Carl R. Trueman, in his book “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self,” looks at the ideas which lie at the foundation of the drive for self-expression and authenticity, and the concepts which undergird the militant defence of the plethora of sexual and gender identities.
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, by Carl R. Trueman (425 pages, Crossway, 2020).
Early in February this year, the Parliament of the state of Victoria passed a bill banning gay conversion therapy. The ‘Change or Suppression (Conversion) Bill’ purports to protect LGBTIQ+ people from counselling, psychotherapy, and support groups which aim at altering a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation.
Along with these general therapeutic practices, religious practices directed towards suppression therapies are also made illegal, including prayer, preaching, and religious counselling. The focus on religion is palpable in the Bill and explicit in the then Attorney-General’s second-reading speech. Jill Hennessy stated in the speech that the word ‘conversion’ was avoided in the wording of the Bill, yet carefully chosen for the title.
According to Ms. Hennessy, the new law covers a wide variety of situations including a “person going to a religious leader seeking advice on their feelings of same-sex attraction, and the religious leader telling them they are broken and should live a celibate life for the purpose of changing or suppressing their same-sex attraction.” It is most notable that even if the person asks for this, or any other kind of therapy covered under the Bill, administering it would be a crime. Consent is, in this case, not relevant.
In the months leading up the February vote, the Bill encountered significant opposition, both inside and outside the Parliament. Several individuals and groups have raised substantial concerns about the Bill, including the Institute for Civil Society and the Australian Christian Lobby. The latter took out a full-page advertisement in The Australian newspaper with the names of hundreds of religious leaders standing against the Bill’s restrictions on religious freedom and freedom of speech. And yet the Bill passed both houses of the Victorian Parliament comfortably.
We have arrived at a state of affairs in the West where attempts to dissuade someone from pursuing a gay or lesbian lifestyle can legitimately result in incarceration. While other jurisdictions have passed equivalent legislation, none are as extreme or egregious as the new Victorian law. It sets out a radical blueprint for other jurisdictions, so we can expect copycat legislation to appear in due course. Even if the person in question voluntarily approaches someone for counselling, advice, or prayer, it could result in massive fines or jail for the counsellor. Even someone within the same household, such as a parent or sibling, can be held accountable under the new law.
As sinister as this new law is, the arguments against it have been made and the Parliament largely chose to ignore them. Instead, the Victorian Government set out a Bill which exemplifies the modern understanding of the self and illustrates the power of contemporary identity politics.
To again quote Jill Hennessy, the new law “affirms that all people have characteristics of sexuality, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, and no combination of these characteristics constitutes a disorder, disease, illness, deficiency, disability or shortcoming.” There is apparently no place for any discussion around these matters anymore.
Further, Ms. Hennessy states that the new law “ensures Victorians are able to live their lives authentically with pride, and makes it clear an individual’s sexual orientation and gender identity are not broken and do not need to be fixed.” A person’s identity is not to be meddled with by anyone else. The priority is for people to live authentic lives of sexual self-expression.
Whether you agree with Ms. Hennessy’s statements or not, they signal a cataclysmic shift. Even three decades ago, such a statement in a parliamentary speech would have been treated as nonsense by most mainstream politicians and commentators. However, the tide has turned. Those battling against this kind of legislation are dealing with the consequences of this shift. However, in order to better understand this new world, there is a need to reckon with the roots of the revolution of sexuality and identity.
One insightful attempt to understand the historical lineage of this new world is Carl R. Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. Dr. Trueman is Professor of Biblical & Religious Studies at Grove City College, PA, although The Rise and Triumph was largely written while he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University.
Rather than address the sexual revolution directly, Dr. Trueman looks at the ideas which lie at the foundation of the drive for self-expression and authenticity, and the concepts which undergird the militant defence of the plethora of sexual and gender identities. This revolution “cannot be properly understood until it is set within the context of a much broader transformation in how society understands the nature of human selfhood,” writes Dr. Trueman. Herein lies the key insight: “the sexual revolution is simply one manifestation of the larger revolution of the self that has taken place in the West.”
The Rise and Triumph is, in essence, a history of ideas. It traces a series of intellectual shifts from the eighteenth century onwards, which Dr. Trueman argues led to the usurpation of a mimetic view of the self by the poietic view of the self. The mimetic view is where one conforms oneself to the given external order. This view enjoyed ubiquity in the Western mind, from Plato’s Timeaus to John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. However, it was another Genevan, one probably more influential than Calvin, who moved the Western world towards poiesis.
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1788) argued that a person was most himself when left unhindered by external forces. This is most evident in his 1755 Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes (known as the Second Discourse), where Rousseau invokes the imagery of the noble savage, and where he characterises the person who first erected a physical boundary around a plot of land as bringing the ruin of humankind. Rousseau’s natural man was in a state of perfect satisfaction and authenticity, only to be wrecked by the constraints of civil society.
