No Christian book I’ve read better outlines the historical origins of our modern cultural zeitgeist than Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Trueman opens with a simple question: how did the statement “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” come to make sense? In other words, what are the metaphysical and psychological assumptions that make this statement more intelligible than a statement like “I am a square circle” or “I am the color blue,” which would be met with bemusement? The answer is provided over the course of four hundred pages, which trace the various ideas that have shaped our modern imagination.
And I do mean “our.” While Christians have the necessary resources to push back against some of the most dangerous and devastating assumptions of our culture, we’re unavoidably shaped by them. Consequently, Trueman’s book does not just provide a key to understanding the world, but an opportunity to reflect on our own unexamined beliefs.
Framing the Question
In Chapters 1 and 2, Trueman explores the work of sociologist Philip Rieff and philosopher Charles Taylor. Although Rieff’s notions of the political, religious, economic, and psychological man are interesting, the most useful concepts introduced are Taylor’s “expressive individualism” and his “social imaginary.”
By “social imaginary” Taylor means not a “conscious philosophy of life” but the “way people think about the world, how they imagine it to be, [and] how they act intuitively in relation to it” (p. 37). To put it another way, the “social imaginary” captures our reflexive thoughts, emotions, and reactions, even if they contradict our consciously-held beliefs. For example, as Americans, when we meet a new person, one of the first questions we ask is “What do you do?” We don’t ask: “Who is your father?” or “Do you have any hobbies?” or “What brings you the most joy in life?” If we were pushed, most of us would insist that a person’s job is not the most important or interesting thing about them. Yet, as Americans, part of our “social imaginary” is the importance of our job to our identity.
“Expressive individualism” is the idea that “each of us finds our meaning by giving expression to our own feelings and desires” (p. 46). To build on the previous example, a man in 1920 and a man in 2020 might both find identity in their occupation. But how they derive “job satisfaction” reflects the ways in which the social imaginary has shifted over the intervening decades. While Trueman’s grandfather would have found satisfaction in how his job enabled him to care for his family, Trueman’s instinct is “to talk about the pleasure that teaching gives [him], about the sense of personal fulfillment [he feels]” (p. 47). We define ourselves by the psychological well-being we find in expressing our needs and preferences.
With these tools in hand, Trueman charts the development of the modern sense of self in three stages: first, the psychologization of self (Chapters 3-5); second, the sexualization of psychology (Chapter 6); and third, the politicization of sex (Chapter 7). His thesis is that modern Americans increasingly see identity as a product of our inner psychological state, which is authentically expressed in large part by recognizing and transgressing traditional sexual norms. Once we understand how this view developed, we’ll be able to understand why the sentiment “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” is seen not merely as comprehensible, but as deeply authentic and praiseworthy.
Self as Psychology
While Trueman recognizes that every historical development depends on innumerable antecedents, he begins his discussion of the psyschologization of self with Rousseau, most famous for his concept of the “noble savage.” According to Rousseau, all the vices and immorality of man are the product of society, which teaches him amour propre, an immoral tendency to “set greater store by himself than by anyone else” (Rousseau, quoted on p. 117). Conversely, morality is natural to man and is rooted in his own feelings of empathy; it is not discovered in any external standard.
The Romantic poets William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Blake picked up on this theme of seeing the natural as good and unspoiled. Not only does society corrupt what is innocent, but religion and sexual norms in particular are complicit in this corruption and therefore must be resisted. Trueman concludes: “the historical connection between expressive individualism, sex, and politics, so typical of our own day, was already beginning to be made by Romantic writers such as Shelley and Blake in the early nineteenth century. That particular aspect of our current cultural times is not a recent innovation brought about by the sixties” (p. 158). All of these thinkers appealed to a kind of “emotivism” which equates morality with feelings, albeit feelings that are common to all humanity.
The final link in the chain is provided by Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin. Nietzsche pronounced God dead, but chastised Enlightenment thinkers for “[failing] to draw the necessary, broader metaphysical and moral conclusions” (p. 168). If God is dead, then meaning is dead, morality is dead, and human nature is dead. Marx’s critiques imply that “ethics and moral codes, like religion, are functions of the material structure of society and serve the interests of maintaining that structure by justifying.. the status quo” (p. 184). Finally, “[b]y dispatching the idea of teleology from nature, Darwin inevitably dispatched it from human being too [leading to] a fundamental revision of the understanding of who and what human beings are” (p. 187).
The net result of this first stage of development is that the weight of self, morality, and meaning are all shifted from some external, objective ground to an internal, subjective ground. The next step in the process was the sexualization of psychology, which depended on the work and influence of Sigmund Freud.
Psychology as Sex
If earlier thinkers challenged the validity of traditional sexual mores, it was Sigmund Freud who made these mores central to the human condition. He couched his analysis in scientific rather than philosophical language, but whether his theories were true is largely irrelevant: “Even if his theories are myths in the sense of not being factually correct, that does not prevent them from possessing powerful and continuing cultural influence” (p. 204).
