Carl R. Trueman. Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked The Sexual Revolution. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022.
“Things once regarded as obvious and unassailable virtues have in recent years been subject to vigorous criticism and even in some cases come to be seen by many as more akin to vices.” Most of us are familiar with these once “unassailable virtues” that are now the target of scorn, ridicule, and considered to be a vice. It wasn’t even that long ago, in 2008, that Barack Obama considered marriage to be between a man and a woman. But how quickly things have changed.
In 2020, Carl Trueman, a historian of religion with an extensive background in philosophy, published The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. It was the latest in a grand list of works that had been dealing with the rise of modern selfhood. Charles Taylor’s The Sources of the Self is another such example of a great book dealing with selfhood and identity in the modern world, and Taylor is an important influence and anchoring point for Trueman. But where Trueman’s Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self was a very learned and academic tome, Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked The Sexual Revolution is the accessible and readable version of his more academic work meant for the popular reading audience. He has achieved a great accomplishment in turning a book that is of the interest to only a small niche crowd into a widely accessible and engrossing read that can reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of readers.
How did we enter this “strange new world” where social norms, sexual morality, and the understanding of the family as the pillar of all civilization—even liberty—ended up dethroned? Trueman sees expressive individualism, an individualism of the self grounded in “inner feelings” and “authenticity,” alongside the sexual revolution and LGBTQ+ movement which aims at “the positive repudiation of traditional sexual mores,” not as the actual causes of decline but as the final expressive manifestations of a deeply rooted spirit of antagonism, immorality, amorality, and dare we say absurdism that has exhausted itself in the transgressive movements that have knocked down those once “obvious and unassailable virtues” about selfhood, life, and civilization. He is talking about Romanticism, not that all Romanticism is bad, but that the roots of our current crisis have their origins in aspects of Romanticism.
What is Romanticism? Perhaps the most ubiquitous understanding of Romanticism is that Romanticism “sought to find authentic humanity in an acknowledgement of, and connection to, the power of nature.” This aligns well with William Barrett, who in Irrational Man defined Romanticism as the protest of feeling and nature against the encroachments of industrial society. Romanticism was responding to the crisis of industrial and scientific civilization and society and what it did to the human spirit.
Yet Romanticism, in its noble confrontation with industrial scientism, also contained within it the seeds of our modern discontents and crises. Romanticism’s emphasis on the inner self who is always pure and good and in need of social endorsement is the seed of expressive individualism, sexual deviancy and revolution, and the all-out assault on civilization. Another fundamental aspect of Romanticism, especially as articulated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that bastard of a man who sent all five of his children to an orphanage soon after birth and whom Isaiah Berlin considered a “guttersnipe of genius,” was “that society is the problem and not the natural individual.” Together, Trueman implies, this is the real cause of our contemporary crisis. Even though subjective individualism has antecedent roots in the biblical Psalms, the tragic drama of Greece, the writings of Saint Augustine, and the humanist theologians of the Renaissance, what the earlier introspective philosophies of the self had in common was their unity of internal and external: the self and the self’s relationship to God or the moral law. In Romanticism, the external was slowly removed from the psychological picture—all there is, is the expressive self.
According to Trueman, this is the decisive moment of rupture in the movement away from a civilization that was grounded in the unity of internal and external, self and society, individual and family, and toward the idea of the true self as being true to “feelings” and that those “feelings” “are first and foremost genuine, pristine, and true guides to who human beings are.” From the Romantic imperative all society must affirm these “feelings” thus the collectivism inherent in the Romantic imperative about self-affirmation. Following Rosseau, the self is only free when forced to be freed, or affirmed, by society at large.
These two pillars of Romanticism: expressive feelings as the genuine manifestation of the self independent of external forces (whether biology or social norms) and that society and institutions corrupt individuals (how often do we hear such phraseologies today?), become the driving notions of “truth” for all modern ideologies. This is especially true of Marxism, feminism, the LGBTQ+ movement, and transgenderism (and this is why all movements, sans some outlying feminists, tend to be united together in cultural politics). Anyone who opposes these movements are guilty of oppressive social coercion. The freedom of expressive individualism to manifest their inner feelings must be safeguarded at all costs, the freedom of expressive individualism must be liberated at all costs.
Here it is important to remember that the classical conception of the introspective self was tied to some external reality that the self was still responsible to. In Christian anthropology, so clearly seen in Augustine’s Confessions, the true self is discovered when the self also discovers God. In classical Greek drama, though tragic, the self has duties to purge dangerous emotions with rationality that ties the self to the moral law. Service to the moral law, as revealed in Aeschylus and especially Sophocles, outweighs the passions (the Furies for example) or the laws of the state (Antigone for example). But the removal of an external reality tied to inner reality within the more radical elements of Romanticism had dramatic consequences culturally and intellectually.
