The story of the rise, triumph, and nightmare of the modern self

Dr. Carl R. Trueman has written a book of singular importance. Anyone with an interest in the recovery of Western culture should read it.

November 29, 2020 Deborah Savage, PhD BooksEssayFeatures 7Print

(Image: Fabrizio Verrecchia/

Anyone wondering if man is capable of reason need look no further than the self-evident fact that he desires to understand. Indeed, he is frustrated when understanding eludes him. In those moments, he experiences what philosophers call a “privation,” an inchoate sense that he lacks something that he ought to possess. This is what fuels his thirst for knowledge – his natural desire to uncover the truth of things. In a very real way, human history is a testament to man’s infinite appetite for answers to the questions that concern him.

The contemporary period is no different, even as reliance on human reason seems to be losing pride of place in both private and public discourse. Scholars and other intellectuals labor tirelessly to arrive at a coherent account of the complex of intersecting issues that characterizes our time. There have been countless efforts, mounted by thinkers of every persuasion, to get to the bottom of it all. Chesterton’s familiar “man on the street” makes his own contributions. But wherever it originates, when one comes across an explanation that makes sense, it is often accompanied by a palpable sense of relief, not unlike the touch of cool water on a sunburn or a soothing poultice applied to a wound.

This is what I experienced when the search for something with explanatory power led me to Professor Carl Trueman’s most recent book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Indeed, as I read through his analysis, there was a feeling of finally having found the full story. Dr. Trueman is currently professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College in Pennsylvania where he joined the faculty in 2018, after teaching at Princeton and Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. He is an impressive scholar with impressive credentials, the author or co-author of more than a dozen books.

This present volume is a thorough and coherent account of how, at the start of the second decade of the 21st century, we have arrived at the point where even the self-evident nature of things is being called into question – while those who would seek to hold tight to what is real are thrown, without a second thought, into the “basket of deplorables.”

Now Dr. Trueman is not a philosopher or a moral theologian. He is, in the first instance, a historian. He does not set out to provide an explanation of the metaphysical incoherence that characterizes prevailing accounts of the self. Neither is his intent to offer a moral critique of the situation on the ground. Though the impact of the sexual revolution is certainly central to his narrative, Trueman is interested in the historical factors that contributed to its rise and its subsequent influence on the culture. The sexual revolution is both a symptom and a cause of the social upheaval around us. The author’s central conviction is that this dramatic event cannot be fully understood until we grasp its historical context, which is marked by the “transformation in how society understands the nature of self-hood,” a process that began hundreds of years before the “swinging sixties.”

Reminding us that since “no individual historical phenomena is its own cause,” Dr. Trueman cautions those who look at the particulars of history refracted only through eternal truths and universal principles, whether metaphysical or moral. Even if such frameworks contain the truth, he declares, to employ them as a singular lens through which to understand our circumstance is to lose sight of the diagnostic power found in unraveling the actual human events that led us here. His analysis paints a detailed picture of those events, how they intersected with one another and lent force to each other, finally culminating in a conviction, unconsciously held now by all of us, that human happiness is found only if I am absolutely free to express my authentic self in whatever way I choose. The “origins of this book,” he tells us, “lie in my curiosity about how and why a particular statement has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful: ‘I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.” He pursues the answer to this question through the methods of his own discipline. The book is a substantive and insightful account of how we got to the point where that statement has become a form of dogma, of how certain thinkers, writers, and events contributed to it, and of how something called “expressive individualism” took center stage in our understanding of what it means to be human.

The Architecture

But Dr. Trueman begins, not with past events, but with a masterful analysis of the current state of affairs. He recognizes that before we can analyze how we got here, we must first articulate where we actually are. And the first section of the work is an account of what the author refers to as the “Architecture of the Revolution,” a reference to the ideas of three “philosophers of the modern condition”: Phillip Reiff, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre. Taken together, their insights provide the underlying superstructure of the book.

