Writing a book blurb for Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway. Kindle Edition, c. 2020), Francis Beckwith (one of the finest Christian philosophers, now teaching at Baylor University) says: “This is an amazing piece of work. Blending social commentary with an insightful history of ideas as well as keen philosophical and theological analyses, Carl Trueman has given us what is undoubtedly the most accessible and informed account of the modern self and how it has shaped and informed the cultural battles of the first quarter of the twenty-first century. It is a fair-minded, carefully wrought diagnosis of what ails our present age. This book is essential reading for all serious religious believers who rightly sense that the ground is shifting underneath their feet, that the missionaries for the modern self are not content with simply allowing believers to practice their faith in peace but see these believers and their institutions as targets for colonization and involuntary assimilation. For this reason, every president of a faith-based college or university should read The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self more than once.”
Then Rod Dreher, writing the book’s Forward, points us back to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “summary explanation for why all the horrors of Soviet communism came to pass: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’ This answer is also a valid explanation for the crises enveloping the West today, including the widespread falling away from faith, the disintegration of the family, a loss of communal purpose, erotomania, erasing the boundaries between male and female, and a general spirit of demonic destruction that denies the sacredness of human life. Because men have forgotten God, they have also forgotten man; that’s why all this has happened. We have to go deeper. The ways in which men have forgotten God matter. We have to understand how and why they have forgotten God if we are to diagnose this sickness and to produce a vaccination, even a cure” (p. 11).
To do so Carl Trueman serves as a societal soul doctor who begins his analysis with the remarkably revealing recent declaration—uttered by increasing numbers of people—that “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.” That someone can declare, rather than confirm, his or her sexuality is certainly something radically new in human history! Even more strangely: a large segment of the population grants them that latitude! So transgenderism has been normalized—as is evident in the decisions by both the American Psychological Association and the National Association of Social Workers. Now Joe Biden has established transgenderism in one of his first presidential edicts, allowing males to compete with females as long as they claim to be one. Concurrently, as 2021 begins, sexually clear words such as father or daughter or uncle or aunt may no longer used in the House of Representative. So we must admit the culture has changed. It has changed, in large part, because radical feminism succeeded in its insistence that “gender” (not biological organs) may be endlessly “constructed.” Listen carefully to Simone de Beauvoir’s declaration in The Second Sex half-a-century ago: “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman. No biological, psychic, or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on in society; it is civilization as a whole that elaborates this intermediary product between the male and the eunuch that is called feminine.” Carrying forward de Beauvoir’s agenda, Shulamith Firestone, in The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, said: “the end goal of feminist revolution must be . . . not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.” Thus Freud’s “polymorphous perversity” would be celebrated, artificial reproduction would be perfected, and the “tyranny of the biological family would be broken.”
Consequently, Trueman says: “At the heart of this book lies a basic conviction: the so-called sexual revolution of the last sixty years, culminating in its latest triumph—the normalization of transgenderism—cannot be properly understood until it is set within the context of a much broader transformation in how society understands the nature of human selfhood. The sexual revolution is as much a symptom as it is a cause of the culture that now surrounds us everywhere we look, from sitcoms to Congress. In short, the sexual revolution is simply one manifestation of the larger revolution of the self that has taken place in the West. And it is only as we come to understand that wider context that we can truly understand the dynamics of the sexual politics that now dominate our culture” (p. 20).
To guide us in understanding of our culture Trueman invokes three late 20th century thinkers: Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre. Taylor’s main works—Sources of the Self and A Secular Age—show how “expressive individualism” has become dominant as the West moved from a mimetic to a poietic culture. We seek not to understand and fit into the world as it is but to make it something in accord with our inner inclinations. Philip Rieff’s sociological analyses—especially evident in The Triumph of the Therapeutic—enable us to see how our “psychological” man differs from the “political” and “religious” and “economic” man of earlier cultural epochs. And Alasdair MacIntyre’s masterly depiction of our era’s ethical emotivism enables us to see how the elimination of classical realism had contributed to our malaise—if my feelings set my moral compass, what’s right for me may well be wrong for you and neither of us is actually right or wrong! MacIntyre insists we must return to an Aristotelian-Thomistic realism, with its teleological perspective, or collapse into the Nietzschean nihilism flourishing everywhere. “All three would argue that an overriding desire for inner personal happiness and a sense of psychological well-being lie at the heart of the modern age and make ethics at root a subjective discourse” (p. 88).
