The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution
By Carl R. Trueman. Crossway Books, 2020. 432 pages

Carl R. Trueman is a church historian, professor of biblical and religious studies at a conservative Christian College in Pennsylvania and an established writer. Trueman presents the genesis of this book very simply in the book’s opening line: “The origins of this book lie in my curiosity about how and why a particular statement has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful: ‘I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.’”

Only a short time ago very few people would have been greatly perplexed by such a statement, and yet it has become normalised. Trueman seeks to show how it is that society has arrived at a point where such a statement can be taken seriously. It is common knowledge that the proximate origins of transgenderism lie in the sexual revolution of the 1960s, but Trueman is of the conviction that the sexual revolution of the 1960s alone is insufficient to explain our cultural malaise. Rather, “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 by understanding the causes of the “revolution of the self” that we will “understand the dynamics of the sexual politics that now dominate our culture”. This leads him to trace its genesis much further back, to our culture’s pathological turn towards “inwardness” beginning in the Enlightenment with Rousseau, and from there through the Romantics, Freud and the New Left.

Architecture of the Revolution

The work is divided into four sections. In the first section of the book, “Architecture of the Revolution”, Trueman presents key concepts from the work of three recent or contemporary philosophers who shape a great deal of his own thought. These core concepts are tools which allow Trueman to analyse and understand the “architecture” of the sexual revolution.

In the first place there is the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, author of Sources of the Self (1989) and A Secular Age (2007). He has worked on the concept of “the social imaginary”: the largely unconscious set of intuitions and practices which shape a society’s understanding of the world, and so of what a society imagines the world to be. Trueman wishes to explore how the social imaginary of contemporary society has been shaped by the philosophers and the overall culture since the Enlightenment. He also uses Taylor’s distinction between a mimetic culture (one which broadly speaking sees creatures, and in particular man, as having a defined and objective nature), and a poietic culture (in which man’s creativity is taken to trump any intrinsic nature).

Another key idea which he takes from Taylor’s work, is that of “expressive individualism”. This is the view that the Enlightenment and its successor movement Romanticism have bequeathed us the linked aspirations to radical autonomy on the one hand and (perhaps paradoxically) an expressive unity with nature and society on the other. In the LGBTQ+ movement this “expressive individualism” translates into the premium placed on one’s right on the one hand, to define one’s own identity and on the other hand to embrace a wider moral structure which extols victimhood. For Trueman, Taylor’s contributions on the nature of self and the “the social imaginary,” “allow for answers to the question of why certain identities (e.g., LGBTQ+) enjoy great cachet today while others (e.g. religious conservatives) are increasingly marginalized”.

The second philosopher he draws from is Philip Rieff, who I have to admit I’d never heard of before, much less read. Rieff (1922-2006) was an American sociologist and cultural critic, whose concepts such as the triumph of the therapeutic, psychological man, the anti-culture, and deathworks are used extensively by Trueman. For Rieff we are living in a “Third World” by which he means a culture which rejects the traditional sacred foundations of social order and moral imperatives and adopts instead only self-referential foundations. (Sacred foundations are found in the “First World” of antiquity, and in the “Second World” – primarily the Christian West).

In this Third World the only criterion for ethical action is whether an act conduces to the feeling of well-being. This over-riding need for well-being of necessity produces a therapeutic culture.

For Trueman, “The triumph of the therapeutic represents the advent of the expressive individual as the normative type of human being and of the relativizing of all meaning and truth to personal taste.”

The third philosopher he uses is the Scot Alasdair MacIntyre, whose critique of emotivist ethics contained in his influential 1981 work After Virtue ties in very well with the findings of Taylor and Rieff.

MacIntyre convincingly shows that modern ethical discourse is in relativist chaos because it has rejected the two concepts without which there can be no ethics: virtue and tradition. As a consequence, “the language of morality as now used is really nothing more than the language of personal preference based on nothing more rational or objective than sentiments and feelings.”

And so, when push comes to shove, something is wrong because that’s the way I feel about it. For Trueman, “These insights are extremely helpful in understanding both the fruitless nature and the extreme polarizing rhetoric of many of the great moral debates of our time, not least those surrounding matters of sex and identity.”

Foundations of the Revolution

The second section of the book –“Foundations of the Revolution” – takes the reader through the thought of influential theorists and writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, beginning with the strange radical Enlightenment figure Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His focus on the inward psychological life and the baneful influence of society and culture on the self has become a commonplace today. “It should … be clear that some such construction of freedom and selfhood as that offered by Rousseau is at work in the modern transgender movement.”

