From Rousseau to Trans-Sexuality: The Modern Self

Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism and the Road to Sexual Revolution
By Carl R. Trueman
Crossway. 425 pages. £27.99
ISBN 978 1 433 556 333

Whilst I was reading this book, news media were carrying reports of comedian Eddie Izzard, who had previously used the line ‘I’m a lesbian trapped in a man’s body’ in his stage routine, having announced that it was to be ‘girl mode from now on’.

I suspect that Izzard’s former comment, made in 1994, had been assumed by many to be a joke. What are we to make of this more recent statement?

This is the question that Carl Trueman aims to answer in this book: How, in such a short space of time, has this concept of a ‘woman trapped in man’s body’ become a commonly accepted part of the social landscape? Trueman’s book is a history of the concept of the self but, as the subtitle of the book states, it is a history of the self in the context of the sexual revolution.

In the introductory chapters, Trueman introduces us to the term ‘sittlichkeit’ which can be roughly translated as the ‘ethical life’ or ‘ethical order’ of a society. For this, he uses the work of three contemporary philosophers – Charles Taylor, Philip Reiff and Alasdair MacIntyre – to build the framework he will use to analyse the situation. This involves Taylor’s concept of the social imaginary, that is ‘the way ordinary people “imagine” their social surrounding … not based in theoretical terms but carried in images, stories and legends.’ To this he adds Reiff’s analysis of cultures. First and second worlds justify their moral systems by an appeal to the transcendent: the first world is pagan, based in myth whilst second world morality is based on faith; e.g., Christianity. However, in the West we have moved to a third world morality. Third-world moralities have no basis in the sacred or transcendent, and so justify morality on the basis of themselves. Finally he calls on Alasdair MacIntyre’s observation in After Virtue that modern morality is pure emotivism. With this framework in place, Trueman now explores the historical development of the modern concept of self and its close connection with ideas of sexual liberation and the overthrow of Christian morality and indeed the Christian faith itself.

Trueman begins his historical enquiry with the writings of Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jaques Rousseau. Rousseau introduces the idea that it is an individual’s internal life that is their authentic self, but that society constrains the individual and so they cannot be truly free. This thought is reflected in the poetry of William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake, who sought to use their poetry to effect a societal change, a ‘moral transformation’, but a moral transformation based on sentimentality and not the ‘misery and servitude’ they saw in Christian morality.

In the next section Truman surveys the philosophical and psychological developments as found in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin. Nietzsche challenges the Enlightenment thinkers – if they want a world without God then they must accept that they must give up Christian ideas of good and evil and forge their own morality. Among other concepts, Marx states his view regarding the need for ‘the abolition of religion’ to facilitate freedom. And Darwin, as Richard Dawkins once remarked, made it intellectually acceptable to be an atheist.

The third section of the book looks at how the focus of self identity becomes sexual. Not surprisingly the influence of Sigmund Freud is discussed as are members of the Frankfurt School, such as Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse. Also significant are the development of critical theory, and the new interpretations of Marxism and cultural revolution in the writings of Antonio Gramsci. Again, these men view the church as the enemy of progress.

The final section of the book considers how these currents of thought form the contemporary Western sittlichkeist with particular regard to sexual freedom, gender issues and trans-sexuality. Examples are given where the new morality is now enshrined in law and may cause particular difficulties for those who hold to traditional Bible-based moral principles. Most of these examples relate to the USA. The spirit of the age is one which holds an individual’s sense of identity, in particular their sexual identity, as key. And this identity is not given – not by genetics, nor biology nor society – it is self determined. It is important to realise that those who hold such views simply do so as they are now part of the Western social imaginary, part of the sittlichkeit.

Whilst Trueman states his aim as providing a history, in a postscript he reflects on how the church might respond. His suggestions include: recognising the influence of the aesthetic in contemporary culture, resisting the tendency to give in and instead to rest on transcendent truths of the Biblical narrative; to act as a community; and finally to recover the concept of natural law and maintain a high view of the physical body.

So, does Trueman succeed in answering his question? I think so. It clearly explains the primacy of personal identity in contemporary thought and moral reasoning. It is well referenced – Trueman has done an impressive amount of reading in order to pull together the material required for this book. I am aware that my summary may seem like a list of unfamiliar names but these are the thinkers who have given shape to the modern Western mindset. It is hard to do justice to the breath of literature that Trueman has summarised.

I would especially recommend this book to those involved in educational, social or political roles. As an educator whose remit includes ethics, I found this to be a useful resource. I would also recommend it to anyone who seeks to understand the present times. At over 400 pages it is not light reading, but then again it is half the length of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. For those who would like a shorter work covering the some of the same themes could consider Melvin Tinker’s That Hideous Strength (a book to which Truman has provided the Foreword).

Michael Trimble,  Stranmillis Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Belfast