Carl Trueman’s new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Crossway, 2020), has been called by Bruce Ashford “perhaps the most significant analysis and evaluation of Western culture written by a Protestant during the past fifty years.” Colin Hansen says he thinks it is “the best book of 2020.” Tim Challies wrote, “I don’t think there will be a better-researched or more fascinating book in all of 2020.” Francis Beckwith suggests that “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.”
The videos below—produced by Grove City College, where Professor Trueman teaches—won’t replace reading this thorough and brilliant book, but they can serve as an appetizer for the main themes and perhaps also be helpful to use in small groups and Sunday school classes or other discipling relationships.
1. Asking the Right Questions
- expressive individualism
- psychologized happiness and selfhood
- the collapse of the transcendent and the need to justify everything in an immanent frame
- the sexual revolution
2. The Search for Authenticity: Rousseau and the Romantics
Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1788)
- An interest in human psychology
- A rejection of the artificiality of society and a correlative confidence in nature
- A belief in the artist as one who can connect people to this reality.
3. Killing God: Karl Marx
Marx (1818–1883) is interested not so much in arguments for or against God but in the reason why people believe.
- Religious belief indicates some kind of inadequacy, some lack of development in the individual. It’s a sign of social sickness.
- Religion needs to be debunked and abolished in true political freedom is to be achieved.
- There is no transcendent reality or intrinsic meaning to nature. The world can be adequately explained in material, immanent terms. The supernatural and the transcendent are simply mystifications of material conditions and relationship here on earth.
4. Killing God: Friedrich Nietzche
Nietzche (1844–1900), a German philosopher, argued:
- God is dead.
- Morality is something we invent.
- The greatest human is the one who rises to the challenge. He is the self-creator, the one who defies convention and lives by his own rules, for whom life is one long performance whereby he becomes precisely who he decides to be.
Psychological man and the expressive individual are god.
5. When Aesthetics Became Ethics: Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), Irish poet and playwright, emphasized three things:
- Life (identity) as a public performance.
- The prominence of art of art’s sake and the focus on beauty.
- The aestheticization of ethics.
6. Civilized Discontent: Sigmund Freud
Freud (1856–1937), the Viennese founder of psychoanalysis, gave us
- the sexualizing of psychology
- the sexualizing of the self
- a theory of culture that puts sexual codes at the very heart of what it means to be civilized.
- Sex and sexuality are the fundamental dimensions of what it means to be human and to be happy. Sex thus becomes identity.
- Humans are driven by desire, not by utility. We are fundamentally irrational.
- Morality is driven by taste.
7. Wilhelm Reich: Fusing Marx and Freud
Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957), a junior colleague of Freud in Vienna—whom even Freud came to consider too extreme—saw Freud as helpful when it comes to psychological fear/respect for father/authority figure.
But Reich brought Freud’s approach under the critical lens of Marx’s understanding of social/economic construction of reality.
If Freud’s point was that sex is who we are, Reich’s argument was that sexual codes as they currently exists are designed to maintain the current oppressive structure of society. Political freedom is therefore sexual freedom.
8. Where Does All of This Leave Us?
1. Anarchic sexuality
- liberty is defined as self-determination
- meaning is defined by the individual
- notions of authenticity and psychological happiness trump everything
2. The ethics of death
- rejects human exceptionalism
- makes personal happiness the key to whether an unborn or a newborn should be allowed to live
3. The opposition to free speech
Traditional Western liberal order assumed the free exchange of ideas, for which free speech is the necessary condition, was a good.
Now speech is deemed oppressive and hurtful, and speech codes are enforced. Because in a world where psychological happiness is the key to the good life, then speech which hurts is seen as a vice, not a virtue.
TGC’s Collin Hansen recently sat down for an hour-long interview with Professor Trueman about the book, which you can watch below: