Although divided on some issues, conservatives are generally united in the belief that French and German intellectuals are responsible for our current mess. The customary offenders are Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. In this aspect, Carl R. Trueman’s Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution offers a familiar analysis.
Yet his arguments run deep, and the slender book is a valuable guide to understanding our fall into this modern world, this waking wonderland. Trueman is an English professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a member of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His latest book seeks to explain the sexual revolution and the attack on the human person. In doing so, it does not limit itself to feminist thinkers, providing the standard account of the development of the first, second, and third (or subsequent) waves of feminism. Nor does he delve into the Lockean debate so common among conservatives. Rather, it focuses on the ascendancy of secular “expressive individualism”. It is a unique, nuanced and compelling contribution to the dialogue on the sexual revolution.
Prophets of expressive individualism
Trueman paints an accurate portrait of our post-sexual revolution world and explains how the ideas of selected intellectuals, reinforced by technological and historical developments, now almost instinctively inform our moral imaginary (what he calls “the social imaginary”). . Examples permeate not only our politics, but also education, poetry and literature.
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The first part of the book is an intellectual history of the rise of “expressive individualism”, which details how this notion has been politicized and sexualized, using helpful examples to illustrate. The main culprits fall into three groups: René Descartes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Romantics; GWF Hegel, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche; and Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich (with a few Herbert Marcuse and Simon de Beauvoir sprinkled in later for good measure).
According to Trueman, the modern idea of self is defined by expressive individualism. Descartes, Rousseau and the romantics are responsible for giving preeminence to the feeling and to the inner psychological life of the individual. According to their account, our true selves are characterized by our spontaneous emotions. Believing that human beings are born good and later corrupted by society, these thinkers insist that the inner self is inherently moral. Therefore, tutoring or controlling one’s desires is an oppressive and regressive approach that should not be used to subvert free and authentic expression.
Yet this first wave of thinkers stubbornly clung to the belief that our common humanity provides a guiding moral structure. Faced with nature, the French surrendered. Enter the Germans.
For Hegel, human nature evolves over time and will be fully realized at the end of history. His student, Marx, continued his work but insisted that economic relationships have “the most profound impact on our self-awareness and identity.” According to Marx, all human relations are economic relations, and when economics shapes everything, everything becomes political. Marx argued that the privileged secured their position by using religion and its inherent moral claims to subjugate the masses. For example, the poor are taught that they will be rewarded in heaven so that they accept their inferior conditions in the city of men.
Nietzsche also views religion and morality as manipulative means to maintain power, as all human relationships are fundamentally tied to power. God is dead, and thus humans, free from all constraints, can create themselves in their image, becoming gods themselves. The strong will do this, eventually breaking religion’s residual moral (including sexual) codes, knowing that these codes are only preferences and that human nature is malleable.
Trueman’s last intellectual stop is with Freud and Wilhelm Reich, a psychoanalyst whom even Freud considered extreme, who internalized and politicized sex. Freud believed that sex is the basis of human happiness, a happiness centered on the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Reich was a Marxist who argued that sexual morality preserved the bourgeois capitalist structure. Thus, for Reich, children learn to respect their fathers so that they will later bow to the rulers of the state; the nuclear family is built on and enforces authoritarian principles and therefore needs to be dismantled.
Reich, writes Trueman, was “Rousseau with a sexual twist: the authentic person is the sexual being, the one guided by the inner voice of (sexualized) nature.” Previously, “sex was seen as something that human beings did; today it is considered something vital for human beings are.” When sex becomes essential to our being, all must affirm every sexual preference, regardless of substance. Any criticism of choice or behavior is a fundamental assault on the individual.
More modern diseases
This concludes Trueman’s intellectual history, but not his book. In Part 2, he discusses how other factors, such as technology, the pill, pornography, and the breakdown of religion and other sources of authority and identity allowed these ideas to proliferate and acquire primacy.
