The roots of Western liberalism both precede, and go far deeper, than Martin Luther and his influence.
In The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman examines the rapid shifts in our culture’s conception of sex, gender, and identity. A scholar of church history at Grove City College, Trueman thinks that Christians and other social conservatives tend to misdiagnose these changes by blaming them broadly on the sexual revolution or the expressive individualism at the heart of progressivism. Instead, he sees the sexual revolution as the natural outgrowth of a larger change in our understanding of the human self. All Americans are expressive individuals, he writes, conservative and progressive alike. In order to understand why some individual choices are praised and others ostracized, Trueman traces the development of individual identity and society over the past three centuries. His historical genealogy of the present moment is stronger than many other accounts, but he might have found clearer answers to some of his questions if his analysis had included John Stuart Mill and his harm principle.
Trueman adopts concepts from three contemporary philosophers to help with his historical investigation: Alasdair MacIntyre, Philip Rieff, and Charles Taylor.
Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue helps explain the futility of contemporary moral debate, which involves incommensurable ethical systems and, in many cases, resolves into emotivism, the view that moral norms are really just expressions of emotional preference.
In The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Philip Rieff argues that traditional cultures directed individuals outward to find meaning in community. In our psychological age, however, the self creates itself from within and is more important than the institutions of society. In the ancient and medieval world, individuals existed to serve the state or church and received their identity from them; today, the state and church exist to serve the individual and his sense of inner well-being.
Finally, from Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, Trueman takes the concept of the social imaginary, “that common understanding which makes possible common practices, and a widely shared sense of legitimacy.” Taylor also sees a distinction in that imaginary between a mimetic and a poetic view of the world. Mimesis sees the world as having a given order that we must discover and to which we must conform. Poesis sees the world as raw material that individuals can use to make meaning and purpose. Technology helps us think of ourselves in a Nietzschean, poetic light and further makes self-creation “a routine part of our modern social imaginary.”
Trueman uses these philosophical concepts to deftly trace the sources of the inward, emotive, and poetic self in the modern Western social imaginary. He begins his history with Rousseau and a comparison between his Confessions and those of Augustine. Augustine sees his moral flaws as intrinsic to himself, sins for which he himself is responsible. Rousseau, by contrast, sees his flaws as extrinsic, a warping of his naturally good humanity due to the malforming pressures that society places on him. The young Augustine steals pears because he is wicked; the young Rousseau steals asparagus because someone else urged him to. For Rousseau, an individual’s true identity is found in his inner psychology, and an authentic individual is someone whose outward behavior accords with that (innately good) inner nature. This expression remains an ongoing struggle, though, for society and its conventions prevent the authentic self from expressing itself. This foundational dynamic of our time is already present by the late eighteenth century.
English Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth and Percey Bysshe Shelley shared Rousseau’s convictions about individuals and society. They understood their writing and the powerful emotions it produced as a way of putting readers in touch with an authentic human nature beneath the constructs and corruptions of society. They also connected their poetry to politics and revolution. Shelley in particular saw poetry as a way to expose oppression and shape readers’ imagination of what political liberation would look like, more than a century before Gramsci and the New Left wrote about culture and revolution.
Shelley draws a clear connection between religion, political oppression, and restrictions on sexual activity, especially premarital chastity and monogamy. As Trueman puts it, since love lies at the core of what it means to be human, “unnatural constraints on love effectively prevent human beings from being truly human. They are the primary cause for personal inauthenticity.” If this is so, then Christian morality is not only wrong but evil for preventing people from living happy lives. 150 years before the sexual revolution, Shelley and his contemporaries argued that marriage should be a union of sentiment, not a binding sacrament, and that the liberation of love must be a political imperative.
Next come the masters of suspicion. Nietzsche rejects human nature as a transcendent and governing category altogether, along with claims to absolute truth. Barriers to unlimited self-creation need to be questioned, not obeyed. Morality is not a matter of establishing categorical imperatives, à la Kant, but exposing the motivations and power dynamics underlying moral claims. Marx, too, rejects a transhistorical human nature, claiming instead that changing economic conditions and social relations of power determine who human beings are. Finally, Darwin’s theory of evolution provides an account of human nature that removes all special destiny or significance from it. By the end of the nineteenth century, these three thinkers had seriously damaged the sense that human nature is a foundational category for understanding human purpose. In their eyes, the world has no meaning except that given it by human beings.
The rise of the psychological self accelerated with Freud. Trueman notes that most of Freud’s theories have been disproven, but the myth he bequeathed to us is that sex “is the real key to human existence, to what it means to be human. . . . The purpose of life, and the content of the good life, is personal sexual fulfillment.” Sex has always been an important human drive and activity; after Freud, it became the activity most fundamental to our psychological identity. Freud saw all of life as sexualized, including childhood, Trueman writes: “There is no stage in life in which sexual desire and its satisfaction are not foundational to human behavior. All that changes is the means by which individuals find this satisfaction.” Later in his career, Freud became more pessimistic that such satisfaction was possible. Traditional morality is destructive to individuals, he argues, but it offers clear benefits for society. Civilization requires curbing and frustrating sexual desires and thus, for all its other benefits, makes the prospect of human happiness and contentment impossible.
