The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution

Carl R. Trueman. Crossway, 2020. 407 pages.

This book aims to uncover the roots of the sexual revolution that still embroils western societies. It helps to answer questions such as, “Why do we (as a society) celebrate the tearing down of traditional moral codes?” and “Why has sex education for ever-younger children become so important for social progressives (apart from its ostensible attempt to fix certain social issues such as consent)?” Trueman’s own question, with which he begins his book, is especially significant: how is it that the idea of “a woman trapped in a man’s body” has come to make sense so suddenly to so many and ordinary people?

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is a work of intellectual history. It uncovers the development of ideas across time, traces how they are transmitted, and inspects the way they have impacted people and cultures. Trueman’s work provides the background to the shifts required for the once-nonsensical notion of “a man trapped in a woman’s body” to not only make sense, but to be a vigorously defended tenet by many people. As he explains at the outset,

while sex may be presented today as little more than a recreational activity, sexuality is presented as that which lies at the very heart of what it means to be an authentic person. That is a profound claim that is arguably unprecedented in history.

p. 35

Trueman shows that the sexual revolution did not arise spontaneously in the 1960s but had roots going back two or more centuries. His underlying argument is “that the sexual revolution is a manifestation of a much deeper revolution in what it means to be a self … [and] simply one manifestation of the wider revolution in selfhood that has taken place over the last four hundred years.” (p. 312, 315). To do this, Trueman begins his history with the early Enlightenment philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

But before embarking on this history, Trueman pauses to familiarise readers with the work of several philosophers of culture. The theories for analysis that these thinkers have developed are tools that Trueman has found useful for his task and makes use of these regularly throughout the book. These conceptual “tools” are helpful because they are useful questions to ask of the data for the purposes of the task. These may not be questions we would think to ask, and have been developed by people who have struggled long and hard over how to make sense of large amounts of information. This material may be hard going for some readers, but it is worthwhile being equipped for what lies ahead.

What follows are some of the key concepts he uses.

Trueman presents first the concepts that consider the ways of thinking about the “self”, and then those that consider more broadly the idea of culture within which these ways of thinking are found.