Theology & Spirituality

Book Review: “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self”

The acclaimed novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace begins perhaps his most famous essay, This Is Water, with a memorable question: how would one fish describe to another the meaning of water? To a fish, water is so ubiquitous, so constitutive of everyday experience, that the question would be almost unintelligible. What, after all, would “not-water” even be? To a fish, water is the absolute horizon of what is realistically conceivable; it is, in the terms of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, the social imaginary, the way the world is fundamentally understood to be.

And that, of course, is the very issue Wallace wishes his readers to contemplate: what is the social imaginary that we inhabit, the “water” in which we swim? Are we capable of thinking outside or beyond it?

It is also the question Carl Trueman wants his readers to contemplate in his remarkable new book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. What is the social imaginary in which we find ourselves today, and where did it come from? And more narrowly—how does the dominant social imaginary affect what we understand our selves to be?

Rise and Triumph is an extended attempt to answer a very straightforward research question: how did statements of the form “I am an [X] trapped in a [Y] body” come to be understood as meaningful, and even morally urgent, by ordinary people? The immediate catalyst for Trueman’s work is, of course, ongoing cultural debate over the nature of gender identity—but Trueman’s original and insightful argument has implications that extend well beyond today’s controversies. To put it as succinctly as possible, Rise and Triumph contends that self-expression, particularly the outworking of one’s deepest sexual desires, has for all intents and purposes become the moral lodestar of contemporary public life.

That is an audacious and far-reaching claim, but Trueman is more than happy to defend it. To build his case, Trueman deploys a number of analytical frameworks drawn from the works of sociologist Philip Rieff, moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor himself. From Rieff, Trueman draws the concept of the “triumph of the therapeutic”—the tendency to center the concerns of the “expressive self” at the heart of modern life—as well as the tendency of civilizations unmoored from a sense of transcendent order to ultimately cannibalize themselves: how does one justify one’s own culture to oneself absent such an order? From MacIntyre, Trueman identifies the contemporary collapse of moral discourse into “emotivism,” or the reduction of ethical inquiry to mere assertion of private preferences—an inevitable result, given the incommensurable metaphysical commitments underlying modern moral debate. And from Taylor (in particular, his seminal works Sources of the Self and A Secular Age), Trueman pulls the concept of the social imaginary, as well as a critical distinction between mimesis and poiesis—that is, human beings’ sense of themselves as living in harmony with an underlying pattern or order to the world, versus a sense that nature is raw stuff to be shaped according to one’s will.

Trueman’s historical account begins with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Romantic poets, whose sanguine view of human nature diverged sharply from the Augustinian conception of human beings as inherently sinful. For Rousseau, the inner self in the state of nature was, for all intents and purposes, in a state of grace; moral corruption was an effect of depraved society and culture, rather than an overflow of the heart. And that argument found artistic expression in the works of writers like William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who placed great emphasis upon the fundamental sanctity of the inner self—particularly when uninhibited by traditional religious practice and marital mores.

From there, Trueman proceeds to discuss the one-two-three punch struck by the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin. For Nietzsche, Christian ethics were both debased and infantile, a decrepit holdover in a world that had failed to recognize the implications of the collapse of orthodox faith. For Marx—following Ludwig Feuerbach—classical “God-talk” was simply a projection of human aspirations and a distraction from material reality. And for Darwin, human beings as such were simply chance products of unconscious evolutionary processes, devoid of any singular “nature” with moral import. Taken together, Trueman argues, these three thinkers helped trigger the discrediting of classical mimesis—the self’s living in accordance with objective, transcendental order—and the ascendance of poiesis, or the power of the self to shape its world as it wills.

But what exactly is this naked, denuded thing called the “self,” when cut loose from the medieval “great chain of being”?

Enter Sigmund Freud, whose characterization of the self as an essentially sexed entity has—even if psychoanalytically discredited—profoundly impacted the modern social imaginary. (Just consider how frequent it is, even in jest, to label human problems as functions of maladaptive or repressed sexuality.) Trueman argues that these Freudian motifs of sexual repression and the emancipation of the inner self were subsequently laundered through the works of Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse, and other figures associated (more or less closely) with the Frankfurt School of post-Marxist intellectuals. That school’s influence on contemporary American intellectual life, as scarcely need be said, has been profound.

And so emerges the modern self: a pure consciousness unshackled by metaphysical limits or absolute ethical constraints, whose deepest and truest expression is manifested in the form of sexual desire. Poiesis is the name of the game now—when nature stands in the way of desire, nature must yield. And the failure of other people to affirm this sexed self is, on these premises, logically conceivable as “a denial of one’s right to exist.” The remainder of the book traces the implications of the emergence of this “sexed self” across a variety of domains, most of which will likely be familiar to Trueman’s readers (the ubiquity of pornography, the sexual revolution, Obergefell v. Hodges, and so on).

