The story of the rise, triumph, and nightmare of the modern self

Dr. Carl R. Trueman has written a book of singular importance. Anyone with an interest in the recovery of Western culture should read it.

(Image: Fabrizio Verrecchia/Unsplash.com)

Anyone wondering if man is capable of reason need look no further than the self-evident fact that he desires to understand. Indeed, he is frustrated when understanding eludes him. In those moments, he experiences what philosophers call a “privation,” an inchoate sense that he lacks something that he ought to possess. This is what fuels his thirst for knowledge – his natural desire to uncover the truth of things. In a very real way, human history is a testament to man’s infinite appetite for answers to the questions that concern him.

The contemporary period is no different, even as reliance on human reason seems to be losing pride of place in both private and public discourse. Scholars and other intellectuals labor tirelessly to arrive at a coherent account of the complex of intersecting issues that characterizes our time. There have been countless efforts, mounted by thinkers of every persuasion, to get to the bottom of it all. Chesterton’s familiar “man on the street” makes his own contributions. But wherever it originates, when one comes across an explanation that makes sense, it is often accompanied by a palpable sense of relief, not unlike the touch of cool water on a sunburn or a soothing poultice applied to a wound.

This is what I experienced when the search for something with explanatory power led me to Professor Carl Trueman’s most recent book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Indeed, as I read through his analysis, there was a feeling of finally having found the full story. Dr. Trueman is currently professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College in Pennsylvania where he joined the faculty in 2018, after teaching at Princeton and Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. He is an impressive scholar with impressive credentials, the author or co-author of more than a dozen books.

This present volume is a thorough and coherent account of how, at the start of the third decade of the 21st century, we have arrived at the point where even the self-evident nature of things is being called into question – while those who would seek to hold tight to what is real are thrown, without a second thought, into the “basket of deplorables.”

Now Dr. Trueman is not a philosopher or a moral theologian. He is, in the first instance, a historian. He does not set out to provide an explanation of the metaphysical incoherence that characterizes prevailing accounts of the self. Neither is his intent to offer a moral critique of the situation on the ground. Though the impact of the sexual revolution is certainly central to his narrative, Trueman is interested in the historical factors that contributed to its rise and its subsequent influence on the culture. The sexual revolution is both a symptom and a cause of the social upheaval around us. The author’s central conviction is that this dramatic event cannot be fully understood until we grasp its historical context, which is marked by the “transformation in how society understands the nature of self-hood,” a process that began hundreds of years before the “swinging sixties.”

Reminding us that since “no individual historical phenomena is its own cause,” Dr. Trueman cautions those who look at the particulars of history refracted only through eternal truths and universal principles, whether metaphysical or moral. Even if such frameworks contain the truth, he declares, to employ them as a singular lens through which to understand our circumstance is to lose sight of the diagnostic power found in unraveling the actual human events that led us here. His analysis paints a detailed picture of those events, how they intersected with one another and lent force to each other, finally culminating in a conviction, unconsciously held now by all of us, that human happiness is found only if I am absolutely free to express my authentic self in whatever way I choose. The “origins of this book,” he tells us, “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.” He pursues the answer to this question through the methods of his own discipline. The book is a substantive and insightful account of how we got to the point where that statement has become a form of dogma, of how certain thinkers, writers, and events contributed to it, and of how something called “expressive individualism” took center stage in our understanding of what it means to be human.

The Architecture

But Dr. Trueman begins, not with past events, but with a masterful analysis of the current state of affairs. He recognizes that before we can analyze how we got here, we must first articulate where we actually are. And the first section of the work is an account of what the author refers to as the “Architecture of the Revolution,” a reference to the ideas of three “philosophers of the modern condition”: Phillip Reiff, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre. Taken together, their insights provide the underlying superstructure of the book.

In Reiff’s work, Trueman locates reference to the “triumph of the therapeutic,” arguably the overarching theme of our contemporary period. Reiff shows the historical progression of shifting accounts of the self from the political man of the Greeks, to the religious man of the medieval period, to homos economicus who took the stage in the modern period. Each of those formulations had their moment in history. But they have been superseded by the gradual emergence and triumph of “psychological man.” The pivot point in this development comes into view when we consider that those prior iterations each reflected an outward, communally ordered orientation, a recognition of something beyond the self to whom the self is responsible. But with the appearance of “psychological man,” man’s orientation turned inward, shifting his entire focus to his own happiness and personal satisfaction. The “good” became whatever makes me happy; it is entirely immanent. And the notion that the good is something that transcends the individual as he labors for the common good of all gradually faded from the scene.

