Intellectual Roots of the Sexual Revolution

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* Book: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution. By Carl Trueman.



by Mark Regnerus:

"Carl Trueman sets out to identify the intellectual architects of our Strange New World. As the subtitle indicates, the book is a story of How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution—how the road to our current world of sexual confusion and identity politics was paved by philosophers, psychologists, and polemicists. As a social scientist, I consider it critically necessary to understand why regular people believe and act as they do. This book helps.

A professor of Biblical and religious studies at Grove City College, Trueman has become something of a niche celebrity. He rose to prominence when the journalist Rod Dreher encouraged him to write what developed into The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (2020). Dreher attained his own devoted following after calling upon traditional Christians to get serious about surviving in a post-Christian West in The Benedict Option (2017). He recognized Trueman’s rare ability to convey, in intellectually rigorous yet compelling prose, how and why modern society was contorted into its present form. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self was a tour de force and a popular success. It helped many readers to articulate what they sensed but could not explain: that our present decadence is not a natural development of Western thought, but a perversion whose history can be traced. It is the kind of book that young conservatives, especially religious ones, pass around in excitement to their friends—here at last is someone who can put into words what they have been discussing and suspecting for years. To help broaden that reach, Ryan Anderson, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, encouraged Trueman to create a shorter and more accessible version. The result is Strange New World.

Trueman’s focus is on the intellectual roots of the sexual revolution. He traces a map of ideas from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Romantics, through Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud, up to Freud’s Marxist disciple Wilhelm Reich. Freud envisioned the human person as a tangle of inchoate and inarticulate longings to be shaped and sublimated into a socially adjusted citizen. But Marx understood bourgeois society itself as an arbitrary and historically contingent exercise of power, rather than a reflection of immutable human nature. Nietzsche compounded this perception by portraying traditional values as sterile and hypocritical. These disparate lines of thought, fusing and transforming in the hands of later inheritors, combined to create a widespread conviction that “inner feelings,” in particular sexual ones, form the core of the authentic self. And so, writes Trueman, “sexual desire has emerged in the last one hundred years as a primary category for understanding our identity.” Sexuality and sexual identity now have unprecedented personal and political authority.

Drawing on the work of more than a few sociologists—starting with the classic account of expressive individualism in Habits of the Heart (1985) by Robert Bellah and his coauthors—Trueman describes in detail how the assertions and behaviors of elites make their way down to the common person. His intellectual history comprises not just a series of abstractions bandied about in ivory towers, but an explanation of how the masses came to think and act as they do today. "