The individual, when isolated, is not
self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in
relation to the whole. But he who
is unable to live in society, or who has no need because
he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a
Aristotle, Politics, Book I
At The American Conservative, Rod Dreher Trueman argues that the collapse of traditional
sexual morality cannot be understood except as a consequence of a radically
individualist conception of the self that has been working its way ever deeper into
every nook and cranny of the Western mind through the course of the modern age
– including the minds of many so-called conservatives. Yet too few defenders of traditional sexual
morality realize this. Trueman says: about his new book .
We assume that the sexual revolution
was – is – about expanding the canon of acceptable sexual behavior. It is not.
It is actually about a fundamental shift in how we understand our
humanity. Sex is now understood as
central to identity, not simply an activity.
Unless we grasp that, we will see neither the depth of the problem we
face nor be able to engage meaningfully with those who are the revolution’s
victims… Our sexual ethics are directly related to
our understanding of what it means to be a human person.
quote. I haven’t yet read Trueman’s
book, so I don’t know how he develops this point. But the point itself is absolutely correct. What follows is one way to elaborate upon it.
Actually, sex is identity
everyone used to know about human nature.
It will sound like standard natural law boilerplate, but that’s because
natural law systematizes and explains what once was common sense (and still is
until people are indoctrinated out of it).
Man is by
nature a social animal, and sex is the fundamental way in which we are social
animals. For a human being is never just
“a person.” A human being is always
either a man or a woman.
And men and women, like everything else in nature, each have a teleology – a purpose to which their
nature directs them, the realization of which is necessary for their
flourishing. The purpose of a man is to
be a father and husband, and the
purpose of a woman is to be a mother and
wife, with all that these roles entail.
Among other things, they entail having lots of children, and committing
yourself for life to the family unit that results. This unit is the cell from which larger
social units are built, and the health of those larger units depends on the
health of the cell, and thus on the commitment of men and women to fulfilling
their roles as fathers and mothers, husbands and wives.
life’s work – his vocation or calling – reflects this social nature, and has a
twofold purpose. First and foremost, its
point is to provide for his family; and secondly, it is to contribute to the
needs of the larger community of which his family is a part (for example, as a
butcher, a baker, a plumber, or whatever other role he is especially suited to). In these ways, a man exists for the sake of others, and he does so no less than (as feminists complain) a
wife and mother does on the traditional understanding of sex roles, even if the
precise nature of his other-directed calling is different.
desire pushes us out of ourselves, then, to bond with another human being, and
with that human being to create new human beings and stick together for life
for their sake and for each other’s sake.
And as families ally together to form larger social units, an entire
political and economic order arises, which reflects the nature and needs of these
various qualifications and complications would enter into a complete account,
but the point here is just to convey the general idea. Yet even the exceptions reflect the
rule. Yes, some men forsake marriage and
family for the priesthood. But the
priesthood is itself an essentially paternal
role, raised to a higher, spiritual level.
Yes, some women never marry or have children. But if this is for the sake of the religious
life, it is to become a “bride of Christ,” and thereby to take on a
spiritualized wifely role. Whereas if it is a result of happenstance, the
traditional attitude regarded such women as “old maids” – those who had, sadly,
been unable to fulfill their main calling as women.
All of this
is exactly what we should expect given basic biology. Biologically speaking, the only reason there
are two sexes in the first place is so that one of them will function as fathers
and the other as mothers. The paternal
model of masculinity and maternal model of femininity aren’t contingent or
arbitrary cultural accretions, but reflect the very point of there being men and women in the first place.
notes that for modern people, sex is “understood as central to identity, not
simply an activity.” But that much is not modern. That is precisely how people have always traditionally understood
sex. However, what it means to regard sex as central to
identity has radically changed.
Traditionally, the idea was that your identity as either a man or a
woman – with all that that entails regarding the sex role you should strive to
fulfill, regarding what counts as normal sexual desires, what counts as the
morally permissible use of your sexual faculties, and so on – is something that
nature has determined. If your desires happen not to line up with
nature’s purposes, the problem is with you and not with nature. Your identity is what nature says it is, not what you
say it is.
