Politics & Policy

Therapeutic States

From the April 25, 2005, issue of National Review.

One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture Is Eroding Self-Reliance, by Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel (St. Martin’s, 320 pp., $23.95)

Any book that includes self-reliance in its title must call to mind the Spartan scruples of Emerson, who, looking objectively at his contemporaries, worried that “the sinew and heart of man seem to be drawn out, and we are become timorous, desponding whimperers. We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other. Our age yields no great and perfect persons . . . We are parlour soldiers. We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born.”

At a time when U.S. soldiers display such grace and courage on a daily basis, one might be tempted to think that Emerson’s lamentations have been overtaken by history. But it is surely not members of the U.S. military, generally speaking, who display the pathologies described by Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel in this new book about the Therapeutic State, a state that is, in most respects, the disease it purports to cure. Unlike those in uniform, our parlor soldiers have no need to engage the rugged battle of fate, for the priests of Therapism stand at the ready to scold fate, to demand apologies, to mint exculpatory slogans in quantities that would dazzle the snake-oil merchants of an earlier time.

Movements require prophets. Freud is too remote, too trapped in the peculiar pathologies endemic to a world long gone when shame alone could cripple. Freudian neuroses and hysterias are now found chiefly in textbooks, not clinics. Today’s dominant complaints, combinations of distraction and depression, are scarcely considered in Freud’s voluminous works. The Death Wish has been replaced by the Wish List, all the items pertaining to the holy trinity of me, myself, and I. Where the Victorians were plagued by the fear of failing in their duties, today’s clients must be understood according to a different text. Abraham Maslow’s Toward a Psychology of Being is useful to Sommers and Satel, who find lines at once hopeful and accusatory: “I sometimes think the world will be saved by psychologists . . . or it will not be saved at all . . . Sick people are made by a sick culture.”

With doctors such as this, who needs authentic illness? It is a credit to Sommers and Satel that they have summarized accurately the received wisdom of the psychological community, and then underscored its debatable grounding in fact and its pernicious effects in practice. The lessons of history and biography point clearly to the need to get outside oneself, to travel to places beyond one’s merely local travails. The authors avail themselves of John Stuart Mill’s account of his own deep depression and its resistance to merely introspective paths to understanding and recovery. Mill instead found his way out of the labyrinth through absorption in literature, which, they write, led him “to develop what he called an ‘anti-self-consciousness’ theory.” The authors then quote this insightful passage from Mill’s Autobiography: “The only chance is to treat not happiness, but some end external to it as the purpose of life.”

Today’s sophisticates will, no doubt, chortle over the “simplistic” assessments and Kiplingesque directives set out in One Nation Under Therapy. Sommers and Satel write with vigor and passion about the “American Creed” of stoicism and achievement, leaving critics with the task of either denying the history or relegating it to the putatively useless category of that-was-then. But the history cannot be denied: Between 1600 and 1800 a community of Christian settlers numbering in the hundreds developed into a nation of several million, having fashioned a form of governance and the means of defending it that would have defied the most optimistic of prophecies. The record since that time, including a devastating civil war and two world wars, further refined and hardened the resolve of a people now more various, more urbanized, more mobile than earlier generations–but every bit as guided by stoic resolve and the highest standards of achievement.

Something has happened to alter this, and Sommers and Satel locate one source of the transformation. Their treatise is developed in 220 pages of text augmented by 80 pages of notes. They have done the necessary research. Nonetheless, self-absorption and therapism are perhaps less aptly cast here as causes than they would have been as effects, the originating causes somewhat less visible in this good book than one would wish. The authors approach the nub of the matter most closely in their first and fourth chapters: Chapter One (“The Myth of the Fragile Child”) describes what now passes for education in our primary schools, where students are encouraged to reveal in a public setting their innermost feelings; Chapter 4 (“Emotional Correctness”) reviews the currently approved forms of grieving. Children thus schooled are unlikely candidates for a life of stoic strength. And what of those who are stoically resigned? The authors note that “their reticence is supposed to put them at a disadvantage.” As it happens, research either indicates otherwise or offers no support for this persistent claim. The key word here, I submit, is reticence, especially as understood in Rochelle Gurstein’s important book, The Repeal of Reticence. What Gurstein establishes is the functional and even causal connection between reticence and intimacy. The creation and preservation of intimate associations must be grounded in the sharing of thoughts and sentiments, beliefs and aspirations that are otherwise unexpressed, unpublicized; unfortunately, with the ever greater tendency toward self-presentation (rather than mere self-absorption), there is a comparable contraction of the sphere of intimacy. What may, finally, be lost is the capacity for friendship itself, for that authentic friendship–Aristotle called it teleia philia–that finds each friend wanting for the other what is best for the other, for the sake of the other. With that loss comes the loss of a unique form of civic life, the life lived by those privileged to be citizens in a community of friends.

Furthermore, therapy of the psychological variety is supposed to be “value neutral.” How silly! The very identification of conditions warranting treatment is evaluative from start to finish. What Sommers and Satel accomplish in this serious work is the identification of conditions that do not warrant treatment but actually require its cessation. If, as Emerson says, we have come to “shun the rugged battle of fate,” our current fearfulness is not that of the pioneer, the soldier, the explorer. It is that of the publicized “self,” now risking exposure, now on the verge of being seen as something different from the staged version. What we must convey to sufferers is not the means by which to improve their performance, but the cost of living life as if it were a performance.

Mr. Robinson is distinguished professor emeritus, Georgetown University, and a member of the philosophy faculty at Oxford University. His most recent book is Praise and Blame: Moral Realism and Its Applications (Princeton, 2002).


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