Carl Trueman: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern  Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism and the Road to Sexual Revolution, Foreword, Rod Dreher, h/b, Wheaton, Crossway, 2020 (425pp.)

Carl Trueman
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

This is a demanding and challenging read covering some of the same ground as Charles Taylor, A Secular Age and Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Trueman’s  title uses the term expressive individualism and by this term Trueman means how we in the “West” have come to identify ourselves. He is referring to the chaos of identity politics (p25);and makes the point that ‘we are all expressive individuals now.’ Just as some choose to identify themselves by their sexual orientation, so the religious person chooses to be a Christian or a Muslim.. (or some other faith or orientation). 

Trueman describes the key ‘move’ of the modern self as, ‘…a prioritization of the individual’s inner psychology –  we might even say ‘feelings’ or ‘intuitions’ – for our sense of who we are and what the purpose of our lives is.’  (p. 23)

As we attempt to stay afloat in our cultural soup – potently seasoned with more than a pinch of ‘cultural amnesia,’ ladled with large dollops of ‘expressive Individualism’; and crowned with powerful aromas which have been infused by the ‘sexual revolution’ (so-called) – Trueman argues that each one of us is confronted with a question of vital philosophical, theological; and therefore ethical urgency:  ‘Is happiness found in directing oneself outward or inward?…The answer I give speaks eloquently of what I consider the purpose of life and the meaning of happiness. In sum it is indicative of how I think of my self.’ (p.23)

Regarding the ‘revolution’;  and in anticipation of his far-reaching historical survey; Trueman adds:  

‘ The sexual revolution did not cause the sexual revolution, nor did technology such as the pill or the internet. Those things may have facilitated it, but its causes lie much deeper, in the changes in what it meant to be an authentic, fulfilled human self. And those changes stretch back well before the Swinging Sixties.’(p.23) 

Outline in brief

The format of the book consists firstly of a historical account of how such a cultural revolution has occurred in the West using in particular the rather arcane writings of Philip Rieff and the more accessible work of Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre.  In the simplest terms he suggests that Western civilization has advanced in four stages from practical man, through to religious man, economic man and into our current stage, psychological man (or, consumer/plastic man who can make or remake her personality at will.)

Trueman begins with three ruling ideas:

  1. The vast and unstoppable advance of technological invention.
  2. There is no golden age that was better than the present so stop pining for the past.
  3. When critiquing opponents, give their argument full weight. There is no value in refuting a straw man. 

Following chapters on reimagining the Self and reimagining our culture, Trueman moves to a more detailed analysis of the key historical players in this story of the progession to psychological man. These helpful chapters adumbrate the major impact made by, in order, Jean-Jaques Rousseau; The Romantic poets especially Wordsworth, Shelley and Blake; Nietsche, Marx and Darwin; Sigmund Freud and finally The New Left and the Politicization ofSex with a nod to Foucault and his epigones and incomprehensible imitators. There are further chapters on The triumph of the Erotic, The triumph of the Therapeutic and The triumph of the T (Trans). The book finishes with a Concluding Unscientific Prologue with some suggestions for a way forward for Christian believers. 

This book creates an understandable pathway through the current labyrinth of our dominant Western culture.  It is well worth the effort (5 stars)

Trueman Glossary

Some key questions discussed in this book include (p.102): How is the self to be understood; how ethical discourse operates; how tradition and history are valued; and how cultural elites understand the culture and purpose of art. 

Key terminology to be mastered when reading the book includes:

The social imaginarythe way people think about the world enabling a widely shared sense of legitimacy. 

‘Deathworks’  (Rieff) …an all out assault on something vital to the established culture. (cf Freud: culture is constituted by those things that it forbids). A deathwork, by contrast, represents an attack on established cultural art forms in a manner designed to undo the deeper moral structure of society.

Mimesis …having a given meaning

Poiesis ….meaning is constructed by the individual

Emotivism: to say that something is good is in reality merely to express a personal emotive preference…this leads to moral relativism. (McIntyre), p121. (Emotivism proves that the other side is wrong). The agreed rational basis for debate is gone. All that is left is emotional preference. (p377)

Sittlichkeit: The moral obligations I have to be a member of an ongoing community of which I am a part. (p62)

Key ideas of Trueman’s work include:

* Why is it important that  identity be publicly acknowledged?

* The importance and nature of the self.