The connection between Marx and Freud—with strong echoes of Shelley—came with the rise of critical theory and the Frankfurt School. Decades after the death of Marx in 1883, the collapse of capitalism that he predicted failed to materialize. Periodically economic crises occurred, but they failed to create the necessary class consciousness that the revolution of the proletariat would need. The Frankfurt School developed a critique of capitalist culture that would help create that class consciousness gradually over time. Part of that critique included a combination of Marx and Freud’s analyses, linking sexual repression and political oppression.
In 1936, Wilhelm Reich—a colleague of Freud informally associated with the Frankfurt School—published The Sexual Revolution. In an earlier work, Reich had described the patriarchal family as a primary unit of oppression, “the factory in which the state’s structure and ideology are molded.” Now, Reich argued that the state should coerce and punish families that dissent from sexual liberation because they become the primary opponents of political liberation. Political liberation and sexual liberation go hand in hand. Both are necessary for the creation of a more just and happy society. Those things that stand in their way, like the traditional family, need to be destroyed.
Twenty years after Reich, Herbert Marcuse offered a more nuanced view of sexual liberation. Marcuse argued that some level of sexual repression was necessary for society to function in the past. But capitalism’s sexual mores, focused on monogamy and the family, have more to do with controlling the proletariat than organizing society. Behavior that bourgeois society deems deviant should be embraced as part of the fight against oppression. With Freud, sex became internalized and psychologized; with Reich and Marcuse, it became politicized too.
Later Marcuse argued that politics should become internalized and psychologized, like sex. In his essay “Repressive Tolerance” (1965), he writes that if the perversion of psyches by false consciousness is the root of oppression, then oppression becomes a psychological category. Words and ideas that could further oppression need to be policed because of their bad psychological effects. This, in turn, means that free speech and other social benefits should not be accorded to all, but only to those who are correct and not propagators of harm. This was the view of a young Soviet who once told the Russian literature professor Gary Saul Morson, “Of course we have freedom of speech. We just don’t allow people to lie.”
The final step of Trueman’s genealogy is Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which makes a clear separation between sex and gender, biology, and psychology. As De Beauvoir put it: “Nature does not define woman: it is she who defines herself by reclaiming nature for herself in her affectivity.” It is not a far stretch to then make the claim that affectivity can be reclaimed in spite of nature, psychology in spite of biology, gender in spite of sex.
Intellectual histories have become a cottage industry in the past five years, as academics and journalists wrestle with how to account for the massive shifts in our society, especially pertaining to sex and gender. Many of these accounts proceed too quickly through history, or give an account of a golden age and a fall. These accounts tend to say that Western Civilization hit its peak at Thomas Aquinas, and all of our problems since can be blamed on William of Ockham, or traced back to John Locke and his understanding of freedom and the social contract.
Trueman’s account is the strongest and most persuasive historical account to date because it is historically responsible and avoids excessive generalization. There are no ahistorical condemnations of Locke, the American founders, or liberalism variously defined. Rather, Trueman examines his sources with care, finding the roots of modern ideas in what previous thinkers clearly wrote. This historical depth allows Trueman to convincingly explain the roots of many puzzling cultural phenomena, from the pervasiveness of pornography to rapid shifts in our understanding of marriage, free speech on campus, and transgenderism.
Along the way, however, Trueman repeatedly questions where people put the limits on self-actualization and the grounds they offer for doing so. The clearest examples of this are pedophilia and polygamy: Why can one biological man self-actualize by being recognized as a woman, while another is forbidden to have a relationship with a minor, and a third is legally forbidden from marrying three wives?
Trueman claims that such limits are “ultimately arbitrary and politically motivated” within post-Freudian sexual ethics. But if he were to add John Stuart Mill to his historical narrative, the logic would become more apparent. Our public ethical debates focus on victims and oppressors, and the currency of those debates is harm. In accordance with Mill’s harm principle, we are reluctant to condemn behaviors up to the point where they manifestly harm others. As the harms of various actions become more apparent, those actions become more morally ambiguous or even opprobrious. This explains why sonograms make more Americans favor restrictions on abortion, why colleges have become much more concerned about sex on campus as the costs of the hook-up culture become clearer, and why deeply progressive mothers in New York City are concerned that their two-year-olds develop a strong sense of consent (being able to say no to hugs and tickling when they want to).
The harm principle, not something arbitrary or politically motivated, explains why the prohibition against pedophilia and promotion of gay marriage are likely to remain strong. It will likewise determine whether polygamy is seen as Mormon or Islamic fundamentalist oppression or polyamorous free love. And it explains why the debate over transgenderism is not over yet—as Trueman notes—especially with respect to young people who may later come to perceive the impact of their heavy hormones and surgery as grave harms, or who are beaten and hurt in athletic competitions by athletes of the opposite biological sex.
That aside, Trueman is right: We are all part of the revolution of the self and there is no way to avoid it. The problem is not individualism per se, which contains an important emphasis on the dignity of the individual irrespective of their role in society. The problem is that expressive individualism detaches individual dignity from any grounding in an objective, transcendent order. We should be grateful to Carl Trueman for helping us understand how that detachment took place and how we can begin to think about remedying it.