Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self [Book Review]

“I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.” It’s a phrase you think you’d hear on a 2020 interview with Bruce, now Caitlyn, Jenner or perhaps on a TLC show chronicalizing the journey of teenage transgendered girl Jazz Jennings. But walk down any highschool hallway, and you’re likely to hear this sentiment being discussed. One hundred years ago, it would have been dismissed as illogical or delusional even. “Today it is a sentence that many in our society regard as not only meaningful but so significant that to deny it or question it in some way is to reveal oneself as stupid, immoral, or subject to yet another irrational phobia.” (Trueman, 19)

In the book Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman takes us on a journey of the nature of self and how “the sexual revolution is simply one manifestation of the larger revolution of the self that has taken place in the West.” (20) To understand where we are, we must understand where we came from. “The basic principle is this: no individual historical phenomenon is its own cause. The French Revolution did not cause the French Revolution.” (25) The sexual revolution didn’t happen in a vacuum but through the thought experiments of the earliest philosophers of Western civilization. The sexual revolution must be treated, not in isolation, but as the manifestation of a much deeper  revolution in the cultural shaping of the modern psychologized and sexualized self. The sexual revolution was never about accepting questionable practices but establishing identity. 

Thinkers who helped shape the modern mindset

Rousseau and Hegel: Public domain; Darwin: DeAgostini/Getty Images; Marx: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images; Nietzsche: Culture Club/Getty Images; Freud: The Print Collector/Alamy

How is Culture Formed? (Marx)

Every culture has a social imaginary, a way we think about the world and how it should be. For many years Western culture has achieved moral stability by basing laws on either fate or faith, something beyond ourselves. But today’s therapeutic culture prescribes its own meaning based on an ever-changing sense of self. Ethics are a function of feeling with no objective distinction between what is and what should be. In this therapeutic culture, therapy is no longer about coming to terms with the community to which you belong. It’s about protecting the individual from the harms of their community. In other words, the community can never be correct at the expense of the individual’s feelings.“Culture must serve the purpose of meeting my psychological needs; I must not tailor my psychological needs to the nature of society, for that would create anxiety and make me inauthentic.” (54)  

Before the advent of technology, we had to conform ourselves to the natural world. In an agrarian culture, the individual needed to follow the patterns of weather and geography in order to survive, but today knowledge and technology has given us more control over our lives, “cultivating an attitude that sees the past as inferior to the present and the present as inferior to that which is to come.” (93). Rather than learn wisdom from our past, we seek to dismantle it. Our modern age has an anti historical tendency influenced by Marxism. “If the state of nature is the ideal, and if society corrupts, then the history of society becomes the history of the corruption and oppression of human nature.” Rather than a source or wisdom or a tale or great accomplishments, history is one long story of oppression.“This means that history – that which is constitutive of society/culture – must be seen as something that needs to be overcome or transcended or erased if the individual is to be truly who he or she is.” (196) Marxist thought tells us to be truly free, one must break free from social constructs keeping you in a state of submission.

How is Identity Formed? (Descartes)

French philosopher Rene Descartes famously said, “I think therefore I am.” And this summarizes the modern identity: whatever a man thinks himself to be, he is. Human nature isn’t seen as something static. It is seen as plastic, everchanging, with no real authority over who we are or who we can be. This idea of plasticity allows our psychological essence to reshape our personal identity at will. We see ourselves as self-created creatures, finding our meaning through the expression of feelings and desires rather than created beings, endowed with meaning by a Creator. The “self” is the product of “being true to who you are.”  We are told it is hurtful not to affirm someone in their chosen identity… whatever that identity may be. 

