The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: A Review (pt. 1)

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: A Review (pt. 1)

How’d we get here?

That’s the question Carl Trueman tries to answer in his new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Crossway, 2020).

The project’s origins involve Trueman’s curiosity over a now-common phrase which he claims would have baffled people like his late grandfather: “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.” How did we arrive at a point where this statement now seems not only common but–in some settings–impervious to criticism at the risk of punishment?

Since I just finished Trueman’s book, I thought I’d craft a quick review of it, noting both what I appreciated and where I might differ. (See guys, I do still have a blog! All it took was me catching COVID to write a new post!) This first installment is merely an overview of Trueman’s work. If you want my “hot takes” you’ll have to wait till part two.

THE BIG IDEA

The key claim of Rise and Triumph is that one cannot understand the modern revolution regarding sexuality without going deeper—to talk about the transformation of the modern view of “selfhood.”

While sex used to be something one did, it is now considered constitutive of identity in a way that is novel throughout human history. It is about who you are at your most primal level. Thus, the evolution of selfhood, not sexuality, is at the heart of Trueman’s historical survey.

Helpfully, Trueman simplifies his entire historical narrative with a three-step progression.

“The self must first be psychologized; psychology must then be sexualized; and sex must [finally] be politicized” (221).

The first move is traced through Rousseau and the Romantic poets. The second involves Freud with an assist from the authority of scientific verbiage after Darwin. And the third involves a look at Nietzsche, Marx, and their (post)modern inheritors.

I’m obviously skipping rather quickly past several hundred pages, but before I turn to my own takeaways (part two), a bit more context is in order.

TRUEMAN’S HELPERS

Trueman credits three philosophers for helping him to diagnose the pathologies inherent in the modern view of selfhood: Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre. The contributions of these thinkers are too complex to summarize in a brief post, but others are certainly correct to note that one of Trueman’s accomplishments is to distil and simplify key facets from these thinkers for an audience that may not have read them.

One of his central takeaways involves the triumph of the therapeutic impulse. This includes the mentality that inner psychological well-being (i.e., how a person feels) is every bit as important as damage done to a person’s physical body or property. Thus, Trueman:

“While earlier generations might have seen damage to body or property as the most serious categories of crime, a highly psychologized era will accord increasing importance to words as a means of oppression. And this represents a serious challenge to one of the foundations of liberal democracy: freedom of speech.”

“Once harm and oppression are regarded as being primarily psychological categories, freedom of speech then becomes part of the problem, not the solution, because words become potential weapons.”

This is just one insight that Trueman draws from his three philosophical helpers.

CONTEMPORARY CASE STUDIES

Lastly, Trueman seeks to root his history of ideas in some contemporary case studies that include the world of art (surrealism), the Supreme Court, pornography, pop music, and the addition of the “T” into the fragile alliance between feminism the LGBT+ movement. All this serves to keep the book from becoming too focused on key thinkers without any “bridges” (Trueman’s word) to popular culture.

CONCLUSION

It’s all too much to summarize here, but one last point now bears repeating: Trueman’s stated aim (regardless of whether he actually achieves it) is that the book be neither a lament nor a polemic—though it is abundantly clear that he has much to criticize. As he writes in the Introduction,

” … giving an accurate account of one’s opponents’ views, however obnoxious one may consider them to be, is vital, and never more so than in our age of cheap Twitter insults and casual slanders” (31).

His goal and tone are therefore somewhat different from the many popular level treatments of these subjects from so-called evangelical thought-leaders. (Most of those texts have some version of the word “woke” in the title.) As Trueman notes, a necessary precursor to engaging in these increasingly-polarized discussions is to understand a bit about the question that began this post:

How’d we get here?

(In part two I’ll share my own thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of Trueman’s history.)


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Pale Rider

Pale Rider

“Wars and plagues are remembered differently.”

That’s one of the closing insights from Laura Spinney’s book, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World.

I read it recently to gain some perspective on COVID-19, and the upheaval that has accompanied it in 2020. (Quick note: Since Spinney’s book was published in 2017, it cannot be accused of rewriting history to provide commentary on our present crisis.)

Without a doubt, the two outbreaks—separated by a hundred years—are different. The Spanish Flu killed between 50 and 100 million people. And its occurrence on the heels of World War I made it a perfect storm of death and dissolution. In some cases, the flu finished off victims who were malnourished, riddled with tuberculosis, and without what we think of now as modern medicine.

The Spanish Flu also had a terrible “W-shaped” mortality curve, whereby it killed not only the very old and very young, but also a startling number of healthy young adults (28 years old was the peak of this curve, which may have something to do with the first flu virus these individuals were exposed to as children).

Undoubtedly, the two pandemics are not the same.

But there is something to be learned from the way history sometimes rhymes.

