What I’m Reading – “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.”

David Stertz
March 2, 2021

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

In reviewing Trueman’s work, I want to begin not with Trueman but with Walt Disney:

“Have faith in your dreams and someday
Your rainbow will come smiling through
No matter how your heart is grieving
If you keep on believing
The dream that you wish will come true.”

  • Cinderella

Both Trueman’s book and the review you are reading now are a bit dense (though not as dense as some of the people he interacts with). Truerman’s 426 pages are not for the faint of heart as they interact with serious philosophers and their philosophies. However, his book is immensely practical. I will return both to Cinderella and to one of the practical applications of Trueman’s book at the end of this review.


Trueman’s “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self” begins with a captivating question: how did a statement such as, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” become meaningful and coherent? This statement about transgenderism, whether a person likes it or not, is in fact meaningful to a vast number of people in American and Western culture. It may not just be a “vast number.” Likely, a majority of Americans now view it as normative.

Trueman seeks to accomplish two objectives in his book. First, he provides a structure to understand our current cultural moment. Second, he traces the history of the reimagining of the self in Western Civilization to our current cultural moment. Objective one is primarily philosophical. Objective two is primarily historical. 

In the first case, Trueman uses the analysis of three modern writers – Charles Taylor, Philipp Rieff, and Alasdair MacIntyre – to help provide a structure for the modern understanding of the self. Taylor provides aid with his concept of the “social imaginary” which is something akin to a worldview. Taylor further helps his readers to see that our culture has shifted from individuals trying to find the order of the universe and conforming themselves to that order to that of individuals making meaning for themselves out of the material of the universe. Rieff helps his readers to see that we have shifted in our understanding of culture. The shift can be described thus: we have shifted from moving ourselves outward toward the larger community (culture) to moving ourselves inward toward our own “personal psychological happiness.” MacIntyre helps his readers to see that our moral values presuppose a set of social assumptions. The chief of or moral values is now “emotivism.” MacIntyre defines “emotivism” as making our moral judgments “nothing but expressions of preference.” 

In the second case, Trueman traces the history of ideas (specifically those that pertain to the sexual revolution) from the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the modern moment. While the names of the various philosophers that Trueman highlights might not be household names to the majority of current readers – their ideas have shaped everything we experience in our current cultural moment. In some sense what Trueman does here is akin to Richard Weaver’s work “Ideas Have Consequences.” That is to say – Trueman (like Weaver) shows how one idea fuels another and how those idea play out over time. I would summarize Trueman’s history of ideas this way:

  1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1700s) – The real person is found in the inner self which is shaped by outward realities. It is outward realities that cause the inner self problems and not the inner self’s unwillingness to conform itself to outward realities.
  2. Willam Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, and William Blake (Early 1800s Romantic Poets) – The Poet’s (Artist’s?) task is to artistically express one’s inner self without regard to social demands or the demands of reason. Rather, one should express one’s deepest desires and feelings so as to liberate the self to the world around. This naturally requires that social demands (such as religion) and reason (natural law) be torn down or bypassed in order to free the true self.
  3. Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin (Late 1800s) – The world has no intrinsic meaning. We as humans give significance (meaning) to it. For Nietzsche, God is dead. For Marx, God is a drug for the duped masses that we need to be weaned off of or even forced off of. For Darwin, God is scientifically not necessary. God becomes not only unnecessary but also morally reprehensible. Only without Him (or any ultimate transcendent reality) are we free to remake ourselves as we wish and to provide real meaning to the world around us.
  4. Sigmund Freud (Early 1900s) – Without God or a transcendent order, naturalism reigns. Humans are driven by their passions – most deeply their sexual passions. The sex drive is at the very core of our identity as human beings. Our personal happiness is dependent upon that sex drive being satisfied. 
  5. The New Left (Mid 1900s)- The philosophies of Marx and Freud are merged in that societal norms (including religion) must be forcibly overthrown so as to allow the sexual self to be free. True happiness can only be found when the self (sexual self) is free to express itself. Any opposition to this new freedom is deemed harmful and dangerous since that opposition is against an individual’s true identity.
  6. The Current Moment (late 1900s to current day) – The Erotic (pornography), The Therapeutic (sense of self), and The T (transgenderism) have fulfilled the philosophical direction started by Rousseau. We don’t align ourselves with what God or a Transcendent order would demand us to be. Rather, we dictate to the world who we feel ourself to be.

This is a rather simplistic summary of what Trueman more fully develops over hundreds of pages. In that development, Trueman makes the connections more clear and demonstrates how the various authors mentioned above (among others) borrow ideas from each other.


For many, the above review will make little sense. Admittedly, names such as Rieff, Wordsworth, Freud, ect. . . are not names we speak of with our neighbors or for that matter, to our fellow church members. However, Trueman rightly asserts that their ideas permeate our daily lives.

Trueman begins with the question of how the statement “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” could possibly make sense to vast swaths of people in our culture. His book demonstrates how ideas over time can make such statements plausible to the general populace.

The objection that is often raised by individuals who care little about the philosophers Trueman explores is something like, “people don’t really care about philosophers. They can’t really have that great of an affect on us.” As to the first sentence, it is most certainly true. Survey 10,000 people and you might be lucky to find more than a couple who have read Rousseau or any other of the above mentioned names. But as to the second sentence, it is most certainly false. Their ideas have affected us.

If you want proof of that, return to Cinderella’s song – “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” Read again the lyrics – “No matter how your heart is grieving, If you keep on believing, The dream that you wish will come true.” This is a radical view of the self historically speaking. Cinderella was released in 1950. It was produced by what we commonly call “The Greatest Generation” and the generation which preceded it. Cinderella was shown to the sparkling young eyes of the Baby Boomers. In this one song we already see Rousseau on display: the inner self is where the real drama is at. And you need to find a way to get your dreams to override the harsh world around you. Blake, Shelley, and Wordsworth are on center stage: the poet’s (artist’s) job is to express one’s inner self to the world around them. Disney Studios was pop art, but it was art. Poetry, music, and painting (albeit moving ones) are all gushed upon the senses of the watchers and hearers. Just have faith. Your dreams will come true. We ought to think of this historically. Already, these ideas had captivated the cultural leaders who had lived during and in some cases fought in World War 2. Furthermore, they were teaching them to their children.

By the time the Baby Boomers were past puberty and into their teenage and early adult lives, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, and Freud were ingrained into their thinking. Free Love, Flower Power, and the Sexual revolution were all in full bloom. They may not have read those philosophers, but those philosophers permeated the music, plays, and movies they imbibed. Today, the children and grandchildren of the Baby Boomers are simply bringing to fruition the ideas that they were instructed in.

Many conservative Christians today are concerned (rightly) about the societal norms that are being pushed and adopted around us. But Trueman helps us to see that seeds were planted and that they grew deep roots centuries ago. If we wish see things change, we can’t just toss out the fruit. We must uproot the whole tree.

***** for Trueman’s “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.”