The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

If you have been paying attention to the world of Christian cultural analysis, you will probably have heard of Carl Trueman’s recent book titled The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. The foreword is written by well-known author Rod Dreher, and the book was reviewed with acclaim in countless Christian and some non-Christian outlets. It is, as they say, a must-read. I needed no such convincing for I have enjoyed Trueman’s writing for many years now and was looking forward to this book ever since I first heard he was working on it. Despite my anticipation, I took my time reading it, completing the first half in the early months of 2021, and then listening to that first half again in audiobook format before moving on and completing the last half of the book in late summer.

The book aims to shows how we got to the point as a society where it is plausible to large swaths of the Western world for someone to say “I am an man trapped in a woman’s body.” With this in mind, Trueman takes the reader on a journey, explaining the sexual revolution as a history of ideas. Rather than a loud polemical denunciation with ample Scripture verses, which may be considered as the knee-jerk evangelical reaction to every new madhouse chapter in the unfolding sexual and cultural revolution, the author did the hard work of reading and understanding the roots of this phenomenon and applying the insights of some of the best cultural thinkers of the last century: Charles Taylor, Philip Rieff, and Alasdair MacIntyre.

In the introduction, Trueman notes how many Christians were amazed at how quickly society moved from a position where “in the early 2000’s a majority of people were broadly opposed to gay marriage to one where, by 2020, trangenderism is well on its way to becoming more orless normalized. The mistake such Christians made was failing to realize that broader, underlying social and cultural conditions made both gay marriage and then transgender ideology first plausible and then normative and that these conditions have been developing for hundreds of years.” (p.25). It is the historical development of these cultural conditions that the author goes on to trace in the rest of the book.

Before diving into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, Trueman equips the reader with some intellectual tools. From Philip Rieff he borrows the concepts of the triumph of the therapeutic, psychological man, the anticulture, and deathworks. From Charles Taylor, the modern notion of the expressive self and the ‘social imaginary’. Lastly, from MacIntyre, the realization that ethical discourse is broken “because it rests ultimately on incommensurable narratives and that claims to moral truth are really expressions of emotional preference.” (p. 26). These insights, once grasped, are put to work in subsequent chapters. Having had only some passing familiarity with these thinkers, I found this section extremely helpful, if a little dense. The value of these insights for understanding our world as we find it today is hard to exagerrate, as each thinker makes significant contributions to one’s understanding of our culture.

Throughout the main body of the book, Trueman selects a number of historical figures whose thought he considers to be causing transitions or illustrating transitions in Western thought: Rousseau, Wordsworth, Shelley, Blake, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, Freud, and finally some figures in the New Left such as Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse. To trace the argument in a nutshell, we can hardly do better than this line from chapter 7:

“To follow Rousseau is to make identity psychological. To follow Freud is to make psychology, and thus identity, sexual. To mesh this combination with Marx is to make identity – and therefore sex – political.” (p. 250)

If that makes complete sense to you, then perhaps you don’t need to read the book! But for the rest of us, tracing these developments across the centuries helps make so much sense of why we find ourselves where we are today in the West. I know of no other book that is so helpful in this regard.

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