A summary and review of Carl R. Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism and the Road to Sexual Revolution.
It is bewildering just how quickly sexual morals have shifted, especially in recent years. Only yesterday it seems we were voting on same-sex marriage, and now transgenderism is front and centre. Especially surprising is just how political sex has become.
In a climate like this, we are tempted to cast blame on certain individuals and groups, whether in the political or celebrity world. Such characters of course play their part in the unfolding drama. But what really drives the sexual revolution is unseen, existing in the realm of ideas.
This is the impetus behind Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. This book is not a read-once-and-shelve volume. It is an essential handbook to how we arrived at the modern world — a world in which sex is everything; central to how people think about, value and define themselves. Placing sexuality “at the very heart of what it means to be an authentic human,” writes Trueman, “is a profound claim that is arguably unprecedented in history.” (p. 35)
Rod Dreher, in the foreword, describes Trueman’s tome well: it is “an indispensable guide to how and why men have forgotten God,” in which the author “explains modernity to the church, with depth, clarity, and force” (pp. 12-13).
The book has been greeted with glowing reviews. It will no doubt find its place as a classic among Christian cultural commentaries — not least because of its arrival at such a disorienting moment for the church. Anyone curious about how the next decades will unfold dare not ignore this book.
Trueman begins by musing that his grandfather, who died in 1994, would have scoffed at an idea that modern people find entirely normal — namely, I am a man trapped in a woman’s body (p. 19). It’s not just ivory-tower philosophers who accept this logic now. Our culture is awash with such notions: that gender is malleable, that conviction trumps biology, that self reigns supreme, and that only bigots could disagree. Trueman wants to discover how we got here.
The heartbeat of the book is that the sexual revolution — “the radical and ongoing transformation of sexual attitudes and behaviours that has occurred in the West since the early 1960s” (p. 21) — is a symptom, not a cause, of our present moment. What really changed is the West’s understanding of what a ‘self’ is, and what it means to be an authentic, fulfilled human self. Commenting on the recent breakneck speed of the revolution, Trueman argues that Christians have often failed to realise that,
broader, underlying social and cultural conditions made both gay marriage and then transgender ideology first plausible and then normative and that these conditions have been developing over hundreds of years… [These are] simply the latest outworking, the most recent symptoms, of deep and long-established pathologies. (p. 25).
The Making of the Modern Me
In Part 1, which Trueman dubs the Architecture of the Revolution, he introduces key principles from three “philosophers of the modern condition” — Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre.
As an example, consider Taylor’s concept of ‘expressive individualism’ which appears in the book’s subtitle. Expressive individualism is the way that “each of us finds our meaning by giving expression to our own feelings and desires” (p. 46). The key, Trueman argues, is grasping that this is not how we have always seen ourselves. On the contrary, such “psychological categories and an inward focus are hallmarks of being a modern person.”
The implications of this are profound. For instance, while in the past people “found their purpose and well-being by being committed to something outside themselves” like a church, school or a social club, now these are merely venues for us to express our authentic selves. If we are formed by such institutions at all, we attend them to be “formed by performing” (p. 49). This helps explain our contemporary emphasis on “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” in settings where once upon a time, the entire purpose was to be exposed to uncomfortable truths in order to learn and grow.
Thus, in our tilt towards the therapeutic, it is now not enough for society to tolerate me. The culture “must now serve the purpose of meeting my psychological needs” by recognising and affirming me — even if this means the culture itself must change. To adapt myself to the culture would be to “create anxiety and make me inauthentic”. And so, for many LGBTQ+ people, “It is not enough that I can buy a wedding cake somewhere in town. I must be able to buy a wedding cake from each and every baker in town who ever caters for weddings.” (p. 54).
Trueman is careful never to mock: each step of the way, his purpose is to show just how deeply embedded and intuitive these thoughts are for modern people, even if they remain an enigma to onlookers. Importantly, Trueman notes that “expressive individualism is something that affects us all… we are all expressive individuals now.” (p. 25). He doesn’t let Christians off the hook: according to Trueman, “all of us are to some extent implicated” (p. 29).
Of Poets and Philosophers
In Part 2, Trueman begins his genealogy, tracing where the Foundations of the Revolution began. He locates them earlier than we might expect, in the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). On a tour through his life and writings, Trueman exposes an earth-shattering idea Rousseau introduced to the West: that social institutions breed corruption and wickedness, not human nature (p. 113). To Rousseau, a person’s inner life is the most important thing about them — and society’s great flaw is that it requires people to conform and “be false to who they really are” (p. 115).
