If a modern day Rip Van Winkle fell asleep in 1960 and woke up in 2020 there would be plenty to surprise him. But had he been a careful observer of intellectual trends already well advanced in his own day, contemporary confusion over human identity would be no revelation. He’d have seen it coming. Rousseau, Wordsworth, Shelly, Blake, Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin each in their own way set the stage for a world in which the self has turned in on itself. Our sense of what it means to be human has been psychologized, commodified, and abstracted from deeper sources of identity. We are no longer wayfarers in search of sacred order and salvific meaning. Now we are autonomous bundles of desire captive to a corrosive anti-culture and the paltriness of subversion.
In The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman makes this case in a manner accessible to the general reader, while avoiding the special pleading that often plagues intellectual histories written for a popular audience. Trueman, who serves as professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College, makes clear that he has undertaken this effort in service to the church, with particular emphasis on his own Protestant tradition. Rather than a jeremiad, it is a calm and considered effort to orient Christians to historical antecedents that explain present realties many find so disorienting. He does this by applying the varied lenses of Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and Philip Rieff to the ideas shaping contemporary society. Trueman also reminds social and theological conservatives, those most likely to be sympathetic to his concerns, of their complicity in the same expressive individualism that animates the debates they are currently losing.
Beginning with Rousseau, Trueman identifies an inward turn away from the search for objective meaning and toward a deification of the self, unchained from the influence of corrupt social institutions. As such “he is in many ways the aboriginal paradigm for psychological man.” Augustine recognized that to be human is to have an inner psychological life operating in the context of broader social realities. But for him, and the Western intellectual tradition he influenced, this reality remained firmly imbedded in a Christian story of personal sinfulness and divine redemption. For Rousseau, “it is society and the relations and conditions that society embodies that decisively shape and … decisively corrupt individuals.”