As befits a historian, Carl Trueman has written his impressive book on the ‘sexual revolution’ (SR) as being largely a history of ideas. This history is built of two components. The first element is largely framed in terms of contemporary ideas of the self, which provides for one half of his thesis in the book. Trueman argues convincingly that there is a change in modernity concerning the nature of the human self, pervading at least of all modern Western cultures. Trueman is indebted to three thinkers in particular as he develops this argument: Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor and Alasdair Macintyre.

Thus, in order to understand Trueman’s argument it is essential to understand each of these figures. Philip Rieff was a sociologist of psychology and author of The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud. Charles Taylor is a Canadian philosopher. His books, Sources of the Self, A Secular Age, and Modern Social Imaginaries likewise point in the same direction as Rieff. Previously, Taylor has drawn attention to personal identity and culture. In particular he has been concerned with the ways in which the claims of the mind shape a person’s objectives in life.

For his part, Rieff argues that the limits of a culture turn on what it forbids or what is taboo and on the acceptance and legitimacy of the institutions that maintain those taboos. Rieff sees the history of modern culture as the story of the individual’s rise. So Taylor and Rieff usefully join forces. We are derivations of our culture. Previously, moral claims had been products of the ‘sacred order’, a system of transcendent value. The modern era is marked by are saying “good riddance” to such an order. From Taylor, Trueman takes the terminology of ‘imaginary’ and the distinction between mimesis and poesis, two different ways of thinking about the world.

A mimetic act regards the world as having a given order and a given meaning and thus sees human beings as required to discover that meaning and conform themselves to it. Poiesis, by way of contrast, sees the world as so much raw material out of which meaning and purpose can be created by the individual.

Given the prominence of the self in the book, it is surprising that more was not stated about its ‘plasticity’ and ‘expressivism.’

Alasdair Macintyre in His After Virtue is symptomatic of the breakdown of reasoning in moral matters, or more on all issues of “values.” Macintyre is (or was) an emotivist, which is someone which regards oral utterances as nothing but expressions of emotion, not descriptions of the object being talked about. The difference is that between saying ‘ouch’ as against ‘I have a toothache.’ Whether I have a toothache is a matter of fact, where ‘ouch’ is an expression of pain. Since Macintyre and many others, such as A. J. Ayer, in his Language, Truth and Logic, took this view, there could be no truth or falsity to such matters. MacIntyre later changed his mind, but even so without his earlier contributions it is likely that another meta-ethical position, such as subjectivism, would have done equally well to make moral reasoning intractable.

It has to be said that these expressions of the modern mind, given the crucial role they play in the book, are not explained in the detail that they deserve. The modern mind’s chief properties are plasticism and an outward orientation or ‘expressiveness.’ In addition, the treatment of plasticity and expressiveness seemed to me the least persuasive of Trueman’s claims. Trueman repeatedly asserts that the modern mind is unique, but that uniqueness is not sufficiently proven.

For Rieff, if you look at culture from political man (Plato and Aristotle) to religious man to economic man, and later to psychological man, you can see how economic man would be distinct. For economic man, a person’s characteristic interests, in leisure and employment, enables them to spend his or her surplus cash. That, at least, is how I read it to be.

There is a certain weakness here, since according to Trueman, these seismic changes offered to us by Taylor, have in the twentieth century become general in their incidence. Now we all have plastic selves. But if this is true, does this not prove too much? It flouts what Trueman regards as an important historical fallacy. ‘The point I am making is simple; the universal law of gravity explains why everything in general falls to the earth, but it explains no specific incident of such a fall with any degree of adequacy.’ (24) If we all have plastic selves now, and there is now no sacred order, then that fact should not only explain the sexualization of society, but it also explains those times and places in modernity, wherein there is no or little attention such sexualization. After all, what interests Trueman may be explained as we might explain the sects of Libertines, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and earlier. But of course, the choices of modern men and women are legion. Trueman underplays fashions and their speed of making room for the next fad in modernity.

This view of modernity leads to Trueman’s account of its genesis from the enlightenment onwards: First, Rousseau, then English poets, then Nietzsche, Marx and Darwin, then into the 20th century in the case of Freud and the new left. These chapters, which are very well done, add to the entertainment of the book but do not show that members of the Sexual Revolution are influenced by any but the later members of this history.

In his description of Rieff, of which he is rather critical, Trueman makes some remarks on the place of the human will in his self-selection. Trueman asserts that Rieff has forgotten the crucial role played by St. Paul and Augustine. According to him, Augustine agreed with Paul’s idea of the human will. This gives him the opportunity to compare Paul as a developer of the human will, then Augustine. But here Trueman is uncharacteristically confused. Well before Augustine, the Stoics discussed the freedom of the will, and what is now discussed as ‘weakness of will’ was discussed by Aristotle and widely circulated in the classical world. Contrast claims about plasticity with what Augustine has to say on the memory and the self, the will, and so on. He offers astute accounts of an amazing output of complex moods, depths, skills and speeds unparalleled in any other organ. The idea that the modern self is uniquely complex is overdone.

