Reflections on The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

Today, if you were to tell the average person on the street that you are a girl in a boy’s body, something historically unusual would happen. You would probably receive a rather ordinary response. Almost certainly, you would not receive social pressure to change, or outright confusion. However, even 30 years ago, this would not be the case, much less for the rest of human history. In his book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman seeks to answer the question of why that is. How has it become so ingrained in our culture’s psyche that a person can be “trapped” in their own body? In his book, Trueman analyzes the thinkers that have come before us and the ideas that they proposed that have now become mainstream and led to the rise and triumph of the modern self.

If we are going to understand how we came to think of ourselves the way we do, Trueman argues that we need to rightly understand the sexual revolution. Most think that the sexual revolution was basically a change in the way that Americans behaved. They had more sex, with more people, with fewer restrictions. However, Trueman argues that the sexual revolution was not simply a change of behavior in the western world. The sexual revolution was the change of what is considered shameful, what is considered normal, in sexual behavior. It was a throwing off of the cultural restraints in sexual behavior. In other words, it was a throwing off of traditional morality. And this change in our thinking of traditional, values, natural law, and is what preceded the transgender movement and what we will need to explain to answer our original question.

Western culture has been profoundly shaped by the church. For thousands of years, to be a westerner, meant that you were catholic—they were synonymous—and thus the morality that a person believed was one shaped and crafted by the teachings of the church which had some foundation in the scriptures. Monogamy, self-control, and virginity were all to be respected, they were considered good in their own right, and as values derived from scripture. However, after the reformation, the “enlightenment” dawned and with it, moral subjectivity and a questioning of traditional values came with it. In his book, Trueman attempts to sketch the thought progression of men that destroyed the traditional biblical value system, all the while arguing that the current culture is an anti-culture and unsustainable in the long run.


Perhaps the most important thinker that destroyed traditional morality is Rousseau. Rousseau is famous for coining the phrase “noble savage”. This phrase neatly summarizes his important contributions to modern man by suggesting that man is not inherently bad, as we have believed for millennia, but rather that man is basically good and the reason why he does bad things is because of all the social pressures around him. The reason we lie is to escape the judgment of our neighbors, the reason we kill to avenge the wrongs of our neighbors, the reason we covet is because we have to “keep up with the Joneses”. The problem with mankind is not within him, it is outside of him, in society and institutions, these things corrupt a man. If we were able to find a man born outside of civilization, raised by the wolves, he would fulfill all his deepest longings, free from oppressive societal norms and would thus be a happy and satisfied man. He would be a “noble savage”. The key thing to remember here is that Rousseau located the problem of mankind outside of individuals. Men are no longer bad, they are simply products of their environment, and thus it is the environment that is bad.

What this meant, if taken to its radical conclusion, was that man’s impulses (if untainted by civilization) are good impulses. And anybody trying to get you to curb these impulses, these instincts, is trying to exercise power over you and make you into an inauthentic person. This was picked up by the poets Wordsworth and Shelley. Using the power of poetry (similar in prominence to today’s media) Shelley and Wordsworth propagated the idea of man as basically good and of society as that which corrupts and therefore to be blamed for all of man’s evils. And this idea worked its way into the average man’s psyche.


Before Darwin ever published his book, Origin of Species, mankind was discontent with the status-quo of traditional morality that set up man as evil and institutions as societal goods that helped to curb the wicked instincts of men. These ideas were now considered oppressive and manipulative thanks to the poets and philosophers of the Enlightenment. However, a fear of God still held society in check. So, when his bombshell book was published the public seized upon it, as an easy to understand, scientific explanation of why mankind is not unique from the animals and why there may not be a God at all. Historically, it had been an insult to describe a man as acting like an animal. However, after Darwin’s book the philosophical ground for considering this insult was stripped away. Before Darwin, to say that dogs and monkeys and other animals engage in homosexual sex was a reason for mankind NOT to engage in the same behavior. After Darwin, however, this was propped up as an argument FOR man to engage in the same behavior. According to his view, we are, after all, nothing but mammals.