* Pejorative racial or sexual epithets are not a trivial matter. (p55)

* The fact that identity recognition has moved from tolerance to equality (mere toleration would cause psychological harm). (p54)

* The power of elites in Western politics. (p54 fn)

* Satisfaction,  meaning and authenticity are now found by an inward turn, and the culture must be reconfigured to this end….I must not tailor my psychological needs to the nature of society, for that would create anxiety  and make me inauthentic. Traditional moral terms are now seen to be part of the problem and become deemed as hate speech. (p54)

the emergence of chronological snobbery  (p88)

* There is no universal criterion by which competing moral claims can be compared or assessed. (p161)

* The legalisation of the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, of human life. (p.303)

* The assumption that the basic categories of modern identity politics are undeniable (p332)

The deliberate destruction and erasure of the past, not only its artifacts but also its practices producing cultural amnesia. (p337)

* The technical ability to manipulate biological realities (p35)

* Woke capitalism…the economic significance of pornography sits at least at $6 billion annually for the US economy. (p271)

* Enlightenment individualism has ceased to be a tool of human emancipation and is displaying increasingly oppressive aspects. (p274)

  • The goal of critical theory is to destabilize the dominant Western narrative of truth (p226) (, post colonialism, critical race theory, the sexualisation of children, the politicising of sex.(p267). 
  • *The expressive individual is now the sexually expressive individual. (p268)

* The assumption that the basic categories of modern identity politics are undeniable (p330)

* For campus protestors, free speech is simply a licence to oppress others with hateful language and arguments. (p337)

* The teaching of history is now dominated universities by advocates of critical theory and thus preoccupied with categories of power and marginalisation. (p332)

* Increasing government encroachment on the private sphere, both of the family and of the mind. (P.239)

  • The notion that political freedom is sexual freedom and that shattering sexual norms is a vital part of transforming society are now intuitive cultural orthodoxies. (p249f)

Martin Boyd: The Cardboard Crown, Intro: Dorothy Green, [Part 1 of the Langton Quartet], 

p/b, Ringwood, Penguin, 1984 (1952)

Martin Boyd
The Cardboard Crown

Novelist Martin Boyd was a member of an early and distinguished Anglo-Australian family of artists, potters, musicians and architects and on his mother’s side, a long line of judges, barristers and Victoria’s first Chief Justice. He was born as a British citizen in Switzerland but at six months old was brought to Australia where he grew up and was educated at Trinity Grammar School in Kew Melbourne. He fought in the trenches in World War 1 as part of  the British army and later served as a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps at a time when the British were losing fifty pilots in training a day. His disillusionment with the horrors of war lead him to be a ferocious critic in books and letters of political leaders including Lloyd George, Baldwin and Churchill as well as newspaper tycoons and archbishops. After the war he returned to Australia and lived for many years in Harkaway, near Berwick in south east Melbourne.   He spent the last thirty years of his life in Europe and died in Rome, aged 72. 

The Langton Quartet of novels is loosely based on the Boyd extended family history and told with whimsical humour, elegant aesthetics and fascinating glimpses of early Australian society especially in the pre-Gold rush era although these stories are not to be understood as literal truth in every detail. The ‘cardboard crown’ was a much fought over toy played with and highly valued by the extended family children and the narrative aptly describes the varying fortunes of the wearer of the crown, Hetty, in the narrative. The key figures in The Cardboard Crown are his grandmother Alice and grandfather Austin, loosely based on William Callander à Beckett, a barrister and member of The Legislative Council, an able and energetic man with some eccentricities and his wife Emma Mills, a very beautiful and accomplished woman who brought great wealth into the family.

The novel describes with sensitivity and humour the travails, adventures and passions of this couple as they peregrinated between England and Australia and their fortunes rose and fell with the foundation of the new colony.  The description of early Victorian expansion away from Melbourne is fascinating and the contrast with Boyd’s treatment of Alice’s aesthetic awakening in Paris, Rome, Florence and southern France is captivating aided by the frisson of romance. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel although piecing together the various family members was demanding. I now have a thirst to find the other three stories in the Langton Quartet. 5 stars.

 Beowulf,  Edited, Translated,  Introduction  and Notes,  Michael Swanton, p/b, Manchester & New York, Manchester University Press, 1994 (1978)  

Michale Swanton

Eighth century Anglo-Saxon poem concerning the feats of the Geatish champion Beowulf, otherwise unknown to history, who came to the aid of the ageing King of the Geats, Hrothgar whose dwelling was the hall of Heorot during the last decades of the fifth century. The kingdom of the Geats lay in the south of modern Sweden, just north of the Jutes, Angles and Danes that occupied what is now northern Denmark. The sole surviving text of Beowulf is found in a late C10th manuscript of the British Library. It was part of the collection of Sir Robert Cotton and the manuscript is part of a composite volume containing an additional three short prose works. Michael Swanton is Emeritus Professor in Medieval Studies at the University of Exeter.

