One of the great philosophical gossips of all time, Diogenes Laertius, reports a pointed conversation that took place in the ancient world. Someone, he says, once asked a certain Arcesilaus why it was that people from various philosophical schools moved to Epicureanism, but no Epicurean ever converted to another philosophy. Arcesilaus replied tersely: “Because men can become eunuchs, but eunuchs never become men.”
The anecdote has no little relevance to us. Contrary to current assumptions, Epicureans in the ancient world did not indulge in orgies or pursue rarefied pleasures. They limited their enjoyments to a few natural needs as a means to tranquillity. But to do so, they had to submit to a set of materialist dogmas that essentially reduced all considerations other than subjective feelings to the minimum. Like many modern psychologists, they liberated people from anxiety and depression— but at the cost of denying importance to anything outside the self. The result, as was clear to Arcesilaus, was an amputation of an important dimension of what makes us human.
One of the hallmarks of recent papal teaching is the insistence of Pope John Paul II that we can understand a great deal about what is wrong with the modern world by looking at the various erroneous views of the nature of human beings. Centesimus Annus, for example, boldly claims that, in a way, the whole modern project of Catholic social teaching that began with Pope Leo XIII may be understood in the light of the need to present “a correct view of man.” We have made some headway against the grosser errors, such as Marxism. The more intimate realm of the psyche remains largely in thrall to equally distorted visions inherited from the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century.
Today, Marx, Darwin, and even Freud are on their last legs. We now have vigorous and convincing refutations of their systems. But a Great Wall of psychology remains in place despite critiques of Freud and frequent complaints about an overly psychologized culture. Rightly done, psychology can be a great blessing, and even in its modern form it has done a great deal of good. But one indication of our current situation is that psychological explanations have become dominant, even among Catholics, while Christian language about the soul and mind has all but disappeared.
The term “psychology” was coined in the 16th century and seems to have been first used, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in a medical textbook that divided anthropology into two parts: anatomy, which treats of the body, and psychology, “which treats of the soul.” A lot has happened since then; it would be difficult to find another discipline more committed to denying the very idea of soul.
What remains in most current notions of the psyche—mostly animal urges and psychological impulses shaped by evolution—literally cuts off our passion for the great human things: goodness, truth, purpose, creativity, and love. Most of us still believe in such things, but we also carry around with us the dim suspicion that in the final analysis, it’s all just complex physics and chemistry. And for those of us who increasingly embrace such notions, it is doubtful that we—like the ancient Epicureans—will ever have enough energy to break free again.
By now it might be expected that a band of Christian theorists would have arisen to say that we understand Oedipus complexes, intrafamily dynamics, polymorphous perversity, and the whole psychological panoply. We’re sorry about your overbearing mother or distant father, too. But if you want to become something approaching a mature adult, here is a list of things you must do and be—dare we call them virtues?—even as you work out deeply ingrained bad habits. We might even have expected that a Christian school of psychology would have arisen in Christian schools, namely our Catholic and Protestant colleges and universities.
That has not happened, and we had better start asking why, because psychologism is the default setting in American culture. All our self-congratulatory, pious talk about reversing America’s moral decline will be stopped dead in its tracks until we can talk about our behavior (and our neighbor’s) in terms other than psychopathology and self-fulfillment.
If you look very hard, you will find a book here, perhaps a promising figure there. Fr. Benedict Groeschel and a few other hardy souls have done some very fine work on this question. But we need more than a few isolated figures, however gifted. We need a massive movement that will recalibrate our standards. Carl Jung, one of the great psychologists of the age that is now past, continues to offer a kind of symbolic opening for a different kind of psychology in religious circles. But most Christian psychologists take from Jung mere symbolism. Few have tried seriously to follow up on Jung’s remarkable claim that all the patients he saw during his long life had problems that were, fundamentally, religious.
There are plenty of Christians trained in psychology who also have the sheer intelligence, and perhaps the desire, to start a much-needed reformation. But they had better begin soon. To judge from what we see everywhere around us, there are many court eunuchs in the kingdom of psychology. And as Arcesilaus would tell us if he were alive today, once the operation has been performed, short of a miracle, there is no turning back.