Trueman gives us a knowledgeable, eminently understandable overview of key philosophical developments during the past two centuries. Obviously a scholar who has worked through the primary sources, he’s blessed with the gift of illustrating his points with pop music or political rhetoric as well as quoting Rousseau, Darwin, Marx or Freud, the real architects of our postmodern world. Thus, for example, Rousseau’s views on a person’s freedom to construct his self “is at work in the modern transgender movement. That it is the inner voice, freed from any and all external influences—even from chromosomes and the primary sexual characteristics of the physical body—that shapes identity for the transgender person is a position consistent with Rousseau’s idea that personal authenticity is rooted in the notion that nature, free from heteronomous cultural constraints, and selfhood, conceived of as inner psychological conviction, are the real guides to true identity” (p. 126). It’s the romantic affirmation of “expressive individualism” celebrated by Romantic poets (Wordsworth, Blake, Shelley) in their disdain for conventional sexual standards.
Eliminating traditional sexual standards is certainly central to the “modern self,” making Sigmund Freud arguably the “key figure in the narrative of this book” (p. 203). He shared Rousseau’s illusions regarding primitives (“noble savages”) who lived without restraints, following their feelings and finding happiness thereby. That Freud was demonstrably wrong in much he said, or that few therapists today follow his prescriptions, is irrelevant when appraising the impact he had on 20th century culture, for he “provided a compelling rationale for putting sex and sexual expression at the center of human existence and all its related cultural and political components in a way that now grips the social imaginary of the Western world.” He “has, in fact, provided the West with a compelling myth” whereby “we can understand the world around us,” and that “myth is the idea that sex, in terms of sexual desire and sexual fulfillment, is the real key to human existence, to what it means to be human” (p. 204).
Since the family—and most especially the patriarchal family—restricts sexual behaviors, it must be discredited and discarded. Since Christianity declares chastity virtuous it must be sidelined if not abolished. “Sex focused on procreation and family is the repressive weapon of bourgeois capitalist society. And free love and untrammeled sexual experimentation are a central part of the revolutionary liberation of society” (p. 248). So away with whatever diffuses or diminishes the joy of sex! The message of sexual freedom must be trumpeted in the media and inculcated in the schools, beginning in elementary schools, where homosexual behaviors are endorsed and “homophobia” damned. In sum, Trueman says: “To follow Rousseau is to make identity psychological. To follow Freud is to make psychology, and thus identity, sexual. To mesh this combination with Marx is to make identity—and therefore sex—political. And, at the risk of offering a truism, the politics that is produced thereby has a distinctive character precisely because the reality that it thinks it is addressing is at base a psychological one. To transform society politically, then, one must transform society sexually and psychologically, a point that places psychological categories at the heart of revolutionary political discourse” (p. 250).
To illustrate the power of this transformation Trueman points to a series of United States Supreme Court decisions. “Perhaps the most obvious example of this shift is the 2015 majority ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which found a right to gay marriage in the Constitution. This decision captures the spirit of our age in numerous ways, given that it reflects changing attitudes to sex and marriage” (p. 302). The court was not really issuing a novel theory but in simply following through the logic of earlier decisions, giving “legal status to a subjective and plastic notion of what it means to be a human. . . . . The key passage reads as follows: ‘At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.’ This is a concise articulation of the expressive individualism and psychological subjectivity regarding the self that we have traced in its development from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the present day” (p. 304).