Although there are clearly fantastic themes and images in this poem, many of the persons named are known to history through other sources. Beowulf and his group of mighty thanes came by boat to aid the ageing Hrothgar, king of the Geats. Hrothgar was in despair as his kingdom was being literally devoured by a powerful demon monster named Grendel, a notorious prowler of the borderlands, who held the the wastelands, swamp and fastness. (line 95, p.39). This creature came at night and devoured at will the sleeping men of the hall of Heorot. Beowulf won a major victory by defeating Grendel in mortal combat.

Beowulf followed this up with the further destruction of Grendel’s mother, a woman, a she monster (line 1255) who dwelt in a vast and deep swamp covered in slimy water. She also came to devour the men of Heorot and she also fell to the might of Beowulf after a further powerful struggle. Beowulf was crowned king after these feats following the death of Hrothgar and ruled the Geats valiantly and successfully for fifty years until a fire-breathing dragon appeared in the neighbourhood guarding a fabulous horde of golden jewels and partial to human flesh.

Once again Beowulf strove to battle and, with the aid of just one of his men, the brave Wiglaf, they managed to survive the fiery ordeal and slay the dragon. Nevertheless Beowulf sustained a mortal wound in the contest and died beside the weeping Wiglaf who berated his cowardly cohort who were afraid to enter the battle.  The poem finishes with the sorrowful burial of the mighty and beloved Beowulf. 

This fine edition with excellent introduction, maps, notes and a glossary of names makes for a relatively easy read although the various side stories that slip into the narrative can be confusing even with the helps.  The C8th Anglo-Saxon version sits side by side on each double page with a modern English translation so if one is keen enough a little Anglo-Saxon comes into the light with practice although I have to say it is a great deal more difficult than Chaucer’s English! 

Tolkien lovers will be fascinated by many of the themes emerging from Beowulf including the importance of the bestowal of rings of power, the importance of historic swords and blades,  the fearful fiends, dragons and monsters emerging from darkness as well as the commitment to Christian faith and trust in God which emerges in several places. 

Reading Beowulf we step back in time to a dark world in North Western Europe which suddenly springs to life and reality through the unknown poet’s skilful hand. Even in translation the power and tension emerges and excites the imagination. This is an exceptional gift that has come down to us saved from the ravages of time and obscurity.   5 stars

John O’Donohue: Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World, h/b, London, Bantam,   1998

John O’Donohue
Anam Cara

John O’Donohue was an Irish Catholic priest who renounced his priesthood just two days prior to his unexpected death while he slept in January 2008. He was a multi-lingual writer who could speak and write in Celtic, English and German languages and no doubt make himself understood in several others. His doctoral thesis, written in German, was based on the philosophy of Hegel. 

Anam Cara is the Celtic term for “soul friend” and his book of the same name has become a popular spiritual text for many people around the world.  The books consists of reflections by the author on various significant Celtic themes including the mystery of friendship, a spirituality of the senses, the luminous nature of solitude, the value of work as a “poetics of growth”, the spirituality of ageing, and reflections on death as well as life after death. 

O’Donohue includes a number of blessings in this text including some ancient Celtic blessings as well as a number of blessings of a Celtic character but written by himself. In addition to insights from Celtic spirituality O’Donohue also references quotations from a vast number of ancient and recent philosophers, musicians,  poets, artists and writers too numerous to mention. They vary from Heidegger and James Joyce to Pablo Neruda, Kathlene Raine, Rodin, R S Thomas, Haydn, Nietzsche, Yeats, Paul Murray and many others.

There is much that is thought provoking in this work. It is not a book to be read in a day or two but rather a set of thoughts to be contemplated, thought through, discussed with others, and then read again.  A number of discussion and spiritual growth groups have been created around the world with Anam Cara as the basic starting point. O’Donohue’s reflections on what happens after we die are very forthright and quite precise and leave the reader wondering “how does John O’Donohue know this?”

I had a mixed reaction to this book.  I have read a several reflections on Celtic spirituality including Esther de Waal’s Selections from the Carmina Gadelica and Ray Simpson’s Celtic Daily LIght: A Spiritual Journey through the Year,  which was a compilation of Celtic reflections on Scripture. I suppose I came to Anam Cara thinking it would be a similar experience. John O’Donohue’s writing is quite different. Although he references many Gaelic ideas and traditions his reach is far wider and as noted above he references a very broad range of theological, philosophical and spiritual ideas. Many of these are helpful, some are provocative and others are an excellent basis for meditation. This is a book to inspire but also to challenge and I suspect in some places, to disagree with. 4 stars.