The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020)
By Rhys Bezzant
04 August 2021
I don’t often say it, but this book was so good I read it once, then listened to it as an audiobook! Carl Trueman, an Englishman teaching in the US, has written an extraordinary overview of the past 300 hundred years of Western culture, to help explain how the sexual revolution came to pass and how transgenderism can be understood philosophically within that story. I am a sucker for grand vistas when they help me to investigate the minutiae of an event, and that he admirably achieves.
The heart of the book is an evaluation of Rousseau as the fountain-head of modern views of the self, but he goes on to explain how the great Romantic poets Wordsworth, Shelley and Blake reinforce the subjective turn, with Marx, Darwin and Nietzsche rendering the subjective a political force. All that is then needed is the contribution of Freud to sexualise the political. This layering of cultural sediments is a fine example of intellectual history, explaining where great thinkers got their ideas from, how they reshaped those ideas given their own historical moment and how they passed them on. Ideas matter, for it is not just our material environment that affects who we are.
Trueman takes up the language of “expressive individualism” to capture the goal of the modern search for identity, with questions of sexuality a case study. So many in the West work with a default position, like Rousseau the French educationalist, that culture is corrupting, so we long for the “state of nature” in which we are free to express ourselves without the shackles of social expectations. The great Romantic poets worked initially within this mimetic frame of mind, which assumed that meaning was given to us (rather than created by us) and discovered through art. This was in time overturned, as philosophers and poets came to understand that what we had previously accepted as universal and static was actually the dynamic and local product of oppressive historical forces, from which we needed liberation. Christianity was regarded not as offering freedom, but something from which we needed to be freed! As Shelley wrote, “Religion and morality, as they now stand, compose a practical code of misery and servitude” (page 155).
Expressive individualism, in Trueman’s estimation, therefore doesn’t assume a worldview but instead a social imaginary, as Charles Taylor the Canadian philosopher has argued. We create our world and create ourselves within it. We become plastic people, who find meaning in self-expression: “Freedom for Nietzsche is freedom from essentialism and for self-creation” (p174). If Marx believed we need a new social self-awareness, if Freud believed we should be open to deep sexual motivations that lurk just beyond our recognition and if Darwin undermined an exalted and purposeful role for human beings in history, then together they set up profoundly modern ways of grasping what a human being is. Better to begin within ourselves and from there to invent our own identity according to our own lights. Although with any model for understanding what it means to be human there are philosophical challenges, in this model there is a new danger: “Where once oppression was seen in terms of economic realities (e.g., poverty, lack of property) or legal categories (e.g., slavery, lack of freedom), now the matter is more subtle because it relates to issues of psychology and self-consciousness. The political sphere is internalized and subjectivized” (p250). Learning to express ourselves as individuals has a deep pre-history.
Set within the development of expressive individualism, and against the backdrop of longer and larger philosophical shifts in the West, Trueman ultimately wants to explain how a concept such as transgenderism makes eminent sense to our contemporaries though it made no sense to his own grandfather. This change within a generation or two is not to be explained by referring to the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s alone! He sets all these particular concerns (and others!) within the sociological analysis of Philip Rieff, who has generated categories such as “the triumph of the therapeutic” or “the anticulture”, and the ethical reflections of Alasdair MacIntyre, who has argued that in the modern world truth claims are more like “expressions of emotional preference” (p26). Trueman’s breadth of reading gives great depth to his analysis, even if along the way we might want him to explain or qualify a point further.
This book has won notable awards, for its prose is lucid and its argument coherent, as it tries to guide Christians through a short course in intellectual history and an outline of a way of understanding the process of secularisation. His concluding reflections may at points highlight the weakness of a historian trying to be a prophet, but he is surely right when he concludes: “If sacred or metaphysical order is necessary for cultures to remain stable and coherent, then we currently face an indefinite future of flux, instability, and incoherence.” (p394). I recommend the book to readers who want to find ways to understand the pressure points in contemporary culture.
The Revd Canon Dr Rhys Bezzant is a Senior Lecturer at Ridley College, Dean of the Anglican Institute at Ridley, Visiting Fellow at Yale Divinity School and Director of the Jonathan Edwards Centre Australia