Man is Basically Good (Rousseau)

These philosophical worldviews are built on the premise that man is basically good. Perhaps there is no better example than the sharp contrast between Augstine’s Confessions and Rousseau’s book by the same name. In his book, St. Augustine tells the story of stealing pears as a young boy while Rousseau recalls how he once stole asparagus. Rather than condemn himself, Rousseau says he was misdirected. He did not steal out of greed but to “oblige the person who was making me do it…’ Thus, he concludes the act was driven not by some inward impulse that was intrinsically sinful but by a good desire that led him to perform a sinful act. He stole to help.” (109) While Augustine takes personal responsibility for being a wicked sinner, Rousseau blames social pressure for his crimes. Rousseau viewed human nature, not as inherently corrupt, but something that is corrupted by social conditions. Society, not individuals, are responsible.

In the Romanticism of the 1700s, this idea of natural goodness changed the cultural attitude toward moral law. Rather than the natural governance for human flourishing, morals became viewed as a restrictive force against human nature. Monogamous marriage, for instance, became viewed as a foreign, imposition placed on society. According to the poet Sir Percy Shelley “Love withers under constraint; its very essence is liberty.” Love must be free of all restraints, including marriage. Another poet, William Wordsworth, declared “we must turn inward” to be authentically human. According to these Romantics, society had artificially constructed humans who were no longer true to themselves but the mere customs of their surroundings. Shelley saw organized Christanity, not as simply wrong but essentially evil, keeping human beings from being truly free and happy. The only way to be truly free would be to dismantle any Higher Power.

Death to Transcendence (Neitzche)

When Freidrich Neitzche infamously declared “God is dead ”, he was not simply saying God did not exist. “The nonexistence of God is not like the nonexistence of unicorns or centaurs. Nothing significant has been built on the supposition that those mythological creatures are real. To dispense with God, however, is to destroy the very foundations on which a whole world of metaphysics and morality has been constructed and depends.” (168) Without a god, the world must be rebuilt. 

“In killing God, you take on the responsibility – the terrifying responsibility – of being god yourself, of becoming the author of your own knowledge and your own ethics. You make yourself the creator of your world.” (170) Nietzche was all about self creation, ultimately dismissing morality as a “herd instinct in the individual.” He believed human beings should have the power to create themselves, free of the demand of a Creator or society or any metaphysical morals. Be who you want to be! 

Death to Dignity (Darwin)

If Nietzsche is responsible for killing God, Charles Darwin is responsible for killing human dignity. Darwin undermined the human origins of Genesis and relativized human beings to other animals. By making humans no greater than the animals, he stripped away any standard of ethics by which we need to conform. Only the fittest survive.  “The world in itself has no meaning; meaning and significance can thus be given to it only by the actions of human beings, whether through the Nietzschean notion of self-creation… or through the Marxist notion of dialectical materialism and class struggle. In both cases meaning is created, not given.” (192)

So, without any meaning, how do we conceptualize happiness? Rousseau and the Romantics confidently asserted that nature itself held the intrinsic, sacred order to which the good life could be discovered if we could only strip away the restrictions of society. But then Nietzche, Marx and Darwin did away with that idea by dismantling human nature itself. There is nothing left to be discovered, only created. “Take away the notion of human nature, and all that is left is free-floating, subjective sentiment” (195) We must create our own happiness.

Sexual Liberation as the Key to Happiness (Freud & Reich)

So what is it that makes us happy? Freud is responsible for putting sex and sexual expression at the center of what it means to be human. In Civilizations and its Discontents, he writes “(Mankind) should continue to seek the satisfaction of happiness in life along the path of sexual relations and that he should make genital erotism the central point of his life.”

According to Freud, pleasure is our purpose. If we don’t approve of a sexual behavior it is because we are simply “phobic”. There is no objective, rational morality but simply an aesthetic morality of disgust. We don’t like it because we are socially conditioned to think it’s wrong. Freud used the example of refusing to use the toothbrush of the person we kiss. Certain social conventions are seen as moral only because they are widely accepted. The majority wins. And Freud recognized that some of our sexual urges must be controlled for society to exist. He writes, “Civilized man has exchanged a portion of his possibilities of happiness for a portion of security.” In other words, civilization is the restraining of desires for the sake of others. 

