The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to the Sexual Revolution
by Carl R. Trueman
432 pages (hardcover), $34.99
“For all intents and purposes, I am a woman.” That was Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner, the 1976 men’s decathlon Olympic gold medalist, announcing in a 2015 interview with Diane Sawyer that thenceforth he would identify as a trans woman. Of course, Jenner would argue that this had always been the case. She had merely been trapped inside a male Olympian body. In 2017, Jenner underwent sex reassignment surgery, making sure to add that given that she had always been attracted to women—sexual orientation now being different from gender identity— she would identify as asexual for the time being, as to not confuse anyone. Though Jenner’s coming out was doubtless a boon for transgender activism, what was more fascinating was how relatively receptive the culture was to Caitlyn’s emergence. Jenner was not only affirmed by her family, two ex-wives and several children, but by the culture writ large, including the sporting world. The famous “Call me Caitlyn” Vanity Fair cover followed shortly after the 20/20 interview with Sawyer.
This latter phenomenon—that transgenderism and other fruit of the sexual revolution are palatable to our culture as much as transgenderism itself—is what Carl Trueman’s new book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self seeks to help us make sense of. How did something like what Jenner claims—something inconceivable to prior generations—become so mainstream, so quickly?
Trueman’s basic thesis is that today’s revolutions (sexual and moral) are not the cause but the fruit of Western society’s predominate pathologies, which are themselves the product of an older, metaphysical revolution. They are sub-revolutions, so to speak. “No individual historical phenomenon is its own cause,” reads the introduction. The roots of recent developments in sexual mores, sexual expression, and gender identity are rooted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The emersion of the modern conception of the self that underlies everything from pornography to transgenderism stretches back to groundwork laid by Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Jean Jacque Rousseau, and Sigmund Freud, among others.
Trueman does not give too much away at the outset. You know where he is going but have no idea how he is going to get there, which makes the journey all the more enthralling and the conclusion all the more satisfying, if not also horrifying. To realize the ambitions of his thesis, Trueman harnesses the thought of three seminal critics of modernity: Charles Taylor, Philip Rieff, and Alasdair MacIntyre. The first part of the book constitutes a remarkably readable distillation of these three authors who are at times notoriously unreadable themselves. This is yeoman’s work. Even so, it is in the harnessing more than the distillation that Trueman showcases his own talent.
The book is divided into four parts, each helpfully accompanied by an epilogue. Trueman’s organization and prose make an infinitely complex subject and sweeping thesis surprisingly digestible and never tedious. Part 1 is taken up with mining Taylor, Rieff, and MacIntyre. From Taylor, he borrows the concepts of the social imaginary (i.e., how people imagine the world via stories, myths, etc.), the mimesis (i.e., the world as given), and poiesis (i.e., the world as malleable raw material). Out of Rieff’s eclectic thought, Trueman draws the cultural descriptors of psychological man and expressive individualism, and concepts such as anticulture and the triumph of the therapeutic. The material pulled from MacIntyre is more thematic than conceptual—namely, MacIntyre’s contention that modern ethical discourse is a mess because the claims of morality and truth upon which it necessarily rests are now nothing but emotional preferences.
Parts 2 and 3 of the book survey the key thinkers that, in Trueman’s estimation, have shaped the modern understanding of the self. Some of the figures covered have already been mentioned. But readers may be unfamiliar with Wilhelm Reich—a Marxist psychoanalyst who studied under Freud but was eventually arrested in the United States for selling a fraudulent medical contraption he called “orgone accumulators”—and Herbert Marcuse, of Frankfurt School fame and coiner of the idea of “repressive tolerance,” now invoked regularly. Readers may be equally surprised to find sandwiched between chapters on Rousseau and Nietzsche a treatment of William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Blake (the “unacknowledged legislators”).
Part 4 brings the insights of the preceding parts to bear on contemporary developments. Chapter 8 examines the triumph of Freud: the centering of the erotic in (high and popular) culture. Not only have the old sexual mores been exceeded, but they have been eviscerated. Chapter 9 continues the demonstration of Trueman’s narrative and is, in my opinion, the most compelling portion of part 4. Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992)—wherein the plurality waxed eloquent about the right of all of us to define our own reality—campus protests (especially of Charles Murray), and the infamously shocking ethics of Peter Singer are all enlisted to exhibit certain facets of the long revolution of the self.
If chapter 9 is the most compelling, then chapter 10 is the most chilling. The triumph of transgenderism is the culmination of the modern self: radical autonomy, total mastery of nature, full expression of the emotive individual, the elevation of psychological man, and the transcendence of history.
Trueman’s prose and command of the subject are commendable, but more importantly for an author, his timing is impeccable. The recent Bostock v. Clayton County decision evidenced another outgrowth of the logic of human nature and personhood begun in Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Obergefell v. Hodges. But Bostock may prove worst of all. Therein, the court acknowledged, as a matter of course, the plasticity of the self, as Trueman calls it. That is, the delusion that our identities can be made and remade at will according to our emotional need. But the brilliance of Trueman’s analysis (which predates Bostock) is his recognition of the connection between “my body, my choice” and “I am a woman stuck in a man’s body.” Bostock is not its own cause.
The lessons from Trueman’s study are too numerous to list, but one obvious one—exposed also by recent intramural evangelical debates surrounding the doctrine of God—is the need to recover stable metaphysics, a vocabulary for our knowledge of both God and humanity. Without such a framework—the one (per Trueman) chipped away by Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin—we will not only develop false beliefs about God but also a dangerous conception of ourselves. As Rod Dreher says in the foreword to the book, “Because men have forgotten God, they have also forgotten man; that’s why all this has happened.”
Another lesson is that revolutions always produce causalities and unpredictable externalities. The logic of the self-revolution is being pressed to the extreme. Perhaps the internal contradictions and instability of said revolution—the self-destructiveness of the therapeutic self in an amoral world with an ahistorical consciousness—will eventually shake people out of the madness.
But how many plastic people will have melted by then? The church must prepare for the refugees of this revolution, those burned by the prophets Trueman profiles who convinced them all that their persons were so malleable, nature so questionable, truth so unstable, reality so debatable. But before the church can do that, it must understand how we have gotten to where we are. That being the stated goal of Trueman’s book, it is an undeniable success, an unrivaled treatment of what ails us. As with The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, the Creedal Imperative, and pithy commentary in First Things over the years, Trueman has once again, though like never before, proven himself a doctor of the church.
Timon Cline is a graduate of Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Wright State University. He has published in Areo magazine, The American Spectator, and National Review, and he writes regularly on law, theology, and politics at Conciliar Post.