Dr. Trueman next makes a very helpful connection, locating Charles Taylor’s notion of “expressive individualism” in the last stage of Reiff’s analysis. Here Taylor’s project finds its historical context. For the triumph of psychological man leads to the prevailing emphasis on the rights of the individual to freely express himself; personal authenticity, Taylor’s central theme, has become the primary goal of human life. This can only be realized in the “public performance of inward desires” and the world becomes a place for the individual to perform the self rather than conform the self to any account of the objective demands of moral living. The priority afforded to personal authenticity enters into the wider politics of the culture, what Taylor refers to as the “social imaginary,” becoming the basis for both identity and the social order. My psychological well-being now requires affirmation and recognition from those I encounter. And my demand for it has become a non-negotiable condition of interpersonal relationships, one that must be met willingly by others or it represents an unacceptable transgression of the rules that govern community life.

Finally, the author links Taylor’s notion of the “expressive individual” to the last element of the superstructure, Alasdair MacIntyre’s persuasive account of the ascendancy of “emotivism” in his signature work, After Virtue. There MacIntyre argues that self-evident truths have ceased to serve as the starting place of moral discourse in contemporary culture; first principles have been replaced by a purely subjective sense of personal preference, a feeling that brooks no disagreement. Debates on moral issues are seemingly interminable, says MacIntyre, because they begin from often incommensurable notions of the good. The assumption becomes that my moral convictions are normative, but yours are rooted in personal, emotional preference – even though I am vaguely aware that mine are too. And the language of morality, grounded for centuries in the natural law and the ordinary human inclination to pursue virtue, no longer has any currency. We have been left with no transcendent moral order that allows us to adjudicate moral disputes.

With great care and skill, Dr. Trueman has illuminated the connections between these three sets of insights and their relevance for his subsequent analysis. When the search for the transcendent no longer has meaning or value, we are led to the triumph of Reiff’s psychological man, whose priority has become his own subjective happiness. Taylor’s expressive individualism, a subjective feeling grounded in a purely personal sense of authenticity, has become the only criteria of the good and entered into the imagination of the broader society. MacIntyre’s emotivism requires us to accept each persons’ right to pursue their own “authentic” self, unencumbered by any meta-account of the good. My personal identity – and yours – is whatever I – or you – say it is, no matter how fluid, no matter how constructed. This view has become the coinage of the realm, the only way to secure a place at the table of public discourse. And there is no court of appeal.

The Foundations

Dr. Trueman then retraces the steps that brought Western culture to this pass. Turning now to the “Foundations of the Revolution,” he analyzes the contributions of several familiar thinkers, as well as some not often listed as the usual suspects. Unsurprisingly perhaps, he begins with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose work provides the starting place for modern notions of the self. Trueman identifies Rousseau’s autobiography, Confessions, as a key pivot point in the trajectory. Notable for its unprecedented preoccupation with the psychological, it marks a clear turn toward the inner life and toward the centrality of feeling as a guide to real freedom. We learn that Rousseau’s most famous statement, that “man is born free yet is everywhere in chains,” found at the start the treatise on The Social Contract, is anticipated in Rousseau’s earlier work, the First Discourse. There Rousseau argues that the arts and sciences, and culture, rather than deserving our adulation, are actually at the root of modern vices (such as hypocrisy and wickedness) since they require man to conform to rules that are unnatural to him. If man were left in the “state of nature,” rather than accepting to be governed by the social institutions that regulate him, he would be able to liberate his one true, natural self. The meaning of the good becomes a function of this wish to be free, placing sentiment at the heart of ethical discourse, and setting the stage for the primacy of personal preference – lending authority to MacIntyre’s account of emotivism.

Perhaps the most insightful surprise of the book comes next: the author turns his attention to an account of three giants of the Romantic period, William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, and William Blake. They are important because there is a question that begs to be answered: However deeply felt by their author, how did Rousseau’s written words about the inner life, self-love, and sentiment become not only the common currency of society but unspoken ideas so deeply embedded in our psyches that we scarcely notice them? Here Trueman makes the case that Rousseau’s rudimentary account of expressive individualism might have remained at the surface of mere intellectual discourse if not for the artistic movement known as Romanticism. Shelley himself supplies the answer to the question when he declares that both the poet and poetry itself serve as the “midwife”; it is the spirt and passion of the artist that gives life to this new vision of man.

Trueman refers to these writers as the “Unacknowledged Legislators”; their works were like accelerant poured on a smoldering ember. Each in their own way, they forge a white-hot link between ideas and feeling, giving voice to the expressivism manifest in the poetry of the time. While Shelley envisioned more of a political transformation, Wordsworth argued that poetry connects the human being to that which makes them human. It is the experience of poetry that is important, he declared that poetry “is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and that its aim is authenticity. In all three of these poets we hear Rousseau’s emphasis on feelings and instinct as the heart of moral action and authentic human freedom. And while Blake’s poetry and symbolism disclose an emphasis on the sexual as an aspect of human nature, both Shelley and Blake regard organized religion as an illegitimate restraint on the full expression of the authentic self. Their poetry corresponds to the tenor of the times and give voice to Rousseau’s psychological man, a thread that follows us from the Romantic period into the present.

