The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution by Carl Trueman (Crossway 2020)
Reviewed September 2022
This is a brilliant, much-needed book. The endorsements on the cover and the book reviews written by secular and Christian authors demonstrate exactly this. (Even the Wall Street Journal chimes in with a positive review!) It is not, however, for the faint of heart. It is over 400 pages of historical interaction with an eye to understanding how we have arrived at the point in which our culture is obsessed with personal identity. Using the issues of transgenderism as his muse, Trueman examines how our culture has reached the point where the expression of the self is the most important part of personal identity, existence, and culture. In colloquial terms it is an affirmation of the “you do you” type of mentality in all areas of life. He demonstrates that the obsession with sexual identity is merely a symptom or a greater problem - the modern understanding of the self. Our current situation did not arise out of a vacuum but has been percolating for over 300 years.
This book is not a biblical or theological work; Trueman is, after all, a seasoned historian and an astute social commentator. What it is is an exceptionally well researched, erudite analysis of our modern cultural obsession with identity. “To put it as succinctly as possible, Rise and Triumph contends that self-expression, particularly the outworking of one’s deepest sexual desires, has for all intents and purposes become the moral lodestar of contemporary public life.” (Ehrett) Trueman uses the statement, “I am an [X] trapped in a [Y] body” as demonstration of exactly this type of obsession. How is it that our culture has come to accept this question as normative and the pursuit of its solution as one of the most important issues of our day?
In part one, Trueman meticulously articulates our current milieu using the works of sociologists Rieff, Taylor, and MacIntyre to explain the inward turn morality has taken. A turn which has resulted in “expressive individualism” - one’s sense of fulfillment and self-actualization is determined by our individual psychology. In other words, what you feel about yourself determines who you are and since who you are is determined by your decisions (will over nature) then everyone else should treat you in this manner.
In the second part of the book Trueman turns his attention to Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin in order to demonstrate how this belief began to form. Through each of these figures it was the erosion of theistic foundations which led to the definitions of self being entirely material in nature, or based on power relationships, or sensualism. Take away divine foundations and the self can be defined in any way.
In part three Trueman shows how sexuality’s central role in the self came to be. By examining Freud, Reich, Marcuse, and others Trueman shows how this sexualizing turn is expressed by an almost militant desire for each self to loose their sexual selves in whatever way they desire. We are now homo eroticus - sexualized man - which must be freely expressed rather than repressed. This paves the way for all the letters and numbers in a continually growing list of 2SLGBTQ+.
Part four is dedicated to the modern world of which we are a part and its allowance and affirmation of pushing the limits of our sexual selves. Particular attention is paid to transgenderism and its desires to seek ways to press sexual and physical boundaries. Trueman identifies that the only real taboo today is that which seeks to deny a person whatever it is they feel and desire. The result, in Trueman’s words is that the “the only moral criterion that can be applied to behavior is whether it conduces to the feeling of well-being in the individuals concerned. Ethics, therefore, becomes a function of feeling.” The result is where we are now. Even nature, our biology, cannot stand in the way of how we feel, or what we want. Nature must bow to what we desire.
I cannot speak highly enough about this book. But, as I mentioned above, it is not for everyone. This is a technical book that clocks in at over 400 pages. A working knowledge of the many characters discussed by Trueman is a necessity in order to avoid being drowned by his knowledge and analysis of each figure. Individuals like Rousseau, Marx, or Freud, for example, are massively important for understanding our culture but their writings are unfamiliar to many. Name recognition alone will not allow you to survive Trueman’s penetrating insights. It is very easy to become awash and eventually drown in the vast information this book offers. I hope at some point that Trueman publishes a more lay-person friendly version of this book for the church at large. It would be of great benefit.
NOTE: Dr. Trueman has dealt with these concerns in his new book Strange New World. It is a much shorter (180ish pages) summary of the arguments in this work. If 400+ pages of detailed study of names you've never heard of doesn't appeal to you, checking out Trueman's latest work is well worth your time.
Trueman never states that he will provide a response, a way forward, in light of his analysis. But I sure hope he does! Trueman is not only a brilliant historian, but he has his fingers on the pulse of modern culture like few others with his training. (Although David Wells comes to mind) Another volume answering the question - Where do we go from here? - would be welcomed.
Soli Deo Gloria