Like his predecessors, Freud “stood in basic continuity” with the idea that unhappiness is the result of “the corrupting power of civilized society in fueling amour propre, which prevented people from being true to themselves” (p. 205). However, he “radically sexualizes and darkens” this vision (p. 205) because he believes that man’s natural desires are “dark, violent, and irrational” (p. 206). Thus, society represents a kind of trade-off between immediate sexual fulfillment, which would lead to chaos, and sexual frustration, which allows for civilization. Through the creation of sexual norms and especially through religious teaching, “society is able to maintain broad control of the way people behave. Guilt is the internal regulator of the individuals sexual conduct” (p. 219).
However, Freud’s more significant contribution was seeing sexuality as a core constituent of humanity: “Of critical importance to the modern age is his development of both a theory of sexuality the places the sex drive at the very core of who and what human being are from infancy… before Freud, sex was an activity, for procreation or for recreation; after Freud, sex is definitive of who we are as individuals, as societies, and as a species” (p. 221). Sexual awareness and sexual fulfillment were also central to Freud’s theories of child development. Rather than seeing children as innocent and asexual until puberty, he saw them passing through various sexualized stages prior to puberty (oral, anal, phallic, etc..). Thus, the self became psychological and the psychological became sexual. The third and final phase combined Freud with Marx to argue that sexuality is political.
Sex as Politics
Numerous figures in the first two stages saw the transgression of traditional sexual morality as the key to individual happiness, but the Sexual Revolution was propelled by the conviction that it was also the key to political liberation. This idea took center stage in the work of Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, two members of the Frankfurt School. Under the heading of “Critical Theory,” these scholars and others synthesized the work of Marx and Freud to argue that political liberation required, among other things, the subversion and dismantling of dominant norms surrounding sexuality.
While Marcuse himself is still incredibly relevant (I highly recommend reading his essay “Repressive Tolerance“), critical theory has expanded significantly since its inception. I’ll quote Trueman at length here:
The contemporary political scene is dominated by issues of identity–racial, sexual, ethnic, and otherwise [which are undergirded by] the cluster of philosophical approaches to such matters known by the umbrella term critical theory. Critical theory is today a diverse phenomenon that draws deeply and variously on strands of Marxist thought, psychoanalysis, feminist theory, postcolonialism, poststructuralism, queer theory, and deconstruction… at the core of the various approaches of critical theorists lies a relatively simply set of convictions: the world is to be divided up between those who have power and those who do not; the dominant Western narrative of truth is really an ideological construct designed to preserve the power structure of the status quo; and the goal of critical theory is therefore to destabilize this power structure by destabilizing the dominant narratives that are used to justify –to ‘naturalize’– it” (p. 225-226)
With the rise of critical theory, the final pieces of the puzzle are in place. Accordingly, we could describe the 21st-century American social imaginary regarding the “self” in the folowing way:
The self is defined internally and psychologically. Our identity is created as we express our desires and emotions, especially our sexual desires and emotions. Yet the ruling class enforces their dominance and preserves the status quo by restricting our sexual freedom through laws, norms, and values. Thus, we can only be truly free to live as our authentic selves if we dismantle the existing system and create a new one which not only tolerates but celebrates our identity.
This short summary explains numerous modern phenomena, from safe spaces (disagreement threatens my identity) to speech codes (words are violent because even if they don’t physically threaten my body, they threaten my true, psychological self) to the exalted role of lived experience (I alone have access to my true self via my internal psychological state) to the politically activist nature of the LGBTQ movement (mere “tolerance” perpetuates oppressive norms and values).
It’s difficult to adequately praise Trueman’s excellent book, so instead I’ll start with potential criticisms.
First, Trueman declares in both the introduction and conclusion that his book is “not to be read as either a lament or a polemic” (p. 383). In this aim, he surely succeeds. The first 379 pages are mainly detailed explorations of the thought of various historical figures with little to no criticism. For that reason, readers who merely skim the book may not recognize the depth of the threat posed to Christianity by this modern sense of self.
Second, a project as broad and complex as Trueman’s is necessarily open to all kinds of nit-picking. Why wasn’t more space given to Foucault or Derrida? Is Rousseau really the right place to start? Was surrealism really as influential as Trueman suggests? Any attempt to write a detailed history of ideas spanning two centuries can always be faulted for being incomplete.
Conversely, precisely the opposite charge can be leveled: the book is too complicated. Trueman doesn’t provide a nice, clear, linear narrative from A to B to C. Where is the two-minute elevator speech on “expressive individualism”? Where are the bullet points? Where are the Tweetable pull-quotes? (Although there are, actually, a few of these)
Yet I’d argue that all of these weaknesses are ultimately strengths. The fact that the book is not a diatribe makes it nearly impossible to dismiss it as the propaganda of a partisan culture warrior. And while other figures could have been included, Trueman surely included enough to make his point: our cutting-edge ideas about sexuality and identity have deep historical roots. Finally, the complexity of the book shows that Trueman is committed to faithfully representing his sources rather than trimming them down to fit into some preconceived pattern.
For all these reasons, Trueman’s approach seems exceptionally prudent. Critics will have to deal with the actual content rather than tossing out ad hominems.