Dr. Trueman turns now to the last element remaining in his reconstruction of the foundations of the revolution. In the final chapter of this section, entitled “The Emergence of the Plastic People,” the author takes up the destructive contributions of three of the most influential thinkers of the late 19th century, Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin. He first outlines the impact of Nietzsche and Marx, specifically their attacks on metaphysics and the moral life, religion, and human nature. Then he turns to the work of Charles Darwin and the damage Darwin’s theories visited on our teleological understanding of man’s place in the universe. These developments loom large in the narrative we are following. Nietzsche has reduced freedom to the exercise of the will as power and painted a bleak picture of the nihilism that hollows out the meaning of man’s action in the world. Marx rejects any attempt to suggest an abstract or idealistic account of the human person, reducing him to a merely material participant in a historical imperative and injecting the political into the bloodstream of the culture. Darwin wraps it all in what appears to be a scientific framework. This chapter is a superb treatment of how each of these thinkers contributed to the disappearance of the old order and the rise of psychological man – who now becomes his own creator.

The Sexualization of the Revolution

Recall that we have been following the historical stages in the transformation in our understanding of the self. The first stage called for the self to be psychologized; this was accomplished through the contributions of Rousseau and the Romantics who followed him. The second stage calls for psychology to be sexualized. In a section entitled “The Sexualization of the Revolution,” we learn that this is the “signal achievement of Sigmund Freud.” Though mostly unmentioned until now, Dr. Trueman tells us that Freud plays what might be the pivotal role the questions we are pursuing. The father of psychoanalysis marks the turning point in the trajectory that leads to the sexual revolution.

Freud’s significance is found not in his psychological theories; they have been largely discredited. His legacy is defined by his theory of sexuality which “places the sex drive at the very core of who and what human beings are from infancy.” This claim serves as the starting place for his theory of religion and of civilization. For Freud, the essence of human happiness is found, not in some transcendent or divine being, but in sexual fulfillment. Human civilization is governed by the exigencies of sexual desire. Prior to Freud, sex had been an activity. After Freud, it is definitive of who we are, both personally and as a culture. And, like Darwin, Freud’s contribution took on additional weight since he developed it within the “scientific idiom of psychoanalysis,” a feature that made his theories even more “plausible in a modern social imaginary in which science has intuitive authority.” These convictions, irrespective of Freud’s prominent place in the field of psychoanalysis, are now fundamental to our culture, informing virtually every dimension of human life. It is not hard to see how such a development has led to the sexualization of the expressive self, governed as it is by subjective preferences and sentiment, as it pursues its quest for absolute freedom. This quest now has a specific target: sexual fulfillment. And these developments set in motion the final step in the sexual revolution. Freud has achieved the sexualization of psychology, but the final stage is the politicization of sex. And here, at last, our contemporary condition comes clearly into view; the trail we have been following leads, finally, to the full story.

The sexual revolution may have seemed like a sudden, mysterious surge in the promiscuous exploits of the young in the mid-1960’s. But it was never only about sex. In this last stage, Marx and Freud have become collaborators, hidden from the view of the uninitiated. Here Dr. Trueman provides a stunning account of the marriage of Marx and Freud found in the work of Wilhelm Reich, whose manifesto The Sexual Revolution was first published in 1936. Indeed, Dr. Reich, an accomplished psychoanalyst in the Freudian school, was the first to use the term “sexual revolution.” Reich followed Freud in arguing that the key to human happiness was sexual gratification. But his commitment to Marxism led him to derive the only “logical” conclusion: If that is so, it can only mean that the way to create a happy society was to establish conditions that maximize the possibility of sexual gratification. Reich went even further, declaring that “sociopolitical reform without sexual liberation is impossible: freedom and sexual health are the same thing.”

Though most of the college students and others who fell under the spell of his work may never have heard his name, Reich’s thinking had enormous influence on a whole generation of young people. Their lives and our culture were forever altered by the events his work put in motion. We were duped into thinking it was just an innocent (and now seemingly endless) “summer of love.” Trueman includes the back story on how Marxism had already come to infiltrate the academy, the media, the arts. The intentional transformation of our cultural institutions was already in movement. The intellectuals who occupied the academy and taught in our universities led the way. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Without question, Dr. Carl Trueman has written a book of singular importance. Anyone with an interest in the recovery of Western culture should read it. This work reveals that we are in the grip of a shared cultural amnesia that has reached fearsome proportions. We need to wake up, yes, but not in the way commonly spoken of at present. We need to face the reality that we are fighting the tyranny, not of people, but of a deadly concoction of ideas. And one cannot fight an enemy one does not know. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self points the way out of our current situation. Because it shows that superficial answers or pat explanations are not enough – that the only way forward is to engage in the hard work of coming to understand. Dr. Trueman has shown us that it is the power of the word, of the logos, that will give us the strength to set things right yet again.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution
by Carl R. Trueman
Crossway 2020
Hardcover, 424 pages