That is, of
course, the reverse of what modern people mean by understanding sex to be “central
to identity” – which is Trueman’s point.
Sex is central to our identity, but it isn’t nature that determines that sexual identity, it is rather we who determine it. For the traditional attitude, the aim is to
conform our desires to nature and the
will of its divine author. For the
moderns, the aim is to conform nature to
our desires, and the divine author has nothing to say about the matter, if
he exists at all.
We are all Hobbesians now
deep reason why the modern liberal individualist conception of human beings
rejects the traditional understanding of our natural teleology is that it
rejects all natural teleology. Its purest form is, perhaps, Hobbes’s account
of the state of nature. Hobbes held that
in our natural condition, there is no fact of the matter about what we ought to desire, no ends toward which
our nature directs us. There are simply whatever desires we happen
contingently to have, and none is better or worse than any other. That is why the state of nature as he
understands it is a condition of pure license that inevitably descends into a
war of all against all (and thus why he takes his Leviathan state to be
necessary to remedy this unhappy condition).
neither Hobbes nor the liberal tradition in general for most of the three
centuries after his time pushed anything like the radical sexual liberationist
agenda that has become so familiar in recent decades. That agenda is simply too contrary to human
nature for people to have taken it seriously for most of that time, or to try
to implement even if it had occurred to them.
In order for it to become a realistic project – psychologically,
politically, and practically speaking – the basic liberal individualist
assumptions and their implications needed a long time thoroughly to permeate
Western institutions, and the technological preconditions of making those
implications practicable (such as the birth control pill, labor-saving devices
that made it possible for women to work outside the home in large numbers,
etc.) also needed to be realized.
implications were indeed there from the beginning. If there is nothing in our nature that directs us to any particular ends – if there are
only whatever desires we happen
contingently to have, and no fact of the matter about what desires we ought to have – then there is no
particular identity that nature has
given any of us. Nature has not called
us to be fathers rather than womanizers, mothers rather than career women, heterosexual
rather than homosexual, etc. because nature doesn’t call us to be anything in particular. What we are is whatever we happen to want to
be. We are sovereign over ourselves,
subject to no demands other than those we choose
to be subject to.
implications are radically anti-social, at least as traditional morality and
the natural law theory that systematizes it understand what it is to be
“social.” For the sovereign individual
who is subject to no obligations he doesn’t consent to, that sex tends to
produce children is morally incidental to it.
There is no natural obligation
toward the children that result from one’s sexual activity, so that they might
even be aborted if one wishes. Nor is
there any natural obligation to provide for the woman with whom one has sexual
relations, so that she might be divorced, or never married in the first place,
if one wishes. In general, sexual and
romantic relationships need not conform to any particular model, but may be
fashioned and refashioned in whatever way sovereign individuals agree to. Sex is no longer about getting out of one’s self and seeking union with
others. It is about using others as one means
among many of gratifying the self.
is work. Work too, under the liberal
individualist dispensation, is no longer seen as having a natural teleology –
as a vocation by which one is meant
to serve others, namely one’s family and the larger society. That model has been replaced by the idea of
the “career,” understood as a matter of self-expression
and self-fulfillment – a way of
making one’s mark in the world, of gaining its attention and adulation. The degree to which one magnifies oneself by
way of his career – in terms of the wealth, power, fame, or influence one
attains – has become the new measure of success. Hence, whereas on the traditional model, one
succeeds as a man if he is able to provide for his family and contribute
something of value to his community – something of which the vast majority of
men are capable – on the liberal individualist “career” model of work, one has
achieved “success” to the extent that one has attained wealth, power, fame, or
relatively few men are able to attain much in the way of wealth, power, fame,
or influence, liberal individualist society is bound to create a kind of crisis
of masculinity. To fail to attain these
things is to be seen as a “loser.” Life
becomes a mad careerist scramble to be one of the relative few who avoid this
unhappy fate. Men are naturally competitive,
but whereas the older model of society moderated this competitiveness, the
liberal individualist model exacerbates it.
