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The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

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The church today is moving to the margins of society. Society increasingly regards her beliefs as buffoonish and her ethical norms as immoral. And the requirements of loyal citizenship are beginning to be antithetical to the requirements of Christian witness.


Historians are the great relativizers of the present. When someone declares that the times in which we live are unprecedented, the task of the historian is to offer a sanctimonious response, by pointing out that, in actual fact, this or that event, action, idea, or pattern of behavior was previously evident in 13th-century Florence or Periclean Athens, or during the time of the Tang Dynasty in China. And such relativizing is often true and always a helpful corrective to the temptation to idolize or catastrophize our present age.

Yet for all of the continuities and precedents that likely exist in the past for the way we live in the present, it’s arguable that the times in which we live today do exhibit a number of pathologies whose coincidence is unprecedented. This doesn’t necessarily mean the church’s response needs to be as novel as the times, as I will argue below; but it does mean that we need to reflect on the implications of our times, lest we panic overmuch or rest too much on our laurels.

The unprecedented coincidence of our times is that of the plastic, psychological notion of the self and the liquidity, or instability, of our traditional institutions.

Plastic, Psychological Self

The most compelling illusion—in the Freudian sense—of our day is that we can all be whatever we want to be. And our institutions are increasingly volatile and ephemeral such that it would be a brave person indeed who bet money on what they might look like five, let alone 50, years from now.

Taken separately, these phenomena would be significant enough. That they coincide and are interconnected means that both our societies and also our own sense of identity are in a state of flux, generating a kind of vertigo that leaves us disoriented and often adrift.

The symptoms of this malaise are all around us. It is surely odd that there is apparently more anxiety today than, say, 50 or 100 years ago. We enjoy considerable material comforts today, not least of which is the most technologically advanced health care to which any generation has ever had access. Unlike my father, my earliest memories do not involve running to the bomb shelter to avoid being killed by a Luftwaffe raid. Life is—outwardly at least—much better.

Yet more college students today use counseling services than ever before. The news sites frequently carry tragic stories of teenage suicides. And everywhere the anger and outrage that characterizes online life and the public square points to an era ill at ease with itself. And my hunch is that at the core of this present age of angst is the coincidence of the psychological self and the liquefaction of traditional institutions.

The psychological self—the notion that we are who we feel we are and that the purpose of life is inward, psychological contentment or satisfaction—renders identity a highly plastic, malleable thing, detached from any authority greater than personal conviction.

Contemporary Politics of Sexual Identity

Transgenderism as an ideology is only the most recent and most extreme form of this to grip the political imagination. That we are now to teach our children that not even their bodies are any authoritative guide to who they are is a dramatic and disturbing development, placing immense responsibility on them—god-like responsibility, one might say—without offering any guide as to how they might respond. Yet for all the novelty of transgenderism, it is but a symptom of the psychological self that has deep and longstanding roots in the Western intellectual tradition.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) is a key source, with his provocative notion that human learning—the “arts and sciences” of his First Discourse—is actually that which corrupts us and hinders us being truly ourselves. Uncultured instincts and feelings are really who we are; civilization merely hinders, twists, and perverts these, making us conform to its demands and rendering us inauthentic.

Rousseau had a somewhat cheerful view of human beings in their natural, uncultured state. Not so his near contemporary, the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814), who agreed with Rousseau that culture prevents us from being ourselves, but regarded the natural human being as a seething mass of dark and destructive desires. This Sadean appropriation of and reaction to Rousseau found influential expression in the plausible idiom of science in the hands of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Then, to abbreviate the story somewhat, the marriage between aspects of Marxist theory and Freudian anthropology in the work of men such as Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) and (even more so) Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957). The self was psychologized, psychology was then sexualized, and finally sex was politicized. The stage was set for the contemporary politics of sexual identity.

Of course, few people read Reich and Marcuse, let alone Rousseau and de Sade. But the idea that happiness is personal psychological satisfaction—“self-fulfillment”—is the staple of sitcoms, soap operas, movies, and even commercials. And this narrative, this illusion, has powerful implications. When the goal of human existence is personal psychological satisfaction, then all moral codes are merely instrumental, and therefore continually revisable, to this subjective, psychological end.

That society seems to have decided that a—perhaps the—major way to achieve this is sex means that any attempt to enforce a code of sexual behavior is an assault on the individual, a means whereby individuals are forced to be inauthentic and, indeed, unhappy. And anyone who therefore tries to enforce sexual codes is oppressive or a “hater,” to use the cheap and lazy means of delegitimizing any critic of the moral mess that is late modernity.

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