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How the Self Triumphed Over the Community

A new book explores the rise of therapeutic culture and asks where statements like “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” came from.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, Carl Trueman, Crossway, 438 pages

We now inhabit a culture that regards the statement “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” as not only a coherent and believable metaphysical claim, but a profoundly important one whose denial is seen as a form of oppression or even violence. How did we get here? 

Carl Trueman’s latest book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, locates the origins of our present philosophical crisis in the ideas of Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud—figures, writes Rod Dreher in the book’s foreword, “who taught elites how to think and feel in radically different ways.” The modern project to radically redefine human identity may be a triumph of the sexual revolution, concedes Trueman, but revolutions do not spring up out of nowhere.

Trueman argues that the Romantic expressivism of the 18th and early 19th centuries gave rise to a new understanding of selfhood that saw inner subjectivity—how the individual feels inside—as definitive of the person. It is from Rousseau in particular that we begin to see culture and society at large as a fundamentally oppressive force, acting against the individual to hinder his authentic self-expression. According to Trueman, the statement “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” reflects a view of the self that is no longer tethered to external authority or, for that matter, anything beyond “personal, psychological conviction.” 

This psychological construction of the self is picked up by Nietzsche, who urged human beings to create their own meaning and to become, in essence, value-determining gods. Whereas traditional morality encourages us to reach for a transcendent purpose and to become what our community needs us to be, Nietzsche tells us, “Become who you are!” We can see this formulation of selfhood at work today in the transgender movement. Trueman writes:

That it is the inner voice, freed from any and all external influences—even from chromosomes and the primary sexual characteristics of the physical body—that shapes identity for the transgender person is a position consistent with Rousseau’s idea…that nature, free from heteronomous cultural constraints, and selfhood, conceived of as inner psychological conviction, are the real guides to true identity. 

With Freud, whose instincts were a twisted merger of Rousseau and the Marquis de Sade, this “inner voice” becomes increasingly sexualized. In fact, it is only through Freud that contemporary debates over pronoun usage become intelligible. When I refuse to use your preferred pronouns, I am, in effect, repressing your sexuality. It makes sense, then, that transgenderism’s ontological formulation is not so much “I think, therefore I am” as it is “I feel, therefore you will recognize me.”

For all that, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, which includes chapters on Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake, is more an exploration of the Left’s Romantic roots than a diatribe against the trans movement. Trueman’s purpose, as he says near the end of the book, is “to show how ideas that today permeate both the conscious philosophies and the intuitions that dominate the social imaginary have deep historical roots.” Striking a compassionate, often serious tone, the book is a more than 400-page chronicle of the slow but steady transvaluation of Western values that begins with Rousseau and culminates in today’s therapeutic age. Rousseau, the father of Romanticism, believed that human beings were born naturally compassionate and good, but society corrupted them and made them sick (mentally and physically). “Nothing is more gentle than man in his primitive state,” writes Rousseau, “as he is placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes, and the fatal ingenuity of civilized man.” This idea would receive fuller expression in Jean-Paul Sartre, an intellectual heir of Nietzsche’s whose most influential musings are captured in lines like “Hell is other people!” and “You are—your life, and nothing else.”

It is through Nietzsche and Marx that the real depth and potency of Rousseau’s ideas are realized. Both argue, in their own ways, that the world is devoid of a logos, that history is but a series of oppressive power struggles, and that notions such as human nature and morality are socially constructed. By the mid-20th century, these ideas were fused together by Herbert Marcuse and members of the Frankfurt School, whose theories advocate an increasingly psychologized self. Here Trueman relies on the work of Philip Rieff and Charles Taylor to describe the rise of a new type of person that would become emblematic of our age: the therapeutic man. Men of the past sought meaning and virtue in outwardly directed communal activities. “The ancient Athenian was committed to the assembly, the medieval Christian to his church, and the twentieth-century factory worker to his trade union and working man’s club,” writes Trueman. With the arrival of the therapeutic man, this relationship becomes inverted. 

For the new psychological man, the search for meaning and fulfillment is turned inward. More than that, says the author, “Outward institutions become in effect the servants of the individual and her sense of inner well-being…. The purpose of therapy thus shifts from its original purpose of socializing the individual to its modern variant, which seeks to protect the individual from the kind of harmful neuroses that society itself creates through its smothering of the individual’s ability simply to be herself.” This gives us what we have now in the politics of recognition: if I am the most sensitive student in class, the teacher must change the curriculum for me. If the baker refuses to cater to my lifestyle, the baker must alter his values for me. If the long-standing definition of the word “racism” doesn’t condemn all white people, Webster’s Dictionary must change the definition for me.