William Reich was particularly interested in this concept. He wanted to know why we control our sexual desires for the sake of so-called morality, particularly when it comes to children. In The Sexual Revolution, Reich argues that the family unit most be overcome through sex education in order to allow children to be sexually free. “The free society will provide ample room and security for gratification of natural needs… such a society will not only not prohibit the child’s masturbation but, on the contrary, will probably conclude that any adult who hinders the development of the child’s sexuality should be severely dealt with.” These words were disturbingly published in 1936 long before today’s liberals would be fighting for explicit sex education in the K-5th grade classrooms.

Today, sex has become politicized as a weapon of the ruling class because whoever is in power calls the shots on abortion, homosexuality, transgender ideology, and sex education. “If Freud identified happiness with sexual gratification, then the way to create a happy society… was to allow for a maximum amount of sexual gratification. That was Reich’s basic idea. The political question of freedom could therefore only be answered through sexual liberation.” (241) How would he accomplish it? The same way that progressive politics seek to accomplish it today: dismantling the family structure. Just like today’s politicians, Reich sees the traditional family as the greatest unit of oppression, robbing the individual of their unique identity and making them submissive to ideas of objective morality. The family poses a threat to progressive politics as long as power remains in the family unit.

But even Reich had his limits, while he argued for sexual liberation, he argued against pedophilia. Why? Not because he believed it was morally wrong. Rather, he would argue that some oppression is necessary for the function of society as long as it is not surplus oppression for the domination of the ruling class. So what things should be oppressed? Homosexuality? Beastiality? Pedophilia? He never does specify. He provides no vision of what this sexual liberation would actually look like in a civilized world. But he does tell us how to get there: education. 

In his view “The struggle to cultivate the right form of political consciousness or psychology means that things such as education and speech need to be carefully regulated in order to ensure the correct outcome.” In Reich’s world and in our world today, free speech is no longer a social good but part of the problem, oppressing the voices of the marginalized. It must be quieted and controlled in order for the progressive narrative of sexual liberation and indoctrination to thrive in our education systems. 

Be Who You Want to Be… Man or Woman?

So this leads us back to our opening statement… “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body?” That sentence makes sense to the therapeutic world of self-creation. In a world where you can bend reality to your will, denying the existence of any natural authority and obtaining the right to create your own reality. In his volume Lived Experience, Jean -Paul Satre writes, “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” This is consistent with the idea that human identity is not fundamental but socially formed.  “Being a woman is something that is learned through assimilating society’s expectations of what a woman should be.” There is no objective truth or intrinsic human nature, only a subjective human will, that can be bent and shaped and molded to whatever your heart desires. There is no purpose. Only pleasure.

So what is the way forward, or rather, the way back to the foundational truths of God’s Word? As the author confesses, “this book is neither a lament nor a polemic. It is rather an attempt to explain how the revolution of the self came to take the form it has in the West and why that is so culturally significant.” (382)

Yet, we have to respond. Because we have been born at such a time as this. And the context and the culture in which we live demands that we interact with it. The only way we can retain our human dignity is to recognize that our identity is rooted in the image of God. Human dignity and human rights are first and foremost a Christian thought. We are inherently valuable because we are made in the image of God. Expressive Individuality itself is not the problem, “Rather it is the fact that expressive individuality has detached these concepts of individual dignity and value from any kind of grounding in a sacred order.” (387)

As Christians, we must deny the temptation to self-create and trust in the One who has created us.

Ashley Giovannucci, Across My Heart

As Christians, we must deny the temptation to self-create and trust in the One who has created us. We must submit to His moral order and live as communities of Christ-followers who show the world what true human flourishing really looks like. It’s what the 2nd century Christians had to do during the political oppression of Rome. And it’s what American Christians can do when empowered by the Holy Spirit. We must remind ourselves that our identity comes, not from our feelings and desires, but from Jesus Christ and who He says we are.

In conclusion, if 432 pages seems like too much to digest, Trueman has done the church and ordinary readers a service by condensing his insights to 197 pages in A Strange New World, now available!

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