by Jeff Heller
People in increasing numbers so take psychotherapy for granted they hardly question anymore its efficacy or its potential side effects, including chemical and relational dependency, the medicalizing of the human experience, or what clinical psychologist David Smail calls ‘the tyranny of the normal’. Such blind faith, it seems to me, owes more to the need to believe in a godlike professional remedy for our psycho-social ills than any conclusive evidence as to its long-term therapeutic success. Indeed, as I try to suggest in the following overview, the idea of therapeutic psychology is as old as western civilization itself and, potentially, far more effective when applied socially rather than medically.
Our story begins, as the philosopher Karl Popper recalls in The Open Society (1945), with the transition of the ancient Greeks from a tradition-bound tribal society to an individual-centered and democratic one. But, says Popper, there arises a new set of unmet emotional needs, stemming from the disconnection from traditional tribal beliefs, values and social roles. On the one hand, there is a new fear of the unknown or anxiety, owing to the lack of trust in those who must now rely on material and rhetorical power over that of spirituality or instinct. On the other hand, the human drive to dominate becomes a pervasive problem in a social system no longer ground in inherited patriarchal authority.
I do not want to suggest that anxiety and domination did not exist before the emergence of the free individual — whom, Socrates showed, is capable and indeed duty-bound to learn to think for himself. Rather, with the abandonment of the certainties and group-orientation of tribal society, anxiety, domination and other troubling emotional experiences become salient problems one must contend with. Hence, the birth of philosophy, in ancient Greece, and, in particular, the Platonic notion of the mastery of reason over feeling.
However, as has been the case ever since, philosophy proves capable, among the ancients, of satisfying the needs of only a happy few for whom material needs and wants are of little consequence. And so, after the fall of the Roman Empire, medieval Christianity reintroduces a more broadly appealing spiritual remedy for post-tribal anxiety, with its notion of a personal, merciful, loving God. And, with regard to the problem of domination, there is a return to traditional patriarchal authority in the form of the Church.
This pattern is then repeated, a millennium hence, when late 18th century, Enlightenment science is superseded by Romanticism, such that extremes of feeling, aesthetic imagination, and the sublimity of nature are privileged over interminable analysis and mechanistic exploitation. While the forces of domination remerge as the imperial powers of a shortlist of West European nations, underwritten, as it were, by burgeoning industrial capitalism.
It is not as though the old religion disappears in the modern world. It is rather that, as with moral philosophy, its degree of influence is severely handicapped. Instead, you have the decline and fall of aristocracies, in favor of the rise of nationalistic bourgeoisie and ever-evolving sciences and technologies. Though, to be sure, beginning in the mid-19th century the humanistic concerns derived from our classical and Christian traditions sufficiently infuse the democratic process so as to mitigate the exploitations and other abuses of imperial capitalism.
But neither materialism nor the various ideologies it spawns are sufficient to stem the tide of discontent that comes with progress. Out of this milieu, then, psychology and sociology come to the fore, in the late 19th century, in an effort to achieve an accord between the (largely symbolic) inner world of the self and the physical and social world in which it is embedded. For psychology, much as had been the case with philosophy, the emphasis is on the morally adaptive versus autonomous self. Whereas, for sociology, as was the case with the study of politics, it is society and its institutions which precedes and determines the individual.
In many ways, this is a recapitulation of the philosophical epistemology debate from a quarter millennium before. That is, how do we know and affect reality: from the inside out, as the rationalists maintained, or from the outside in, as the empiricists were inclined to believe. And, much as Kant succeeded in harmonizing these two disciplinary currents, for a brief hopeful mid-20th century cultural moment, psychologists joined sociologists in calling for a modification of society based on the needs of individual psychology as well as the mutually-beneficial coexistence of social democracy and corporate capitalism.
By the 1970s, however, American culture does an abrupt about-face, under the burgeoning sway of power elite neo-liberalism, which effectively renders moot the ability of social science– or any other disciplinary narrative — to influence the direction of politics and society. And so, you have the tragic abdication of the short-lived integration of sociology and psychology, in favor of a capitulation to the social-control modalities of medical-model psychiatry and affiliated ‘psycho-disciplines’; which is pretty much as matters still stand.
To be sure, it is pointless and unfair to turn to a dumbed-down, over-controlled, idea-deprived, and financially-strapped population and exhort it to band together and right itself. Yet it is even more futile and disingenuous, I believe, to extend to society’s therapeutic managers an unmitigated reverence most deities have never enjoyed. Indeed, for me, the question remains as it has, to one degree or another, for over two millennia in the West; namely, what does it mean to be a socially-embedded subject person in a society increasingly controlled by Power? Moreover, to the extent that individuals fail to ask this enduring philosophical question and participate proactively in what is left of our democracy, we run the risk of being bullied and codified into submission, perhaps even extinction.
Jeff Heller, M.A. has been a college counselor, social-service manager, and businessperson. An avid songwriter and scribbler, with doctoral training in Counseling Psychology and Sociology, Jeff is a proud new addition to the Writer’s Collective.