Carl Trueman and the “Modern Self”

“I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.”

Carl Trueman wrote The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self to explain how it is possible that this nonsensical statement actually “makes sense” in 2021. To explain this phenomenon, Trueman engages in a remarkable work of historical philosophy, explaining how the ideas of the past impact the way we think today. After reading Trueman’s book, I felt like I was able to understand the world with new clarity.

**One disclaimer … this brief blog post in no way encapsulates the content of Trueman’s 400 page book. However, the content of the book is so helpful and so timely, that providing even a brief summary is worthwhile. Those who want to understand these issues better should make the effort to work through all 400 pages of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. However, realizing that many will not read a 400 page work of historical philosophy, I am offering some of the key insights that helped me understand the world in which we live.**

In Part One, Trueman presents three ideas that are foundational for understanding the history of ideas that have culminated in our culture accepting the statement, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.”

  • First, Trueman appeals to Philip Rieff and his writing on the triumph of the “therapeutic age” and the ubiquity of “psychological man.” The emphasis here shows that our age is supremely concerned with how one feels (the therapeutic age) and the inner sense of self (psychological man). This analysis has been confirmed by sociologist Christian Smith, among others.
  • Second, Trueman appeals to Charles Taylor and his writing on the “social imaginary.” Essentially, Taylor is talking about the dominant worldview that pervades a culture. The social imaginary may not be a fully worked out, internally consistent worldview, but it is a dominant, prevailing worldview, nonetheless. The ideas of our day are not always explicit and thoroughly understood. They are, however, shared by many in our culture.
  • Third, Trueman appeals to Alastair MacIntyre and his writing on “emotivism,” or the idea that all ethical discourse is merely the expression of preference and feeling. Ethics is not the study of what is right or wrong. Rather, ethics is a discussion about personal preferences and how one feels about certain issues. This is certainly true of western culture today. No one has the “right” to talk about transcendent moral truth, only about what we see and feel from our limited and possibly privileged perspective.

In part two, Trueman traces four historical ideas that have been passed down to the present, ideas that shape the way many Americans think and vote and live, even if the original thinkers are not widely known.

  • Jacques Rousseau (and the Romantics). Rousseau focused on the inner self as most important, and he argued that society and its expectations were a constraint and corruption of our inner selves. What matters most is not who society says you ought to be, but who you are on the inside. This is clearly an idea that holds wide social currency today, and it’s on display in virtually every Disney movie and every rom-com on Netflix.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche insisted that morality was a matter of taste and preference. He also argued that imposing morality on others was nothing more than a power game. His advice was that each person ought to live their life for maximum pleasure, which could be in the short term or long term. It goes without saying that our age is one in which people feel entitled to live for their own definition of happiness, even if that means ignoring traditional moral codes that society has always accepted.
  • Karl Marx. Marx taught that human history was the story of one class of people dominating other classes of people. He saw moral codes as told that had been used to control people and maintain superiority over people. As such, all moral codes were historically situated and unique. Today there is great nobility in identifying as an oppressed victim, and there is a widespread assumption in the social imaginary that morality is historically situated and culturally unique. Just listen to the progressives who rail against the oppressive nature of Christian morality but remain silent on human rights abuses in the Middle East and in China.
  • Charles Darwin. Darwin completely severed human nature from teleology, that is, the idea that human beings have an objective nature, design, and purpose. By introducing the concept of natural selection to an evolutionary worldview, Darwin solidified the notion that the world itself has no intrinsic meaning. If we are simply the result of evolutionary progress via natural selection, there can be no meaning, no teleology. Thus, we are free to invent meaning and teleology for ourselves.

In part three, Trueman explains how the ideas of Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin were applied and sexualized by Freud, Reich, and Marcuse. These insights help explain the widespread influence of the sexual revolution and the dominance of the LGBTQ+ agenda.

  • Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that human beings were sexual creatures from infancy. He saw sexuality as essential to our identity as humans. If Rousseau psychologized human nature, Freud sexualized human nature. Essential to Freud’s thought is the notion that sex is more than an activity. Sex is actually the thing that defines who we are as human. Combined with the idea that the inner self matters more than biology or traditional morality, this sexualization of human nature has resulted in many people feeling that they need to be honest to their true self by expressing their inner, sexualized self.
  • Wilhelm Reich. Reich picked up on Marx’s idea of class conflict and added a sexual twist. He did this for a political purpose. By uniting the thought of Freud (humans are sexual beings) and Marx (humans are oppressed beings), Reich concluded that civilizations and culture have issued sexual codes to repress classes of people and to deny people the opportunity to be their true selves. These sexual codes have served to preserve power for those at the top of society, usually seen as white, heterosexual males. In light of this oppression, the proper responses are revolution and re-education.
  • Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse believed that capitalism thrived under the mores of monogamy and patriarchy. Since monogamy and patriarchy were no longer deemed moral absolutes, their continuation only served to perpetuate the dominance of one class of people over another class of people. Again, this dominant class is typically defined as white, heterosexual males. Politically speaking, Marcuse argued that tolerance for alternative lifestyles was not enough. He demanded approval for all lifestyles. To merely tolerate others was to essentially deny their true, inner self and their very reason to exist.

In part four, Trueman explains how the sexualized version of psychological man has impacted popular culture. The impact has been widespread, and new examples abound everyday.

  • Surrealism is an artistic movement that set out to obliterate all sense of boundary and restriction. Doing this gives free reign to the inner self – the true self. Doing this also requires the overthrow of Christianity and its repressive sexual codes through a sexual revolution. Surrealism has done what it set out to do. Boundaries have been erased, and people are encouraged to live out whatever desires they find within themselves.
  • The Supreme Court has accepted the social imaginary of the post-modern world by making decisions in light of the emotional well being of people who claim to be members of oppressed classes of people. The Obergefell case was such a decision, insisting that marriage not be restricted to a man and a woman because such restriction would prove harmful to those on the outside. Future cases will likely be decided on the basis of how our laws will affect the inner well-being of oppressed classes of people.
  • Peter Singer is best known for his work in ethics, although many people would find his views to be anything but “ethical.” Singer has argued, in line with Darwinian thought, that human beings are not privileged as a class of beings. He insists that animals ought to have the same rights as human beings. Additionally, Singer has insisted that a decision is moral if and only if it aids our sense of emotional well-being. Thus, an act like abortion or infanticide is morally justified if it contributes to the emotional well-being of the adults involved in the decision itself.
  • Campus Culture refers to the on campus life of a university. While freedom of speech has long been a hall mark of liberal, demoratic societies, that freedom now threatens the inner sense of well being for oppressed minority groups. Thus, free speech cannot be allowed in the name of protecting the emotional well being of those who feel threatened by various forms of speech. This rejection of free speech is also seen in the toxic desire to “cancel” anyone whose views do not align with the dominant social imaginary.
  • The LGBTQ+ Movement is a diverse group of people who have aligned for political reasons as a class os oppressed people. The T is a late-comer whose presence disrupts the logic of the L and G. The transgender movement represents the full manifestation o f people who deny biology and DNA in favor of the unassailable inner sense of who we are as human beings. Even if our DNA insists that we are male or female, the “emotivism” of “psychological man” insists that we are free to determine our gender and our biological sex. This is the triumph of the modern self.

Trueman’s work is insightful. Throughout the book he offers both critique of the “modern self” and suggestion for how Christians ought to engage the social imaginary of our culture.

He says this in the epilogue, “It should be clear that in the age in which we live, we are taught to be authentic in such a way that identity, recognition, and belonging are now deeply connected to the sexual desires we have and the manner in which we express them.” (P. 392) Trueman’s assessment is right, and Christians who live in such a social imaginary must work hard to make sure they are not conformed to the world, but transformed by the Word.