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How Philip Rieff’s Three Worlds Help Us Understand Cultural Change

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With the title of my book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, I tip my hat to the psychological sociologist, Philip Rieff, and his book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Rieff has been particularly influential on two points. First, he’s clear that the modern self—unlike the self of the Middle Ages or the Reformation for instance—tends to live with a vision of happiness as resulting exclusively from inner, psychological happiness. Everything else must conform to my inward desires and pander to my personal needs. There’s no need for me to fit into larger society and learn to behave in accordance with societal norms. That is actually the sort of point that Rieff is most famous for. 

But I found his distinction between first, second, and third worlds also to be extremely helpful. Rieff doesn’t use this terminology to express what is typically intended by the third world, that is, developing countries in Africa, Asia, and South America. His interest is neither geographic nor economic. Rather, he uses this language to refer to the type of culture that societies embody. His paradigm helps us understand why we live in a world that seems so unstable and chaotic at the moment. 

First-world cultures, according to Rieff, are those in the past that built their moral orders on the basis of notions of fate or the gods. If you grew up in ancient Sparta and your parents said, “Don’t do that.” And you said in return, “Why can’t I do that?” Your parents would say, “Well, it’s written in the law, and the law was given to Lycurgus, our first king, by the oracle at Delphi.” Rieff characterizes such a world as one where fate is the controlling idea. It is not God as some transcendent being who is in charge, but it is still a force prior to the natural order and beyond the control of mere men and women, that makes the rules.

Second-world cultures are those where the law has authority because it reflects the character of God. Second-world societies include Christendom and the world of Old Testament Judaism. According to Rieff, both first and second worlds justify their morality by appeal to something transcendent, beyond the material world. But second-world cultures appeal not only to supernatural power but to divine integrity. Yes, stealing was forbidden in the Ten Commandments. But stealing isn’t just wrong because God forbade it. No, stealing is wrong because the theft of another person’s property is a contradiction of God’s holy character.

We must understand that the Christian faith has shaped the cultures of the West in an incalculably deep way. Law codes were rooted in the will of God revealed in the Bible. Aquinas’s theory of law builds his entire moral edifice on the character of God himself. Concepts of justice and mercy were shaped by the Bible’s teaching. 

Rieff would say that in second-world cultures, the law has authority because it points beyond the culture and beyond fate to something sacred that grounds it. Our law courts still reflect this thinking. Witnesses on the stand are traditionally required to place their hands on a sacred text and swear to tell the truth. The idea that they—and indeed, the entire proceedings—are in some sense accountable to the sacred is dramatically displayed in the very actions that surround the business of the courtroom.

When Rieff uses the term third world, he means that a society has moved into a completely secular mode. In a completely secular society, law codes can only be justified and grounded in society itself. There’s nothing beyond this society, and that makes law codes inherently unstable. This puts society in the sort of position in which parents find themselves when their child asks, “Why can’t I eat my ice cream before my vegetables? And all the parent has to say in return is, “Because I say so.” That answer might work when the kids are little and you can keep them under control by virtue of your size and authority. But when you reach your teenage years and start querying the validity of the family hierarchy, hearing “because I said so” from your mom and dad doesn’t stand up as a particularly strong argument. 

If that sort of structure doesn’t work in the home, consider what happens when whole societies try to order and build themselves up simply on the basis of fiat. Rieff argues that abandonment of a sacred order leaves cultures without any foundation at all. The culture with no sacred order has the task—according to Rieff, the impossible task—of justifying itself only by reference to itself. Morality will thus tend toward a matter of simple consequentialist pragmatism. In a way, that’s what we see today. 

And when society tries to justify its morality purely on the basis of itself—on what people feel is right or wrong at a particular time—then the character of that society becomes incredibly unstable and constantly changeable. Today’s warrior for political correctness is tomorrow’s victim of the politically correct revolution. We might laugh and say, “When the revolution moves on, they’ll be left under the bus.” What we’re observing is a function of secular society’s inherent lack of moral stability. 

One of the most helpful things about Rieff’s three-world model is that it provides a helpful grid for understanding why we have a hard time speaking to one another today. It’s difficult for a Christian living with second-world assumptions and trying to ground morality and ethics in higher divine authority to communicate across the great divide to the third world. After all, the third world doesn’t see the Bible or Christian tradition as having any authority at all. I think that’s where a lot of the communication breakdown is in our current period. 

Sometimes we’ll hear Christians today compare contemporary society to a pre-Constantinian world. They might say, “Look, here’s an example of what it looks like to live in a society that doesn’t like Christians.” But while there are some analogies, I don’t think that’s completely right, because the early church lived in the first world; there was still a divinely-sanctioned moral order. Now, we’re moving into something that’s totally different. It’s a post-Christian society, one that’s plagued by what Flannery O’Connor called “Christ-hauntedness.” 

The goal in that first word was to help pagans see how Jesus was better than their dead idols. And while there’s still a place for exposing heart-idols in our own time, our goal in the third world must be to help our more secular friends see that their worldview lacks any firm foundation. We can grieve with them the ways that society cancels and runs over itself as it shifts from one moral or intellectual fad to the next. And we can model community life in the church that’s rooted in the Rock. 

Carl R. Trueman (Ph.D., University of Aberdeen) is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He is an esteemed church historian and previously served as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University. Trueman has authored or edited more than a dozen books, including The Creedal Imperative; Luther on the Christian Life; and Histories and Fallacies. Trueman is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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