Lasch on the Family, Self, and Western Decline

The warnings of Christopher Lasch are just as relevant as ever:

Just over 30 years ago the renowned American historian and a social critic Christopher Lasch passed away (1932-1994). Cancer took his life at an early age, but he left us a number of very important volumes that are still worth revisiting. Here are just some of his key works:

Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged (1977)
-The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979)
The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times (1984)
The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (1991)
-The Revolt of the Elites: And the Betrayal of Democracy (published posthumously in 1994)

Lasch had long been a critic of liberalism, modernity, progressivism, and libertarianism. He saw the erosion of the family and the rise of narcissistic individualism as a genuine threat to Western culture. In this piece I will only look at the first two books mentioned above, and offer some representative quotes from each.

Haven in a Heartless World

In this crucial work Lasch shows how an army of experts, elites and bureaucrats have taken over and usurped the role of the family. They may have had good intentions, but that is never enough to guarantee good outcomes. The more the experts intruded into the world of the family, the more it started to unravel. His opening paragraphs say this:

As the chief agency of socialization, the family reproduces cultural patterns in the individual. It not only imparts ethical norms, providing the child with his first instruction in the prevailing social rules, it profoundly shapes his character, in ways of which he is not even aware. The family instills modes of thought and action that become habitual. Because of its enormous emotional influence, it colors all of a child’s subsequent experience.


The union of love and discipline in the same persons, the mother and father, creates a highly charged environment in which the child learns lessons he will never get over—not necessarily the explicit lessons his parents wish him to master. He develops an unconscious predisposition to act in certain ways and to re-create in later life, in his relations with lovers and authorities, his earliest experiences. Parents first embody love and power, and each of their actions conveys to the child, quite independently of their overt intentions, the injunctions and constraints by means of which society attempts to organize experience. If reproducing culture were simply a matter of formal instruction and discipline, it could be left to the schools. But it also requires that culture be embedded in personality. Socialization makes the individual want to do what he has to do; and the family is the agency to which society entrusts this complex and delicate task.

But the schools – and other bodies – DID end up taking over the role of parents – in almost every area. Says Lasch:

Historians of the family have paid too little attention to the way in which policy, sometimes conceived quite deliberately not as a defense of the family at all but as an invasion of it, contributed to the deterioration of domestic life. The family did not simply evolve in response to social and economic influences; it was deliberately transformed by the intervention of planners and policymakers. Educators and social reformers saw that the family, especially the immigrant family, stood as an obstacle to what they conceived as social progress – in other words, to homogenization and “Americanization.” The family preserved separatist religious traditions, alien languages and dialects, local lore, and other traditions that retarded the growth of the political community and the national state. Accordingly, reformers sought to remove children from the influence of their families, which they also blamed for exploiting child labor, and to place the young under the benign influence of state and school.

He continues:

In order to justify their appropriation of parental functions, the “helping professions” in their formative period—roughly from 1900 to 1930—appealed many times to the analogy of preventive medicine and public health, Educators, psychiatrists, social workers and penalogists saw themselves as doctors to a sick society, and they demanded the broadest possible delegation of medical authority in order to heal it….


In early modern times, Philip Rieff has observed, the church or cathedral stood as the symbolic centre of society: in the nineteenth century, the legislative hall took its place, and in our time, the hospital. With the medicalization of society, people came to equate deviance with crime (much less with sin) but with sickness, and medical jurisprudence replaced an older form of justice designed to protect private rights. With the rise of the “helping professions” in the first three decades of the twentieth century, society in the guise of a “nurturing mother” invaded the family, the stronghold of their private rights, and took over many of its functions. The diffusion of the new ideology of social welfare had the effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy. By persuading the housewife, and finally even her husband as well, to rely on outside technology and the advice of outside experts, the apparatus of mass tuition – the successor to the church in a secularized society – undermined the family’s capacity to provide for itself and thereby justified the continuing expansion of health, education, and welfare services.

Image of Haven in a Heartless World (Norton Paperback)
Haven in a Heartless World (Norton Paperback) by Lasch, Christopher (Author) Amazon logo

The Culture of Narcissism

This is probably Lasch’s most well-known work, and its careful look at the West’s emphasis on the cult of self shows how family life took even more of a battering during this period. In it he famously spoke of ‘the ever-present, neurotic need to be recognized and affirmed’ as one writer put it. If that was a problem 45 years ago, it is now a massive problem. Self-centred, entitled, and spoiled little brats are what we now see everywhere.

The cult of the individual has turned a whole generation of kids into easily offended, always needy, easily bruised and always demanding woke wonders who must forever be protected against anyone and anything that might hurt their feelings or cause them to be exposed to any alien new ideas and values. If Lasch were alive today he would have an enormous reservoir of new material to draw from if he penned some follow-up works on all this.

