Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution was released on November 15. Trueman recently spoke with associate editor Ramona Tausz about the book, the metaphysics behind the sexual revolution, and the church's place in a society of expressive individualists. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ramona Tausz: In The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, you place the sexual revolution within the context of a larger revolution in how society understands the nature of human selfhood. Conservative Christians often point to the sexual revolution as the cause of our contemporary ills. Why is it important not to stop there?
Carl Trueman: If we simply stop at the sexual revolution, then we will fail to see the historical coherence of the sexual revolution as part of an ongoing development within Western society. That will mislead us as to the depth of the problem (“All we need is to overturn Roe or elect the right man as president”) and also blind us to our own complicity in the problem (“I am happily married and do not condone promiscuity so I am not part of the problem”). In reality, the sexual revolution is one manifestation of the modern notion of the expressive self in which we are all implicated.
The book draws on the thought of Philip Rieff, particularly his concept of “psychological man.”
Rieff saw that the psychologized self of the modern world, the one who places an inner sense of personal well-being at the center of the notion of happiness, really requires that everything change. Institutions, for example, are no longer to be places of formation but rather places of performance, as Yuval Levin has often pointed out. We do not go to school to learn but to be made to feel better about ourselves. Hence the concerns about micro-aggressions, the talk of “safe spaces” and “feeling threatened” when merely exposed to ideas with which one might disagree.
What is the “anticulture”?
This is Rieff’s term for the world in which we now live. Typically, cultures are in the game of transmitting values from the past to the present. We now live at a time where those who typically perform this task—teachers, politicians, artists, etc.—are actively engaged in erasing or shattering the values of the past. Such a “culture” is, in Rieff’s opinion, an anticulture because of this reversed role of the officer class. And it is inherently unstable, given that negation is part of its very essence.
You end your fourth chapter, on the nineteenth-century Romantic poets, with a provocative line: “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.” What role do Blake, Shelley, and Wordsworth play in the evolution of the modern self?
In their individual ways they each hold to the notion that man is born free and yet corrupted by society and its mores and must therefore recover that inner voice of nature in order to be authentic. And art in all of its forms—poetry, painting, music—is a means by which the poet can help his audience reconnect with that inner voice. Here they touch on something very important: Aesthetic experience does shape our moral sense, how we imagine the moral order. Today it is pop culture that shapes that moral sense.
Why did our society accept transgender ideology as dogma so quickly?
Because the basic underlying elements that make it plausible were already in place in Western culture: a priority on inner feelings relative to identity; a view of the body as instrumental to that identity, not fundamentally constitutive of it; and the priority of personal freedom and happiness as supreme goods. Add to this the fact that technology makes the distinction between the sexes both less significant in the workplace (by reducing the importance of physical strength) and offers medical and surgical ways of manipulating the body, and the moral and technical plausibility of the idea is in place. All that is needed is a high-profile, sympathetic media figure: Bruce Jenner.
As today’s debates between feminists and transgender activists suggest, the T in the LGBT alliance has serious differences with the LGB; in the book, you note that the L also has serious differences with the G. How does this, as you write, reveal “the inherent instability of the broader project of the sexual revolution”?
The L, G, and B, unlike the T, share a basic commitment to the male-female sex binary. But lesbians and gays have necessarily different relationships to wider society. According to feminists, men have historically enjoyed “male privilege,” and so their social and political experience of what it is to be gay is necessarily different than that of a lesbian. What brought them together in a political alliance was AIDS: Gay men were suddenly victims. Given the triumph of the LGBTQ+ movement, the question is: Once the status of marginalized victim no longer applies to its constituent elements, what will hold the alliance together? Very little, one could argue.
Any predictions about the future of transgenderism?
I suspect transgenderism is taking on too many enemies—including nature itself—to have a long-term future. If it were to triumph, women’s sports would be finished, feminism would be meaningless, parental rights would be all but dead, female prisoners would be vulnerable. The list goes on. Of course, that is not to say that all those things might not be considered a price worth paying by our ruling elites. But I also suspect that, in decades to come, children whose parents used them as trendy medical experiments for their own political purposes may well sue those same parents, the doctors who prescribed the hormones or performed the surgeries, and the insurance companies who funded the whole process. And that might also bring this to an end, though only after massive human suffering.
If you had to wager a guess: What will be the next frontier in the sexual revolution?
Probably incest. If the moral value of sexual acts is not intrinsic but rests simply on the matter of consent (which is essentially the current legal position and cultural attitude), then there is really no reason to forbid a consensual relationship between a parent and an adult child or between two adult siblings.
What should the church be doing in this anticulture?
The church needs to be the church. Focus on the means of grace—for a Presbyterian like me, that means corporate worship marked by faithful preaching and administration of the sacraments. Our strength is spiritual, not political. But we also need to be a true community. At a time when traditional means of community are in freefall, people still need to be loved and to belong. And if we are not a community, marked by a clear creed, vibrant worship, and a distinctive and loving way of life, we will be swept away in the cultural changes that are already upon us.
How did you settle on the title? What were some of the discarded options?
I had originally wanted to call the book Christianity and Its Discontents, as an homage to, and play upon, the title of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, a work I consider central to the modern age. But, as my editor gently commented, Christianity and its discontents are not really the central focus of the book. In fact, the book does not really mention the latter at all, and so I had to go for a more prosaic, but nonetheless more accurate, title.
Is there a figure you wish you could have addressed in the book but had to leave out?
Oscar Wilde. I mention him briefly, but he really merits a chapter to himself. A sexual rebel, a narcissist, a man whose life was simply one long public performance, he was a great harbinger of who we are today. I am already working on a shorter, popular study of the same issues, in which I will give him his due. I’m very tempted to pay my respects to the rock band Steppenwolf in the title of that chapter, because in an era dominated by sexual adventurism and life-as-performance social media, the normative person today is indeed “Born to be Wilde.”
Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College.
Ramona Tausz is associate editor of First Things.
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