The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman

What The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is About

Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is a book about a single question: How and why did the statement “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful? This statement, which in my own lifetime was once regarded as both fodder for comedy and a clear sign of insanity, has now ascended to the rank of the most courageous and truthful thing that a person could say. Those who make this good confession (or the parallel, “I’m a man trapped in a woman’s body”) are lauded as heroes, and their cause has been championed by institutions of all stripes — churches, corporations, schools, universities, and governments. How and why has such a radical inversion come about in so short an amount of time? And how has it been so quickly and thoroughly adopted by average people, not just those who travel in niche academic circles?

How and why did the statement “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful?

Trueman’s book is not a lament that such a thing has happened, nor is it a sustained argument against the logic or morality of this statement. It really is an honest and objective exploration of the question of how we have arrived at such a time and place where the question of transgenderism has come to dominate the cultural imagination. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is an intellectual history of the sexual revolution, which he makes clear “is simply one manifestation of the larger revolution of the self that has taken place in the West.” (20)

The Social Imaginary

Trueman begins by framing the current situation in the language of philosophers Charles Taylor, Philip Reiff, and Alisdair MacIntyre. Three crucial concepts immediately reveal themselves when we deeply examine the culture that we find ourselves in. The first concept is the social imaginary, which is a term coined by Charles Taylor. The social imaginary is how the people of a specific culture tend to think about themselves, the world, and how they should act in it. It is a mass, unspoken intuition about reality, the things that we all (or almost all of us) just assume to be true. Trueman puts it succinctly: “the social imaginary is a matter of intuitive social taste.” (38) The average person doesn’t think the statement “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body” makes sense because he is committed to radical gender theories; he thinks it makes sense because it seems right to affirm someone in their chosen identities and hurtful not to.

Psychological Man

The second crucial concept is that of the psychological man. Psychological Man, as Philip Reiff identified modern humans in the West, is a way of understanding ourselves that gives priority to our inward reality — our thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and desires. Psychological Man finds identity in the inward quest for happiness. He is defined by his inner being, and all outward realities, including the reality of his own body, exist distinctly from, and often in opposition to, his internal reality. Psychological Man finds happiness, and therefore flourishes as a human being, when his external world is brought into conformity with his interior world.

Psychological Man finds identity in the inward quest for happiness.
Expressive Individualism

The third crucial concept is called expressive individualism, which is another concept of Charles Taylor’s. Expressive individualism is the belief that we find meaning by expressing our feelings and desires. It is the search for authenticity, the matching of our inward and outward realities. This authenticity begins with the interior world, the home of our beliefs, feelings, and desires. This is the source of our goodness, the root of our identity that cannot and should not be changed. Instead, it is our exterior worlds — our bodies, the institutions to which we belong, the brands that we consume, even the states in which we live — that must be brought into conformity with our interior worlds.

Institutions cease to be places for the formation of individuals via their schooling in the various practices and disciplines that allow them to take their place in society. Instead, they become platforms for performance, where individuals are allowed to be their authentic selves precisely because they are able to give expression to who they are “inside.” …For such selves in such a world, institutions such as schools and churches are places where one goes to perform, not to be formed–or, perhaps better, where one goes to be formed by performing.
-Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, p. 49

I am not even halfway through the first chapter, so we’re going to have to skip and summarize quite a bit.

The Psychologization of Identity

So how have we gotten to the place in our society where the statement, “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body” is both coherent and meaningful? To use Trueman’s own summary: Human identity must first be psychologized, then psychology must be sexualized, and finally sex must be politicized. In order for the statements of transgenderism to be coherent and meaningful, we have to understand ourselves as psychological beings. This intellectual movement began with people like Rousseau and the Romantics, who taught that humans are born good but are ultimately corrupted by the society in which they live. The interior world of every individual is true and authentic (and therefore the substance of their truest and most authentic selves), and a person only sins or grows bad because of the corrupting influence of their culture. Identity is thus found as we look within ourselves, and “the individual is most authentic when acting out in public those desires and feelings that characterize his inner psychological life.” (125)

The Sexualization of Psychology

This psychology eventually meets Freud, who postulated that sexual desire and fulfillment are the real key to human existence. For Freud, psychological problems are rooted in sexual repression, meaning that the individual is mentally unhealthy because he or she is denying certain sexual impulses and desires. “The purpose of life, and the content of the good life, is personal sexual fulfillment.” (205) If identity is found on the inward journey toward happiness, and true happiness is sexual satisfaction, then identity is fundamentally sexual in nature.

The rise of the sexual revolution was predicated on fundamental changes in how the self is understood. The self must first be psychologized; psychology must then be sexualized; and sex must be politicized.
-Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, p. 221
The Politicization of Sex

The final move in the evolution of the self is the politicization of sex, which comes about through the combination of Freud and Marx in the work of Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse. (For a detailed analysis of Reich’s Sexual Revolution, see my post The Sexual Revolution and Christianity.) Reich’s genius was to import Marx’s politics of oppression onto Freud’s psychology of repression, casting both Church and Family in the role of repressive oppressor and the individual as the helpless and innocent victim. The category of this oppression is psychological, rooted in the externally-forced suppression of the individual’s interior feelings and desires. The story should now be sounding quite familiar to anyone who has been paying even the slightest bit of attention to Western culture over the past fifty years.