In Reiff’s work, Trueman locates reference to the “triumph of the therapeutic,” arguably the overarching theme of our contemporary period. Reiff shows the historical progression of shifting accounts of the self from the political man of the Greeks, to the religious man of the medieval period, to homos economicus who took the stage in the modern period. Each of those formulations had their moment in history. But they have been superseded by the gradual emergence and triumph of “psychological man.” The pivot point in this development comes into view when we consider that those prior iterations each reflected an outward, communally ordered orientation, a recognition of something beyond the self to whom the self is responsible. But with the appearance of “psychological man,” man’s orientation turned inward, shifting his entire focus to his own happiness and personal satisfaction. The “good” became whatever makes me happy; it is entirely immanent. And the notion that the good is something that transcends the individual as he labors for the common good of all gradually faded from the scene.

Dr. Trueman next makes a very helpful connection, locating Charles Taylor’s notion of “expressive individualism” in the last stage of Reiff’s analysis. Here Taylor’s project finds its historical context. For the triumph of psychological man leads to the prevailing emphasis on the rights of the individual to freely express himself; personal authenticity, Taylor’s central theme, has become the primary goal of human life. This can only be realized in the “public performance of inward desires” and the world becomes a place for the individual to perform the self rather than conform the self to any account of the objective demands of moral living. The priority afforded to personal authenticity enters into the wider politics of the culture, what Taylor refers to as the “social imaginary,” becoming the basis for both identity and the social order. My psychological well-being now requires affirmation and recognition from those I encounter. And my demand for it has become a non-negotiable condition of interpersonal relationships, one that must be met willingly by others or it represents an unacceptable transgression of the rules that govern community life.

Finally, the author links Taylor’s notion of the “expressive individual” to the last element of the superstructure, Alasdair MacIntyre’s persuasive account of the ascendancy of “emotivism” in his signature work, After Virtue. There MacIntyre argues that self-evident truths have ceased to serve as the starting place of moral discourse in contemporary culture; first principles have been replaced by a purely subjective sense of personal preference, a feeling that brooks no disagreement. Debates on moral issues are seemingly interminable, says MacIntyre, because they begin from often incommensurable notions of the good. The assumption becomes that my moral convictions are normative, but yours are rooted in personal, emotional preference – even though I am vaguely aware that mine are too. And the language of morality, grounded for centuries in the natural law and the ordinary human inclination to pursue virtue, no longer has any currency. We have been left with no transcendent moral order that allows us to adjudicate moral disputes.

With great care and skill, Dr. Trueman has illuminated the connections between these three sets of insights and their relevance for his subsequent analysis. When the search for the transcendent no longer has meaning or value, we are led to the triumph of Reiff’s psychological man, whose priority has become his own subjective happiness. Taylor’s expressive individualism, a subjective feeling grounded in a purely personal sense of authenticity, has become the only criteria of the good and entered into the imagination of the broader society. MacIntyre’s emotivism requires us to accept each persons’ right to pursue their own “authentic” self, unencumbered by any meta-account of the good. My personal identity – and yours – is whatever I – or you – say it is, no matter how fluid, no matter how constructed. This view has become the coinage of the realm, the only way to secure a place at the table of public discourse. And there is no court of appeal.

The Foundations

Dr. Trueman then retraces the steps that brought Western culture to this pass. Turning now to the “Foundations of the Revolution,” he analyzes the contributions of several familiar thinkers, as well as some not often listed as the usual suspects. Unsurprisingly perhaps, he begins with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose work provides the starting place for modern notions of the self. Trueman identifies Rousseau’s autobiography, Confessions, as a key pivot point in the trajectory. Notable for its unprecedented preoccupation with the psychological, it marks a clear turn toward the inner life and toward the centrality of feeling as a guide to real freedom. We learn that Rousseau’s most famous statement, that “man is born free yet is everywhere in chains,” found at the start the treatise on The Social Contract, is anticipated in Rousseau’s earlier work, the First Discourse. There Rousseau argues that the arts and sciences, and culture, rather than deserving our adulation, are actually at the root of modern vices (such as hypocrisy and wickedness) since they require man to conform to rules that are unnatural to him. If man were left in the “state of nature,” rather than accepting to be governed by the social institutions that regulate him, he would be able to liberate his one true, natural self. The meaning of the good becomes a function of this wish to be free, placing sentiment at the heart of ethical discourse, and setting the stage for the primacy of personal preference – lending authority to MacIntyre’s account of emotivism.