Related at CWR: 
“Understanding and surviving a culture dominated by expressive individualism” (Nov 15, 2020): An interview with Carl R. Trueman, by Carl E. Olson.
“The Return of the Madman: Nietzsche, Nihilism, and the Death of God, circa 2020″ (Aug 10, 2020) by Deborah Savage, Ph.D.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Deborah Savage, PhD 2 Articles
Deborah Savage, Ph.D. is a member of the faculty at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul Minnesota where she teaches philosophy and theology and also serves as Director of the Masters in Pastoral Ministry Program. She is the co-founder and director of the Siena Symposium for Women, Family, and Culture, a think tank organized at the University to respond to St. John Paul II’s call for a new and explicitly Christian feminism.

24 Comments

  1. It’s surprising that Dr Trueman’s perceptive analysis of how we reached the point of pathological self-preoccupation and self-assertion includes no mention of Kant and the “turning to the subject” that epitomises his epistemology. It was he who insisted on the “categorical imperative” in matters of morality but who simultaneously attempted to undermine the objective metaphysical conditions necessary for its validation. Most critics of Thomism produce Kant and Hume at the head of the prosecution. Romano Guardini and Etienne Gilson are more than adequate for successful rebuttal of the Kantian legacy and its influence on “transcendental theology” which they expose as an abortive attempt to marry Kant and Aquinas, leading us in to what Gilson recognised as the Kantian “cul-de-sac” of subjectivity.

    • Thank you for your comment. I, too, was surprised not to find mention of the “usual suspects” and would include Descartes and Hume as well – indeed, we are reaping the seeds of the whole modern period in these days. For example, the existentialists are “missing” too. But as I read, I realized that that very familiar narrative is one that tends to look at our situation through a strictly philosophical lens AND that the thinkers Dr. Trueman explores in his book were and are very much a part of the story too. And I was startled to discover the very substantive through-line from Rousseau to Wilhelm Reich’s work, with stops along the way via Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin – and then Freud. The work made me think in new ways about our situation and how to confront it.

  2. Wow. I’ve been reading the philosophical angle on contemporary insanity, but after this wonderful review I believe that I will have in my hands the concrete foundations of the crumbled foundations of our disappearing cult-ure. Great review. Can’t wait for the book.

  3. Dr. Savage maintains the theological virtue of Hope. To do so is not a small challenge in the times that she and Dr. Trueman describe. Voices of hope such as theirs – their refusal to accept total defeat – encourage their readers. I am encouraged! One comment: (in the “for whatever it is worth” category). The word “sex” was, in past times, understood to refer to maleness or femaleness. References to sexual intercourse were more precise: “sexual intercourse”, “sexual relations”. These descriptive terms provided a basis for clear understanding. One understood that the reference was to a particular form of human interaction; another person was involved. That person had to be considered. This shaped the thinking of young people who were considering the matter. My children were in high school before I became aware of the term “have sex”. “Change the language; change the culture.” True.

  4. Dr. Savage concludes: “…the only way forward is to engage in the hard work of coming to UNDERSTAND [….] the power of the word, of the LOGOS, that will give us the strength to set things right yet again.”

    One way of introducing the self-donating Logos to a brainwashed and sex-addict generation is the testimony of idolized celebrities who personally “set things right yet again”…Take, for example, the high-visibility Michael Edwards, who shacked-up with Priscilla Presley for six years after the death of Elvis—frenzied sex plus infidelities, cocaine to fuel a non-sleep movie career, an abortion…

    Finally sobered and contrite, in the recanting EPILOGUE to his sordid tale Edwards writes: “I felt like a prehistoric man living in a cave, grabbing every woman in sight—NOT NEEDING A BRAIN [….] Our perpetual, unremitting love life had been the devil’s making. We’d become like two animals snared in a trap—snarling, eyes bulging and berserk, twitching and jerking. Our world was completely out of kilter [….] The big house, fine cars, tennis court, pool, people attending us around the clock—none of this could get you the moon. . . Or even a little bit of SERENITY. That, I now realized, was what I wanted.”

    Of the single, fleeting moment of “serenity” in his entire life, Edwards then recalls his lost youth and the quiet of a church (!):

    “. . . Above the organ was a life-sized crucifix, and if I stared at JESUS long enough he came to life and smiled at me. I was filled with a warm feeling of love and UNDERSTOOD the meaning of the words ‘My cup runneth over.’”

