Plastic Man Cometh

On Carl Trueman’s Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

How did we get to the point in our society where it seems entirely normal to a large segment of the population that a man can become a woman, and a woman a man? This is the question Carl Trueman opens with in his much discussed new book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution.

How indeed?

To answer this question Trueman takes the reader on a wild ride through the twists and turns of the Sexual Revolution. But, Trueman notes, this is not a story that arises from nowhere in the 1960s. The Sexual Revolution, he contends, “cannot be understood until it is set within the context of a much broader transformation in how society understands the nature of human selfhood” (p. 20). Although recognizing how difficult it is to place precise historical boundaries on such an investigation, Trueman traces things back as far as the rise of 18th century European Philosophy and Romanticism. This is necessary, he says, because “acceptance of gay marriage and transgenderism are simply the latest outworking, the most recent symptoms, of deep and long-established cultural pathologies” (p. 25).

The book is broken up into four major sections. The first section, “The Architecture of the Revolution,” sets out several key concepts that Trueman employs throughout his analysis, leaning on “three philosophers of the human condition” in particular: Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, and Alisdair Macintyre.

In chapter 1 Trueman first turns to Canadian sociologist Charles Taylor. Trueman finds Taylor’s notion of the “social imaginary” useful for explaining how ideas like transgenderism have become so prevalent in our world. Few average people are aware of the wide range of abstruse ideas on offer from modern academics. And yet, these ideas have permeated the modern consciousness. For most people such notions are intuitively grasped rather than theoretically reasoned through. A case in point: the average American today believes that one’s self-chosen identity is his real self, and that it is genuinely hurtful (even inherently violent) for someone else to refuse to accept his self-chosen identity. Transgender identity is one such identity, and therefore is one that must be affirmed by all. Refusal to do so strikes at the very notion of one’s dignity and existence in the eyes of most modern people. Yet such feelings about human identity are not based on serious reflection about human nature, biology, God, etc. They are, rather, the mental and moral air in which they breath, their social imaginary.

A second idea taken from Taylor is the distinction between mimesis and poesis. Mimesis means imitation, and is the idea that the goal of life is to conform oneself to what is true (as learned from God and from nature itself). Poesis is the idea that one can make oneself into anything. On this understanding human nature is infinitely malleable; humans create their own identities. Taylor calls an approach to identity shaped by poesis “expressive individualism”: you simply get to construct your own identity without any external constraints (from nature, from Scripture, from tradition, etc.). Transgenderism is perhaps the prime example of this today, although various forms of “transhumanism” (transcending the limits of human weakness through technology) would fit into this way of thinking as well.

The American sociologist Philip Rieff’s concept of the “psychological man” is also discussed in chapter 1. This is the idea that one’s identity is not understood (as it has been traditionally) as being derived from one’s place in a community, but by an “inward quest for personal psychological happiness” (p. 45). Why is it that criticism of private sexual behavior (homosexuality, etc.) is met with such fierce denunciation today? If a person’s fundamental identity is bound up in an inward quest for psychological happiness then the answer is easy: their very identity is thereby threatened.

Thus, modern attempts to restrict freedom of speech become intelligible. In a previous age (according to its “social imaginary”) it was understood that there were many dangers in curtailing people’s right to speak freely in public. But if to speak against a certain identity is tantamount to questioning whether a person has a right to exist, if such speech is deemed violent simply in its uttering, then who wouldn’t support restrictions on such speech? This is a point that modern conservatives often struggle to grasp when they speak so vehemently in support of free speech: we’re not living in the same moral universe as those who want to restrict our speech. Simply stating that such people want to ban free speech does not motivate them to back down. Why should it? Again, if they are correct about the inherently violent nature of any speech against a person’s self-chosen identity who wouldn’t join them in seeking to prevent its free expression? Even contemporary debates about issues like free speech, then, are seen to have roots in much more fundamental differences about the very nature of human existence. It is these differences that must be addressed today, rather than merely surface issues like freedom of speech.

In chapter 2 Trueman seeks to ascertain why sexual identity has become the defining question of our society. In this chapter he employs Philip Rieff again, namely his “three worlds” taxonomy. The first world is that of pre-Christian paganism, whose sacred (or transcendental) order is mythology. The second is the Judeo-Christian worldview, rooted in the authority of God’s will. The third, which is historically unprecedented, is one in which authority is not rooted in a transcendental order at all. Morality, in other words, is not rooted in anything outside of the individual human self. Even something like a stable human nature, common to all people, is rejected.