Let me share a few quotes from his opening chapter. Lasch writes:

After the political turmoil of the sixties, Americans have retreated to purely personal preoccupations. Having no hope of improving their lives in any of the ways that matter, people have convinced themselves that what matters is psychic self-improvement: getting in touch with their feelings, eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or belly-dancing, immersing themselves in the wisdom of the East, jogging, learning how to “relate,” overcoming the “fear of pleasure.” Harmless in themselves, these pursuits, elevated to a program and wrapped in the rhetoric of authenticity and awareness, signify a retreat from politics and a repudiation of the recent past….


To live for the moment is the prevailing passion—to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity. We are fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future. It is the waning of the sense of historical time—in particular, the erosion of any strong concern for posterity—that distinguishes the spiritual crisis of the seventies from earlier outbreaks of millenarian religion, to which it bears a superficial resemblance.

And again: “The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious. People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security.”

A final quote on the lot of the contemporary American:

Having surrendered most of his technical skills to the corporation, he can no longer provide for his material needs. As the family loses not only its productive functions but many of its reproductive functions as well, men and women no longer manage even to raise their children without the help of certified experts. The atrophy of older traditions of self-help has eroded everyday competence, in one area after another, and has made the individual dependent on the state, the corporation, and other bureaucracies.


Narcissism represents the psychological dimension of this dependence. Notwithstanding his occasional illusions of omnipotence, the narcissist depends on others to validate his self-esteem. He cannot live without an admiring audience. His apparent freedom from family ties and institutional constraints does not free him to stand alone or to glory in his individuality. On the contrary, it contributes to his insecurity, which he can overcome only by seeing his “grandiose self” reflected in the attentions of others, or by attaching himself to those who radiate celebrity, power, and charisma. For the narcissist, the world is a mirror, whereas the rugged individualist saw it as an empty wilderness to be shaped by his own design.

As mentioned, had Lasch lived longer, he would have seen just how prophetic his warnings were. Things have only spiralled even further out of control since he wrote these things a half-century ago. Whether he would have turned to the one final and full answer to this – Christianity – as so many other public intellectuals seem to be doing today, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Jordan Peterson, Tom Holland and even celebrities like Russel Brand – is a moot point.

But as the West continues to decline, what hope have we left but the very thing that promises new life, as it does on this Easter Sunday.

[1583 words]

One Reply to “Lasch on the Family, Self, and Western Decline”

  1. Thank you Bill for sharing the wisdom this writer and visionary Christopher Lasch, who left behind as a profound legacy of warnings to us. He certainly foresaw the attack on the family, the political ‘take over’ by a faceless bureaucracy that keeps hammering out the values we are to live by, and the taking over of responsibility from parents, giving to the Education Dept and the next phase of the Govt then trying to take away all private decision making from Christian schools.
    Even 30 years ago it was hard to guess that the centralization of power in Govt would demand parents never discuss their own child’s sexuality – or to advise them about changing gender- as this has now become an illegal act and parents will be fined thousands or jailed for up to 10 years. hence, the Govt is knowingly robbing of parents of their rights, which aligns with Marxist or socialist values, since the parents in a communist society have no rights but are to bow to the greater Govt power.
    There is much more that has occurred that Lasch foresaw too. The new phase of narcistic personalities shows itself behind a gun, while an offended teen takes the lives of fellow students because they feel alone or offended. We see the same narcistic personality lurking in the predators who entice children into their lair by using the Internet. The other forms of narcissism show up in the face of domestic violence attacks, where an estranged spouse or partner has to gain the upper hand and kill the one who left them, and sometimes in doing that they may take the children’s lives too; this is a ‘payback’ the one who would or could not bear to stay on in an abusive situation.
    The Govt dictating their values to the church is another phase that Lasch foresaw coming in the 1960’s, as the younger population was the turning to the East for answers, in the form of medication, yoga, Buddhism, self improvement and any therapy that will calm the senses. (I was seeking for truth in that era and later in the early 1970s came through to seeking truth in the Bible instead of seeking answers through the Eastern methods of medication and withdrawal from the world.
    I recall too reading Dave Hunt’s books which warned us about ‘The occult invasion’ and ‘Seduction of Christianity.’ Both Lasch and Dave Hunt foresaw the road ahead of New Age spirituality (from Satan), the progressive church which would take on some of the subjective methods of meditation and finding one’s own truth, and the coming dark powers which would seek to destroy the family unit and to usurp the freedoms found in democratic societies.
    It is wonderful that such courageous writers gave the warning. In many ways they were warning a generation who could not see all this coming their way. But now 65 years later we can see how much freedom we have lost and we can see where its heading. Through it all, Christ remains victor and He is Our Light in a dark world. We can only see clearly if we have His word to guide us ‘as a lamp o to our path’ and we walk on by faith knowing there will lawlessness, hatred of God, and upheaval in families but a final return of Jesus Christ save us from this dark age.
    God has His plan as revealed in Daniel and Revelation and we must keep shining as lights and point many to Him, The God of all truth, purity, righteousness, justice, love and power who made heaven and earth and who controls the universe and ‘who knows those who are His.’ (John 10 “my sheep hear my voice, a stranger they will not follow’ Amen

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