In one of the greatest books I’ve ever read, sociologist Philip Rieff’s 1966 the “Triumph of the Therapeutic”, the case for enlightened repression is made and made well.
Think about it. The Ten Commandments is full of shall nots, as is the US Constitution. They are there to warn and protect mankind from its most brutal urges.
In a recent article in the Washington Examiner magazine, Park MacDougald wrote, “Rieff believed that the commandments of sacred authority always come originally and primarily in the form of ‘interdicts’, or prohibitions — Thou shalt not’ sleep with your mother or covet your neighbour’s wife. ‘No’ comes before ‘yes,’ and ‘no’ is the ultimate origin of culture. It is only by first restricting the legitimate range of behaviours, and in particular the expressions of instinct or libidinal energy, that cultures can be said to operate on their members. Culture is repression. Why did Rieff consider repression primary? As Antonius AW Zondervan explains in his excellent “Sociology and the Sacred” Rieff came to this idea through his study of Freud. In Freud’s theory, repression is triggered when an idea is so intolerable or offensive that it would cause the conscious self — the ego — immense psychic distress to become conscious of it. But, Rieff asked, intolerable or offensive to what? Initially, Freud might have answered: to the superego, the part of our psyche that represents internalised social morality. But, Rieff pointed out, Freud later came to believe that repression was not merely a function of superego prohibitions but could also be triggered by an unconscious part of the ego itself.” Bingo.
How many times have we done things we knew were wrong, but committed the action anyway because perhaps there was no, or a small price, to be paid for the action? Me? A lot. Why? Because we live in a society where there are very few deterrents, repressions if you will, to bad behavior.
We’re still in the throes of the 60s “if it feels right do it”, an anti-reason and anti-logic anthem if there ever was one. Old shibboleths of shame, honor, and rectitude have been tossed aside and thus the only calculus is personal benefit and if you can get away with it.
The need to repress our avaricious inner selves, the Victorians had that one nailed, is paramount in a free society because with freedom must come order. Now we’re talking about repression, not abnegation. Yes, most of us will still lust, covet, and lie from time to time. That is the human condition and no ideology, faith, or cult leader will change that. But we are able to keep it within reasonable bounds. That we can do. For to paraphrase Falstaff in Henry IV, “Discretion is the better part of valor.”