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Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us


Philip Rieff



9780375424526
Retail Price: $15.95
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Format: Paperback, 288pp.
ISBN: 9780307277534
Publisher: Vintage
Pub. Date: March 11, 2008

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Description and Reviews
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Charisma has come to be understood today as a special gift or talent that celebrities–artistic performers, athletes, movie stars, or political leaders–possess, a quality that makes their lives exemplary and transforms them into objects of universal appeal or attraction.

In Charisma, Philip Rieff explores the emergence and evolution of this mysterious and compelling concept within Judeo-Christian culture. Its first expression was in the idea of the covenant between God and the Israelites: Charisma–religious grace and authority–was transferred through divine inspiration to the Old Testament prophets; it was embodied by Jesus of Nazareth, the first true charismatic hero. Rieff shows how St. Paul transformed charisma into a form of social organization, how it was reworked by Martin Luther and by nineteenth-century Protestant theologians, and, finally, how Max Weber redefined charisma as a secular political concept. By emptying charisma of its religious meaning, Weber opened the door to the modern perception of it as little more than a form of celebrity, stripped of moral considerations.

Rieff rejects Weber’s definition, insisting that Weber misunderstood the relation between charisma and faith. He argues that without morality, the gift of grace becomes indistinguishable from the gift of evil, and it devolves into a license to destroy and kill in the name of faith or ideology. Offering brilliant interpretations of Kierkegaard, Weber, Kafka, Nietzsche, and Freud, Rieff shows how certain thinkers attacked the very possibility of faith and genuine charisma and helped prepare the way for the emergence of a therapeutic culture in which it is impossible to recognize that which is sacred. Rieff’s analysis of charisma is an analysis of the deepest level of crisis in our culture.

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“Can a society really function without a sense of the sacred? In the absence of a shared sense of what we treasure, how can we keep our moral and cultural bearings? That Philip Rieff was a great scourge is plain. But it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that at his best he could also be a sacred messenger.”
—Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn, The New Republic


 
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About the Author

Philip Rieff was born in Chicago in 1922 and received his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1954. He taught at Brandeis University, the University of California at Berkeley, and Harvard University. For thirty years, until his retirement in 1992, he was the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Sociology and University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. His books include Freud: The Mind of the Moralist and The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Rieff died in July 2006.

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