The summation of the book has already gone on too long, and there is still so much to go over, so we will have to leave far too much out of this section. I will conclude this section of the review by stating that the picture Trueman paints of the intellectual and political history of the sexual revolution, the current circumstances troubling the Church, and some possible ways forward for Christians, is both insightful and illuminating.

What I Learned from The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

I read this book a couple of months after I wrote the post mentioned above, in which I linked the thoughts of Marx and Freud in the writings of Wilhelm Reich and the foundation of the sexual revolution. It is always gratifying to see a much more learned and intelligent person affirm one’s own thoughts, and so I am even more confident in my analysis of the intellectual roots of the sexual revolution than I was before. (Not to mention that, in this particular section, Trueman relies on the great Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce, who I discovered in 2018. Other than Michael Hanby — from whom I suspect we both first discovered Del Noce — I have not seen anyone quote from Del Noce, much to our intellectual disadvantage.)

If identity is psychological, then justice and goodness must be redefined in psychological terms.

What I had not put together, however, was the long intellectual history that predated Reich. Trueman is careful to say that the sexual revolution is itself just one instance of a larger revolution of the self, a revolution which he traces back to Rousseau and the Romantics, then on through Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin before arriving at Freud. The way we understand ourselves (our social imaginary) in fundamentally psychological terms is what has given rise to the sexual revolution and its most recent manifestation, transgenderism. If I think I am a woman, then I am a woman, and society must be made to affirm my psychological identity in order for that society to be both just and good. If identity is psychological, then justice and goodness must be redefined in psychological terms.

I want to restate that Trueman’s purpose was not to write a book arguing against the sexual revolution or the idea of the psychological self, but rather to trace the history of how we got here. This is, in my opinion, a far more useful book than a run-of-the-mill attack piece because the author’s objectivity and historical reporting help us to understand the intellectual foundations of our postmodern world. We are, Trueman says, all expressive individualists now. We all think the same way, both about ourselves and the world. There is no escaping the current social imaginary unless one first possesses the ability to interrogate those beliefs and feelings we hold but don’t consider. All Christian attacks against the sexual revolution have rung hollow because Christians have, for generations, uncritically embraced the concepts of psychological man and expressive individualism. We believe the same thing as everyone else, and only some of us have had the intellectual honesty to take the final step and embrace the sexual revolution fully and publicly. The only way forward for faithful Christians, then, is to go back.

There is no escaping the current social imaginary unless one first possesses the ability to interrogate those beliefs and feelings we hold but don’t consider.

The time has come to interrogate the sexual revolution and the greater social imaginary of the self that gave it birth. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self will help us do that precisely because it is not an open attack against the sexual revolution, but rather the unveiling of its intellectual history for the current generation to see and understand. In my opinion, the first thing we need to do is ask better questions, and the story that Trueman tells helps us to do precisely that. Here are a few that have occurred to me after reading this book.

  • What Christian thinkers can be found in the intellectual history of the sexual revolution and the modern self who helped bring it to its current state? In other words, in what way is the history of the sexual revolution a Christian history? How has the movement been shaped by Christian thought in such a way that it is coherent with the teachings of Moses, Jesus, and Paul? Alternatively, how much work must one do to reinterpret the teachings of Scripture so that it conforms to the doctrines of the sexual revolution and the modern self?
  • What did the primary authors of this revolution — Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, Freud, Reich, Marcuse — think about religion in general and Christianity specifically? What were their intentions in regards to Christianity? Have they created a system of thought and life that is compatible with, or destructive of, Christian faith and practice? Were they seeking to make Christianity more faithful, or was their intention to destroy Christian faith so that humans could evolve past it?
  • Would Jesus agree with, and judge people according to, Freudian identity categories? If traditionalists are on the wrong side of history, is Jesus still the Lord of history? Is history still moving toward his return? And if Jesus originally taught the traditional sexual ethic, has he changed his mind since the publication of people like Freud and Marcuse? Or did he simply lack the categories that they have supplied in order to verbalize a divine teaching which they have finally and faithfully revealed?
  • What use is the body for humanity, whether in personal identity or in public bioethics? Is the body something that humanity must transcend in order to flourish? If so, what do we make of both the incarnation and the resurrection of Christ? If not, how do we understand transgenderism, transhumanism, and artificial intelligence?
  • What are the consequences to our public witness if we uncritically embrace the sexual revolution? What are the consequences if we uncritically reject it? How does the Church move forward with her mission in a society that has heard her message and rejected it?

My Recommendation of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

This book is not for everyone, but it is not a difficult read. It is a scholarly book, but Trueman is careful, in my opinion, not to go over the average reader’s head. He explains the ideas of the sexual revolution thoroughly and faithfully, while also putting it into language that most of us can understand. It’s a long book, and it will take most people quite some time to get through it, but it is well worth the time. We all need to know why we have come to believe what we do. We need to be able to identify the unconsidered assumptions of our culture — assumptions that even Christians share with the wider world. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self helps us to do that better than any other book I have read on the subject. I consider this essential reading for anyone in Christian ministry and leadership, as well as a worthy entry, from the Christian perspective, into the ongoing cultural conversation about matters of identity, sex, gender, the self, and politics.

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