Unexpectedly – for me at least – the Romantics Wordsworth, Shelley and Blake turn out also to be highly influential in the fashioning of the Western notion of the self. Where they fit in is through their expressivism and in this they are faithful followers of Rousseau: the problem is civilisation and the solution is nature. It is the job of the artist to transform society, releasing it from the shackles of social conventions in general and sexual social conventions in particular.

Top of the target list is the normative status of lifelong, monogamous marriage. “While he would no doubt have retched at the thought, William Wordsworth stands near the head of a path that leads to Hugh Hefner and Kim Kardashian.”

Finally we come to the “emergence of plastic people” – the idea that “man can make and remake personal identity at will”, eliminating the traditional conception of a human nature which authoritatively defines what we are. This of course is something we have become all too familiar with in the 21st Century, but are we aware of the origins of this Promethean view in Nietzsche, Marx, Freud and Darwin?

Nietzsche was the one who ingeniously exposed polite bourgeois Enlightenment morality for a murder of God. He always took this murder to the logical conclusion that man’s task is self-creation. Similarly for Marx, human nature is a plastic thing, moulded in his view by the economic structure of society.

Finally, Darwin’s contribution to the 19th Century’s destruction of the idea of human nature was to remove the concept of teleology from nature and replace it with a process of blind and accidental adaptations over vast periods of time. The upshot of these theories is that: “the world in itself has no meaning; meaning and significance can thus be given to it only by the actions of human beings…”.

This is Taylor’s movement from mimesis to poiesis: “If society/culture is merely a construct, and if nature possesses no intrinsic meaning or purpose, then what meaning there is must be created by human beings themselves.”

Sexualization of the Revolution

Part 3, “Sexualization of the Revolution” explores Sigmund Freud’s pivotal role in sexualising psychology and how this sexualised psychology was in turn politicised in a Marxist direction by Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse. Freud, says Trueman, is “arguably the key figure in the narrative of this book”. His influence went way beyond the realm of psychoanalysis, and into other areas such as art, literature and advertising.

Freud’s great myth is that man’s quest for happiness is of necessity a quest for sexual satisfaction: “The purpose of life, and the content of the good life, is personal sexual fulfilment.” Civilisation with its restrictive moral codes – in a Rousseauian fashion – stands in the way of his fulfilled sexual desires, and so the individual must make a trade off: allowing some of their individual desires to go unfulfilled in exchange for socially organised security.

The curbing of sexual desire is what makes society possible, though at the expense of a certain degree of individual discontentment; other non-sexual avenues such as religion or art are pursued to redress the non-fulfilment of sexual desires. For Freud the two great problems in education were the “retardation of sexual development and premature religious experience” reflecting not only his sexualised concept of the person but also his deep animus towards religion.

Trueman follows this with a discussion of “the shotgun wedding of Marx and Freud”: that is the Marxist spin put on Freud’s sexualising of psychology. The two most important thinkers in this regard are the eccentric Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse.

For Reich, writing in the 1930s and 1940s, “sexual codes are part of the ideology of the governing class, designed to maintain the status quo so as to benefit those in power”, namely the authoritarian patriarchy and the sex-negating church. The primary political enemy is the patriarchal family, and the sexuality of children is the means to undermine the family.

Marcuse was a product of the Frankfurt School and his writings in the 1950s and 1960s were standard fare for the student revolutionaries of 1968. For Marcuse sexual codes are foundational to the structure of society, and so “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.” Incidentally in Marcuse we find a remarkable justification for the imposition of “rigid restrictions” on free speech, and in this he is certainly a precursor of the contemporary cancel culture.

Trueman also considers the role played by Simone de Beauvoir’s radical feminism in reducing sex to a social construct, and biology to a tyranny.

Triumphs of the Revolution

In the fourth and final part of the book, “Triumphs of the Revolution”, Trueman now goes on to show how our modern Western culture is to a large degree the child of the of the philosophical currents outlined in the previous two parts of the book. He looks at how these currents of thought have triumphed in three areas: the erotic, the therapeutic and transgender.

Firstly, he shows how art – especially (following the thought of philosopher Augusto Del Noce) the surrealist movement – became eroticised; and how mainstream culture has been gradually pornified since the early 1970s. The consequences of pornography have been profound: “Pornography and the pornification of pop culture has been critical to the destruction of sexual norms, to the reinforcement of an expressive individualist view of selfhood, and to the transformation of the West.”

Secondly the therapeutic view of man is reflected in the legal changes (in the US) regarding the definition of marriage, and abortion rights – both of which are articulations of expressive individualism where it is the right of persons “to define their own concept of existence” (in the infamous words of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy).

Its clearest exponent today is perhaps the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer. He rejects traditional liberal arguments for abortion as unsound. He refuses to use notions based on human essence or human exceptionalism. Instead, he grounds all moral debate entirely on psychological well-being, and in this he is emblematic of the triumph of the therapeutic.

