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

A Cultural History of the Modern Self

Using the genealogy of Charles Taylor’s expressive individualism and Phillip Rieff’s psychological man, Trueman finds the most salient starting point for history in the figure of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). A chief contribution that Rousseau made to modern thought is the psychologization of the self and the way he abstracted the individual’s inner self from external culture and society. He blamed the influence of social conventions for the problems people experience while valorizing the inner self as the truest expression of an individual.

Following Rousseau, Truman explores the role of several poets who picked up Rousseau’s ideas and popularized them via their poetry. William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, and William Blake are the key figures for the next chapter of this book. Some of the themes their work displays are as follows.

  • Their awareness that poetry is the means of making people think and feel differently; and indeed to make people morally better, happier, and more genuine.
  • Their preference (at times aggressive) for a ‘natural’ human nature over against the influences of society with its restrictions, alienations, corruptions, facades.
  • A particular focus of the prior point is on the importance of individual authenticity, which is hindered by religion, marriage, and other social conventions, and is best expressed by feelings independent of reason, especially feelings of romantic love.
  • Their calculated awareness that they can use their poetry to undermine conventional thought in society.

A question worth asking as this this chapter on poets ends is this: what role does poetry/music, art, and aesthetics play in culture and society today. Who are our “unacknowledged legislators” shaping our culture’s values and tastes?

Following this is a chapter exploring the impact of Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin (1800s). Each of these thinkers had very different objectives, but each made a contribution to the increasing malleability of the concept of human nature. Nietzsche observed that Enlightenment Europe had abolished God, and challenged his contemporaries to live consistently with his famous phrase, “God is dead”. Marx politicised a widening swathe of human life than had yet been done, and reduced everything to material causes (and omitted spiritual ones). Darwin proposed an alternative theory to the origin of life which at the same time unravelled teleology (purpose) as a category for understanding living creatures.

The impacts of each of these converge at the same outcome: “the world in itself has no meaning; meaning and significance can thus be given to it only by the actions of human beings … meaning is created, not given” (pp. 191-192). Each of these clearly serves to alter the contemporary conception of the meaning and significance of sex and sexuality. But the telling of this transformation is the story of the rest of this book.

In a subsequent chapter focussing on Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Trueman explores the way these earlier trends in the psychologization of the self have been sexualised and popularised. In Trueman’s history, Freud plays a pivotal role in the rise of the politicization of sex and its insertion into the education of children: “before Freud, sex was an activity, for procreation or recreation; after Freud, sex is definitive of who we are, as individuals, as societies, and as a species” (p. 221).

The final chapter of the historical section is titled “The New Left and the Politicisation of Sex”. It begins by reminding us (if we were blissfully unaware) of the way politics is now dominated by identity issues – race, gender, sexuality, and so on. This direction and its highly-strung nature is fuelled by the influence of a collection of ideas and approaches known as “critical theory”. As Trueman briefly explains, critical theory, in its varied manifestations, has at its root a basic conviction that society is to be understood as divided between those who have power and those who do not. The aim of this chapter is to identify its origins and initial manifestations in the mid-twentieth century, before exploring some of its fruits in our contemporary scene in the final section (chapters 8-10).

He sees the origins of this development in the fusion of the ideas of Marx and Freud , and their (re?)deployment within the subject of sexuality by several intellectuals (namely Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse). It is from this fusion that emerged the attempts at dismantling traditional forms of family and its concomitant values, as well as the relevance of such efforts to the political goals of left-leaning radicals. Trueman points of the relevance this has for the psychologization of identity, allowing victimhood to become a much broader and more subjective category – as seen in the broadening definition of what constitutes hate speech and the rising trend towards self-censorship.

The following is a helpful summary of where sexualiztion of identity by the latter half of the twentieth century:

Once identity was understood to be sexual, then it was only a matter of time before sex became political. And in the hands of Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, that is exactly what happened. Their genius lay in the way they took the Marxist category of oppression and refracted it through the Freudian notion of repression. In do doing, they psychologise the notion of oppression, turned sexual repression into something negative[2]… made political liberation especially dependent on sexual liberation, and thereby established the framework for today’s psychosexual politics.

In the context of the overall argument of this book, then, the Marx-Freud connection is of singular importance in understanding why expressive individualism has come to have central sexual component. It set the stage for the politics of sex, of which the LGBTQI+ movement is the latest and most influential example.

pp. 266-267