In short, the mimetic world of Plato and Calvin was one where the given order gave meaning to the self, whereas the poietic world of Rousseau was one where the raw material of reality was to be worked upon to find and shape individual meaning. Dr. Trueman documents how Rousseau’s basic philosophical anthropology was further developed by the Romantic poets, for whom the main game was, to use William Wordsworth’s phrase, the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” reflecting authentic human nature.
Tellingly, the drive for authentic self-expression in the Romantics was combined with the sexual radicalism of Percy Bysshe Shelley and the anti-Christian poetry of William Blake. As Dr. Trueman notes, “when the sacred order collapses, morality is simply a matter of taste, not truth.” This is what Dr. Trueman observes in the Romantic poets. The fundamental need for personal authenticity combined with political radicalism and aesthetic moralism. In other words, the Romantics pushed against traditional morality with an ethics of empathy.
This doesn’t get us to gender fluidity, militant bans on gender therapies, or gay marriage. However, we are drawn closer when Dr. Trueman’s story addresses the emergence of what he calls ‘Plastic People’. Rousseau and the Romantics set the stage, argues Dr. Trueman, for “the elimination of the notion that human nature is something that has authority over us as individuals.” Here, Dr. Trueman calls upon sociologist and Freud scholar Philip Rieff (1922–2006). In his 1966 The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Rieff outlined a schematic of civilisational types, which represented the dominant anthropology of the given age.
‘Political Man’ was foremost in the ancient world, where humans were primarily understood in terms of their relationship to the polis. ‘Religious Man’ was the medieval anthropological type, where people were ultimately understood as related to their society’s cultus. Karl Marx, of course, ushered in, or exemplified, ‘Economic Man’. And in the final stage, starkly represented by the thought of Sigmund Freud, Rieff argued that we had reached the epoch of ‘Psychological Man’. This latter anthropology emphasises, in Dr. Trueman’s words, “the inward quest for psychological happiness.”
Of course, the ideas of Freud, and the emergence of ‘Psychological Man’, were only plausible once Charles Darwin had finally undermined the teleological view of the natural world, once Marx put forward his dynamic, economically-driven view of human nature, and once Nietzsche metaphorically “unchained this earth from its sun” by ennobling an anti-Christian ethics. The latter’s work is dealt with particular deftness by Dr. Trueman, who notes that “the nonexistence of God is not like the nonexistence of unicorns or centaurs… [to] dispense with God… is to destroy the foundations on which a whole world of metaphysics and morality has been constructed and depends.”
All of this brings Dr. Trueman to Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), who founded the controversial theory of psychoanalysis, and who, most significantly, sexualised the psychological anthropology of the epoch we are now living through. It was Freud who made sex the central aspect of human existence. It was Freud who proposed with great success, according to Dr. Trueman, that “sex, in terms of sexual desire and sexual fulfilment, is the real key to human existence, to what it means to be human.” Freudian authenticity demands that the self be allowed to express its sexual preferences and gain sexual pleasure.
The necessary constraint to this sexual self-expression is civilisation, which both brings order out of sexual chaos and causes the individual sexual self to be unhappy. This is reminiscent of Rousseau’s political anthropology, where the noble savage is sadly brought into a civilised state to both his detriment and his benefit. In Freud, Dr, Trueman observes the psychologised self made sexual. In Freud, Psychological Man becomes Sexual Man.
From the internal turn of the poietical self, to the aesthetic and atheistic turn in ethics of the Romantics and Nietzsche, to the reduction of human nature to a malleable social construct by Marx and Freud, Dr. Trueman shows how the way was paved for critical theorists to politicise the sexual. Dr. Trueman focuses his attention on Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957) and Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979). He argues that these men combined “the political concerns of Marxism with the psychoanalytical claims of Freud,” by taking “the Marxist category of oppression and [refracting] it through the Freudian notion of repression.” Sexual liberation became a central aim of politics.
And so we have what Dr. Trueman calls the “psychologising of oppression and the placing of it at the centre of the history of human society.” Now, “merely tolerating certain sexual proclivities and activities would not be enough, for tolerance is not the same as recognition.” The Psychological Man, drenched as he is in his sexual identity, requires more freedom. He requires positive affirmation. Our sexual choices must be approved by one and all.
The sexualising of politics brings sexual liberation and the positive recognition of one’s personal desires to the centre of political discourse. Rather than imprisonment in concentration camps or systemic race-based slavery, mere ‘nonrecognition’ is enough to be a victim in our Western societies. As Dr. Trueman notes, “not having one’s sexual preferences positively affirmed” is ground for claiming oppressed status.
This is why the Victorian Attorney-General can, indeed must, deliver a second reading speech which affirms that sexual expression is sacrosanct before the law. This also helps explain why the Victorian Parliament can, in the face of reasonable and substantial opposition, vote in a law which bans basic therapies, both spiritual and secular, including prayer and parental counsel.
This is not to deny that there have been some inhumane “treatments” administered in the name of sexual suppression. Victorian law now protects against these. But it does much more. It prevents anyone from taking action to assist a person seeking his help in relation to sexuality. It puts in black letters the new law of the modern self. To paraphrase Rousseau, people will now be forced to be sexually free, even if they do not want to be.
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