  1. Pandemics are social phenomena as much as medical ones

What Spinney means by this point is that the tumult caused by a plague goes far beyond the disease itself. Our ideologies show symptoms too.

And conspiracy theories spread as fast as the virus (see here).

In 1918, the Plandemic brain-worm took the form of a rumor that the Spanish Flu was manufactured by the German drug company Bayer—and distributed to Allied nations by way of aspirin packets.

In Washington D.C., newspapers printed the claim of Lieutenant Philip S. Dane, head of health and sanitation, when he asserted that the Germans had deliberately sown the flu in America to defeat us.

This was false, in part, because the leading theory now is that the Spanish Flu started near Fort Riley, Kansas. Patient zero was a corn-fed farm kid named Albert Gitchell who may have contracted the pestilence when it jumped from a duck, to a pig, to a human.

a God-fearing boy who had grown up on a farm and known no other life, unwittingly carried the virus into the American war machine, whence it was exported to the rest of the world (164).

  1. Masks and kids and empty stadiums

Like today, there was some controversy over use of masks in 1918.

In select cities, mask use probably cut the death toll in half. But the mayor of San Francisco faced a PR nightmare in 1918 when he was caught on camera with his mask dangling from one ear while watching an Armistice parade.

Some Christian ministers, like Father Bandeaux of New Orleans, protested the closing of churches in 1918. And in one case, packed worship services were held wherein dozens of parishioners were invited to come forward and kiss a single holy relic—the kiss of death, in some cases.

Footballers played to empty stadiums. And there was a bitter debate over whether children should return to school. New York’s health commissioner, Royal S. Copeland, was lambasted for allowing public education to continue, only to be vindicated when the flu was practically absent from the city’s school-age children that fall.

  1. Presidents, the poor, and pieces of a lung

In an echo of 2020, President Woodrow Wilson came down with a severe case of the flu while negotiating what became the treaty of Versailles. He raved with delirium and was, by some accounts, never the same after surviving it.

The president’s illness may have contributed to the disastrously harsh nature of the treaty. Apparently, Wilson’s sickness rendered him unable to fight for a more merciful arrangement (which he wanted), and which might have prevented the bitter rise of Hitler and the Third Reich.

Like in 2020, the poor were hit hardest. The death rate was lowest in developed countries like the United States and Australia. It was worst amongst populations that lacked proper sanitation, housing, water, and healthy food supplies.

In India alone, around 15 million people died.

Ninety percent of folks who got the Spanish flu experienced nothing worse than a bout of seasonal influenza—but in poor regions, and especially amongst indigenous populations like the Inuit of Alaska, the result was much worse. Entire villages were wiped out.

In one of these Alaskan mass graves, a San Francisco doctor embarked, in the 1990s, upon a controversial mission. He exhumed a body of a flu victim from the permafrost, packaged up her mostly frozen lung tissue, and shipped it off to researchers. Scientists then combined its genetic information with a lung sample from British soldier to resurrect the Spanish Flu.

After almost a century of lying frozen and dormant, the Spanish Flu is now alive and well in the CDC’s Level Four lab in Atlanta, Georgia.

CONCLUSION

What is the point of reading histories like Spinney’s Pale Rider?

One benefit is perspective. In the age of social media and Cable News myopia, we are beset by “presentism”—that’s Alan Jacobs’ word for what it means to drown in a deluge of constantly breaking information. Because there is SO MUCH information, many people commit an act of intellectual triage whereby we accept only those stories that confirm our pre-existing biases.

We are thus left in our silos of tribalism, anxiety, and the prison of the present tense.

History can’t solve all those problems, but it can grant perspective.

Wars and plagues are remembered differently.

So while six times as many Britons died of the Spanish Flu than in the trenches—we are only now beginning to read books like Pale Rider.


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Why the “wrong side of history” may be right (sometimes)

Why the “wrong side of history” may be right (sometimes)

Thanks to the folks over at Seedbed for publishing a piece that I was asked to write on the threat of being on “the wrong side of history.”

You can access that here.

Two brief snippets:

The gist of the “wrong side” argument is that in past centuries, great evils were defended in the name of God and tradition […] There is some truth in this of course. Great wrongs were, and continue to be, defended under the guise of “God’s will” and the oppressive cloak of tradition. Yet the meme is hardly absolute. And in many cases, it is simply wrong.

 

Here’s [another] problem: If history’s moral judgments are the unjust product of the victors’ power plays, then why trust them? If history is written by “those who have hanged heroes,” then perhaps the “wrong” side is actually closer to being right! Perhaps, as some suggest, justice lies more on history’s underside.

If this is so, then Christians have yet one more reason to discard the moral shaming of the “wrong side” argument.

For in a bit of beautiful irony, we believe that history’s crucified victim is also its great victor. The Lamb who was slain is seated on the throne, and his word is weightier than the shifting sands of public opinion. His verdict (not that of “history”) matters most.