Thanks in large part to technology, modern individuals can personalize their lives: choose where they live, what music they listen to, and what churches they attend. It encourages people to understand themselves as beings capable of conquering nature and creating their own identity. Many of these technologies have truly improved the lives of human beings.
Yet they have also (along with other factors) led to the collapse of the traditional sources of common morality that helped human beings understand our place in this world: family, religion and nation. This is very problematic for what Trueman calls “the politics of recognition”. While human beings naturally desire freedom, we are also social creatures. We find deep meaning in being members of a community, and contentment in being accepted by that community.
At one time, unified communities were partly maintained by limited sources of information. There were a few news channels and no internet, which helped promote a common narrative and shared stories. The invention of the Internet and social media has created an immeasurable plurality of sources of information at a time when traditional bastions of authority have already been reduced. As technology has made geography less constraining, social media has emerged to create imaginary communities that replace the sense of belonging previously fulfilled by citizenship.
To better understand the sexual revolution and its trajectory, Trueman examines its component coalitions, which often make strange bedfellows. Lesbians, gays, bisexuals and trans-exclusive feminists believe that biological differences exist and matter. This creates tension between them and trans people. Trans ideology separates sex from gender (like Beauvoir’s feminism) in favor of a nebulous and circular psychological definition of what it means to be male or female. All must not only tolerate but affirm that the definition of transgender, as an inner principle, can only be justified if others recognize it. Refusal to affirm gender identity is a kind of emotional abuse. Inevitably, freedom of expression and religion are challenged by these sexual and psychological dogmas.
After convincingly presenting a fatalistic argument that trans ideology will triumph, in the final chapter, Trueman advises his reader. The solutions it offers are primarily aimed at Christians and may be frustrating to some, as they are not focused on policy changes (and given that it is a short book with a chapter devoted to a way forward, they cannot be exhaustive). Yet that doesn’t make them any less effective or capable; the sick state of our society does not lend itself to miraculous legislative solutions.
Instead, Trueman finds the miraculous in the transcendent. Christians must revitalize their churches and make them the centers of their communities, engage in worship and accept the cross to act as witnesses for those who are created in the image of God. The faithful must regain a deep understanding of doctrine, natural law, and theology (particularly of the body) and be able to articulate the cohesion of Christianity to individuals seeking answers.
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A happy warrior
Although compelling, Trueman’s arguments and predictions can sometimes be shocking. Yet his book is not debilitating or depressing. This is partly due to his good humor and Christian confidence. Consistent with where he argues men and women should find their purpose, he identifies himself as a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in his biography. He appears to be a cheerful individual, sure of his beliefs and driven by a sense of vocation to uphold those beliefs, but also humble and at peace in the knowledge that this “world is not the Christian’s home”.
Trueman is not an ideologue, contenting himself with a singular explanation of complex phenomena. Although he brazenly claims that we are all Marxists now (because so many of our institutions have been politicized), his approach is more reminiscent of Alexis de Tocqueville than Karl Marx. It observes what is happening in society and then tries to put together multiple factors to elucidate our current situation.
The book does not aim to explain identity politics writ large or the evolution of feminism. Rather, Trueman’s niche is in explaining expressive individualism, an important concept that cuts across both. This narrower focus fulfills the purpose of the book. As stated in the introduction, this is a concise book for non-academics looking to understand this strange new world that seems to have come into existence very quickly.
The second half of the book is a little less structured than the first, partly because the first, as a historical narrative, has a natural trajectory. The second half is mainly centered on the additional factors, of which there are many, which allowed the proliferation of the ideas sketched in the first half. Yet this section is also well written and clear, good humored and eloquent. Trueman must sometimes delve into sensitive and delicate subjects, and he does so with a frankness worthy of a gentleman.
His book is a welcome addition to our intellectual cultural discourse. It will be useful for scholars, teachers, and ordinary Americans who feel like they’ve fallen through the looking glass and are looking to get back. Even if this world is not ours, it will be the one our children will inhabit. We are called to fight. And it is comforting to know that, in this fight, the English are always ready to face the French and the Germans.