Trueman illustrates how radically different Rieff’s second and third worlds are using the example of abortion. For second world thinkers abortion is a moral evil because it directly violates the will of God as revealed in Scripture. For a third world thinker there is no moral order that exists outside of oneself. Competing notions of human personhood go hand in hand with the different moral orders of the second and third worlds. In second world thinking a person (even a fetus) has dignity and cannot be killed without just cause because she is made in the image of God. For a third world thinker, people only have “personhood” (and are thus to be protected from killing) when they have attained a self-sufficient personhood, being able to chose for themselves their own notion of life and its meaning. In this way of thinking abortion (infanticide, euthanasia, etc.) is acceptable because a fetus cannot establish its own selfhood in this way.

In this chapter Trueman introduces a concept taken from the philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre, that of the “expressive individual,” who “is the same as the emotivist, the one who (mistakenly) grants his own personal preferences the status of universal moral imperatives” (p. 86). Moral reasoning today is carried out on the basis of emotional and aesthetic preferences rather than reasoned consideration of transcendental truths. It also operates according to a purely materialistic and this-worldly understanding of life. In a similar vein Rieff speaks of a third world anticulture that has come to dominate nearly every aspect of modern culture, from pop music to art to novels to movies. The only norm in this anticulture is the transgression of norms, a moral iconoclasm, the breakdown of all taboos. Rieff calls this anticulture a deathworks: it is a comprehensive attempt to make the transcendental truth claims of the past seem vile and disgusting (an aesthetic rather than rational or moral judgment).

The core ideas of the book are set out in Part 1. The chapters in Part 2 (chs. 3-5) trace these ideas across history, beginning with the rise of 18th century Romanticism and culminating in the triumvirate of Nietzche, Darwin, and Marx. The first figure analyzed (in ch. 3) is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Quoting Charles Taylor, Trueman devotes a whole chapter to Rousseau because he “is at the origin point of a great deal of contemporary culture, of the philosophies of self-exploration, as well as of creeds which make self-determining freedom the key to virtue” (p. 107, n. 2, quoting Taylor’s Sources of the Self, p. 362). For Rousseau, society corrupts; the noble savage is the ideal human. Authenticity is found in being willing to break with societal expectations and authenticity is more important than just about anything else in life. When you put it that way Rousseau’s contemporary relevance hardly needs emphasizing: you can’t turn on the TV or get on social media for five seconds without being bombarded with the idea that pursuing personal authenticity, completely independent of all familial, churchly, or societal expectations, is what life is all about.

In chapter 4 (perhaps unexpectedly) Trueman turns, not to another philosopher, but to three 18th and 19th century Romantic poets: William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, and William Blake. Poets such as these used the emotional power of their poetry to shape the hearts of their contemporaries. What did they stand for? Much like Rousseau they believed that traditional societal norms stifled human authenticity, as seen in their disdain for marriage on any ground other than “the mutual pleasure and satisfaction of the consenting parties” (p. 154). They posited an antithesis between reason and poetry, contending that only the latter truly had the power to form people morally). And finally, they used the persuasive power of their poetry to urge people toward radical politics, much in line with the thought of the French Revolution. Ideas like this did not come from nowhere in the 1960s: they had been fermenting and developing for several centuries by that point.

The next chapter (ch. 5) is devoted to Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin. While certainly very different in many ways, all three influentially laid the groundwork for several ideas that are central to understanding our own day. Nietzsche sought to force people to grapple with the true moral implications of atheism: in his nihilistic system the goal of life is to become the author of one’s own existence in the face of a gaping divine void in the universe. Darwin, through his atheistic contention that human development was purposeless and random, sought to destroy the very notion of human nature. And finally, Marx contended that all of human history is simply a story of oppression. For him, right and wrong do not exist as transcendental categories: there is simply power, those who have it, and those who don’t (but who are entitled to rise up and seize it). For all three figures, meaning in life “is created, not given” (p. 192).

