The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, by Carl Trueman (with Foreward by Rod Dreher). Crossway, 2020, 425 pages, $34.99.

Had I entered a coma during my cancer year (2004, only one year after Lawrence v. Texas abolished anti-sodomy laws) and emerged nearly two decades later, I would have felt like Rip Van Winkle, who awoke to find that the colonies were now a country (by a generous definition, anyway). Less than a decade before those treatments, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) passed both houses of Congress by large, veto-proof majorities, and though Democratic President Clinton criticized the law as “divisive and unnecessary,” he nonetheless signed it into law in September 1996. That was before I entered my hypothetical coma. Shortly after, though President Obama disagreed with gay marriage when he ran for his first term (2008), by his second term he referred to those who disagreed with gay marriage as “haters.” DOMA was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Windsor (2013) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), both of which argued that it is unconstitutional to regard heterosexual marriage as more legitimate than homosexual unions. Biological males (“cisgender” men in the new imagination) competed against biological females in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The change was profound and appeared to be sudden.

The change was not sudden. As Carl Trueman displays in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, the re-imagining of what it is to be human took place over the course of more than two centuries in the West, promoted by individuals such as Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, and Darwin. What we commonly regard as the “sexual revolution” is much larger than that; said sexual revolution was and is merely one manifestation of an entire re-imagining or re-conceiving of what the human essentially is. As Trueman puts it:

the sexual revolution is simply one manifestation of the larger revolution of the self that has taken place in the West. And it is only as we come to understand that wider context that we can truly understand the dynamics of the sexual politics that now dominate our culture. (20, emphases mine)

Trueman is aided in his analysis by other students of cultural and intellectual history, including Charles Taylor, Philip Rieff, and Alasdair MacIntyre, yet his work goes further and broader and examines particular roots of the modern conception of the self not only in figures we ordinarily associate with the revolution—such as Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin—but in others who are less frequently observed, such as the infamous Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake.

The book is divided into four parts. In the first part, Trueman discusses the Architecture of the Revolution, in which he provides important definitions and concepts that will be crucial to his analysis. The second part—Foundations of the Revolution—is where Trueman’s analysis reaches back further into Western cultural history than most other analysts do, preceding the exposition of Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin with his analysis of Rousseau, Wordsworth, Shelley, Blake, and others. This was the aspect that I found to be perhaps the most beneficial in the book, because the roots went back substantially prior to the nineteenth century, even back into the late-eighteenth century. Part 3 of the book deals with the Sexualization of the Revolution and demonstrates how Freud (et. al.) informed the New Left. Part 4 discusses the Triumphs of the Revolution in its tripartite analysis of the Triumph of the Erotic, the Triumph of the Therapeutic, and the Triumph of the T (his term not only for transgenderism but for the entire conception of the human that animates transgenderism).

Throughout, Trueman weaves seamlessly his references to both primary and secondary literature where pertinent, and the proper blending of the two is what makes the book so engaging to read, in a field of study (intellectual history) that is ordinarily so pedantic that it drives away all but its most committed devotees. Not since Goldilocks has an author so frequently gotten it “just right.” The primary references are convincing, and the secondary references assure the reader that Trueman’s view is not idiosyncratic, even though it is distinctive (and possibly, in its entirety, unique).

Rousseau justly plays a large role in Trueman’s analysis, as he did in Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals, in which Johnson referred to him in the book’s first chapter as “An Interesting Madman,” with considerable justification. But while Johnson justly called attention to Rousseau’s remarkable failure as a husband and father, Trueman demonstrates that Rousseau was not un-principled, but principled; his own intellectual principles led him to believe that monogomous heterosexual marriage was an instrument of oppression that needed to be resisted. He was committed, as it were, to being uncommitted to his wife and children. For Rousseau, such abandonment of one’s family was not merely permissible; it was mandatory. Prior to Trueman, I don’t recall anyone else demonstrating so convincingly that the re-imagined human is not merely permitted to march to a different drummer; he is required to do so.

The broad movement over the last two-plus centuries has many specific dimensions, each thoughtfully elucidated by Trueman; but the fundamental change in conception is from what we could call “external man” to “internal man.” Where the older conception defined the human externally by nation, geography, religion, vocation, family, ethnicity, or any other external reality, the newer conception defines the human internally, by the self, untethered by or to any external realities. When Rousseau asserted that the human “was born free, but is everywhere in chains,” any external reality was conceived by him as a kind of chain or bondage. Only the internal self is truly free to be a true self.

As is true with almost all significant books, this one should be read at a single moment, and not spread out over weeks. Those will read it best who set aside a weekend, or a couple days of vacation time, to read the volume in its entirety. Since Trueman’s goal is for readers to perceive the historical trail that brought us to the present moment, it is best to read it with few interruptions. Only then will readers see the coherence of our present incoherence. If you find yourself—as I did—feeling like Rip Van Winkle awakening to an entirely new order, this thorough and insightful work will disabuse you of the notion. Church officers especially will be aided by eschewing the superficial commentary of the various news media in order to see such a convincing display of the historic roots of the present cultural moment.

T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is a retired professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, December 2021.

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Ordained Servant: December 2021

A Congregational Charge

Also in this issue

A Charge to the Congregation

New Polish translation of the Westminster Confession of Faith

The Writings of Meredith G. Kline on the Book of Revelation: Chapter 6, “The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ” (1992)

A Study in the Structure of the Revelation of John, Parts 1–4

Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 23, Part 1

Swain and Poythress on the Trinity

Exodus Old and New: A Biblical Theology of Redemption by L. Michael Morales


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