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Two cheers (and a sigh) for Carl Trueman's "Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self"

Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Crossway, 2020)

The first two thirds are a must-read for anyone of any ideological persuasion. The last third not so much.

Intellectual historian Carl Trueman compellingly argues that the sea-change of the sexual revolution—most recently manifested in "I'm a woman trapped in a man's body" being a coherent sentence to most people and a rally-cry to some—is actually the surface phenomenon of a much bigger revolution: the culture's beliefs about what a human self is. After establishing an analytical framework derived from Charles Taylor, Philip Rieff, and Alasdair McIntyre, Trueman traces an intellectual lineage from Rousseau to Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake to Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin to Freud to Reich and Marcuse that lays the philosophical track for the late modern conception of the self that many virtually take for granted. It goes something like this:

  • A person’s true identity (“self”) is their innermost desires.

  • Freedom is openly declaring and acting according to one’s self (innermost desires).

  • Acting contrary to one’s true self (“inauthenticity”) is what makes good people bad, unhealthy, and unhappy.

  • Culture—the soul of civilization—consists of the taboos (don’ts) that restrict innermost desires. Thus, civilization is tyrannical, because it forces people to act contrary to their selves and be inauthentic.

  • The political program of freedom (“liberation”) is to eradicate all forms of tyranny—thus, civilization as we once knew it.

  • Liberation at its most complete is to annihilate and replace all social forms that stifle the self. Thus, all realms of human society are political.

  • The monogamous, authoritarian family is the most powerful institution forcing people to internalize culture’s taboos and repress their selves, starting at birth. Thus, the traditional family must be destroyed and replaced.

  • Culture’s taboos are not actually connected to a sacred, absolute, transcendent, nonhuman reference point, as elites claim in order to justify them to the masses and maintain their power over society. Thus, liberation requires the annihilation of the notion of the sacred.

  • Religion (in the West, predominantly Christianity) is culture’s primary institution for sacralizing taboos. Thus, religion must be destroyed.

  • Culture’s taboos developed over a long stretch of history; thus, liberation requires the termination of history and rejection of any morals rooted in the past.

  • The most powerful innermost desires, which form the self and drive identity, are sexual. Thus, political liberation is sexual liberation.

  • Human nature, including biology, is not a fixed reality but is molded by environmental influences.

  • With advanced technology, humans can remold the nature they’ve inherited to let them express their selves (innermost desires) without constraint and achieve liberation.

These principles, says Trueman, are now so deeply embedded in the social imaginary (the unconscious assumptions a group shares about what reality is) that they pervade all segments and aspects of society. All people are to some extent driven by them, at least some of them, but few even consider them, much less evaluate them.

All this is brilliantly expounded with fairness and both astute and appreciative understanding of those who propound and embrace these beliefs. As I said, everyone should read it to understand the world in which we live.

That's what makes the last third so disappointing.

One difference is a pronounced change of tone. Trueman maintains that he does not wish to be polemical, but the last three chapters are indeed a polemic against some pretty standard whipping boys of social conservatives. Now, the polemic is well done, and I happen to agree with pretty much all of it, but I could get it from pretty much any issue of First Things from the last thirty years, so I was a bit bored. It's not what I signed up for or expected after the bulk of the book (although the chronicle of the evolution of the LGBTQ+ rights movement was informative and interesting).

An even bigger issue, however, is that Trueman skips the best part of his own book. After beautifully detailing how the underpinnings of the sexual revolution and the modern self were laid among intelligentsia over a century and a half, he jumps to the end where it's already become pervasive through the whole society. He does virtually nothing to explain how these ideas moved from high culture to mass culture. Of course we know it did, but the blow-by-blow of how is the story I was most looking forward to.

The few answers Trueman does give are hollow and unconvincing. For example, he convincingly connects the surrealists with high culture but unconvincingly to mass culture (in addition to totally ignoring Dalí's religious works, which complicate his characterization), and he convincingly connects Playboy with mass culture but unconvincingly to high culture. And is it just me, or is it reasonable to expect that a book with "sexual revolution" in the subtitle might include a chapter about the period in the 1960s commonly known as "the sexual revolution"?

Trueman's account also raises a very interesting question that he doesn't countenance. The revolutionary line of thought I summarized above is extremely radical. And of course there are a few who still go with it all the way. But why/how did the radical edge come off the liberationist argument when it took over the masses? Put another way, why/how did the revolution get domesticated? Isn't it odd that one of the greatest triumphs of the sexual revolution was—wait for it—same-sex marriage?? Isn't marriage the institution that is supposed to be the incubator of all tyranny? Didn't the dudes in bondage leather in yesteryear's pride parades despise it? How did the goal of the revolution get revised down to assimilating into conservative social structures rather than subverting them?

Of course, it's hard to see this ironic, backward homage to conservative social structures (albeit distorted ones) when you're convinced the world is bent on tearing them down. And that leaves another unfortunate blind spot. On the one hand, Trueman firmly asserts that every Westerner in the 21st century, left, right, and center, is an expressive individualist. It isn't a property of one sociopolitical tribe. But he doesn't take this to its conclusion. When he rattles off an array of examples of the triumph of the modern self he could have examined, space permitting, they're all reliably leftward or else easy targets of intellectuals on all sides (e.g., social media). It doesn't cross his mind to mention the expressive individualism of the person with the stars-and-stripes-patterned Spartan mask/crossed AKs/"ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ" decal on the rear window of their pickup.

In sum, run, don't walk, to read the first big chunk of this book. And let's hope Trueman takes another crack at the part of his book he didn't write. I'm sure he would crush it if he tried.

P.S. I suppose there's one more curiosity to point out. This book is published by a Christian publisher, but it isn't a Christian book. Yes, Trueman is a Christian, and there is a word to Christians at the very end. But the book doesn't fit the genre of "Christian book." Believe me, that's no criticism (especially as to style and erudition), but it is an observation. And it's also noteworthy that in the little bit of Christian exhortation the book does have (which has a fair amount to commend it), there's scarce hint that the essence of the church is bound to the mission of God and that its basic solution is the gospel of Christ. To me, the fact that this non–"Christian book" would be published by a "Christian publisher" is an interesting commentary on what non-Christian academic publishers won't publish and what Christian publishers will.


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