The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, by Carl Trueman
(UPDATE: Carl Trueman is writing an abridged version of this book titled Strange New World, and is expected February 15, 2022. I'd recommend this newer book, as it'll be shorter and more accessible.)
Over many months, I've been slowly absorbing the remarkable thinking of Carl Trueman, author of the best-selling analytical text on our current cultural crisis, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. It is in my top three books for 2021.
I will not attempt to write a summary of the book. It would be far too lengthy and would steal your opportunity to read one of the best analyses of Western culture's devolution to decay. Trueman traces the historical root causes, explaining how our current culture is the logical fruition of centuries-old theories that have come home to roost.
Though not an easy read (his vast vocabulary is presumed to be commonplace to the reader), it is well worth digging into. He examines philosophers and sociologists who've led us to the brink of cultural and moral chaos. Thinkers from Reiff and Taylor to Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx and Darwin, to Freud, Reich and Marcuse. Their ideas have gained acceptance in our major institutions, and more importantly, in the way the average person conceives of him or herself. This has opened Pandora's box to our moral understanding of abortion, LGBTQ identity, gay marriage, critical race theory, BLM, pornography, free speech, etc.
Trueman begins with this broadside:
"The origins of this book 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.'"
Trueman imagines his deceased grandfather's reaction to such a statement (his grandfather died in 1994, less than 30 years ago).
"Had [my grandfather] ever heard that sentence uttered in his presence, I have little doubt that he would have burst out laughing and considered it a piece of incoherent gibberish. And yet today it is a sentence that many in our society regard as not only meaningful, but so significant that to deny it or question it in some way is to reveal oneself as stupid, immoral, or subject to yet another irrational phobia."
With that, Trueman is off to the races, with remarkable insight. If I were still a young man, I'd be highly inclined to apply for admission to Grove City College, where Trueman teaches.
Below are ten of my musings from the book. Without further ado ...
10 Thoughts After Reading the Book:
- Not long ago, our culture operated on the premise that reality was set by an external authority (God, or for some, nature). It was incumbent upon the individual to discover what was true in the world and live within that structure. This is no longer the common way of thinking. Instead, modern man has rejected external authority, replacing it with individual autonomy. Reality is no longer defined from without (outside of self), but from within. You see this in the currently popular phrase "my truth." Of course, truth is truth, not variable to one's own perspective. Today (sadly), the individual simply takes the raw materials given to him, then fashions them any which way he or she chooses. The well-intentioned mantra – "you can be anything you want to be" – has had some unexpected results.
- As an example, let's assume you were born with XY chromosomes (meaning, you are a man/male, although using the terms "man/male" would get me fired in some higher educational settings). However, the XY person is now allowed to define his own reality/truth/identity based upon his inner feelings. And he can use medical technology to refashion the raw materials of his gender to match his feelings. This is the ascendancy of "the psychological self." Inner feelings have become truth. They are sacrosanct. To deny them is to be inauthentic ... perhaps the worst possible sin of the 21st century.
- So, instead of ceding to God or Nature that XY means I am a man, I refashion reality to coincide with my feelings, which are "my truth." Using medical technology, I can become my "authentic" self. Since I feel to be a woman on the inside, that is truly who I am, regardless of current biological data. To deny these feelings is to be inauthentic. To act upon them is both authentic and brave. And if someone points out the absurdity of this, that person is phobic and bigoted, by assertion not by argument.
- In fact, a great deal of truth is now posited by mere assertion (rather than rational argument), and when met with a counterargument, ad hominem attacks are employed. Basically, it's lazy. It is petty demands triumphing over cogent thoughts.
- Today, one's sense of "self" is gripped tight by one's sense of sexual identity and attraction, due in large part to Sigmund Freud's thesis becoming accepted. Freud redefined humans as primarily sexual beings, from infancy to death. Sex is no longer an activity (something you do) as much as an identity (something you are).
- This new sense of self demands others affirm and approve of it, for if they don't, the individual is left in psychological discomfort (a victim) and is denied basic dignity (oppressed). It is a grave sin in current culture to deny another's self-defined, soothing sense of personal identity. To feel their identity is legitimate, it must be recognized and affirmed. If it is not, any counter-words are perceived as oppression, (which of course will have implications on our democratic notion of free speech). We see this today at the University level, as students clamor to deny free speech to voices who disagree with their worldview, since such "oppressive views" injure their psychological self.
- While philosophers may build the scaffolding of a culture's thinking, it is really the world of art: music, literature, film, tv, painting, advertising, etc. that normalizes the acceptable view of self in a culture. If you want to change what people imagine to be 'normal,' persuade them by leveraging the world of the arts.
- Regarding abortion, when an external authority/lawgiver is removed (i.e. God), the question of "self" becomes debatable. Is an embryo a person with potential, or merely a potential person? Without God, it becomes easy for the modern man to deny the personhood of the child in the womb. He might think, "the embryo can't act, survive on its own, reflect on its humanity, etc." And therefore, it's only a potential person, not a real one yet. The removal of God from our culture really is the madness of our day.
- The line of debate today: assert your preferences/inner feelings as truth, then claim irrational prejudice of your opponents' views. Of course, this isn't rational, but it is effective in a world that views feelings as transcendentally true.
- Is the purpose of life personal happiness? This is the conviction of the average person today. Yet, it is also the original point of departure from God's plan. Neither the universe nor the self find their purpose in personal happiness. They exist for something much greater: the glory of God (which coincidentally will lead to the greatest personal happiness imaginable). In leaving God, 21st century America has left the only road to true happiness. Ironic, indeed.
Now, go buy the book. Read the book. Even if it takes a year to read it, stick with it. Underline sentences along the way. I think the survival of our culture depends on it.