Finding Oneself on the Map: A Review of Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

Carl Trueman’s newly-published masterpiece The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self opens with an examination of the thoroughly modern statement sometimes heard, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body”. Dr. Trueman observes that this statement would have called forth laughter from his late grandfather as “a piece of incoherent gibberish”, and yet now “to deny or question it in some way is to reveal oneself as stupid, immoral, or subject to yet another irrational phobia”.   Not unnaturally, a thinking man like Dr. Trueman would like to know how such a radical cultural transition occurred in such a short period of time. Or, to state the matter otherwise, how is it that we fell asleep in a garden on the outskirts of Christendom and woke up inside a lunatic asylum in a gulag?—especially one where the inmates seem to be running the place. (Dr. Trueman, being a scholar, of course refrains from expressing himself so provocatively. Bloggers have privileges denied to scholars who write books.)

To answer the question fully one needs more space than that provided by a blog. And Dr. Trueman’s book indeed occupies more space, coming in at just over 400 pages, if one doesn’t count the impressive index after it or the fascinating forward by his friend Rod Dreher at the beginning. Such space is needed to accomplish his difficult and worthy goal, which is nothing less than understanding the deep roots of our modern culture (or our modern predicament) and the rise of the modern concept of self. Bluntly put, getting this crazy took some doing, and was the result of many converging movements and revolutions. Carl Trueman’s book tracks and analyzes these movements and revolutions.

In doing so, it takes the reader on quite a ride. It looks in turn at Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre, then at Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin; then at Sigmund Freud; then at…well, you get the idea. Trueman has a talent for taking complicated ideas and explaining them in terms that any attentive reader can understand. Attentive reading is required though, given the complexity of the issues and the tangle of inter-connected ideas. But for those who take the trouble to read, each page makes a light go on. In a world as dark as ours and in such desperate need of illumination, this is no small gift.

The question is: why should anyone not a philosopher teaching students at a university care about any of this? In a word, because we are all lost in the culture in which we find ourselves, and that culture is in trouble. And as anyone who has gotten lost in a strange place knows, the first thing one does to get “unlost” is to pull out a map and figure out where they are and how they got there. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is just such a map.

The book’s concluding chapter is entitled, Concluding Unscientific Prologue, and by this title Dr. Trueman tells us that the questions, issues, and challenges examined in the book are going to be with us for the foreseeable future. They are, in fact, the new world in which we must live, move, and have our being—i.e. the world in which we must raise our children, interact with our neighbours, and (if Christians) carry out the work of the Church. We will not be able to do any of this properly if we don’t understand where we are. There is nothing for it: we must find out where we are on the map if we are to navigate properly, find our way back, and reach our desired destination. Carl Trueman’s book is a perfect place to start.



  1. It always such a gift when I receive alerts for your blog posts. Your posts are always succinct and to the point. The thoughtful reflections on our postmodernist quandary within an Orthodox framing is so helpful and dare I say, comforting to think I’m not alone in my own desire to understand what on earth is happening all around us. I appreciate your writings so much. Thank you.

  2. Thank you Father, for pointing out a map for us, I would have liked a bit more from you, but I guess I have to buy the book now. Yes, the feeling of living in an asylum where the lunatics rules sounds about right. How quickly Truth has been rejected for anything goes. As a woman, I find redefine what a woman is, the most offensive of the lot. Because, a man who claims to be a woman is a liar and a thief. A liar because he IS a man, a thief because he is trying to steal the birth right of every woman and girl. If a woman wants to be a man, that is another thing, because she only hurts herself, the rest of us females are not affected by that. God is Truth, why He allows this to happen only He knows. Bless you and your work.

    1. Given the density of the material that Carl covers in his magisterial work, my attempts to sum up could not do it justice. As you well said, to really appreciate his point one needs to read the book.

  3. Father, I would say that the change has not come about as suddenly as one might think. The problem lies in the denigration and abandonment of natural order and hierarchy. All of the intellectual and spiritual ground work that went into DesCartes’ massively false “I think, therefore, I am” is the beginning. Indeed, the trajectory lies in the rejection of God from the very beginning….
    The Tree of Knowledge. Somehow we think we can define our own being rather than allowing God to reveal it to us in love and safety.

    The fact that Trueman”s grandfather would have laughed at such an idea merely means the seed was already deeply rooted. Laughter of that type is produced by what can be called “the shock of recognition” . It is the beginning of acceptance, not the rejection it appears.

    Modernity is always the work of our unsubmitted intellect. Human imagination run rampant.

    It just seems sudden, but it began when Adam and Eve recognized they were naked and felt shame.

    Transsexuality just is one more effort to overcome the shame without repentance.

    1. Carl’s point (and mine) is that the cultural change which indeed came about suddenly had deep roots and was being prepared for since the time of the Enlightenment.

  4. If I may? A very good book called The Idea of Prehistory by Glyn Daniel will take you through the philosophical views of what happened in the Past which have shaped world views. The German views on race and a folk for instance were formed in the 19th century with writings on prehistory of a putative German Race . However the German Race of Late Antiquity has been found to be illusory upon investigation. This myth of German race and homeland was pre 19th century ,too. Many other wrong turns are also documented, such as Druids, for instance.
    The book can be found in an online edition
    It is very well written by a distinguished archaeologist of Cambridge University in England in 1962

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *