The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self:
Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution
by carl r. trueman
crossway, 432 pages, $35
One of the most remarkable features of our society is its blithe dismissal of tradition. Religious practices that have long shaped our social and political life are held in contempt. Time-tested convictions that guided generations before us are not just second-guessed but mocked and denounced. It is easy to furnish examples: sexual union as a sacred reflection of the relationship between God and his people; marriage as the committed, lifelong union between husband and wife; children as a key purpose of marriage. Western culture used to treat each of these as foundational to our common life. They have all been toppled—not by a narrow conspiracy, but by a broad, bipartisan process. Ronald Reagan’s introduction of no-fault divorce in California in 1970 is exemplary.
Gay marriage took several decades to gain acceptance. As recently as 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was introduced by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Around the same time, the next Democratic president, Barack Obama, stated that he was “undecided” on the question of gay marriage. Not until the end of Obama’s tenure would gay marriage become a right guaranteed by the Constitution. But transgenderism has gone mainstream in just the past few years, with objectors apparently engaged in a rearguard action. Not only have traditional sexual mores lost their hegemonic place, but the elites of our culture treat them as irrational, oppressive, and dangerous.
In his classic book Christ and Culture (1951), the Reformed theologian H. Richard Niebuhr defined culture in terms of four characteristics. Cultures are social—they are a heritage that people receive and transmit. Cultures are a human achievement—they are the result of laborious efforts in the past. Cultures are a world of values—they are always concerned to realize and conserve shared values. And cultures are pluralist—people discuss and disagree among one another about the nature of these values. It is fair to say that our society has become indifferent or hostile to the first three characteristics, while rhetorically doubling down on pluralism (though, in fact, our elites’ views on sexual morality are markedly uniform—they seek to accommodate and promote individual desire as the greatest social good).
Carl R. Trueman, another Reformed scholar, does not mention Niebuhr in his latest book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. I suspect, though, that he would largely agree. He employs Philip Rieff’s notion of anti-culture to describe a society that repudiates a transcendent, sacred order as undergirding people’s basic moral convictions and practices. A fundamentally anti-traditional or anti-historical attitude pervades today’s anti-culture, Trueman claims, following Rieff. Its iconoclastic character means that to use the phrase “Western culture” at all is increasingly nonsensical.
Why is the LGBTQ+ movement not satisfied with being tolerated? Why does it insist that homosexuality be affirmed as a good thing? The answer lies in what Rieff calls the therapeutic mindset: The psychological self is deliberately iconoclastic with regard to traditional morality, because it regards harm and hate primarily as psychological categories. (Hence the sudden rise of the category of hate crimes.) Whereas earlier cultures might have regarded identity in political, religious, or economic terms, our therapeutic culture views the self as primarily psychological—and so it will penalize transgressions against people’s inner state of happiness. To refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple is viewed as rejecting the happiness they are entitled to as persons.
Or, again, how is it that the unstable T of transgenderism has managed to secure a place within the LGBTQ+ acronym, despite the fact that stable genders are assumed by both the L and the G, as well as by traditional feminism? Trueman explains that the underlying logic of the sexual revolution demands the inclusion of the T: The repudiation of metaphysics, of history, and of identity formation through imitation of acceptable cultural mores, as well as the triumph of the therapeutic, all imply a rejection of key traditional cultural elements. We have arrived at Rieff’s anti-culture. Trueman rightly recognizes that the T was unavoidable: “The root-and-branch nature of this revolution should not be underestimated: it seeks not simply to expand traditional moral categories but to demonize and destroy them.” Trueman’s careful tracing of the intellectual origin of the sexual revolution supports this stark conclusion.
At times, Trueman resorts to the rhetoric of lament and polemic, despite his explicit and repeated disavowal of such strategies. He refers to Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber’s notion of “ethically sourced pornography” as “sheer stupidity” and describes our culture as a “crude, vulgar society.” He mocks the “rebarbative” writing of poststructuralists, excusing the reader for not grasping Judith Butler’s prose even on the fifteenth reading.
Mostly, though, Trueman avoids displays of passion. Doing so is essential to the success of his argument. As Trueman notes, emotivism and expressive individualism have overtaken public discourse. Our elites speak unreasonably while casting their opponents as the enemies of reason. For example, in its 2013 Windsor decision, the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court claimed that the traditional view of marriage has no rational basis. Dispassionate argument is the best way to refute these claims.