The judicial precepts evident in Supreme Court rulings jibe easily with the philosophical ethics of Princeton’s Peter Singer, considered by some to be the most influential ethicist in the world. In his advocacy of a radical version of animal rights and a defender of infanticide as merely an advanced version of abortion, “Singer is a modern version of Friedrich Nietzsche’s madman, demanding that the polite liberals of his day face up to the dramatic implications of the death of the Christian way of imagining the world” (p. 316). Singer asserts there is a rational distinction between a human being and a person—and only persons have rights. Upon reaching a certain stage of maturity (i.e. having a consciousness of the past and present and capable of thinking) one transitions from a human being to a person. Thus, he says, we should give “‘the life of a fetus no greater value than the life of a nonhuman animal at a similar level of rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel, etc.’” (p. 321)
To further illustrate this cultural shift Trueman turns to his own academic discipline: history. Sifting through the current curriculum offered by Harvard University’s Department of History, for example, one finds nothing available on the Reformation or Renaissance and only one course covering European history from 1450-1789. What’s now studied at Harvard is politically-based, not tradition-prescribed (since it was shaped by dead, white, Western, heterosexual males). “Porn, feminism, colonial violence, racism, and minority histories are all prominent, even as the Reformation and the Renaissance are not” (p 335). As Philip Rieff constantly stressed, in My Life Among the Deathworks, there is a profound anti-culture in contemporary culture manifestly evident in its rejection of history. As he said: “‘Forgetfulness is now the curricular form of our higher education.’ That, he says, guarantees that this generation will be the first of the new barbarism, committed to the denigration, destruction, and erasure of the past—not only its artifacts but also its values and social practices” (p. 338).
To further demonstrate the pervasiveness of the anti-culture, Trueman could have perused transformations in architecture, profanity-laced political rhetoric, or rap music. To focus on any of these phenomena “from a Rieffian perspective, what this present age represents is an anti-culture, a repudiation of the various regulations and regulative practices that characterized Western society until recently—particularly, though not exclusively, in the realm of sexual ethics. Behind this repudiation lies a deeper rejection, that of any and every sacred order on which they might be grounded, whether it be that provided by a formal religion, such as Christianity, or a commitment to some broader philosophical metaphysics, such as that found in Immanuel Kant. The result is a world that has accepted the challenge of Nietzsche’s madman, to remake value and meaning in the wake of the death—indeed, the killing—of the Christian God, or, indeed, of any god. The repudiation not only of history but of any authority that might pose a challenge to the present—even the authority of physically determined sex in favor of the fluid concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity—is something that marks all the areas on which I have touched in this last section” (p. 381).
Concluding his treatise, Truman considers the Christian’s quandary in the face of such cultural chaos. There are no easy answers, and churches are frequently more participants in the dominant fads than witnesses opposing them. But we must realize that the Christian Faith is distinctly doctrinal, and the current fascination with social justice or congenial worship or welcoming environments must be replaced by strong, biblical, doctrinal teaching. Then too the churches must identify themselves as distinctive communities of faith, willing to depart from and frequently defy the sinful world. Finally, Protestants especially “need to recover both natural law and a high view of the physical body,” something God-given and fixed by creation (p. 405). All talk about choosing one’s gender must be challenged, all support of same-sex unions must be opposed. “A recovery of a biblical understanding of embodiment is vital. And closely allied with this is the fact that the church must maintain its commitment to biblical sexual morality, whatever the social cost might be” (p. 406).
Few current books better enable readers to grasp what’s taking place around us. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self merits serious study and response.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
An analyis similar to Truman’s is Anthony Esolen’s Sex and the Unreal City: The Demolition of the Western Mind (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 2020). He too sees the modern transgender movement as a sign of deep mental and moral confusion, signaling souls adrift on a sea of unreality. Men are born men and women are born women, and “there are well over six thousand physical differences between males and females, and all the surgeries can do is to mimic some appearance of the opposite sex, such as make chin hair grow on females or swell the breasts of males with fat” (p. 47). Pretending to change one’s “gender” flies in the face of all that’s Real! Allowing boys claiming to be girls to compete in women’s athletics is the height of madness! Pretending same-sex partners make a “marriage,” which necessarily means a man and woman capable of procreating children, is to deny a fundamental truth of creation.
