I’m still reading through Carl Trueman’s Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. I took a break to read How to Cook a Wolf, took a break to travel a bit, and more breaks are still to come. This is a good thing, because Rise and Triumph offers its reader so much information, that taking the occasional break to process it all is helpful as you move through it. I started out reading with a very targeted plan to read it relatively quickly since I am reading along with a friend. I wanted to keep up with her, but she is also taking breaks to properly process everything that Trueman is offering.
The first post in this series was about the ways in which emotivism has ushered the west into a third world culture. In this post, we’ll explore how the philosophy and writing of Jean-Jacque Rousseau have contributed to this development. Despite a passing knowledge of the name Jean Jacque Rousseau, and a cursory knowledge of the drivel he espoused, I was wholly unaware of how much his philosophies have influenced and shaped the modern age. Before we dive deeper into Carl Tureman’s description of Rousseau’s impact, consider this quote from The Circe Institute’s 2010 article, Rousseau’s Maddening Legacy:
Few men have exerted the far-reaching influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
In the eighteenth century, a time when the influence of writers dominated, Rousseau was most influential. From educational and parenting theory and moral relativism to the political theories of Marx, the rise of totalitarianism, and revolutions from France to Russia, almost every ill of the modern age can trace its philosophical and spiritual roots to the writings and life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. How’s that for a legacy?
The article then gives a brief history of how Rousseau’s writings rose to prominence as one of the most impactful legacies of the 18th century Enlightenment:
Born in Geneva, Rousseau’s early life was characterized by abandonment, sexual perversity, exhibitionism, self-pity, and an insatiable vanity. He was desperate for fame and believed himself set apart from other men. He moved to Paris and associated with such Enlightenment powerhouses as Voltaire and Diderot. After many false starts, Rousseau’s chance for notoriety finally arrived in 1749 when, at the age of 37, he learned of a contest sponsored by the Academy of Dijon. The Academy would award a prize for the best essay on this topic: “Has the restoration of the sciences and arts contributed to corrupt or to purify the morals?” Consider the year 1749. This is the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason. The Academy chose a topic to allow writers to glory in the great advancement in civilization since man threw off the shackles of religion and embraced unaided Reason. This was an opportunity for self-congratulatory prose. So Rousseau, a master self-promoter, decided to argue the opposite so as to stand out.
He attempted to demonstrate “that man is by nature good, and that only our institutions have made him bad!”
Rousseau won first prize and achieved overnight fame. In one essay, Rousseau destroyed 2,500 years of classical and Christian thought about the nature of man, and the world is still suffering. The implications of the rejection of original sin are vast.
It is this legacy, and the resultant rise of the individual expressive as supreme over the individual belonging (to something greater than himself), that planted the seeds of the tree which we now see bearing toxic fruit. Like Eve in the garden, we all took a bite, and most swallowed, but fewer and fewer of us seem willing to take the antidote to heal us from the poison. In Rise and Triumph, we are offered the compelling reasons why western culture so readily embraced this Rousseauan vision of humanity; one in which a person’s dignity and value is completely disconnected from anything outside himself. His psychological beliefs about himself are all that matter:
Rousseau regards individuals as having an integrity and a value that derives from their inward self-consciousness and not from the society in which they exist (such a society being, by definition, something that is liable to make the individual inauthentic), so all individuals have a value in themselves and not derived from their intrinsic position in a social hierarchy. As with expressive individualism, this egalitarian impulse we note here in Rousseau will prove a critical precondition for the rise of modern identity movements and their contemporary political manifestations… Rise and Triumph, pages 126-127
Because most of you reading this are thoroughly western and steeped in postmodern, egalitarian philosophy, that probably doesn’t sound nearly as bad to you as it should. Take comfort. I had to deconstruct the problems with it in my own mind and heart as well. Rather than get bogged down in a political discussion of LGBTQ rights (although our current acceptance the idea of a man trapped in a woman’s body is the best example of Rousseauan “logic”), here is a less charged example:
I’m a wife with five children, two of which my husband and I are still legally and morally responsible for. This morning, I got up at 4:55 and by 5:15 was involved in morning devotions with my family. When we finished, I spent 45 minutes walking for my health. Arriving back home, I immediately began the work of helping my husband prepare to tackle his 10-hour workday (probably closer to 12 hours). I ironed his clothes, cooked his breakfast, and cleared up the kitchen. When the kids awoke for the second time, I sat and talked with them for half an hour before taking the time to sift through the morning’s headlines, read emails, and played Wordle.
When I finish this post, it’s off to buy groceries and run errands related to our household. I also have a few things to do related to work I will be embarking on in August as well as some things for my husband’s work. Then I must begin working on dinner. My weekdays usually looks like some variation of this routine.
Do any of these things make me a good person? Of course not. Do they make me a good wife and mother? I don’t feel comfortable saying that, but I would wager that if you asked my husband or kids, they would answer in the affirmative, and I find an immense amount of personal value in that assessment. Do they make me a better wife and mother than another wife and mother? Not at all, because the worth of another family’s wife and mother has to be measured by that particular family and its particular needs.
However, regardless of the family, suppose I woke up and did something else. Suppose I woke up, flipped on the television, grabbed my phone to scroll Facebook and Instagram, while leaving my kids and husband to fend for themselves all morning before rising at noon to spend all day solely engaged in the personal pursuit of pleasure. Does that make me a bad wife and mother? Again, that mostly depends on the needs and assessed value of the particular family in question. In my family, the answer is a resounding yes. The occasional slacker day is not a big deal, but it can’t be the norm.
In Rousseau’s economy however, both examples may be equally good and right so long as the woman in question feels that what she is doing is good and right. In fact, anytime I get up and run that morning gauntlet while not feeling like it, Rousseau’s philosophy would characterize me as oppressed, forced into an inauthentic life due to societal and familial pressure. The fact that I find worth in the fact that my family finds it valuable makes it even worse.
Now…does that philosophy sound familiar, and can you see the problem with it?
This is what Carl Trueman is brilliantly illustrating in chapter 3 of Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.
The first post in this series can be read here.