megalopsychia or “greatness of soul,” which Sandel finds exemplified in Plato’s Socrates. People of great soul take pride in what they do but do not seek acclaim; they stand up for themselves but accept the injustice of withheld recognition; they express themselves openly but with a concern for truth and not to inflate themselves or one-up their opponents. (They also, Aristotle claims, move slowly and speak deeply.) Socrates typifies megalopsychia for Sandel, especially in his poise and humility in philosophical discussion, which he engaged in not to belittle his interlocutors—though they often took it that way—but to search for deeper understanding. In laying down his life for this ideal, he inspires a whole tradition of truth-seeking that begins with Plato.
Sandel is certainly right that the ideals espoused by Aristotle and exemplified by Socrates offer a useful counterpoint to today’s ethics of optimization and self-promotion. But absent a broader critique of the material and cultural conditions behind these ethics, Sandel’s book tends to get mired in an “it’s the journey, not the destination” cliché. It succumbs to the tendency Rieff was so wary of: reducing ancient philosophy to a “therapeutic device”—one narrowly tailored to address the hang-ups of professional go-getters.
Edmundson’s book is much lighter on solutions, but more promising. He positions Plato and Socrates, along with Hector and Jesus, as personifications of three ideals—wisdom, courage, and compassion, respectively—that might productively take the place of the superego. While Edmundson offers good intrinsic reasons for pursuing these ideals, he presents them as solutions to the problem of the untamed superego with no plausible story about how they might gain widespread adoption and redress the social ills he documents. The danger here is that the ideals appear as yet another treatment for modern alienation. The sacred is subverted when it is treated as cure no less than when it is treated as symptom. Still, to a greater degree than Sandel, Edmundson recognizes that these ideals can’t be pursued independently of a broader cultural and political renewal.
The fact that neither book manages to escape the undertow of the “therapeutic sensibility” gives credence to Lasch-Quinn’s claim that it has become “so hegemonic as to be almost impossible to counter.” For the philosophy of the past to have a substantive impact on our present, it must be allowed to challenge more basic anti-communitarian assumptions now deeply embedded in our culture. Her hunch is that, since the therapeutic can be understood as a “New Gnosticism,” we may find resources for countering the therapeutic in late antiquity’s critique of the old Gnosticism.
Specifically, Lasch-Quinn turns to Neoplatonism and, unexpectedly, to Albert Camus’s seldom-read University of Algiers thesis on the role of inwardness in the Augustinian reconciliation of Greek and Christian thought. According to Lasch-Quinn and Camus exegete Ronald Srigley, Camus’s writing was deeply concerned with the competing accounts of the human place in the world found in ancient, Christian, and modern sources. It was in the Christian inheritance of the Greeks that Camus saw, as he wrote in his notebooks, “the true and only turning point in history,” and in Christianity that he saw, despite being unable to believe in God himself, “the only common hope and the only effective shield against the calamity of the Western world.”
For Camus, as Lasch-Quinn understands him, the Christian and Greek worldviews share an insistence on a connection between reason and virtue or, to put it another way, between humanity and God—one that is severed in modernity. But the ancient Greeks understood the connection differently than the Christians: for Greeks like Plato, the way that man is united to God (“the good” in Plato or “the One” in the terminology of the Neoplatonist Plotinus) is through knowledge. Plato’s reasoning, his “scale of ideas,” Camus writes, is intended to “bridge the gap” to God.
The Gnostics attempted, unsuccessfully, to reconcile Greek thought and Christianity, maintaining reason as the bridge to God. Christ’s message, in the Gnostic rendering, becomes one not of love or compassion but of knowledge of another world—that of the “supreme God” who has sent Jesus as an envoy “to combat the wicked God, the creator of the world.” Gnosticism thus adopts an overtly dualistic interpretation of both Platonism and Christianity, insisting on the evil of the immanent, material world and the utter detachment of the transcendent.
In Plotinus, by contrast, Camus found a more sophisticated conception of immanence and transcendence, one that led to Augustine’s successful reconciliation of Greek and Christian thought. The One in Plotinus, as Camus describes it, “is both transcendent and immanent to all things.” Camus compares this in a footnote to the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles’s likening of God to “a circle of which the center is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere.” God is everywhere, including within us, at the foundation of our own experience of the world. Transcendence is reached, therefore, neither by breaking out of a false world, as the Gnostics believed, nor by a complex chain of reasoning, as Plato taught. It can be found, as Augustine argued, through introspection, or as Charles Taylor writes in Sources of the Self, “radical reflexivity.” “In order to ascend to God,” Camus writes, “one must return to oneself.” This inward “bridge to God” adapts Greek metaphysics but transforms Platonic participation in the good into a matter less of knowledge than of love. For Augustine, introspection reveals the radical dependence of our own reason and experience on the loving creation of God through the Word. This “experience of being illumined from another source,” as Taylor puts it, orients us toward the transcendent. “For Augustine, the path inward”—which, in the therapeutic mindset, often seems to reach a dead end—“was only a step on the way upward.”
How might Augustine’s overcoming of Gnosticism help us combat the excesses of the therapeutic today? What would it take to redirect our endless self-examination away from consumerist distractions and therapeutic cures and toward ideals and transcendence? Lasch-Quinn offers some interesting sources of inspiration, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s notion of a “beloved community”—a community free of hatred and material want—but admits that a book such as hers “can do no more than hint.”
King’s ideal brings back to mind Christopher Lasch’s critique of Rieff: moral decline is a product not so much of a lack of strict authority as of the failure of authority figures to actually provide a sense of security. This suggests that if we are to see our own flourishing in terms other than those of fantastical Gnostic escapism or meager psychological adjustment, we need not only a form of inwardness that transcends ourselves, but also a compelling vision of a just society—something now conspicuously absent from public life.
The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living
University of Notre Dame Press
$32 | 480 pp.
The Age of Guilt
The Super-Ego in the Online World
Yale University Press
$26 | 192 pp.
Happiness in Action
A Philosopher’s Guide to the Good Life
Adam Adatto Sandel
Harvard University Press
$29.95 | 304 pp.