While writing the book Esolen became increasingly distressed at the apparently “bottomless crater” of such unreality. Along with Solzhenitsyn he understands this as a result of forgetting God and denying man’s true nature, for: “Man is made for faith: he is homo credens. If he does not believe in God, he will turn straightaway to some idol, a stock or stone, himself, the state, sex—something stupid, salacious, or malignant, like a cancer. Man without faith becomes credulous” (p. 34). Consequently: “We dwell in Unreal City. We all dwell there. We have all been dulled and deadened by the unreal. But if God is real, then to turn away from God is to leap into unreality, and that is pretty much the definition of evil” (p. 6). This turning away began in the Garden of Eden, when Adam ad Eve fell by believing a lie, succumbing to the tempting words “you shall be as gods.” Ever after, fallen men have been trapped: “We want to believe that our words can alter reality: we want to believe that we can, by linguistic magic, negate the Word through whom all things were made, and the things themselves. . . . . Hence the battle in our day is theological, whether we wish to admit it or not. If a man claims to be a woman, which he can never be, and demands to be addressed as such, he is not merely asking for right etiquette. He is demanding that we enter his delusion, or his lie. It is not true. He is demanding that believers in God fall in worship of an idol. Some idols are hideous, like Moloch, and some are beautiful, like Dionysus. The Hebrew prophets did not care. They did not condemn the idols for their style. They condemned them for being false” (p. 29).
Falsity distinguishes much modern discourse wherever it insists we construct reality in our minds rather than encounter it apart from them. To call a dog a cat is a false statement, for there is a particularity to a species. God made all things “according to their kind” and man cannot alter that hard factuality. To argue otherwise leads to a philosophical nominalism as old as mankind, denying that words are rooted in actual things. “Nomina sunt consequentia rerum, went the old medieval wisdom: Names are consequent upon the things they name” (p. 39). In naming creatures, Adam discerned their essence, the form indwelling them. Just as there is a fixity to species, so too there is a fixity to history. But in the Unreal City history proves as malleable as sexual identity. The past is what we want or will it to be. Forgetting the past follows forgetting God. Rewriting history, as does the New York Times’ 1619 Project, allows practitioners to ratify their feelings or construct utopias. But “the past is the unalterable record of man. It shows us what human nature is” (p. 61). Rightly understanding human nature enables one to discern the natural law, wherein good and evil are objective realities. This law points to a Lawgiver. Lacking Him, “the state comes to fill the void, and what is ‘right’ will be determined by those who shout the loudest, or who have the most money, or who fill the positions of greatest prominence and prestige. Moral argument collapses, and people shout, ‘It’s right because I say so!’ It is the suasion of the gun” (p. 62). “The greatest aberration of the mind,” said Louis Pasteur, is to believe a thing to be, because we desire it.” Thus, said Confucious, the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper names. So too, said Jesus, “Let your yes be yes, and your no, no.” And that’s precisely what’s not done in the Unreal City of modernity.
The great conservative scholar Richard Weaver, in Ideas Have Consequences, not only identified nominalism as the corrosive factor destroying our culture but suggested that as a result we are looking through a stereoptican, seeing three dimensional pictures rather than Reality. With it you could pretend travel around the world, simply looking through a clever device. Similarly, rather than looking for God we easily construct idols to admire and worship. To Weaver: “Mass media, the Great Stereopticon, is . . . a vast and astonishingly productive industry of idols, of flashes upon the screen, so easy to look upon, so mesmerizing in their effect, that by contrast the woodcut designs that decorated old books were as a drop in the comprehensive ocean of visual flagella that now whip and sting us and will not let us be. Until our time, an idol was a phantasm, an untruth” (p. 75). In the pervasive political rhetoric of today, propaganda indwells the media stereopticon, creating a fictitious world designed to incite passionate fanaticism. Without roots in Reality we’re easily swayed by our fears to follow whatever propagandist seems alluring as he promotes his Unreal City.
Repeatedly Esolen returns to the issue of abortion—a premeditated, murderous act that denies the personhood of a living human being. That our cultural elties—many of them clergy—now celebrate rather than lament (much less oppose) it, reveals the depths of the devious discourse and fantasy metaphysics that afflict us. It is only one, but a major one, of the indices showing how we have rebelled agains God and His creation.
To return to God is our only hope, though that recovery will doubtlessly need be done by coming generations, finding their way out of the culture of death we’ve embraced