But how did sexuality come to dominate our idea of the self? How did sex go from being something that a person did to being who a person was? Traditional morality was ready to be thrown off as oppressive and inauthentic, thanks to Rousseau and Darwin, but why the intense sexual nature of this revolution? Trueman advocates that we have a wedding of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche to thank for that. Each of them added a different ingredient into the concoction called the sexual revolution and the transgender movement. Dealt with briefly:


Nietzsche was the first of the philosophers to truly grapple with the question of how we build a society apart from the traditional Christian values that we have historically built society upon. He recognized, all too powerfully, that the “death of God” was as radical as “unhinging the Earth from the sun.” With this new way of viewing the world, mankind had to give convincing answers to questions such as: Is there such a thing as objective morality? Who will decide how society will act? How will they decide? What will give man meaning?

Nietzsche, possibly under the weight of these questions was eventually driven insane, but not before proposing that man gain meaning by inventing himself however, he wished and living each moment to the absolute fullest. Nietzsche was a precursor to the existentialists of our day, and he basically made men plastic in an attempt to give us some form of meaning. “Find yourself,” “make your own truth,” and “you do you,” are all quite Nietzschean phrases and flow from a despair of being able to base our lives on any truth given from the outside. We must instead create it ourselves, whether it is “true” or not doesn’t matter.


Sigmund Freud is discounted in his actual theories of psychoanalysis today. However, his ideas have become so widespread that most of us think and speak using his terms without ever realizing it. If you have ever told someone that they have an “ego” problem, you are using Freudian coined terms. If you claim that a person is “anal;” you are claiming that they are stuck in a phase of sexual development that Freud himself defined. Freud believed that humans at their core were basically sexual. That from moment of birth all our development, satisfactions, and desires were really sexual desires. In far too few words, Freud sexualized humans and claimed that their sexuality was at the core of their identity and being.


Marx, one of the founders of communism, contributed to the revolutionary spirit of the age. He was one of the first men to think of history in an evolutionary sense. History was progressing. It was going towards utopia as mankind continued to throw off the shackles of his economic oppressors. From serfdom, to capitalism, to communism, the worker would gain more and more freedom from the establishment and eventually create a utopia in which everyone is equal, free, and having the same amount of capital. When this failed to materialize after the Cold War and when working class people failed to latch onto his revolutionary ideas, the followers of Marx maintained that Marx evolution was still happening, but instead of an economic evolution, mankind was undergoing a social evolution, in which the wielders of social power—namely, straight white old men—would be overthrown by the oppressed groups and usher in a new utopia.

Putting it all Together

Mix these things together and one has a potent set of ideas that are commonly held by society for the explosion of a sexual revolution. But this sexual revolution has gone beyond an elimination of traditional values. It has embraced Nietzsche’s plastic man that makes himself into whatever he wants to be, Freud’s sexual man that sees sexual fulfillment as a person’s highest good, Marx’s revolution that seeks to overthrow the powers that stand, along with Rousseau’s deep distrust of social institutions, and Darwin’s godlessness.

As Christians, how will we stand against such a potent mixture of ideas? To begin with, we must get some basic biblical facts deep into our bones. God’s word teaches us that people do not create their identity, they receive it from an all-powerful God. We do not rebel against authority, we respect it. We do not believe that at the most basic and essential level we are sexual beings, but that we are image bearers of God. The church is not here to oppress and limit our freedom, but to give us life and life abundantly. Only when we know these truths deeply will we be inoculated against the false ideas that have become so prevalent in our culture. To be sure, speaking against these things will require courage, but seeing our fellow man enslaved by lies of Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Rousseau ought to stir up the pity, compassion, and love that we will need to have the strength to speak out. If we fail to believe God’s word here, or if we are even harboring doubts, we will almost certainly be rendered ineffective in applying the gospel to these foundational issues of identity and sexuality.

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