My only real criticism of the book is that it was so narrowly focused on gender and sexuality that it doesn’t discuss other components of identity on which critical theory has made such a tremendous impact: race, class, disability, nationality, and so forth. For example, we certainly don’t “perform” race in the same way that we supposedly “perform” gender and sexuality, but our conception of race still influences how we view ourselves, our place in society, and our relationship with others. Yet given space constraints, it’s understandable that Trueman limited his scope. We will have to await a sequel.
In summary, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is crucial reading for all Christians and especially Christian pastors trying to understand the underlying assumptions at work in the culture around us. I will say loudly what Trueman says softly: these ideas are deadly. They are grounded in a denial of human nature, they are predicated upon an understanding of reality that views God’s commands as evil and oppressive, and they sow seeds of misery, fragility, and discord wherever they go. Those are the Tweetable bullet points. But if you want depth (and you should want depth), read the book.
See all content on critical theory here.
- Intro to Critical Theory
- A Short Review of Wilchins’ Queer Theory, Gender Theory
- A Short Review of Levinson’s Beyond Critique
“Once harm and oppression are regarded as primarily psychological categories, freedom of speech then becomes part of the problem, not the solution, because words become potential weapons” p. 55
“The intuitive moral structure of our modern social imaginary prioritizes victimhood, sees selfhood in psychological terms, regards traditional sexual codes as oppressive and life denying, and places a premium on the individual’s right to define his or her own existence.” p. 63
“For those who see history through this [Marxist] lens, historians will thus fall into one of two camps: reactionaries who use history to justify exploitation and radicals who use history to unmask the exploitation it embodies. As I argue later, it is the latter model that has come to dominate history as an academic discipline…Further, a relatively simple taxonomy comes into play: history is about victimizers and victims, with the former being the villains and the latter the heroes….In this regard, we can see the modern turn to the weak and the marginalized in the academic discipline of history to be a scholarly manifestation of the wider victimhood culture that now has great significance in public debates and popular attitudes about rights and dignity” p. 95-96
“Being Marie Antoinette is… not a viable option for me. My body, not my psychology, has the last word on whether I am the last queen of France in the eighteenth century.” p. 165
“Reich strikes a note that will be of great significance in Marxist thinking…: The traditional patriarchal family is a unit of oppression…those who argue for the traditional family as a societal good are really lackeys, witting or unwitting, of the current oppressive status quo.” p. 234
“[Reich’s] connection between the family and political oppression is of lasting significance for left-wing politics: the dismantling and abolition of the nuclear family are essential if political liberation is to be achieved” (p. 235)
“While asserting that the patriarchal family is the single most important unit of ideological control for an oppressive and totalitarian regime, Reich also believes that the state must be used to coerce families and, where necessary, actively punish those who dissent from the sexual liberation being proposed. In short, the state has the right to intervene in family matters because the family is potentially the primary opponent of political liberation through its cultivation and policing of traditional sexual codes” p. 237
[According to Marcuse] Taboos and the concept of perversions are the means by which the bourgoisie demonizes any type of sexual behavior that threatens [their] control [over the proletariat]…Sex focused on procreation and family is the repressive weapon of bourgeois capitalist society. and free love and untrammeled sexual experimentation are a central part of the revolutionary liberation of society” p. 248
“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” p. 250
“In a world in which psychology perverted by false consciousness is the key problem, oppression becomes a psychological category…Thus, it becomes necessary to make sure that good words and ideas… are, if possible, enforced and given a monopoly in public discourse” p. 251-252
“Marxism’s notion of false consciousness is in essence a sophisticated rationale for justifying not simply a type of intellectual snobbery but also a form of gnostic knowledge, such hat all and any criticism of Marcuse and company is merely sure evidence of the false consciousness of the critic” p. 253
“The marriage of Marx and Freud at the hands of the New Left [resulted in] the now-standard leitmotif of oppression as society’s imposition of its own values imposition of its own values and norms on the individual” p. 263
“In Marx [oppression and victimhood] was understood in economic terms, but from the mid-twentieth century onward it became psychological, as in the various manifestations of critical theory” p. 267
“To pick on Harvard history again, it is clear that the curriculum reflects the political concerns of the prsent day. Porn, feminism, colonial violence, racism, and minority histories are all prominent, even as thge Reformation and the Renaissance are not. Of course, the response will be that traditional curricular priorities also reflected the political interests of the dominant class of the period in which they were developed. They were the curricula of dead, white, Western, heterosexual males. And therein lies the problem: for the one for whom everything is political, there is no context for discussing such things as the content of a curriculum in a pre- or nonpolitical manner. The content is simply part of the political struggle. This is why such debates are so fruitless–they typically involve the clash of two or more utterly incommensurable ways of looking at the world” p. 335
“victimhood emerged as a key virtue, perhaps the key virtue, out of the Marxist tradition of New Left thinking” p. 345
“one of the hallmarks of ethical discussions today is its dependence on personal narratives. Our Bodies, Ourselves, the feminist bible, is full of personal testimonties presented as incontrovertible precisely because they are personal testimonies–the highest form of authority in an age of expressive individualism” p. 403