Today I will continue to interact with Carl Truman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. The previous essay documented Trueman’s historical method and posed the question that drives the book’s argument: How did it come about that the view of human identity held by nearly everyone in 1500 was by 2020 turned upside down and inside out. Instead of an individual’s identity being determined by their relationships to an external order—God, nature, moral law, and society—it came to be determined by their inner desires and tastes. Instead of being given, identity is now chosen. Instead of conforming to the outside world, modern people demand that the outside world conform to their inner sense of identity.
Intellectual Roots of the Revolution
Trueman traces the genesis of the sexual revolution to the middle of the eighteenth century to the “Father of Romanticism” Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78). Of course, there are no absolute beginning points within the flow of history, so beginning with Rousseau marks a somewhat arbitrary starting point. Nevertheless given Trueman’s limited aim of explaining the rise of the gender revolution, beginning with Rousseau makes sense. Rousseau was born in Geneva where the Calvinist doctrine of original sin was taught as Protestant dogma. He grew to intellectual maturity in France in the age of Voltaire where scientific reason was proclaimed the source and arbiter of all knowledge. Rousseau rebelled against both original sin and rationalism.
Rousseau argues that truth, goodness, and happiness are found by returning to nature unspoiled by artificial human society. Human beings are born free and are endowed with instincts adequate to guide them in living good and happy lives. But society corrupts them, teaching envy, greed, jealousy, duplicity, and other vices and crimes. Not cold reason or social conventions but inward feeling is the best guide to truth, goodness, and happiness. If only we could live outwardly according to our inward selves! In a sentence that could have been written in 2021, he says, “How sweet it would be to live among us if the outward countenance were always the image of the heart’s dispositions” (Quoted in Trueman, p. 113). A near perfect definition of authenticity! Rousseau’s view of society as the origin of evil entered the public imagination and lead to the discovery of countless other socially constructed forms of oppression: capitalism, racism, and sexism.
Rousseau never denied the existence of God, moral law, or human nature. Indeed, he championed them. Nevertheless, by blaming the self’s alienation from its true self on the social order and by transferring the sources of moral knowledge from reason and revelation to the inner self and its feelings, he laid the foundation for rebellion against other external structures. God, moral law, reason, and nature would in turn become viewed as instruments of oppression.
The Romantics, Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin
The romantic poets of the early nineteenth century continue Rousseau’s contrast between the innocence of nature and the corruption of society. Especially relevant to the sexual and gender revolutions of recent times is the career of the English poet Percy Shelly (1792-1822). In his poetry (e.g. Queen Mab) Shelly envisioned overturning the self-alienating social and political order and returning to nature. The chief obstacle standing in the way of this project is Christianity, which he attacked in a pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism, calling the God of the Bible a “Demon-God.” The idea of God served as a justification for oppression and exploitation of the many by the powerful few. And nothing symbolized the alienating effect of society on the true selfhood of the individual more than the Christian teaching limiting sexual relations to exclusive, life-long, monogamous marriage. Shelly advocates the practice free love where sexual partners enjoy each other for personal happiness alone and renounce all artificial limits. Shelly explains his sexual ethics as follows:
If happiness be the object of morality, of all human unions and disunions; if the worthiness of every action is to be estimated by the quantity of pleasurable sensation it is calculated to produce, the connection of the sexes is so long sacred as it contributes to the comfort of the parties, and is naturally dissolved when its evils are greater than its benefits. There is nothing immoral in this separation (Poetical Works. Quoted in Trueman, p. 155).
The impact of the titanic figures of Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin on the formation of the contemporary world is beyond calculation. Trueman focuses on a few themes that contributed to the plausibility of the gender revolution. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) pursued the logical implications of atheism in both its theoretical and practical forms. For all practical purposes “God is dead,” that is, the idea of God has cease to affect the way people live, even if they say they believe. Nietzsche argues that we must accept the full consequences of God’s demise and give up every idea and practice that depends on God’s existence as the ground of its meaningfulness. For example, we must renounce the ideas that we live in a meaningful world, that human beings have an essential nature or intrinsic dignity, and that there are moral truths. We are on our own. We have to create our own meaning, construct our own nature and dignity according to our tastes, and replace morality with our aesthetic sense. Human nature becomes “plastic” to be molded into whatever shape pleases us. For Nietzsche Christianity is not only false, it is “morally repugnant” and “distasteful” (Trueman, p. 173). For Nietzsche all relationships are relations of power, and any claims to the contrary should be treated with the utmost suspicion.
In Karl Marx (1818-83), the Rousseau-inspired theme of social alienation—now filtered through the philosophy of Georg W. F. Hegel, a story too long to tell here—took an economic turn. Instead of conflicts between civilization and the individual, artificiality and nature, and the external and the internal, Marx views society through the lens of economic class interests: capitalists versus workers, oppressors versus oppressed. Marx places the alienating relationship within society rather than between society and the individual. Hence the ideal condition where alienation is overcome cannot take form as a return to unspoiled nature but must be a humanly constructed, classless society in which workers are no longer alienated from the products of their work. Marx rejects the idea of a given human nature and moral law and views human nature, morality, and religion as derivative of economic relations. Change the economic relations and the other aspects will change in response. Because every relationship is at bottom economic and economics is political, everything is political. There are no pre-political social spaces, and any claims to the contrary should be exposed as masking economic self-interest.
Charles Darwin (1809-82) can be dealt with briefly. His theory of evolution was taken by many as replacing belief in divine creation and providence. The biological order could no longer be viewed as infused with divine meaning and guided by divine purpose. Meaning and purpose were confined to the inner world of the human psyche.
Dead Men Still Speak
Is personal identity grounded in an objective order and achieved by adjusting to that order or is identity located in the inner psychic world of the individual and given concrete shape by expressing the inner sense in the medium of the external world? Rousseau, Shelly, Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin, each in his own way, set about to demolish the first view of identity and liberate individuals to construct themselves according their inner desires. And though they have been dead for 120 years or more, their voices still ring out from the lecture halls of academia, the public education system, the entertainment industry, congress and the courts, and in the streets of American cities. Understanding their thought and their profound influence on contemporary culture would go a long way toward helping us comprehend “how and why a particular statement has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful: “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” (Trueman, p. 19).
Next Time: We will tell the story of how Sigmund Freud sexualized psychology and the New Left politicized sex.