The way this belief spread from the minds of intellectuals to the worldview of ordinary people, says Trueman, was through the movement known as Romanticism. Of particular note are three English poets — William Wordsworth (1770-1850), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and William Blake (1757-1827). These men saw it as their role to liberate humanity from oppressive Christian sexual codes, in the belief that this might spark political freedom. “That particular aspect of our current cultural times is not a recent innovation brought about by the sixties,” Trueman quips (p. 158).
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Charles Darwin (1809-1882) are obvious inclusions in Trueman’s genealogy, all of whom further fuel this dark suspicion towards society. Trueman shows that in proclaiming the death of God, Nietzsche also rejected “the notion that human nature is something that has authority over us as individuals” (p. 164). By killing God, Nietzsche also killed the idea that human nature is fixed. Thanks to Nietzsche, we are now ‘plastic people’ — the creators of our own worlds, able to be who or whatever we want to be.
Writing in the heat of the Industrial Revolution, Marx felt that capitalism was upsetting traditional social structures and causing people to live alienated lives. He saw these material conditions as the main driver of history. Dubbing religion “the opium of the people,” Marx believed that Christianity offered false happiness to an unhappy world — and that “the family and the church exist to cultivate, reinforce and perpetuate” that sad status quo (p. 191). His solution, which we have inherited, is “the abolition of the prepolitical,” causing us to see every aspect of life — even kindergarten or Girl Scouts — as political because of its connection to the economic structure of society.
Trueman explains that in Nietzsche and Marx, “the foundations have also been laid for an iconoclastic view of the past — for seeing history as a tale of oppression and for making its victims into the real heroes of the narrative.” (p. 28). Living in the same era, Darwin cast off the idea that nature has any built-in meaning or that human beings have any special significance in the universe. In summary, says Trueman, “these three effectively strip away the metaphysical foundations for both human identity and for morality, leaving the latter… a matter of mere taste and manipulative power games.” (p. 27).
How Sex Won the Day
In Part 3, Trueman examines the Sexualisation of the Revolution. Enter Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), whom Trueman singles out as “the key figure in the narrative of this book”. Today, Freud’s theories have been widely discredited, Trueman concedes — but Freud’s genius was to write “in a scientific idiom that carries theoretical power in this modern age” (p. 202). As such, his fingerprints can today be seen everywhere — whether university lecture halls, art galleries or television commercials.
Freud’s contributions were at least twofold. First, he turned sex from an activity to a fundamental characteristic of human identity. Freud saw happiness as the goal of human existence — but he gave happiness “a specifically sexual turn in identifying it with genital pleasure”. (p. 204) The omnipresence of sex today and its central role in our pursuit of ‘the good life’, says Trueman, we owe to Freud.
Another is what Freud saw as a trade-off between sexual freedom and civilisation. According to Freud, civilisation is, by definition, only possible when we suppress our dark, irrational sexual desires. The result is that we can never be truly happy and content — though science, art, religion, alcohol and drugs can be variously “useful in ameliorating the pain that the trade-off between happiness and civilization requires” (p. 221).
The real shift took place, though, when Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) and Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) married the ideas of Marx and Freud in a ‘shotgun wedding’. Like many Marxists, they lamented that the workers weren’t rising up; the revolution didn’t spark as Marx had predicted. Viewing Marx’s oppression through the lens of Freud’s sexual repression, they saw that it was sexual taboos, not just economic woes, that held the masses in their chains. Thus, the patriarchal family, heterosexual norms, and even free speech were harmful shams — tools of the repressive state and the authoritarian culture that served the interests of those in power.
Under this logic, political freedom depends on sexual freedom. “Free love and untrammelled sexual experimentation are a central part of the revolutionary liberation of society.” (p. 248). Moreover, “modesty and sexual codes do not need to be merely expanded or redefined; for humans to be truly liberated and truly human, they need to be abolished altogether.” (p. 263). This is why sex is no longer private: it is public and political because it holds the individual’s identity back. Today, critical theory and the New Left owe everything to these men.
Everything is Political Now
In Part 4, Trueman documents the Triumphs of the Revolution. Sex now grips the popular imagination, and the roll call of names above were key to that triumph. But how did the revolution spread from poets, philosophers and psychoanalysts to everyday people? Trueman acknowledges that this is a complicated story involving two global wars, birth control technologies, the internet, and more. But he pinpoints two factors especially that acted as a bridge: Surrealism and the mainstreaming of pornography.