Perhaps the most insightful surprise of the book comes next: the author turns his attention to an account of three giants of the Romantic period, William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, and William Blake. They are important because there is a question that begs to be answered: However deeply felt by their author, how did Rousseau’s written words about the inner life, self-love, and sentiment become not only the common currency of society but unspoken ideas so deeply embedded in our psyches that we scarcely notice them? Here Trueman makes the case that Rousseau’s rudimentary account of expressive individualism might have remained at the surface of mere intellectual discourse if not for the artistic movement known as Romanticism. Shelley himself supplies the answer to the question when he declares that both the poet and poetry itself serve as the “midwife”; it is the spirt and passion of the artist that gives life to this new vision of man.

Trueman refers to these writers as the “Unacknowledged Legislators”; their works were like accelerant poured on a smoldering ember. Each in their own way, they forge a white-hot link between ideas and feeling, giving voice to the expressivism manifest in the poetry of the time. While Shelley envisioned more of a political transformation, Wordsworth argued that poetry connects the human being to that which makes them human. It is the experience of poetry that is important, he declared that poetry “is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and that its aim is authenticity. In all three of these poets we hear Rousseau’s emphasis on feelings and instinct as the heart of moral action and authentic human freedom. And while Blake’s poetry and symbolism disclose an emphasis on the sexual as an aspect of human nature, both Shelley and Blake regard organized religion as an illegitimate restraint on the full expression of the authentic self. Their poetry corresponds to the tenor of the times and give voice to Rousseau’s psychological man, a thread that follows us from the Romantic period into the present.

Dr. Trueman turns now to the last element remaining in his reconstruction of the foundations of the revolution. In the final chapter of this section, entitled “The Emergence of the Plastic People,” the author takes up the destructive contributions of three of the most influential thinkers of the late 19th century, Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin. He first outlines the impact of Nietzsche and Marx, specifically their attacks on metaphysics and the moral life, religion, and human nature. Then he turns to the work of Charles Darwin and the damage Darwin’s theories visited on our teleological understanding of man’s place in the universe. These developments loom large in the narrative we are following. Nietzsche has reduced freedom to the exercise of the will as power and painted a bleak picture of the nihilism that hollows out the meaning of man’s action in the world. Marx rejects any attempt to suggest an abstract or idealistic account of the human person, reducing him to a merely material participant in a historical imperative and injecting the political into the bloodstream of the culture. Darwin wraps it all in what appears to be a scientific framework. This chapter is a superb treatment of how each of these thinkers contributed to the disappearance of the old order and the rise of psychological man – who now becomes his own creator.

The Sexualization of the Revolution

Recall that we have been following the historical stages in the transformation in our understanding of the self. The first stage called for the self to be psychologized; this was accomplished through the contributions of Rousseau and the Romantics who followed him. The second stage calls for psychology to be sexualized. In a section entitled “The Sexualization of the Revolution,” we learn that this is the “signal achievement of Sigmund Freud.” Though mostly unmentioned until now, Dr. Trueman tells us that Freud plays what might be the pivotal role the questions we are pursuing. The father of psychoanalysis marks the turning point in the trajectory that leads to the sexual revolution.

