The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution

Written by Carl R. Trueman Reviewed By Ted Newell

Sexuality is endlessly in the news. This book shows that a phenomenon like gender transitioning stems from the changing idea of “selves” in Western societies over two-and-a-half centuries. Carl Trueman, a frequent contributor to the journal First Things and a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College, draws on major thinkers about identity and the culture of modernity for this primer on “where we are now.”

In the first section, Trueman sets out his analytical framework. The second and third sections trace changing conceptions of identity since the seventeenth century until now. The fourth section examines the rhetoric advocating for eroticism and pornography, in judges’ stated rationales for major changes in law, and in how the political alliance of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgendered persons, and others reveals tension between biological markers of identity and self-chosen ones. Thus, the fourth section confirms findings from earlier sections. A “postscript” suggests possible church responses in a brave new era.

The framework of the study comes from the mid-twentieth century U. S. sociologist Philip Rieff and is supported by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and the British ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre. Taylor contributes the conception of a social imaginary, claiming that “expressive individualism” is our era’s default conception of a self. Moral expectations of persons are not assigned at birth but are dynamically formed in a Sittlichkeit–– a dialogue between oneself and others in the matrix of a society. Taylor presents personal identity as negotiated rather than given. MacIntyre contributes “emotivism,” the insight that ethics in the modern era consists in “values,” which are adopted preferences, not expressions of a transcendent order as in pre-modern times.

Rieff offers an adaptation of Sigmund Freud’s theory of culture. In Freud’s broad understanding, sexuality is the basic feature of being human; thus, culture is a system of prohibitions and permissions. Culture channels individuals’ fundamental sexual energy into socially useful and reliable outlets such as marriage, family, work, art, or religion. As the old restraining “world” loses plausibility, society relaxes prohibitions that channel sex. The new “anti-culture” inverts and mocks icons of the old order in the name of its superior non-mystical “reason,” producing what Rieff calls “deathworks.” The advice that “if you don’t like gay marriage, don’t have one,” is an example of political deathwork.

In sections 2–4, Trueman traces how Western societies moved from a “mimetic” order, where transcendent reality was understood to shape society, to a therapeutic order, which adjusts humans to immanent nature. He gives attention to René Descartes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche, then to Freud and the New Left of the twentieth century. Trueman pays attention to three sub-questions: (1) how was the mimetic self psychologized? (2) how was the psychologized self sexualized? (3) how was sexuality politicized?

How the self was psychologized and then sexualized can be answered together. Rousseau suggested that culture (civilization) twisted the originally good self, yielding an inauthentic person. Society’s twisting institutions became the problem, not original sin. Freud said civilization repressed sex to channel its energies into socially valuable activity, though he thought civilization’s inevitable discontentedness to be a necessary sacrifice for communal life.

Concerning how sexuality became politicized, Trueman summons mid-twentieth-century Marxist thinkers Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, plus the ideologues of the European surrealist movement in the arts. These thinkers arranged a “shotgun marriage” of Freud with Marx. To these New Left thinkers, Marxist revolutions must refuse the pessimistic Freudian trade-off between sex and civilization. Since sexual repression by families forms people for roles in bourgeois societies, the revolution must undermine the agent of self-denying tradition. After the revolutionary year 1968, radical feminists, such as Shulamith Firestone, and feminist organizations forwarded similar advocacy.

Fused with Marxism, sexual identity produces unbelievable political and legal effects. To deny another’s sexual identity (L, G, B, T, or Q+) is now to refuse dignity to their very selves. Thus, even if one chooses a different baker for one’s gay wedding cake, that still leaves the first cake baker out there, denying people’s existence. Post-Rousseau, post-Nietzsche self-creators seek to dignify persons in a similar way that Christianity does via the image of God.

Trueman’s message to conservative Christians is that responding to one issue after another (e.g., a study on gender fluidity after a campaign to hold back abortion access) misses the point. While sexual politics is the contemporary pressure point, the supporting beliefs gained adherents over 250 years.

Trueman marshals a large bibliography and tells his story expertly. However, the book could be improved if it more clearly highlighted sexual politics as not only replacement ethics but also a replacement metaphysics, a replacement ontology, and a replacement epistemology. Granted, Taylor speaks of a new social imaginary, Rieff of a new “world” replacing the preceding sacred or faith worlds, and MacIntyre of the replacement ethics of emotivism. As Trueman presents them, radicals seek to tear down “bourgeois” or “capitalist” structures, but he also cites the frankest among them that the real enemy is the self-denying, suffering-accepting Christian tradition. Augusto Del Noce, the Italian Catholic philosopher whom Trueman relies on for his sexual politics exposition, is clearer that “eroticism” (his term for the cultural movement) is a life threat to Christianity. Rousseau wants to progressively rewrite social institutions for maximum human autonomy, as does Marx. In their hands, truth is pragmatic and revolutionary. With cultural, legal and political power, time is on the expressivists’ side.

The book ends with a short “postscript” of possible responses. It urges churches towards better teaching and community. But Pew research and others report that a majority of young persons in conservative churches affirm key aspects of the sexual revolution. Like Walt Kelly’s Pogo said, “We have seen the enemy, and he is us.” A church resistance program needs more than restatements; it needs a research program. Christian teaching about human identity finds its origins in a biblical understanding of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Churches and pastors need to reaffirm that the guarantee of personality is God the Trinity. The LGBTQ+ movement takes for granted the dignity of all human beings; but dignity, like the rainbow, is accurately a biblical inheritance. And, after Rousseau, Darwin, and Nietzsche, there is a need for a massive restatement of natural law, the Creator’s visible work in his creation. Christians and churches need a counter-revolution. As the author says, this book can be its prolegomena.

Ted Newell

Ted Newell
Crandall University
Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

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