THE RISE AND TRIUMPH OF THE MODERN SELF: A Review of Carl Trueman’s New Book
Carl Trueman is a British evangelical scholar. He earned a Ph.D. in Church History from the University of Aberdeen, and an M.A. in Classics from the University of Cambridge. Trueman has taught at Westminster Seminary and also served as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University. He is now a professor of biblical studies at Grove City College.
Trueman has written a new, and somewhat large, assessment of how we have arrived at the modern view of self in Western culture. He argues that something has clearly changed—modern culture is obsessed with identity. This had not historically been the case, so what’s changed? According to Trueman, a seismic cultural shift took place with deep roots in thinkers like Rousseau, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche.
In brief, Rousseau and company redefined the “true self” as the inner psychological self, claiming that God is no longer the one who defines a person. Freud added to Rousseau’s perspective by saying that the fundamental key to human existence is our sexual identity. Thus once the self was psychologized, psychology must then be sexualized, and sex must be politicized. Once this occurs, the triumph of the therapeutic has taken over the cultural landscape.
Trueman opens his book by posing a sobering scenario: namely that his grandfather (who died in 1994) would have been unable to fathom a common statement that we hear today, “I am a man trapped in a woman’s body.” Trueman uses the intervening 30 years between 1994 and today, to show how far we have drifted as a culture and how we arrived where we are.
The inner self is now the ultimate sovereign in Western culture. That’s why the emotional reactions are so caustic when people openly criticize someone’s gender preferences or sexual choices. This is the new blasphemy. As such, Trueman argues that the LGBTQ sexual revolution is a symptom, and not a cause of the search for identity.
Trueman’s book is not an easy read, but it’s worth it. It’s difficult to distill his 400 pages of nuanced intellectual history into a few paragraphs, but his title, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, explains the overall thrust of his argument. Intellectual, aesthetic, and cultural developments in the West have radically transformed, by way of secular dissatisfaction, how modern men and women conceive of human identity and liberty and flourishing. The change wrought has been massive indeed!