Freud’s significance is found not in his psychological theories; they have been largely discredited. His legacy is defined by his theory of sexuality which “places the sex drive at the very core of who and what human beings are from infancy.” This claim serves as the starting place for his theory of religion and of civilization. For Freud, the essence of human happiness is found, not in some transcendent or divine being, but in sexual fulfillment. Human civilization is governed by the exigencies of sexual desire. Prior to Freud, sex hadbeen an activity. After Freud, it is definitive of who we are, both personally and as a culture. And, like Darwin, Freud’s contribution took on additional weight since he developed it within the “scientific idiom of psychoanalysis,” a feature that made his theories even more “plausible in a modern social imaginary in which science has intuitive authority.” These convictions, irrespective of Freud’s prominent place in the field of psychoanalysis, are now fundamental to our culture, informing virtually every dimension of human life. It is not hard to see how such a development has led to the sexualization of the expressive self, governed as it is by subjective preferences and sentiment, as it pursues its quest for absolute freedom. This quest now has a specific target: sexual fulfillment. And these developments set in motion the final step in the sexual revolution. Freud has achieved the sexualization of psychology, but the final stage is the politicization of sex. And here, at last, our contemporary condition comes clearly into view; the trail we have been following leads, finally, to the full story.

The sexual revolution may have seemed like a sudden, mysterious surge in the promiscuous exploits of the young in the mid-1960’s. But it was never only about sex. In this last stage, Marx and Freud have become collaborators, hidden from the view of the uninitiated. Here Dr. Trueman provides a stunning account of the marriage of Marx and Freud found in the work of Wilhelm Reich, whose manifesto The Sexual Revolution was first published in 1936. Indeed, Dr. Reich, an accomplished psychoanalyst in the Freudian school, was the first to use the term “sexual revolution.” Reich followed Freud in arguing that the key to human happiness was sexual gratification. But his commitment to Marxism led him to derive the only “logical” conclusion: If that is so, it can only mean that the way to create a happy society was to establish conditions that maximize the possibility of sexual gratification. Reich went even further, declaring that “sociopolitical reform without sexual liberation is impossible: freedom and sexual health are the same thing.”

Though most of the college students and others who fell under the spell of his work may never have heard his name, Reich’s thinking had enormous influence on a whole generation of young people. Their lives and our culture were forever altered by the events his work put in motion. We were duped into thinking it was just an innocent (and now seemingly endless) “summer of love.” Trueman includes the back story on how Marxism had already come to infiltrate the academy, the media, the arts. The intentional transformation of our cultural institutions was already in movement. The intellectuals who occupied the academy and taught in our universities led the way. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Without question, Dr. Carl Trueman has written a book of singular importance. Anyone with an interest in the recovery of Western culture should read it. This work reveals that we are in the grip of a shared cultural amnesia that has reached fearsome proportions. We need to wake up, yes, but not in the way commonly spoken of at present. We need to face the reality that we are fighting the tyranny, not of people, but of a deadly concoction of ideas. And one cannot fight an enemy one does not know. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self points the way out of our current situation. Because it shows that superficial answers or pat explanations are not enough – that the only way forward is to engage in the hard work of coming to understand. Dr. Trueman has shown us that it is the power of the word, of the logos, that will give us the strength to set things right yet again.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution
by Carl R. Trueman
Crossway 2020
Hardcover, 424 pages

Related at CWR: 
• “Understanding and surviving a culture dominated by expressive individualism” (Nov 15, 2020): An interview with Carl R. Trueman, by Carl E. Olson.
• “The Return of the Madman: Nietzsche, Nihilism, and the Death of God, circa 2020″ (Aug 10, 2020) by Deborah Savage, Ph.D.

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About Deborah Savage, PhD 2 ArticlesDeborah Savage, Ph.D. is a member of the faculty at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul Minnesota where she teaches philosophy and theology and also serves as Director of the Masters in Pastoral Ministry Program. She is the co-founder and director of the Siena Symposium for Women, Family, and Culture, a think tank organized at the University to respond to St. John Paul II’s call for a new and explicitly Christian feminism

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