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

Dec 10, 2020 by

from Christianity Today:

In a new book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, Carl Trueman argues that the sexual revolution and its triumphs result from a mix of immediate, short-term, and long-term causes.

Trueman’s basic contention is this: The sexual revolution is a symptom rather than the cause of efforts to redefine human identity. People tend to see the world and themselves more as raw material that they can bend and shape to suit their own purposes. ..The modern idea of self has become thoroughly psychologized: One’s identity is defined not by a relationship with the external world but by an individual, internal sense of happiness. On this basis, the modern person operates according to what Taylor calls “expressive individualism,” desiring both to express an internal sense of self and to have that sense of self recognized and accepted by the external world.

Trueman explains that expressive individualism has become the default mode of modern society. Because we lack a common framework for understanding who we are and why we exist, our moral discourse has degenerated into expressions of personal feelings and tastes. In order to satisfy our moral preferences, we feel we must be liberated from the repressive constraints of objective moral claims. Such liberation requires a full-scale campaign of cultural iconoclasm, of dismantling and disavowing the ideas and artifacts of the past so that we might pursue happiness on our own—thoroughly psychological and distinctly sexual—terms.

Trueman spends the bulk of the book showing that our reimagined sense of self is rooted in intellectual shifts that had been taking place for several centuries.

The first shift was the psychologizing of the self—in other words, making one’s feelings and desires foundational to one’s identity. Trueman highlights the work of the 18th-century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who laid the groundwork for this shift by arguing that we can only live authentically when our outward behavior can match our inner psychology. In a revolutionary step, Rousseau gives ethical priority to one’s psychology, claiming that society is the enemy of the authentic self because it forces people to suppress their desires and conform to conventional morality.

At the turn of the 19th century, Rousseau’s heirs within the Romantic movement—particularly the poets William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Blake—were instrumental in popularizing this psychological view of the self. Yet for all their calls to cast off the repressive influences of civilized society, these Romantics—like Rousseau—were confident that nature possessed a purposeful order upon which humans could build their lives. By the end of the 19th century, such confidence was greatly undermined by the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin. To Nietzsche and Marx, belief in transcendent reality and purposeful order are symptoms of psychological weakness and social sickness. Then, Darwin’s writings on evolution dealt the death blow by providing a new story of humankind that reduces human nature to something fluid and directionless.

With the belief that personal identity is psychological and self-determined, the stage was set for a second intellectual shift: the sexualizing of psychology. It was Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology, who in the early 20th century championed the insidious idea that’s intoxicated modern society: Self-identity is grounded in sexual desire. We’re essentially psychological, says Rousseau. Yet our psychology is essentially sexual, says Freud. Therefore, we’re essentially sexual. With Freud, sex is transformed from something we do into who we are.

After this transformation, it was only a matter of time before a third intellectual shift occurred: the politicizing of sex. Two Freudian acolytes, psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and philosopher Herbert Marcuse, drove this shift by merging Marxist ideas of political oppression with the Freudian notion of sexual repression. They argued that, because humans are essentially sexual, there can be no political liberation without sexual liberation.

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