It is worth noting more of what Trueman says about the plastic self which is to refer to ‘a basic level of self-consciousness’ about intentions. Inwardness is a dominant feature, by which he means our awareness of ourselves from the perspective of that self, who it is and how it approaches its goals. The dynamic here is, by now, familiar: inwardness and then expressiveness. Trueman at various places in the book notes not only what the sexual revolution has had as goals – homosexuality and transgenderism – but also the goals that it has not wanted, such as bestiality and pedophilia. Evidently they have barriers or taboos of their own. We shall come to the significance of this later on.

If Trueman’s causal thesis has to be made good, then there also has to have evidence of causal factors from Rousseau to Marcuse via Darwin, say, which are said to be causally sufficient to account for the emergence of the LGBT movement. There has to be evidence of members of this movement being educated through conversation, study or discussion. Or is there evidence of self-education and their intellectual formation? There is no evidence of this in Parts 2 and 3, which would be the natural place to look. The earlier names certainly add to the pleasure of the book, but they do not give us any needed causal information.

Trueman’s identification of the three architects of the modern mind is certainly strengthened with more entertaining and instructive thinkers. According to his account, the plasticity and expressiveness of the self is due to them. In the authors survey, plasticity emerges only by the time of thinkers such as Nietzsche, Marx and Darwin.

All these in their different ways provided conceptual justification for rejecting the notion of human nature and thus paved the way for the plausibility of the idea that human beings are plastic creatures with no fixed identity founded on an intrinsic and ineradicable essence.

At some point of the twentieth century, the sexualization of human nature becomes apparent, especially if one adds to the mix the influence of the New Left, such as Marcuse, with its ‘politicization’ by which those with plastic selves took advantage (in the UK, for example) of the Wolfenden Commission (1957) on the decriminalization of adult homosexuality and gave impetus to granting a stream of rights which affected the rights of individuals and those of the family. I guess that few would predict the quick development of the gay culture, ‘gay pride’ and then more, from the findings of the pretty un-gay Whitehall mandarin and University Vice-Chancellor, after whom the Wolfenden Commission gets its name.

Trueman sees the fact that plasticity, what Taylor calls ‘expressive individualism,’ is not sufficient to account for the sexual revolution without ‘underlying social and cultural conditions that made both gay marriage and then transgender ideology first plausible and normative and (that) these conditions have been developing over hundreds of years.’ This leads to another difficulty. There is no account of the evidence of how sexual revolutionaries learn his (or her) the advocacy of that position, or of how their reception of revolutionary data works.

However, in the final part of the book, Part 4, Trueman expertly discloses his awareness of the world of the sexual revolution, and redeems his lack of evidence of how sexual revolutionaries become such with a dissection of the weak parts of LGBT+ feminism. Trueman might argue that this evidence comes from those figures that occupy the contemporary or immediate world, ‘The Emergence of Plastic People.’ While not exactly rabbits pulled out of a hat, they are not chosen from the older tilled fields of the history of ideas.

In this final part Trueman deals with contemporary ideas, using a closer lens. He makes a variety of interesting points, displaying a broad knowledge of contemporary writings. In this vein he makes significant remarks on the behavior of the US Supreme Court. He considers the importance of feminism, and reflects on the contemporary limits of LGBT+ ideology as it concerns pedophilia and bestiality and polygamy. He also identifies discrete sub-groups emerging due to differences concerning sex and gender. He considers the roles of ‘pop music’ and of gay marriage and Planned Parenthood and how each, in their different ways, helped to stretch the barriers of permissibility, alter laws, and legalize gay marriage. In his detailed account of the various elements of the LGBT rights movement, he notes several points of tension. As I have been writing this review, the Tavistock Clinic, a medical clinic in the UK specializing in changing gender, has been restricted from continuing doing so in young people before puberty. Trueman is deservedly puzzled by the seemingly arbitrary constraint, which is representative of the broader contradictions in public life created by the sexual revolution.

Carl Trueman has succeeded in writing an erudite book that manages to be both critical and serious, but presented in a winsome style. It would not be a surprise if he has it in mind to do further work in this field. In the last section he reveals more of his persona as a conservative Christian.

In articulating a conservative Christian response to these changes, he takes the stance of the New Testament, which is to say a certain tolerance for those struggling with these questions. After all, if the church wishes to completely avoid such issues and the people struggling with them, ‘we should have to go out of the world.’ The church amongst the sexual revolutionaries (“such were some of you”) is correct to be tolerant. She may have to bear the charge of ‘bigotry,’ but this book does not in any way encourage such talk. It is a pity that Truueman does not go into any detail in the one or two positive points he makes, a great pity. But he might have made the point that the New Testament is up to the minute, being full of individuals who by God’s grace make new identities for themselves.

The scantness of his closing remarks (‘a prologue to future discussions’), on how Christians should bear themselves in a post-sexual revolution culture, is likewise unfortunate. He says that Christians now live in an era in which a person may choose his church as he chooses a house or car. He argues that Christians should become re-acquainted with natural law. All his remarks at the end lead this reader to hope he will follow this rich and informative book with more wisdom and clarity of how Christians should behave themselves in a Christian fashion in the world after the sexual revolution.

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Posted by Paul Helm

Paul Helm is retired from the Chair of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King's College, London.