Despite the occasional rhetorical lapses, the argument as a whole is solid and convincing. The book is structured in four parts. In the first, Trueman describes the modern reimagination of the self as a change from mimesis (objective imitation) to poiesis (subjective constructivism) in modernity: We no longer want to follow nature but instead insist on shaping it according to our own desires. Modernity, explains Trueman, has witnessed the rise of psychological man defined by an inward quest for personal, psychological happiness. And Trueman employs Rieff’s notion of third worlds—cultures such as ours, which do not ground their moral imperatives in anything sacred—as well as Taylor’s notion of the immanent frame and MacIntyre’s idea of emotivism to explain the changing sexual mores of our society.
In the second part, Trueman then turns to specific philosophical sources that shape the basic convictions that undergird our society. He offers an excellent discussion of Rousseau’s notion that the social order, rather than the nature of the individual, is the source of inauthenticity. The reader might not have expected a chapter on the Romantics, but Trueman’s discussion of Godwin’s, Shelley’s, and Blake’s calls for a sexual and irreligious revolution helps us understand the focus on sexuality (and freedom) as integral to the modern self. The chapter on Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin is less persuasive. Marx seems to me an unlikely progenitor of the plastic self (considering his scientific understanding of human development), and the discussion of Darwin is too brief to establish a possible link between evolutionism and modern plasticity.
By the time we arrive at the third part of the book, the broader philosophical background to the sexual revolution is in place, and Trueman discusses Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse, and Simone de Beauvoir as key theorists behind the sexual revolution. Though the specifics of Freud’s theories may be largely discarded today, Trueman rightly highlights the cultural significance of his sexualizing of human identity (including the identity of children), particularly once Reich’s and Marcuse’s neo-Marxism placed overcoming society’s sexual repression and domination at the center of their calls for political liberation.
The final part of the book recounts the actual triumph of the erotic (in surrealist art and the mainstreaming of pornification); of the therapeutic (as witnessed in the Supreme Court judgments leading up to the 2015 case Obergefell v. Hodges, in Peter Singer’s focus on the psychological impact of infanticide, and in universities’ rejection of free speech and undermining of traditional curricula); and of transgenderism (which Trueman sketches against the backdrop of the 1969 Stonewall riots and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s).
Trueman is not only a careful historian; he is also an excellent writer. The four parts of the book are carefully integrated. In his discussion of Taylor, Rieff, and MacIntyre, Trueman looks ahead to the final chapter, in which he will deal with the repercussions of their views for sexual identity and politics. And as he proceeds, Trueman incorporates earlier foundational material into the topic at hand. Those who work their way through the more than four hundred pages of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self will not be disappointed: Trueman never engages in arcane, in-house, academic debates, keeps his footnotes to a minimum, and lucidly sketches the intellectual currents that have given rise to the present state of affairs.
It is difficult to predict where the unravelling of sexual morality will end. Trueman is cautious when it comes to polygamy, pedophilia, and zoophilia—though he notes an incipient loosening of the cultural interdict against pedophilia, which likely has to do with the fact that ever since Freud and Reich we have extended sexuality (and the politics of sex) to children, as is increasingly evidenced in SOGI curricula. It also is due in part to the insufficiency of consent as a basis for sexual ethics. After all, we immunize children and make them eat their vegetables without their consent. Some firmer basis is needed for the prohibition of pedophilia.
None of this is to say that the triumph of the erotic, of the therapeutic, and of transgenderism will last. As Trueman notes, drawing again on Rieff, cultures that repudiate any sacred grounding for their moral judgments are inherently unstable, since they have no source or rationale for their judgments beyond people’s inner, emotive desires and preferences. “No culture or society,” writes Trueman, “that has had to justify itself by itself has ever maintained itself for any length of time.” I am inclined to agree, particularly since instability is not the accidental outcome but the very aim of today’s (sexual) identity politics.
It is too early to tell what will replace this instability. The telltale signs—political crudeness on the populist right and mass indoctrination by the New Left media—point to a totalitarian future. What this would mean in terms of sexual identity and politics, I do not claim to know. But the generation that is headed for this future and wants to prepare for it could do worse than by reading Carl Trueman’s treatise on the modern self.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.