In short, the modern self is one where authenticity is achieved by acting outwardly in accordance with one’s inward feelings.
Just like a baby.
Carl R. Trueman (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He is a contributing editor at First Things, an esteemed church historian, and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
This book is presented as an approachable and concise version of Trueman’s book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. As you can see, I chose the concise version for my reading.
From the Foreword, written by Ryan T. Anderson, President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (and author of the book, When Harry Became Sally – banned by Amazon):
The “self” that Western Civilization cultivated, up until just a few hundred years ago, was what Harvard political theorist Michael Sandel described as an “encumbered” self, in contrast to modernity’s “unencumbered” self.
The encumbered self was a being made with a purpose, a telos. He was free to live in accordance with this purpose. He was considered a creature of God. He conformed himself to the truth, to objective moral standards. He had in his vision eternal life.
The unencumbered self can’t be bothered with any of that:
Modern man, however, seeks to be “true to himself.” Rather than conform thoughts, feelings and actions to objective reality, man’s inner life itself becomes the source of truth.
Just as we describe currency which is tied to nothing objective, that can be created at will out of nothing, “fiat,” so is the modern man, who is his own standard, who can create of himself anything he chooses. Call him “fiat” man.
He is not accountable to theologians, but to the therapists who help him find his true self. Of course, this leads to finding his deepest and most important inner truth of sexual desires, and being “true” to this as well.
Meanwhile laws are passed, contrary to traditional family and sexual norms and requiring others affirm any and every new lifestyle. Objecting to any of it – and especially the worst of it – is now illegal.
Summarizing Anderson’s foreword, quoting the Catholic (sic) Biden: “Transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time.”
And with this, Trueman begins chapter one:
Many of us are familiar with books and movies whose plots revolve around central characters finding themselves trapped in a world where nothing behaves in quite the way they expect.
Trueman offers Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, and The Matrix series of movies as examples. However, this is no longer confined to fiction:
Things once regarded as obvious and unassailable virtues have in recent years been subject to vigorous criticism and even in some cases come to be seen by many as more akin to vices.
Marriage is between a man and a woman, for example. Yet, we once found slavery acceptable. So why not continue this liberating evolution into all areas of life? Trueman sees the underlying issue as the notion of the self. And this self connects to three other concepts: expressive individualism, the sexual revolution, and the social imaginary.
First, to define what he means by self. In the common usage, he is Carl Trueman, and not Jeff Bezos or Donald Trump. But Trueman means something else by self:
…the deeper notion of where the ‘real me’ is to be found, how that shapes my view of life, and in what the fulfillment or happiness of that ‘real me’ consists.
He offers two alternatives of how one might understand his self. First, with obligations toward, and dependence on others; the purpose of education is to train me in the demands and expectations of a wider culture, shaping me to be able to serve the community; as I grow, I learn to control my feelings, act with restraint, and sacrifice my desires for the betterment of the community. There was a time, not very long ago, where this was the case.
Or, second, I am born free to create my own identity; I am educated to be able to express outwardly whatever I feel inwardly; instead of restraint, I capitalize on opportunities to perform. This describes normative self of today.
The modern self assumes the authority of inner feelings and sees authenticity as defined by the ability to give social expression to the same.
Just like a baby.
Trueman then further defines and clarifies terms. Citing Robert Bellah who defines that expressive individualism…
…holds that each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized.
It is, as Charles Taylor describes, a “culture of authenticity,” where each one of us has his way of realizing his humanity. Any attempt to express disapproval of this inner feeling being expressed outwardly is met with disapproval – and even in some cases is illegal. It is a violation of the rights of this inner baby to hinder in any way their wish to be whatever they wish to be.
Expressive individualism isn’t all bad. We do have an inner life; we do feel things. We are, after all, individuals (in a proper sense). Trueman doesn’t deny any of this. Yet today we have radical changes in sexual norms, even more radical changes in physical and biological norms.
Next is the sexual revolution. This is something more than the liberation in the 1960s offered by the pill. Today no revolutionary sexual idea is to carry any social stigma at all. Even beyond this, every revolutionary idea is to be celebrated – even with children. Promiscuity, homosexuality, the use of pornography, transgenderism – all good in today’s world. Even pedophilia is mentioned, but it is not avoided because of any of the sexual acts but merely due to the issue of consent.
How did we get here? Trueman points to a number of intellectual figures: Mary Wollstonecraft, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Germaine Greer and Yuval Levin. He adds to the list Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault. But very few are reading these intellectuals, so what gives? This leads to Trueman’s third term: the social imaginary, again citing Charles Taylor:
I speak of “imaginary’ because I’m talking about the way ordinary people “imagine” their social surroundings….
This isn’t expressed in theoretical terms: it is carried in images, stories, legends. The theory is carried by a few, the many swim in the reality. Continuing with Taylor:
…the social imaginary is that common understanding which makes possible common practices, and a widely shared sense of legitimacy.
We live in a story and we want to belong.
Trueman believes, and will make his case in the coming chapters, that we are in this condition in society due to the “rise to cultural normativity of the expressive individual self, particularly as expressed through the idioms of the sexual revolution.”
And for this reason, the problems won’t be resolved by electing the right politician or getting the right judges on the court. Trueman doesn’t say it in so many words, but I am reminded: politics is downstream of culture.
To respond to our times we must first understand our times. That is my goal.
Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.