While the whole book is important for Trueman’s argument, Part 3 (chs. 6-7) gets us closer to its main theme, that of the Sexual Revolution per se. Chapter 6 explains the thought of Sigmund Freud, who influentially shifted the modern understanding of sex away from viewing it simply as an activity “to seeing it as absolutely fundamental to identity” (p. 202). Freud argued that all of life (from infancy to old age) was to be understood in terms of sexual expression or repression. It is not hard to see how much of modern life has been shaped by this preoccupation.

Chapter 7 dives into the weeds of modern critical theory and the ways in which the Freudian obsession with sex has been politicized and weaponized by figures of the so-called New Left. Early twentieth century Marxists like the Italian Antonio Gramsci recognized that the key to power in the modern world was slowly (but surely) taking control of all of a society’s culture-making institutions (media, art, movies, music), rather than seeking a violent revolution all at once. The 20th century Frankfurt school of social thought influentially fused Freudian and Marxist thought in an attempt to undermine social norms of the day that were deemed inherently oppressive (hierarchical family structure, etc.). Herbert Marcuse’s famous essay, “Repressive Tolerance” (1965), argued that everything that stood in the way of tolerating uninhibited sexual expression and radical social upheaval should itself be repressed. Repressive tolerance is the modus operandi of progressivism today, seen most clearly in contemporary “cancel culture.” One of the most bitter fruits to emerge from these strands of thought was the idea that children should be protected, not by their parents, but from them. It is only a few short steps to arrive at the idea that children should be allowed (without parental knowledge or input) to have their bodies radically mutilated in the quest to make them conform to their chosen expression of gender. Terrifyingly, that is where we are today.

Part 4 (chs. 8-9) moves from the rise of the modern Sexual Revolution to its triumph. Chapter 8, in a study of such diverse perversions as surrealist art and pornography, contends that surrealism, at its heart, “was profoundly and aggressively political” with the aim of overthrowing “Christianity (and its corollaries—families and moral codes governing sexual behavior). And it was to do this via an emphasis in its various works of art on human desires and their attainment through the self-actualization of the individual” (p. 278). Quoting the Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce, Trueman continues: “Surrealists were almost the only ones to realize a fundamental truth: the decisive battle against Christianity could be fought only at the level of the sexual revolution. And therefore the problem of sexuality and eroticism is today the fundamental problem from the moral point of view” (p. 279, quoting Del Noce’s The Crisis of Modernity, pp. 177-78). Surrealism, although originally limited to avant garde artistic circles, has come to dominate modern pop culture, and finds it supreme manifestation, Trueman argues, in contemporary pornography.

Chapter 9 shifts from the triumph of the erotic to what Philip Rieff called the “triumph of the therapeutic” in the modern world. This is manifest today in trivial ways (the infinite variety of advertising slogans about “you doing you” and so on) and in very serious ways. A vital example of the latter is contemporary Supreme Court jurisprudence, as exemplified in a string of court cases over the last 40 to 50 years. Prominent examples include the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges case in which the court ruled that the fourteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that states license marriages between two people of the same sex. In what moral universe does this make sense? Trueman answers: “Gay marriage is plausible because of a wider transformation of the social imaginary that we have noted in earlier chapters, and the background to and justification offered by the majority for the Obergefell decision demonstrate this fact” (p. 303). The social imaginary Trueman refers to is the widespread cultural assumption that human identity is self-chosen. If a man simply desires to marry a man, it is for that reason (and that reason alone) legitimate. Former Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy famously argued in the majority opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State” (p. 303). Kennedy is no anomaly in the modern West. He, like most people today, has so thoroughly imbibed the notion that one’s existence and identity is self-chosen that no argumentation in support of this idea is even given. It is a self-evident truth.

The Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer has employed therapeutic arguments to argue that humans have no inherent right to life. For Singer this extends far beyond abortion. Even infants and the elderly should be killed if their quality of life falls below a certain threshold (severely disabled children, chronically ill adults, etc.). Herbert Marcuse’s “Repressive Tolerance” (discussed above) only makes sense in a society defined by therapeutic decision-making: if speech in some way diminishes the quality of life, if it “causes harm” (even if only emotionally) then it must be repressed. This is the mentality that has led to the widespread claim that “speech is violence.” Not calls for actual violence, mind you, but any speech can be labeled violent if the claim is made that such speech negatively impact a person’s self-worth, or self-chosen identity.