    (Edwards, Michael, “Priscilla, Elvis and Me: In the Shadow of the King,” New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988, CAPS added).

  5. Deborah Savage in her opening identifies the protagonists for Man’s soul, reason and sensuality. Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue going back to 1981 is perhaps the most coherent study on this issue. His simple, astute analysis is “Sentiment that effects adherence to rules”. Although Trueman’s book as essayed by Dr Savage takes us through history in a good overview detailing how we got here. MacIntyre prophetically cited sentiment v rules as the modern religious paradigm. Religion perceived as reflective of a secularized world. Wilhelm Reich’s sexual revolution and the assault on the family, family the essential cohesive element of culture disappearing in the devilish smoke of sexual freedom. Sexual abomination its synonym. Cardinal Caffarra and Sr Lucia Dos Santos were right on the Family as the last bastion in the battle for Man’s soul. “It is the power of the word, of the logos, that will set things right yet again”. Reason alone will not accomplish that because ‘right reason’ is a different language, foreign to modern man. Logos, the divine Word can.

  6. Point of pedantry:

    We’re at the end of the second decade of the Twenty-first Century, on the cusp of the third. Unless what you were trying to say is that Dr. Trueman’s argument is our many problems, whatever their source, only came to a crisis juncture in the middle of Barak Obama’s first term.

  7. Dr. Trueman may have put together a more or less adequate enumeration of some of the academic imagery put up in an effort to understand how the modern imaginary unfolded, but this will not serve to recover Western Culture. In fact, his work can better be used by the modern secularist as a valid history book. Trueman fails to note that modernity is born of suffering and its concomitant hatred by modernist authors of their social standings, their personal lives and their selves. Traditional approaches to existence begin with wonder as a motivation to discover and subsequently enjoy, praise and thank. Trueman misses this point and fails to ask “Are we, as a society, to follow those who are happy in their existence or those whose dissatisfaction leads them to posit ideas that are not discovered but rather are offered as a temporary salve for unjustifiable and insane problems?” It would be better to burn the books of the modernists than continue to examine them as if by studying them there is something to learn.

    • I’m not sure that you and I read the same book (I’ve read it twice). Since there has been (from the Fall) all sorts of suffering, it’s not clear what you mean by “modernity is born of suffering…” But the point about being happy is notable, as Trueman discusses happiness and various theological and philosophical approaches to happiness. In fact, in the section on Freud, it has a key role, and it’s a major theme in other places as well. In the Introduction, Trueman writes:

      Another way of approaching the matter of the self is to ask what it is that makes a person happy. Is happiness found in directing oneself outward or inward? For example, is job satisfaction to be found in the fact that it enables me to feed and clothe my family? Or is it to be found in the fact that the very actions involved in my work bring me a sense of inner psychological well-being? The answer I give speaks eloquently of what I consider the purpose of life and the meaning of happiness. In sum, it is indicative of how I think of my self.

      To return to my earlier statement, that the sexual revolution is a manifestation of a much deeper and wider revolution in what it means to be a self, my basic point should now be clear: the changes we have witnessed in the content and significance of sexual codes since the 1960s are symptomatic of deeper changes in how we think of the purpose of life, the meaning of happiness, and what actually constitutes people’s sense of who they are and what they are for. The sexual revolution did not cause the sexual revolution, nor did technology such as the pill or the internet. Those things may have facilitated it, but its causes lie much deeper, in the changes in what it meant to be an authentic, fulfilled human self. And those changes stretch back well before the Swinging Sixties.

      And, later, in summing up a point about Marx’s beliefs about religion, he states:

      Religion offers false happiness to an unhappy world; the tearing down of religion is the precondition for offering true happiness through the establishment of an economic system that does not alienate the workers from the fruits of their labor. For Marx, as for Nietzsche and Feuerbach, religion is not so much a matter of metaphysical interest, for it is an illusion. Rather, it poses questions regarding human psychology.

      In the section on Freud, after giving some pertinent quotes from Freud, Trueman writes:

      If happiness is the desired goal of all human beings, then for Freud the pleasure principle—the quest for pleasure focused on sexual gratification—is central to what it means to be a human being. The purpose of life, and the content of the good life, is personal sexual fulfillment. This principle also reorients thinking on the purpose of sex: the purpose of procreation is subordinated to the purpose of personal pleasure.

      Such a position is in itself radical. In making this claim, Freud is asserting that true happiness is sexual satisfaction, and therefore the way to be happy is to engage in behavior that leads one to be sexually—that is, genitally—satisfied. Rousseau saw unhappiness as the result of the corrupting power of civilized society in fueling amour propre, which prevented people from being true to themselves by forcing them to engage in the artificial conventions and hypocrisies that such demanded. Freud stands in basic continuity with this idea, but he radically sexualizes and darkens it.