Society itself must conform to me

While his indictments of our current moment are often sobering, Trueman’s approach is less polemic than carefully reasoned intellectual history. That isn’t to say the analysis is dry or overly dense. The book is brimming over with big ideas, and despite its length, is a surprisingly quick read. Rather than draw lines of causality from the usual culprits to our present-day maladies, the author proceeds on the basis that we are emotional beings who live not in theory but in practice. The way we think about things and the story we tell ourselves about who we are “is not grounded in a self-conscious belief in a particular theory of the world,” writes Trueman. “We live our lives in a more intuitive fashion than that.” 

This is where the concept of the “social imaginary” becomes useful. Drawing on the work of Taylor, Trueman uses the social imaginary to describe the process whereby society arrives at certain common understandings that grant legitimacy to the myriad “practices, normative expectations, and even implicit assumptions” that members of that society share. This approach allows us to understand radical cultural change as an intuitive social process rather than as the result of some abstract debate. In other words, when members of a society accept the proposition “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” as legitimate, they do so not because they possess some deep understanding of the independent variance of sex and gender, but because it feels intuitively right to respect people’s internal sense of themselves and potentially cruel or harmful not to. This “intuitive social taste,” as Trueman calls it, is often shaped in subtle ways by a small minority of elites whose theories “infiltrate” the popular imagination. 

To truly appreciate the developments that led to the sexual revolution, however, we must look to the underlying realities that shape our intuitions. The key shift, says Trueman, occurred when Western culture shifted from a mimetic to a poietic view of the world. A mimetic framework is one in which nature has an established order and meaning; our job is to uncover this meaning and conform to it. A poietic framework, conversely, is one in which the world around us is just chaos and raw stuff; it is inherently meaningless and has no built-in teleology. Our job, then, is to make something of this raw stuff and create our own meaning. According to Trueman, the statement “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” makes sense only in a culture that thinks about the world in a poietic way. “[A] poietic world,” Trueman writes, “is one in which transcendent purpose collapses into the immanent and in which given purpose collapses into any purpose I choose to create or decide for myself. Human nature, one might say, becomes something individuals or societies invent for themselves.” 

Trueman, a religious studies professor at Grove City College, explains at length the factors that gave rise to this shift in the social imaginary. These include our transition from a largely agrarian life—in which daily existence depended upon considerations like weather, soil, and the changing seasons—to an industrial one. For a traditional farmer, the “authority of the created order” was imminent and obvious. “The world was what it was,” Trueman writes, “and the individual needed to conform to it.” Our shift to a more poietic way of thinking was also helped along by advances in transportation, medicine, and now computer technology. In a world in which reality is increasingly virtual, it has never been easier to create our own gnostic, poietic selves. One wonders how Nietzsche would have felt about avatars, “Instagram influencers,” video games, or, worse yet, internet porn. 

If The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self suffers from any flaw—I strain to find a glaring one—it is its relative inaccessibility. Though well-edited, it does not seem to have been written with a mass audience in mind. Yet Trueman’s is an argument the masses desperately need to hear. As a volume of intellectual history, it is a bit heavy on the intellectual and light on the history. That said, it is this very same careful, though at times abstruse, philosophical approach that enables Trueman to avoid the trap of reductive historicism that bedevils so many conservative genealogies of the “Decline of the West” variety.

It is a familiar formula: William of Ockham arrives on the scene, advances his nominalism, and the West falls to shambles. Or, as Jonah Goldberg told me in a recent conversation, “John Locke is born, he writes some stuff; 300 years later, everything’s shitty.” Trueman’s account is not a tale of good guys and bad guys, nor does it provide easy answers. Nevertheless, Trueman has penned one of the most important and sadly underappreciated works of cultural analysis in nearly a decade. My only real worry is that it will go unnoticed—that in our therapeutic age, Trueman, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, is “not the mouth for these ears.”

Jordan Alexander Hill is an independent journalist based in Massachusetts. He is the host of the Western Canon Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @WesternCanonPod.

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