Chapter 10 examines the triumph of transgenderism in contemporary politics and cultural discourse. At the beginning of the chapter Trueman reminds his readers that “this book is not so much a study of the LGBTQ+ movement as it is a prolegomenon to such discussion” (p. 339). His goal throughout the book, in other words, has been to make the current moment in the life of our society understandable, rather than to provide the definitive answer to all the difficulties he raises. Put in his own words: the “issues we face today in terms of sexual politics are a symptom or manifestation of the deeper revolution in selfhood that the rise and triumph of expressive individualism represents” (p. 355).

In a final chapter (“Concluding Unscientific Prologue”) Trueman briefly lays out the “practical” benefits he sees arising from the historical analysis in his book. First, it helps us understand our contemporary situation, where “expressive individualism,” the idea that our will determines our identity, defines almost every aspect of how life is understood by most Westerners today. Second, Trueman insists that “Protestants need to recover both natural law and a high view of the physical body” (p. 405, emphasis original). The Bible is absolutely sufficient to teach us the way of salvation, and we must be shaped by scripture in order to understand the world around us as well. But God has revealed (non-saving) truths in creation too, and there is a long tradition of Christian reflection on these truths that falls under the heading of natural law. We will be unable to adequately interact with modern thought if we do not attend to the totality of God’s revelation, in scripture and in the created order (i.e., in nature), and this includes careful reflection on the nature of the human body as God designed it. Third, Christians should look to the life of the church in the second century: “The second-century world is, in a sense, our world, where Christianity is a choice—and a choice likely at some point to run afoul of the authorities” (p. 407).

The Rise and Fall of the Modern Self is critical reading for the contemporary church, but it is not an easy read (a more accessible version of this material is coming out in February 2022). It is clear and well-written, but it is also a dense, philosophical work. Nonetheless, it is vital that Christians (especially pastors and elders) are equipped to deal with the kinds of challenges that face the contemporary church, challenges Trueman expertly describes and analyzes in this book.

Some Christian readers might be troubled by the lack of biblical and theological argumentation in the book, but the book’s purpose should be kept in mind: it is an attempt to help contemporary Christians understand our cultural moment. Much work remains to be done in setting forth the positive Christian case for the essence of human identity, the meaning human sexuality, and the like.

I will conclude with two thoughts. First, a brief comment on how I think this book could help us convey Christian truth to modern people who hold such radically different views than our own. Contemporary moral decision making does not take place on the basis of logical deductions about the world, but rather on the basis of intuitions and feelings that have been shaped by currents of thought ranging over several centuries. This is Charles Taylor’s “social imaginary” described above. Attempting to argue with modern people whose moral vision has been shaped by a radically different social imaginary than our own often feels futile. We don’t share even the most basic assumptions about God, the world, and the nature of human existence. However, this should remind us of the need to address not just the surface issues (gay marriage, transgenderism), but even more importantly, people’s foundational presuppositions about the world, about the nature of human identity, and so on. We cannot address these problems unless we can first articulate what human nature is. Contrasting the dreadful consequences of life lived according to the creed of self-creation with the biblical picture of a life well-lived will also be vital. As the Polish political philosopher Ryszard Legutko puts it, regarding modern views of human identity: “[R]eal change will come only when the current view of man spends itself and is considered inadequate” (The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, p. 181).

Second, it is essential that Christians engage in self-examination, not merely noting all of the problems out there. Trueman’s book can help us do so. Expressive individualism, self-created identities, the triumph of the therapeutic, and the whole sum of the destructive ideologies Trueman examines in his book are not just ideas out in the world. They have thoroughly infiltrated the walls of the church as well. Since all of this is the air we breath in the modern world, this is not surprising. But it is devastating nonetheless. From emotionally-driven sermons and music in worship, to an aversion to creedal Christianity, to the idea that what matters most is what the Bible means to you and what God is speaking to you, privately, as an individual, the philosophical frameworks Trueman examines are alive and well in the modern church. Hopefully, this book will prompt beneficial self-examination among Christians in these areas too. If Christians cannot resist the triumph of the modern self in their own lives and churches, it will be impossible for them to speak words of truth and hope to a confused and hopeless world.

*Image Credit: Pexels

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Ben Dunson Ben C. Dunson is the Editor-in-Chief of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.