This same therapeutic mentality is to be found also on the university campus in its greatly altered evaluation of the past: where once academia viewed the past as a source of wisdom now it is a tale of oppression: “Denying free speech on campus is simply an extension of seeing all history as a hegemonic discourse designed to keep the powerful in power and to marginalize and silence the weak.”

Thirdly there is the triumph of transgenderism. Trueman first of all discusses the forced nature of the LGBTQ+ alliance, showing how great social, economic, biological and philosophical differences separate lesbians and gays in particular. Despite this, it was a shared sense of victimhood – a key Marxist category – which finally united these disparate groups.

The transgender dimension fits here as another victim of the socially and politically enforced heterosexual normativity so inimical to a sense of psychological well-being. At the same time the LGBTQ+ movement is built on a fundamental incoherence, for “If gender is a construct, then so are all those categories based on it – heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality.” Nevertheless, what we see in this movement is the most extreme form to date of the triumph of poiesis over mimesis – the triumph of the will over reality.

In conclusion, Trueman sums up by saying that the anti-culture which has been created is “the result of 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.”

Though the LGBTQ+ movement does seek to emphasize the dignity of the individual, it does so on the basis of expressive individualism rather than on any divine or sacred foundation. Furthermore, Trueman warns against defending traditional sexual mores without regard to the overall cultural question. Abortion, divorce, sexual licence, pornography etc are all manifestations of the pathological expressive individualism at the core of the anti-culture.

Trueman suggests that “the church” (by which he means Christians in general) will manage to resist and overcome the anti-culture if it is attentive to three things. Firstly it must be aware that this anti-culture has made huge strides because increasingly people are swung by images, emotions, sympathy and empathy rather than ideas and doctrine. Christians must assert her doctrine but they must do so attractively.

Secondly the church must give witness to genuine community in the face of so many ersatz communities. And thirdly, as Trueman says, “Protestants need to recover both natural law and a high view of the physical body.” We have, he says, a precedent for our current malaise in the plight of persecuted Christians of the 2nd Century. How did they do it? “By existing as a close-knit, doctrinally bounded community that required her members to act consistently with their faith and to be good citizens of the earthly city…”

My only quibble with the book is that Trueman explicitly directs it at Christians. I wonder was this necessary given that perhaps he is inadvertently and unnecessarily shrinking his readership. The arguments in the book are always philosophical, sociological and historical. Faith is not a prerequisite to accepting his arguments. Perhaps the author simply feels (perhaps correctly) that outside of the Christian community he will simply not receive a hearing for arguments which run so counter to current sexual mores.

However, the book scores very highly under number of headings. In the first place the question the book sets out to answer is a question any thinking person must be asking themselves in the face of the worldwide triumph of the LGBTQ+ movement: How did we get here, and so quickly?

Secondly, Trueman’s conviction that the “acceptance of gay marriage and transgenderism are simply the latest outworking, the most recent symptoms, of deep and long-established cultural pathologies” is a very wise. It strikes me that many of those involved in the so-called “culture wars” do so with at best a very superficial knowledge of the cultural roots of woke ideology, and as a result they take on the appearance of reactionaries. Trueman considers “that giving an accurate account of one’s opponents’ views, however obnoxious one may consider them to be, is vital, and never more so than in our age of cheap Twitter insults and casual slanders.…There is nothing to be gained from refuting a straw man.”

Thirdly, Trueman’s choice of intellectual tools in the insights of Rieff, Taylor and MacIntyre is well made. He adeptly uses the complex intellectual keys they have fashioned in order to understand the intellectual forces which have created the modern notion of the self.

Fourthly, the book completely avoids falling into the kind of lamentation which dominates much conservative and Christian polemic against modernity. This book is, in the words of Rod Dreher, “a sophisticated survey and analysis of cultural history by a sophisticated teacher”.

Fifthly, his prose style is completely lucid throughout, and he very ably synthesises and explains complex philosophical arguments, especially those of Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre. Trueman does the reader a great service in distilling their insights into comprehensible prose and so making their invaluable insights quite accessible.

Finally, though Trueman is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church he is in no way sectarian and is quite happy to make substantial use of very Catholic thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and even John Paul II. (He calls John Paul II’s Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body the best work on the body from a Christian perspective.)

So if, like Trueman, you find yourself asking how is it that our culture accepts as credible that a person can be trapped in the body of the opposite sex, then this book is for you. Incidentally in February 2022, Crossway will publish a shorter, and more accessible work by Trueman on the same topic: Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution.

Fr Gavan Jennings

Rev. Gavan Jennings studied philosophy at University College Dublin, Ireland and the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. He is co-editor of the monthly journal Position Papers. He teaches occasional...