      There are more examples.

      You write: “It would be better to burn the books of the modernists than continue to examine them as if by studying them there is something to learn.”

      This is akin to saying that doctors should simply get rid of patients with mysterious or complicated diseases rather than trying to understand the disease better for the purpose of fighting it and healing the patient. It makes no sense. But, again, perhaps your reading of the book is different or more insightful than mine.

      • Back in 1948, Richard Weaver penned IDEAS HAVE CONSEQUENCES (University of Chicago Press), where he anticipates much of Carl Trueman. In short, the meltdown of the West is due to the elimination of transcendence. He writes in his penultimate chapter VIII about the zombie-elite and, even then, their manipulation of language (today the definition of “marriage,” etc. ad nauseam):

        “They desire language to reflect not conceptions of verities but qualities of perceptions, so that man may, by the pragmatic theory of success, live more successfully. To one completely committed to this realm of becoming, as are the empiricists, the claim to apprehend verities is a sign of psychopathology. Probably we have here but a highly sophisticated expression of the doctrine that ideals [!] are hallucinations and that the only normal, sane person is the healthy extrovert, making instant, instinctive adjustments to the stimuli of the material world. To such people as these, Christ as preacher of the Word, is a ‘homosexual paranoiac’ [!!! in his 2015 fatwa, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s branding was ‘homophobic’]. In effect, their doctrine seems part of the general impulse to remove all barriers to immediate apprehension of the sensory world, and so one must again call attention to a willingness to make the physical the sole determinant of what is.”

        As for “ideals” (above), how unfortunately Delphian–and exploitable by hermeneutical termites–that one of the four principles imprinted into Evangelium Gaudium (2013) is this: “realities are more important than ideas.”

  8. (Dr Paul Ricouer and) St. John Paul II already came to the conclusions of Dr Trueman by identifying the “masters of suspicion” (Freud, Marx & Nietzsche) in the Theology of the Body. The answer is the “Ethos of Redemption”.

  9. Mr. Olsen makes good sense in commenting on my post concerning Dr. Trueman’s work. It is my common fault to assume that my statements will be understood without my explaining the context. Now I feel pressed to clarify my post, and then some. One thing that bothers me more than any thing else is that the millions of minds are being filled by academics with time wasting musings about writers who have nothing more than created stories to tell. These stories then go on to be the musings which preoccupy so many, as if the stories provide the tools to examine and understand the issues that characterize a period in history. Let me provide a clarifying example courtesy the current Brazilian Philosopher Olavo de Carvalho. He found that Descartes was raised with book of Roman fairy tales by his bedside. One of these fairy tales was the ‘Amphytrion’, a comedy by Plautus, in which we find an Evil Genius who plants in the human mind innumerable false impressions. In Plautus’ play Sosia, the main character’s slave, is moved by the Evil Genius to doubt the reality of his own life and existence. He manages to find the solution for that conundrum by finding out the certainty of the ‘cogito ergo sum’. Olavo asks, “How could I understand the discovery of the ‘cogito’ to be characteristically modern if it was already present in a Roman comedy from the second century B.C.?” It becomes clear that Descartes plagiarized an old story line intended to be funny and presented it as the ultimate truth on which modern philosophy must rest. But, what is most strange about the story is the assumption that the search for certainty must begin by a complete abstinence from reality until one could isolate the one thing of which certainty was possible. Now, contrast this to someone like Aristotle whose desire was not to abstain from a single aspect of experience but rather to study and document it in detail. Or, contrast it to all modern scientific and technological minds that carefully examine reality for the sake of discovery. Now Dr. Trueman tries to trace the origin of “the modern condition”. The sad fact is that he cannot do this by reading the stories that so-called ‘modern thinkers’ put up as their thought. In fact their ‘thought’ does not reflect their realities. Whichever modern thinker is considered, his works are stories written with little care for capturing realities. Think of Hegel and his monstrously ridiculous ‘history’. Think of Nietzsche and his funny little aphorisms reflecting momentary flashes of cuteness. Think of Kant whose ethics is an attempt to enshrine his view of Puritanism and whose ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ was an attempt to enshrine Newtonian physics as immutable truth. I am bothered that so many of our academics who refer to these stories as profound with the result that they are providing students with odd phrasing and doubt as to whether anything can learned. Like Phillip Reiff, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre, Dr. Trueman makes a fatal error: truth is not to be found in stories purporting to be the result of thought in the current age. The stories are false entertainments written with motives not worth caring about. One can characterize them as revelations into the modern condition but they are not that. They are stories sometimes written to entertain, sometimes to express rebellion, to instill doubt, to protest, to be dryly humourous, to put down a perceived enemy, to disagree with the existence of God, to make income by writing, to gain notoriety, to be seen as ‘avant garde’, to put up a pet theory, to gain respect, to support a particular lifestyle, etc. and etc. If the stories are symptoms of a ‘disease’ requiring a cure, then the cure is obvious: just start to recognize the stories as fabrications for innumerable motives. But … so many academics today seem to be incapable of seeing this.

