As I was reading The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl R. Trueman, I knew very early that it would be one of my favorite books of the year. I can say without hyperbole The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is the most profound cultural analysis I’ve read.
“I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body” is the springboard of the book. Not long ago that statement would have been considered nonsense, and anyone saying it would be morally suspect. Today, if you even question the validity of that statement, you are considered a bigot and deemed unworthy of any social standing, platform, or even livelihood. How did we get from point A to point B? That’s what Trueman attempts to answer.
The Modern Self
You should understand that The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is not a lament or even an apologetic. Trueman doesn’t attack anyone or promote a political viewpoint. He offers very few strategies for Christians at the end, but even hesitates to do that. Trueman says that’s not what this book is about. He simply explains the historical narrative of how our culture thinks about selfhood and identity today.
At the heart of this book lies a basic conviction: the so-called sexual revolution of the last sixty years, culminating in its latest triumph—the normalization of transgenderism—cannot be properly understood until it is set within the context of a much broader transformation in how society understands the nature of human selfhood. The sexual revolution is as much a symptom as it is a cause of the culture that now surrounds us everywhere we look, from sitcoms to Congress.
Plastic & Pliable
Trueman structures the book in four parts. The narrative of concepts build on one another through history. Part one lays the groundwork for the concepts he will return to throughout the book as he examines what he calls a “long and complicated story.” Trueman builds off the work of philosophers Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair McIntyre. He introduces and uses their concepts frequently. You’re going to want to read this chapter slowly and highlight key terms like mimesis and poiesis, social imaginary, and expressive individualism. They come up again.
Part Two begins the historical narrative and focuses on concepts introduced by Rousseau, the Romantics, Nietzche, Marx, and Darwin. I found this part of the book fascinating, because we don’t typically think about or mention these historical figures very much, but they had a profound influence on how we think. The most surprising to me is Nietzche, who I imagine most people don’t really know much about at all. These thinkers psychologized identity and the idea of selfhood. Human identity became plastic and completely pliable.
Trueman writes of Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin:
These three effectively strip away the metaphysical foundations for both human identity and for morality, leaving the latter, as Nietzsche is happy to point out, a matter of mere taste and manipulative power games.
Sexualized & Politicized
Part Three focuses on psychology, and specifically Freud and others who advanced Freudian concepts. Trueman explains how these concepts sexualized psychology. Building on the concepts of those who came before, identity became sexualized. Building on Marx’s concepts, identity then became politicized, which means sexuality also became politicized.
Part four brings us to our current day and culture. Trueman explains how the concepts previously mentioned have worked together to currently shape our society and culture. Part four examines the rise and acceptance of the erotic. It explains how the concepts of the therapeutic self have played out in higher education and the Supreme Court. Finally, it examines the rise and acceptance of transgenderism. All of these concepts demand that traditional frameworks be labelled and destroyed.
A Dangerous Place
My interpretation is that our modern obsession with identity—psychologically, sexually, racially, therapeutically—has created a culture that worships “self” like no other. In fact, we worship our ability to self-identify and self-create to the point that identity is completely pliable. Anything goes, unless of course I feel it threatens my concept of selfhood. Our culture is now anticulture. “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 17:6) It’s a dangerous place to be.
The Rise and Triumph of the Self is extremely well researched and written. It is a long book. It also uses a lot of unfamiliar terms, which may make it a difficult read if you’re not familiar with them. I read it very slowly to digest it. However, it is very rewarding and the most important cultural analysis of the year. I highly recommend it. You can get a copy here.