While divided on certain issues, conservatives are generally united in the belief that French and German intellectuals are to blame for our current mess. Customary offenders include 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.
Still, his arguments are profound, and the slender book is a valuable guide for understanding our tumble into this modern world, this woke wonderland. Trueman is an Englishman, a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College, and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His latest book seeks to explain the Sexual Revolution and the assault on the human person. In doing so, he does not limit himself 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 that is so common among conservatives. His focus instead is on the ascendancy of secular “expressive individualism.” His is a unique, nuanced, and convincing contribution to the dialogue on the Sexual Revolution.
Prophets of Expressive Individualism
Trueman sketches an accurate portrait of our post-Sexual Revolution world and explains how the ideas of select intellectuals, strengthened by technological and historical developments, now almost instinctively inform our moral imagination (what he calls “social imaginary”). The examples pervade not only our politics, but also education, poetry, and literature.
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The first portion of the book is an intellectual history of the progression of “expressive individualism,” which details how that notion was politicized and sexualized, using helpful examples to illustrate. The main culprits fall into three groups: René Descartes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the Romantics; G. W. F. Hegel, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche; and Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich (with some Herbert Marcuse and Simon de Beauvoir sprinkled in later for good measure).
According to Trueman, the modern idea of the self is defined by expressive individualism. Descartes, Rousseau, and the Romantics are responsible for giving pre-eminence to feeling and the inner psychological life of the individual. By their account, our true self is 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. Hence, tutoring or controlling one’s desires is an oppressive and backward approach that should not be used to subvert free and authentic expression.
Still, this first wave of thinkers stubbornly held to the belief that our common humanity provides a guiding moral structure. Confronted 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 relations have the most “profound impact upon our self-consciousness and our identity.” According to Marx, all human relations are economic relations, and when economics shapes everything, everything becomes political. Marx held that the advantaged secure their position by using religion and its inherent moral claims to subdue the masses. For example, the poor are taught they will be rewarded in heaven so they will accept their lower conditions in the city of man.
Nietzsche too views religion and morality as manipulative ways of maintaining power, because all human relations are fundamentally about power. God is dead, and so humans, free from all constraints, can create themselves in their own image, becoming gods themselves. The strong will do so, finally shattering religion’s residual moral (including sexual) codes, knowing that those codes are mere preferences and that human nature is malleable.
Trueman’s final intellectual stop is with Freud and Wilhelm Reich, a psychoanalyst even Freud considered extreme, who internalized and politicized sex. Freud believed that sex is foundational to human happiness, a happiness centered on seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Reich was a Marxist who contended that sexual morals maintain the bourgeois capitalist structure. So for Reich, children are taught to be deferential to their fathers so that they will later bow to state leaders; the nuclear family is built on and enforces authoritarian principles and so must be dismantled.
Reich, Trueman writes, 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 regarded as something that human beings did; today it is considered to be something vital to who human beings are.” When sex becomes essential to our being, all must affirm every sexual preference, no matter its substance. Any criticism of choices or behavior is a fundamental assault on the individual.
More Modern Maladies
This concludes Trueman’s intellectual history, but not his book. During the second portion, he discusses how other factors, such as technology, the pill, pornography, and the collapse of religion and other sources of authority and identity have enabled these ideas to proliferate and gain primacy.
Due in large part to technology, modern individuals can customize their lives: choosing where they live, what music they listen to, and what churches they attend. This encourages people to understand themselves as beings capable of conquering nature and creating their own identities. Many of these technologies have genuinely improved the lives of human beings.
Still, they have also (along with other factors) led to the collapse of traditional sources for common morality that helped human beings understand our place in this world: the family, religion, and the nation. This is highly problematic for what Trueman terms “the politics of recognition.” While human beings innately desire freedom, we are also social creatures. We find profound meaning in being members of a community, and contentment in being accepted by that community.
At one time, unified communities were in part 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 news sources at a time when the traditional bastions of authority have already been diminished. While technology has made geography less binding, social media has arisen to create imagined communities that replace the sense of belonging previously filled by citizenship.
To understand further the Sexual Revolution and its trajectory, Trueman examines its component coalitions, who often make strange bedfellows. Lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and trans-exclusionary feminists believe that biological differences exist and matter. This creates tension between them and trans individuals. 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 a man or woman. All must not only tolerate but affirm that definition of trans-genderism, as an inner principle can only be vindicated if others recognize it. A refusal to affirm gender identity is a kind of psychological violence. Inevitably, freedom of speech and religion are challenged by these sexual and psychological dogmas.
After persuasively making a fatalistic case that trans ideology will triumph, in the final chapter, Trueman counsels his reader. The solutions he offers are mainly geared toward Christians and may be frustrating to some, as they are not centered on policy changes (and given that it is a short book with one chapter dedicated to a way forward, they cannot be comprehensive). Yet, that doesn’t make them any less effective or apt; the sickened state of our society does not lend itself to miraculous legislative fixes.
Instead, Trueman finds the miraculous in the transcendent. Christians must revitalize their churches and make them the centers of their communities, engaging in worship and accepting the cross of acting as witnesses for those made in the image of God. The faithful must recover a deep understanding of doctrine, natural law, and theology (particularly of the body) and be able to articulate Christianity’s cohesiveness to individuals searching for answers.
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A Happy Warrior
While convincing, Trueman’s arguments and predictions can at times be jarring. Still, his book is not debilitating or depressing. Part of this is due to his good humor and Christian confidence. Consistent with where he contends men and women should find their purpose, he identifies himself as a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in his biography. He seems like a joyful individual, secure in his beliefs and motivated by a sense of vocation to defend 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, content with a singular explanation for complex phenomena. Though he cheekily 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. He observes what is happening in society and then attempts to bring together multiple factors to elucidate our current predicament.
The book does not aim to explain identity politics writ large or the evolution of feminism. Rather, Trueman’s niche is to explain expressive individualism, an important concept that touches both. This narrower focus fulfills the purpose of the book. As noted in the introduction, it is a concise book geared toward non-academics who are seeking to understand this strange new world that has seemingly come into being very rapidly.
The second half of the book is somewhat less structured than the first, in part because the first, as a historical account, has a natural trajectory. The latter half is primarily focused on additional factors, which are numerous, that have allowed the proliferation of the ideas outlined in the first half. Still, this section, too, is well-written and clear, good-humored, and eloquent. Trueman at times must delve into sensitive and delicate topics, and he does so with gentlemanly straightforwardness.
His book is a welcome addition to our intellectual cultural discourse. It will be helpful for academics, teachers, and everyday Americans who feel as if they have fallen through the looking glass and are seeking to return. Even if this world is not our own, it will be the one our children inhabit. We are called to fight. And it is comforting to know that, in that fight, Englishmen are still willing to take on both the French and the Germans.
This piece originally appeared in Law & Liberty