    • Thanks for the clarification. But I’m not sure that reducing major philosophical models and arguments to nothing more than false stories is intellectually credible, at least not as a sweeping generalization. There are always aspects of objective reality in various philosophical approaches, kernels of truth that can be insightful.

  10. Hopefully the next revolution will be the rejection and elimination of philosophical models or theories. Reality is not delivered to us as a theory or a model and such creations deliver nothing. However, that being said, when a theory denies experienced reality (Heidegger), prohibits questions (Marx), denies entities (Hume), excludes everything that does not fit a technique (Weber, Wittgenstein, Cantor) … I could go on ad nauseam but suffice to note that theories have tended to be reductionist and therefore by definition false stories. I grant the authors of the were well-meaning in many cases but this is only because they had become trapped in the modern mindset, which Dr. Trueman would do better to analyze to isolate the true character of the modern self.

  11. “But with the appearance of “psychological man,” man’s orientation turned inward, shifting his entire focus to his own happiness and personal satisfaction. The “good” became whatever makes me happy; it is entirely immanent. And the notion that the good is something that transcends the individual as he labors for the common good of all gradually faded from the scene.”

    One is typically obligated to regard one’s good as worthy of respect by others. Happiness is not the same as pleasure. This point is missing from this article.

    The common good is identical to an epiphenomenon arising from universal respect for every person’s individual rights. The flip side is that every right necessitates a corresponding duty, but it is a duty primarily with regards to other individuals. That said, charity can always move people to “go the extra mile,” but charity is not primarily the concern of the state.

    “My psychological well-being now requires affirmation and recognition from those I encounter. And my demand for it has become a non-negotiable condition of interpersonal relationships, one that must be met willingly by others or it represents an unacceptable transgression of the rules that govern community life.”

    Here we have a justification for tyrannical totalitarianism. Obviously, if some “rights” are more equal than others, then the complainers gain an unjust favored position, and it is a zero-sum “game” (e.g. “believe all women”). This can go VERY FAR in the evil “legal” system.

    “The assumption becomes that my moral convictions are normative, but yours are rooted in personal, emotional preference – even though I am vaguely aware that mine are too. And the language of morality, grounded for centuries in the natural law and the ordinary human inclination to pursue virtue, no longer has any currency. We have been left with no transcendent moral order that allows us to adjudicate moral disputes.”

    This isn’t true. There is “the law.” It appears that persons (NAACP) at some point in the 1930s recognized or created the idea of using courts to hammer opponents. Eventually others probably (This is speculation.) realized that this could be easily transferred to a policy with regards to legislators. That is that “law” instead of being tied to impartial justice as indicated by the natural law has become a tool for malicious “complainers” to invoke the power of the state to defeat their opponents. This denies the rights of those attacked, and perpetrates gross injustices with the “blessing” of “the law.”

    “My personal identity – and yours – is whatever I – or you – say it is, no matter how fluid, no matter how constructed. This view has become the coinage of the realm, the only way to secure a place at the table of public discourse. And there is no court of appeal.”

    If by public discourse, you mean mainstream media then you would be correct. But just because a person isn’t heard, doesn’t mean that they aren’t talking or that they don’t have an opinion. The only court of appeal is public opinion, but the mainstream media filters out that which is threatening to the status quo. If only people knew.

    “We learn that Rousseau’s most famous statement, that “man is born free yet is everywhere in chains,” found at the start the treatise on The Social Contract, is anticipated in Rousseau’s earlier work, the First Discourse.”

    Note that “The Social Contract” is on the Index of Forbidden Books. Perhaps you understand now why.

    Rousseau appears to have been the perpetrator of the error (perhaps coming from your quote of his) that no person has a right to command another, or that there is something fundamentally wrong with telling a subordinate person to do anything. This is largely not talked about AFAIK, but at least one pope in the nineteenth century mentioned it as an error. You can see this attitude everywhere. No longer does anyone, even most parents with regards to their children, command – they “ask.”

    “Trueman includes the back story on how Marxism had already come to infiltrate the academy, the media, the arts. The intentional transformation of our cultural institutions was already in movement. The intellectuals who occupied the academy and taught in our universities led the way.”

    It wasn’t Marxism, but either cultural Marxism or perhaps more accurately cultural Leninism. It was pointed out in this book that it was Lenin who created the idea of a revolutionary leadership who would lead the proletariat to become self-conscious and rise up.

