This post is part 2 of my review of Carl Trueman’s new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. With the overview now complete, I’ll offer a few of my own thoughts on the book’s strengths and weaknesses.
To recall, Trueman’s goal is to trace the evolution of the self within the modern West—a transformation which culminates especially in novel views on identity and sexuality (e.g., “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body”).
IN PRAISE OF RISE AND TRIUMPH
From start to finish, the book is well written. And for readers who may be overwhelmed by its 400+ pages, Trueman has since released a slimmer version (Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked Sexual Revolution). I was struck, however, by the sense that a bright undergrad student could still follow the original work without too much trouble.
Maybe the greatest pedagogical virtue of Trueman’s project is its easily-remembered three-part progression. How did we get here? Well, (1) the self was first psychologized (see Rousseau and the Romantic poets), (2) that psychology was then sexualized (see Freud), and finally (3) sexuality became highly politicized (see Nietzsche, Marx, and their postmodern heirs). When dealing with a long and complex history, the ability to simplify these shifts is a fantastic gift to students.
Of course, simplicity and memorability are not reliable guides to truth. Hence the famous quote from H. L. Mencken, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” But in Trueman’s case, I think his three-part progression remains helpful.
Trueman also filled important gaps in my own reading. A danger of book reviews like this is that the reviewer sometimes feels driven to pretend like he or she already knew everything in the text—which then leaves space only for summary and smug critique (credit to Alan Jacobs for that point).
Not so here. Several sections in Trueman’s book filled key holes in my understanding. Specifically, my training in theology and philosophy did well in covering the rationalist underpinnings of the modern era, but it was often inadequate in detailing the Romantic counterbalance to the Enlightenment—which on these questions, is almost certainly the more important set of influences.
Hence, I had never deeply studied the writings of Rousseau in particular. Similarly, though I was familiar with the likes of Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx, I had not delved into later thinkers like Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse, and Simone de Beauvoir. In all of this, Trueman taught me much.
Lastly, I appreciated Trueman’s attempt to build bridges between intellectuals and other aspects of contemporary culture. He writes not merely of Freud and Marx, but of internet pornography, Supreme Court rulings, and (yes…) Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande.
Halfway through the book, I anticipated critiquing Trueman’s approach as a quintessential “Great Man History”—as if the world we inhabit was merely the product of some brilliant (if misguided) intellectuals writing treatises in university libraries. I still think the book veers in this direction, but the “bridge-building” sections help balance that tendency.
To further ameliorate this quasi-Great Man approach to modern identity, I suspect Trueman could have allotted more space to the influence of technology, consumerism, the attention economy, and free market capitalism. But of course, that would have made a long book even longer.
There were also other aspects of Trueman’s narrative with which I’d want to quibble. None are damning, but each one might have added balance and context to the work.
First, much of the book is taken up with critiquing what Trueman dubs (but never defines) as “The New Left.” The move is not unwarranted since the sexual revolution and shifting views on identity have been driven by progressive ideology. Still, it seems unlikely that other segments of society contributed almost nothing to our modern view of selfhood.
I’ve written previously of the heresy of radical individualism—which (depending on the topic) is quite likely to flow from either Right or Left. Trueman is not completely silent on this point (p. 335), but his critiques sometimes seem one-sided, as if he—like so many others—has been watching only one Cable News network, and is writing to only one side of the aisle.
He speaks, therefore, of how the nation-state no longer provides people with a sense of identity, and how patriotism is assumed to be a bad thing (p. 404). Here, it seems quite odd to glide past the massive global upsurge in nationalism—now leveraged by strongmen of all stripes. In sum, one cannot tell the story of the modern self merely by attending to the progressive antecedents of the “New Left.”
Second, I suspect Trueman’s history could have benefitted from a bit more of what I’ll call “The Holland Principle.” In his popular book, Dominion, historian Tom Holland argues that many secular forces now arrayed against traditional Christian values actually have their roots in presuppositions that can be traced only to the Judeo-Christian tradition. (This is especially the case for the modern, secular concern for victims, minorities, and the marginalized.)
The same is true of what Trueman dubs the modern “inward turn”— the decision to look inward (i.e., inside the self) to encounter truth and meaning. My own PhD thesis explored the importance of Saint Augustine’s influence at this point—and despite Augustine’s brilliance, it was not an altogether positive inheritance. After all, it is no coincidence that Rousseau chose to name his own autobiography after Augustine’s introspective masterpiece, Confessions. Here too, Trueman is too good a historian to be completely blind to such influences (see p. 45), but I wonder if the book would have been more balanced–especially coming from a church historian–if he had noted the pre-modern origins of certain modern, secular impulses—bastardized though they may be.
Finally, since questions of sexuality and identity are so fraught within the current culture wars—I’d want to balance Trueman’s able dissection of the history with some pastoral sensitivity. Indeed, when approaching LGBT+ questions in particular, conservative Christians like myself must continually remind ourselves that we are dealing with people—not just issues, ideas, or partisan politics.
Perhaps this critique is unfair to direct at a work on intellectual history. Nonetheless, if I were assigning the book to my students (and I would assign it), I’d want to balance it with other readings that strike a more empathetic and pastoral tone—even while maintaining a biblical foundation that does not shrink from conclusions simply because someone labels them insensitive.
Despite these quibbles, I found much to appreciate in Trueman’s book. The ideas he tackles regarding identity and and the transformation of the modern self are among the most important facing the church today. And as he rightly notes, we can’t think through them without a sense of how we got here.
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