Surrealism was a school of artistic expression, inspired by Freud, that emphasised desire, dreams and the unconscious as a solution to the problems of life. “The glorification of sexual desire… was at the very centre of the surrealist political project,” explains Trueman (pp. 276-277). More than any modernist movement, Surrealism normalised all things erotic, turning “the sexually radical politics of the twentieth century into a popular art form” (p. 280). And its purpose, he contends, was “profoundly and aggressively political: to overthrow Christianity”.
While Surrealism was fashionable in high culture, pornography is how sex spread through pop culture. Hugh Hefner and his Playboy magazine played a key role in removing the social stigma of pornography, argues Trueman, by “its combination of titillating photographs and serious interviews” with artists, movie stars, philosophers and more (p. 281). With the advent of the internet, the stigma of being seen buying a magazine or visiting a seedy cinema was removed. Hardcore pornography can now be accessed from anywhere on earth, and even what’s seen in mainstream movies and magazines makes the Playboy of yesteryear seem tame by comparison. The sexual themes that now saturate sitcoms and pop music testify to the total undoing of sexual norms.
But this is about so much more than sex, Trueman maintains: it is about identity and the broader revolution of the self. Trueman surveys three recent developments that highlight this. One was the U.S. Supreme Court discovering, in 2015, the right to gay marriage in the Constitution. He traces this back through decades of earlier rulings that reflected changing attitudes towards sex and marriage, and that were based in emotivism and contemporary tastes. Judges are human beings too, says Trueman, and their rulings can’t help but reflect the therapeutic concerns of wider society.
A second is the ethics of Peter Singer, known for his advocacy of abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. Though he remains ahead of contemporary social tastes on these issues, Singer deserves our attention because he is unafraid to take his worldview to its logical endpoint. Notably, the limits Singer does prescribe on the intentional killing of the unborn, children and the elderly are not based on the intrinsic value of these souls — for that would depend on a Christian framework — but on the personal happiness of the parents and other family members who have enough self-consciousness to qualify as ‘persons’.
A third is a transformed culture of higher education — in particular, recent debates on college campuses about free speech. In the past, freedom of speech was an unquestioned good. But as Trueman documents, it is increasingly being seen as detrimental to society. And this is entirely logical if we have followed his argument thus far: a new view of selfhood comes with a new view of what an ‘assault’ on the self can include. Damage is no longer just physical but psychological. Now, ideas can be harmful; even violent. This is all part of the triumph of the therapeutic.
In his concluding chapters, Trueman turns to one major instability of the sexual revolution: transgenderism. He surveys the history of the LGBTQ+ movement and argues that the union of these assorted letters “is not the result of any intrinsic affinities shared by its component parties but an alliance of historical and political convenience rooted in a shared sexual iconoclasm.” (p. 28). Most notably, the L and G assume the fixed nature of gender, while the T and Q reject biology altogether. And this is no small thing. Trueman highlights the heated debates taking place between feminists today: those who erase gender categories and see identity as almost entirely internal, and those who see the female body as central to the female experience and identity.
These internal contradictions don’t appear to have an easy resolution and only serve as a reminder of the shaky ground upon which the sexual revolution has been established. Indeed, as Trueman summarises,
No culture or society that has had to justify itself by itself has ever maintained itself for any length of time. Such always involves cultural entropy, a degeneration of the culture, because, of course, there really is nothing worth communicating from one generation to the next. (p. 381).
To borrow three phrases from Trueman and sum up how the sexual revolution won: the self became psychologised, psychology became sexualised, and then sex became politicised. And here we are today.
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self was at times heavy-going. Some chapters were boggy — on Romanticism and American court battles in particular — when a greater economy of words, and arguments, could have sufficed. On finishing the book, re-reading Trueman’s introduction was helpful in properly digesting his overall thesis.
Also, to read this book in isolation might leave one with the impression that there is little resistance to the revolution Trueman so masterfully documents. In fact, there is. Not just Christians, but secular conservatives, libertarians and freethinking liberals have been mounting a concerted pushback in late years to the increasingly illogical and totalitarian impulses of the revolution — even deconstructing the many deconstructors in Trueman’s genealogy. Perhaps this would be best addressed in a separate volume.
Nevertheless, this is a book that deserves to be read and read again. As Trueman himself summarises, his is not a “lament for a lost golden age”. On the contrary, “The task of the Christian is not to whine about the moment in which he or she lives but to understand its problems and respond appropriately to them.” (p. 30). He has helped us immensely in this task.
This article first appeared at the Daily Declaration.