It is beyond doubt that the sexual revolution of the last sixty years has resulted in enormous social changes. Ideas that would have been judged preposterous just a decade ago are now normalized and enforced orthodoxy. Many religious and social conservatives rightly decry the terrible results for family, happiness, prosperity, and freedom, but far too many think the sexual revolution is primarily about sex, and insofar as they focus on sexual mores fail to understand the revolution adequately.
Or so argues Carl R. Trueman in his timely new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. According to Trueman, the sexual revolution “culminating in its latest triumph—the normalization of transgenderism—cannot be properly understood until it is set within the context of a much broader transformation in how society understands the nature of human selfhood.” The sexual revolution did not cause the sexual revolution, after all, and to turn myopically to sexual morality, however well-intentioned, often results in misguided responses. Instead, to understand the sexual revolution, we must grapple with “a much deeper and wider revolution in the understanding of what it means to be a self.”
Drawing heavily on Charles Taylor, Philip Rieff, and Alasdair MacIntyre, and in conversation with Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, Rousseau, Marcuse, Del Noce, the English Romantic poets, and Darwin, Trueman provides not only a succinct intellectual history but a compelling account of how modern persons became consumed with their inner psychological states and, even more importantly, how sexuality turned into “that which lies at the very heart of what it means to be an authentic person.” In the light of “psychological man” or “expressive individualism,” traditional accounts of sexual morality cannot but be judged as oppressive, marks of bigotry and phobia causing dignitary harm at the very core of people’s selfhood. Try as they might, when traditionalists appeal to nature, human flourishing, duty, divine command, or the other resources of the tradition, they appeal to a discarded image, a vision of the human being and human sexuality simply incommensurate with the modern view of the self. And not simply incommensurate—not merely a “dead” option—but one deemed harmful, even wicked.
One salient manifestation of this is a reversal in the role and function of institutions. In traditional societies, institutions like schools, churches, and the family form individuals in the language, ideas, and manners of the institution; one becomes a full participant though a commitment to the institution, and one finds meaning and identity through such participation. Now, however, in the world of psychological man, “the order is reversed,” and institutions “become in effect the servants of the individual and her sense of inner well-being.” Consequently, institutions no longer form or school individuals so much as affirm their authenticity, as determined by the individual, and allow them to “perform” their identities in a social context. Recalcitrant institutions—those, say, that continue to insist on objective identities—will increasingly be viewed as retrograde and destructive.
Here Trueman uses Taylor and Rieff to explain a point that many classical liberals and conservatives don’t seem to fully understand: the inexorable demand made by modern selves to be recognized in the mode and manner of their self-creation. One hears from a certain style of liberal something like, “I don’t care what anyone does in their own bedroom, just let me and my church live and think as I want. Can’t we live and let live?” But this attitude profoundly misunderstands the situation: for the modern self of expressive individualism, sexual practices and tastes are not practices and tastes so much as identities, and the “public, political stakes are incredibly high” when dealing with identities.
Take, for example, the attempt of certain religious conservatives to speak of an individual with “same-sex attraction” rather than saying “a gay man.” For traditionalists, doing so is thought to acknowledge the experience, desires, and actions of the other without essentializing them as the core of the other’s personhood. But for psychological man, the inward desires and sense of self are identical to, or closely intertwined, with, personhood itself, and refusing to acknowledge the self-described identity is to erase and violate the person. The sexually transgressive demand not tolerance and legal protection but affirmation, recognition, and approval. Appealing to freedom of conscience or speech—think bakers and florists and same sex weddings—doesn’t grasp the situation.
If inner self-understanding is identity, and institutions exist to recognize identity, then any refusal to grant recognition is harmful, a violent erasure of the self. The old liberal “live and let live” is defunct. So, too, are old understandings of free speech. Consider the example of “deadnaming”—referring to a transgendered person, Caitlyn, by the name used prior to transitioning, Bruce. This is not merely an innocent mistake, or an insistence on biology: deadnaming invalidates the other’s self-construction, which is an act of violence done to them. Or so it’s thought.
Trueman spends considerable time developing his account of the modern self in thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Percy Shelley, and Friedrich Nietzsche. What emerges is a coherent account of why sex is so closely linked to the modern vision. Sexuality is not an afterthought but essential to the project. Monogamy, chastity, and traditional marriage are villainous, and Shelley, for example, calls for the destruction of Christianity and the abolition of marriage. So, too, later theorists, such as Wilhelm Reich or Herbert Marcuse, who force a “shotgun wedding” between Freud and Marx to argue against marriage as repressive, the source of unhappiness, violence, and injustice. For the self to be free in its poetic construction, “the dismantling and abolition of the nuclear family is essential.” Drawing on but going beyond Freud and Marx, the “demolition of bourgeois society is predicated on the demolition of the sexual regulations that maintain it,” and especially those repressive institutions of the old ways. With those institutions, no peace can be brokered, no armistice—they must be undone and demolished.
To this end, the surrealists and the pornographers are not merely distributing erotic images and fantasy but are attempting to “achieve through art” and imagery a social revolution; the rise of eroticism in everyday life is not self-indulgence or letting lust slip free, but an effort to overturn Christianity that “represented precisely the oppressive bourgeois ideology par excellence.” In a similar way, albeit couched in the jargon and respectability of the courts, the reasoning in landmark cases such as Planned Parenthood v. Casey or Obergefell also reveals the triumph of the therapeutic, a turn to validation of inner self-determination, and the reduction of the older moral visons to irrational bias and animus from which the self must be freed. Every institution and cultural artifact must serve the performance of identity, sexual identity expresses our poetic freedom essentially, so every institution must recognize and celebrate the sexual constructions of a free and non-repressed world. Every institution.
Consequently, the conservative response often misses the point, returning to a moralism that, while not false, is deemed malicious. Further, and quite troubling, the usual sorts of religious responses overlook how thoroughly modern and therapeutic traditionally religious people themselves have become, hastening to reject their own teachings as mean-spirited, inhumane, and violent. Note the emotional and psychological language here: the teachings are not judged false, that’s irrelevant—they are harmful. Doubling down on the argument is perhaps not a winning strategy when responding to emotivists and psychological men, which presents us with a challenge requiring some sophistication. This is simply “the cultural condition in which we find ourselves and in which we are all to some extent complicit,” suggests Trueman.
For Trueman, this is cause for neither lament nor polemic—his task is a patient, careful articulation of the situation and its history. For those hoping to understand themselves, their children, their friends, and their institutions, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is an invaluable resource. For too long, many have either capitulated to or fumed against the sexual revolution, but until and unless the sexual revolution is understood within the context of the modern self, religious people are likely to continue their impotent capitulation or fuming. It’s time to understand what’s happening, and Trueman is very helpful in doing so.