From the inner self of Romanticism emerged the materialist philosophies of Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche. In various ways, these men carried forward the romantic project as much as they also carried forward the Enlightenment project of anti-religiosity and the end of theology and a fixed human nature. The demolition of religion and a worldview undergirded by religion now commences (made ironic given that many romantics were themselves religious). “Marx regards religion as a human creation with no transcendent status and no necessarily abiding significance.” After Marx, Nietzsche saw the “death of God” as the call for the inner self, the true self, to overcome the burdens of oppressive social morality which had stunted humanity’s progression toward Promethean greatness. Nietzsche’s concept of self-overcoming is really “self-creation.” Moreover, this “self-creation” is the liberation of the self from all the social and economic and moral and metaphysical structures that bear down on the individual. This is all too familiar to many of us today. In sum, the attack on religion and Christianity in the mid and late nineteenth century is actually the continuation of a key tenet of the Romantic imperative: the discovery of the true self who is held back by religion, theology, metaphysics, human nature, the moral law—in short, the entire inheritance of the classical tradition of Athens and Jerusalem.
In removing God and the moral law from human nature it was therefore only natural that sexual transgression and sexual self-creation and identity followed. Again, there were already Romantic antecedents. Consider the lives of Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. Look at the radical teachings of marriage and love by William Godwin. When Sigmund Freud arrives on the scene, he is but another transgressive revolutionary pushing the agenda of the true self to its inevitable conclusion without the external realities of God, human nature, and the moral law.
Freud asserted, in line with the Romantic antecedent of the true self and inner self, that humanity’s prime nature was sexual. Your sexual desire and gratification, the highest reality of nature and happiness, is who you are. As Freud himself wrote, “Man’s discovery that sexual (genital) love afforded him the strongest experiences of satisfaction and in fact provided him with the prototype of all happiness, must have suggested to him that he should continue to seek the satisfaction of happiness in his life along the path of sexual relations and that he should make genital eroticism the central point of his life.”
But “genital eroticism” also has problems, as Freud also observed. A society dominated by atomized eroticists is no society at all. Civilization cannot emerge and cannot thrive with high-drive libido untethered in the individualistic pursuit of happiness (read: sexual happiness). So religion, art, music, and all the trappings of civilization emerged to curtail humanity’s sexual inner nature in order to create civilization.
The creation of civilization, however, through the curtailing of sexual eroticism now becomes the oppressive superstructure preventing individual happiness. Civilization, therefore, must be overthrown and the laws and regulations that support civilization’s existence must be wholly eradicated for the sexual self to be free and happy. That became the task of the sexual revolutionaries influenced by Freud and Wilhelm Reich who wrote in The Sexual Revolution:
The free society will provide ample room and security for the gratification of [sexual] natural needs. Thus, it will not only not prohibit a love relationship between two adolescents of the opposite sex but will give it all manner of social support. Such a society will not only not prohibit the child’s masturbation but, on the contrary, will probably conclude that any adult who hinders the development of the child’s sexuality should be severely dealt with.
Reread Reich’s statement in light of all we see today in our cultural and sexual/gender politics. All “love” relationships are socially affirmed, and any sexuality or gender demands of a child must be affirmed and anyone who dare opposes the sexuality of a kid is ridiculed as a fascist.
From Freud and Reich, who synthesized Marx and Nietzsche with Romanticism’s inner self and the twentieth century march to the sexual revolution, feminism, LGBTQ+, and transgenderism, begins to make total and complete sense. The revolutionaries who control American, and more broadly speaking Western institutions of prominence, be they entertainment, media, or education, promote all of the above. The pursuit of happiness and the true self is the sexual self, for the sexual self is the self detached from God, morality, and civilization—all viewed as oppressive to the self who must be freed from these external impositions. With God and morality and the moral law already dethroned, all that is left to eradicate is civilization.
This, then, leads to a new crisis we are witnessing and living through. The demands of collective affirmation of expressive individualism, a new totalitarianism rooted in the demand of collective affirmation despite the individualist tilt of the demand, are now threatening the very pillars of the greatest accomplishments of modern, Western, civilization: freedom of speech, artistic expression, and religion. As Trueman aptly realizes despite the irony of it, “radical individual freedom [demanding social affirmation] has led to rather authoritarian forms of social control.” Those who have speech, artistic, and religious objections to new sexual self—the final iteration of the inner self of the Romantic imperative—are going to be forced to affirm sexual radicals and revolutionaries despite their objections because that is the very demand of the logic of self-affirmation entailed in the self-creating self becoming free and happy through the destruction of the final vestiges of social, and self, oppression. Once these pillars of Western civilization are destroyed, what is left?
Carl Trueman’s book was written primarily for Christians of an orthodox, traditional, and conservative disposition. But the book is also a great primer over the intellectual history of how Western civilization has destroyed itself—jettisoning its ancient and theological inheritances which helped produced the civilization that is still the envy of the rest of the world but is now facing significant internal crises brought about the dissolution of the social and civilizational norms that made it robust and strong. While one might quibble at the lack of nuance, those who do misunderstand the primary purpose of the book. Trueman isn’t offering a defense of the good of Romanticism in its rebellion against sterile industrialism and fear of scientism. Trueman is explaining how we went from a civilization undergirded by a belief in God, moral law, transcendence, and civilizational structures that promoted these higher realities to which the self could be united with, to a civilization in decay, decadence, and confusion that has come to hate everything that it once stood for in pursuit of the self-creating self which is increasingly exhausting itself as sexual self-creation which must destroy the final edifices of “heteronormative” civilization; a part of the Romantic imperative is very much guilty of having laid the groundwork for that revolution. Only someone with a log in their eye is blind to this reality. In reading Trueman’s book, the log is taken out of the reader’s eye.
*This review was first published at VoegelinView, 10 September 2022.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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