Religion has occupied a central place in the history of social theory. According to the most common telling of the history of sociology, the discipline began with the idea that religion as a source of order is about to be displaced from human life. Auguste Comte (1798-1857), generally credited with coining the Greco-Latin name “sociology,” argued in the six volumes of Cours de philosophie positive (1830-1842; The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, 1853) that the time of religion was passing and that this time should pass for the sake of the human race. The idea that the scientific and the secular were replacing the sacred echoed through social thought, philosophy, and literature throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche celebrated the death of God, and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud saw the end of religion as the passing of an illusion. Writers such as Matthew Arnold mourned the loss of religious certitude but agreed that the time of faith was yielding to a time of reason.
The primary early sociologists of religion carried on this assumption of the unavoidable secularization of modern society. French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) believed that the kind of social bond found in religious faith and ritual was giving way to other bonds, such as those of economic interdependence. German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) saw modernity as a matter of movement from tradition and belief to rationality and bureaucratic organization. In his writings on political authority, Weber revived the Greek term “charisma,” usually defined as “divine gift” or “divine favor,” to describe one source of authority. According to Weber, some people are to exercise control over others because of personal qualities that seem divine in origin. While charisma never disappears from the political relations of any social order, over time it tends to become routinized in bureaucratic organization. With the rationalization of society through modernity, divine sources of authority such as charisma tend to give way to acceptance of world legal procedures. Like Matthew Arnold, Weber viewed this rationalization with some regret, arguing that it led to a disenchanted perspective on life, but Weber tended to see the mundane and rational ordering of human existence as the way of the future and as ultimately desirable.
Philip Rieff’s intellectual career was a debate with the sociological and psychological orientation of his predecessors. By the time he wrote Charisma, the debate had turned to outright rejection of many of their premises and of the premises of modernity. Rieff began in the 1950’s, writing about the work of Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. He saw a revolutionary kind of morality in Freud, the morality of the “therapeutic,” which involves the effort to enable human beings to live with their instinctual conflicts. The “therapeutic ethos,” Rieff argued by the middle of the 1960’s, had become the predominant attitude of modern culture and had given rise to Psychological Man, a model of humanity that saw everything as relative to individual well-being and that understood public order as the promotion of individual well-being. By the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Rieff had decided that the therapeutic ethos could not offer a sound foundation for a culture and that authority and social order could be established only by a return to the sacred.
Rieff wrote the chapters of Charisma during those years when he had ceased analyzing the therapeutic ethos and begun arguing against it. Taking up the Weberian term, he maintained that a charisma without religious basis was only a political fraud, akin to false prophecy. However, he became frustrated with this project, believing that his ideas were so utterly inconsistent with the times that there was no audience for this argument. He set his writings on charisma aside, and he was largely silent for the last decades of the twentieth century.
Rieff started speaking out again at the end of his life. As he returned to writing, he agreed to work with collaborators in assembling the manuscript of Charisma. Published after the author’s death in 2006, the book is often uneven in its quality. The style is complex and allusive, as it is in...
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