    I am not satisfied with the level of rigor in general (outside of and perhaps including this book) concerning this topic. There seems to be too much conjecture and guilt by association, and not a demonstrated connection. At least a conspiracy hasn’t be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, in my opinion.

  12. Mr. Olsen writes “I’m not sure that you and I read the same book (I’ve read it twice).” In reply, I did not read the book. I thumbed through it sufficiently to establish the genre and to glean some of the common themes. That is all that was necessary for me to know that it is an historical fable along the lines of the Davinci Code. How dare I write such a thing about a respected historian? I do not mean to imply that he is insincere, incompetent or a writer of fictions. What I do mean to convey is that he has been absorbed by a thinking process that looks to the occurrence of ideas in order of time to perhaps find links and therefore to be able to provide explanations of how and why history played out as it did. This could be nice if this could be done. But, one must not forget the memorable words of Karl Löwith: “Man does not have a perch from which to observe the flow of history.” Löwith was exposing the fallacies of progressive thinkers of all schools. No one has an ability to tune in to some spirit of time, zeitgeist, to determine if the future will be utopian or dystopian, and not even to have insight into why things are as they are in the present. It is not necessary to dispense of a Hegel or Marx by a laborious endeavor showing that their proposed histories did not play out. It is sufficient to dismiss the entire schools as without basis precisely because their presumed intellectual tools do not exist. So … on to the work at hand … Dr. Trueman and others find Rousseau (as but one of his examples) to be a significant defining figure for modern history. However, the Rousseau character type is very old; everyone should know this. While not in the same words, Rousseau types appear as self-serving sinners in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament; they appear as the self-ingratiating Solon in Plato’s Kritias and Timaeus. The Rousseau character type is not especially significant as a modern occurrence; but rather, it is a throwback that remains a possibility at all times and especially when a society allows it. Nothing that I am stating here should be revelatory for anyone. However, to signify such occurrences as having historical import misses the main question: what is it about a society that allows such occurrences to happen? Then, who are these unhappy people who mull over getting out of their “current situation” because such things happened? Why do they recognize the situation as a problem? Or, is their culture only to live out lives of pretending to have problems? Are they voicing the problems only fill out the sound space of lecture halls? Are they striving to cause baseless anxieties in others? The same must be asked of all of the happenings that Dr. Trueman notes as having significant formative influence on modernity. If they have led to things being so bad, then how can Dr. Trueman’s analysis lead to “the recovery of Western Culture”? This obscure phrase is obscure precisely because it is unclear as to whether there is anything to recover, or what it is. In fact, it is unclear as to whether there is a problem?
    The most significant event in all of history is the Birth of Christ following on Jewish revelation. It is pre-eminently unique but it now is greatly dismissed by “Western Culture”, or so I am told. At least it is indisputable that it is treated by the greater majority of scholars as of little significance. But, it is extremely foolhardy to assume that over 20 centuries of Biblical analysis should be left out of the picture when it comes to analysing the modern self. I can only thank God that the problems that Dr. Trueman seeks to solve are not mine.

    • “That is all that was necessary for me to know that it is an historical fable along the lines of the Davinci Code.”

      With all due respect, having co-authored a book on The Da Vinci Code, having read the book in question here (and having reviewed it, upcoming), and so forth, theses sort of comments are not going to win you many friends or sympathetic readers.

  13. While I agree with Martin Pagnan that many of the intellectuals currently revered by their enchanted acolytes in much of Western academia (particularly Foucault, Derrida, Horheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and co.) are ludicrously overrated, their influence on several generations of students, many of them now teachers, cannot be underestimated. One of the ironies of the present hegemony they enjoy in language and humanities faculties, as Roger Kimball and others have pointed out, is that they systematically undermine the very institutions that award them tenure as well as the rational principles on which they are based. The New Sophists. One step towards a solution to this marauding nonsense and breath-taking hypocrisy is, I suggest, the continued establishment of alternative centres of learning that value and promote the foundational thinkers caricatured and despised by those who believe “dead white males” are by definition enemies of progress. I think, too, Martin makes a very important point in reminding us how postmodern academia in its ‘enlightened’ wokeness effectively ignores or dismisses the central event of human history. No wonder bright students are like Milton’s hungry sheep who look up and are not fed, and why Oscar Wilde’s prophecy about mindless superficiality being the great sin of this age is coming to fulfilment.

  14. The progressives bear a striking resemblance to HAL 9000 in 2001. Particularly the parts about being foolproof and having a mission that is too important to allow anyone to jeopardize it. Sounds like they are having their AE-35 event.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. The story of the rise, triumph, and nightmare of the modern self – On God's Payroll
  2. De nye grendeklynger rundt Totenåsen – LeveVeg

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*