As is probably clear by now, this is a very different kind of “genealogy of modernity” than, say, Al Mohler’s recent The Gathering Storm. Not (apparently) intended for the casual reader, Trueman’s text is a serious and careful academic study of highly complex research questions, supported by a dense bibliography of primary source texts rather than Federalist articles and mass-market bestsellers. It isn’t every Christian writer who can understand (and compellingly articulate) the salient differences between Frankfurt School thinkers, or trace the longstanding ideological cleavages within both radical feminism and the contemporary LGBT coalition. In short, I’d say it probably represents a high-water mark for Protestant cultural analysis over the last several years (and that’s saying nothing of the fact that Trueman is, frankly, an excellent prose stylist).

As with any study of this size and scope, though, some of the historical claims Trueman makes are less compelling than others. I am most certainly no historian myself, but a couple of points in particular strike me as worthy of discussion—in particular, the set of factors prompting the turn from mimesis to poiesis.

In his recent doorstopper-sized volume The Enchantments of Mammon, Catholic theologian Eugene McCarraher offers a quite different explanation for some of the phenomena Trueman discusses. Most notably, McCarraher lays the blame for the rise of modern poiesis on the loss of a sacramental understanding of reality—that is, the participation of the cosmos in God’s infinite love—and the subsequent emergence of an extractive capitalism that treated nature as so much “stuff” to be harvested, manipulated, and sold for profit.

McCarraher makes a good point. The word “sacrament” is almost totally absent from Trueman’s book, but it strikes me as highly relevant to his discussion of mimesis and poiesis. For Plato and those who followed him, there is a genuinely participatory, and not merely an imitative, connotation to the concept of mimesis.The divine order is not set off against the world of everyday experience, but is present “in, with, and under” it. This, of course, is traditional sacramental language, which makes Trueman’s silence on the point all the more curious. Perhaps, though, this should not be especially surprising: after all, the positing of a sharp separation between Creator and creation (manifesting in the denial of Christ’s real, physical presence in the Eucharist) is a distinctive feature of Reformed theology, one not present in Catholic (or, for that matter, Lutheran) theological metaphysics. Might we say, then, that John Calvin (or, if you prefer, Huldrych Zwingli) bears a substantial portion of the blame for the shift from mimesis to poiesis? I think so.

On a similar note, I find it interesting that Trueman never seriously discusses Freud’s psychoanalytical contemporary, Carl Jung, in his discussion of the history of the expressive self. Jung departed from Freud in declining to treat the self as primarily sexual, instead emphasizing the pursuit of self-understanding through exploring one’s relationship to a universal “unconscious” order of symbols and narratival structures—one that has more than a whiff of Platonic mimesis to it. (Though Jung formally eschewed metaphysics, his work is shot through with it.)

So why did the expressive self come to be understood in a Freudian, rather than a Jungian, sense? In part, I think this may be due to Jung’s (alleged) ties to the Third Reich. As R.R. Reno chronicles in Return of the Strong Gods, since the fall of Nazi Germany, talk of universal or cosmic moral orders has been met with deep skepticism. There is an uncomfortable sense of biological determinism or separatism in such language, one that lends itself readily to mass violence in the name of some national or religious ideal. Since fascism proved all too ready to sacrifice the individual on the altar of the Volk, the proper alternative, for much of Western culture, is to move as far and as fast away from that tendency as possible. And so the individual self finds itself at the center of moral concern. 

This helps explain why scholars like Jung and Martin Heidegger, whose works generally slant in the direction of mimesis over poiesis, have largely been relegated to the edges of the mainstream Western zeitgeist. Mimesis itself, with its seemingly absolutist moral implications, is now suspect in the eyes of mass culture.

In all events, it seems to me that the picture is rather more complicated than Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, and Freud simply driving the West to ruin. But I’m sure Trueman himself would agree with that. And none of this is to say that Rise and Triumph isn’t an immense achievement as it stands.

On the whole, this book succeeds because Trueman is neither a polemicist nor a propagandist. Despites its vast breadth, Rise and Triumph covers an immense amount of material with both academic sophistication and rhetorical style. It is a volume well worth reading by those both inside the church and outside it: once you, like Trueman, see the nature of the modern social imaginary, you cannot possibly unsee it.

(I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher, Crossway. I was not required to write a positive review.)


John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds a J.D. degree from Yale Law School, and is pursuing his Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.

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