And since relatively few are able to fulfill the careerist criteria of
success, a sense of failure and aimlessness become the lot of an increasing
number of men.
took this ugly, careerist model of masculinity and told women that they should
aspire to it as well, and that into the bargain they should also ape the
selfish sexual habits of liberal individualist man. Thus has liberal individualism made of the
human being an androgynous, appetitive thing that lives like an animal but
worships itself like a god – thereby turning Aristotle’s “either-or”
description of the non-social creature into a “both-and.”
Trueman rightly says, it is really radical individualism rather than sexual
desire per se that is the deep source
of the sexual revolution and its ever more extreme manifestations, it is no
accident that liberal individualist modernity has become absolutely obsessed
with matters of sex, and with destroying all sexual boundaries and taboos. For it is in our sexuality that the reality
of natural teleology, and of our essentially social nature, are most striking
and obvious. Hence, for the sovereign
individual to maintain the pretense that there are no norms in nature to which
he is answerable nor obligations to others apart from those he consents to, he
has to blind himself especially to the teleology of sex.
submit, is the reason why liberals have become increasingly intolerant of any
defense of the traditional understanding of the meaning of sex. It is not because that understanding is
obviously false, but rather precisely because it is obviously true. It takes enormous
psychological effort to convince oneself otherwise, so that, as the claims of
sexual revolutionaries have gotten ever more extreme and preposterous, those
claims have also been increasingly defended with a pseudo-moralistic fanaticism
(in order to reinforce liberal self-confidence in the self-deception) and
shrill intimidation (in order to convince others to go along with it). And it helps that sexual depravity to perceive objective truth or to want to
Where Trueman goes wrong
haven’t yet read Trueman’s book, so I don’t know the extent to which he would
elaborate his thesis the way I have. I
also don’t know how he might defend or qualify some of the remarks in the
interview that seem to me mistaken.
thing, Trueman gives the impression that the shift to an individualist
conception of human nature began with Romanticism. As my remarks indicate, I think it goes back
long before that – and not merely back to Hobbes, but to the rise of the early
modern “mechanical world picture” that overthrew the teleological conception of
the natural world. Indeed, its deepest
roots go back further still, to rise of nominalism in the later Middle
Ages. (These are, of course, themes .)
thinks that “moralism,” “martial rhetoric,” and the like are mistaken ways for
Christians to approach the problem, and that they ought instead to focus on
presenting a positive alternative. Here,
it seems to me, Trueman himself has perhaps partially bought into the liberal
individualist narrative, just like some of the conservatives he rightly
criticizes. For the stereotype of the
Christian who is always going on about sex is itself part of that
narrative. It serves the rhetorical
function of painting opponents of the sexual revolution as obsessive prigs, by
contrast to whom proponents of sexual liberation can be made to seem levelheaded
is that, these days, the most prominent Christians and conservatives keep their
mouths shut about matters of sexual morality, precisely out of fear of being
accused of living up to the stereotype.
Indeed, even many who claim to agree with traditional sexual morality nevertheless
acquiesce to the conceit that sexual sins are relatively minor and that it
is better to talk about matters of social justice rather than sexual
morality. In fact, from the point of
view of natural law and Catholic moral theology, a sound sexual morality is the
very foundation of true social
justice, because the health of the family is the necessary precondition of the
larger social orders of which families are the cells. (As a priest friend of mine once put it, if
you want justice, work for chastity.)
of course right that modern people do not respond well to moral critiques of
their sexual habits and excessive individualism, but that is precisely part of
the problem, rather than something to cater to.
The prophets of the Old Testament didn’t think to themselves: “Hmm, the
rich don’t respond well to moralizing about their obligations to the poor. Better to try gently to persuade them by
developing a positive vision.” Nor
should they have, because to fail to label greed, callousness toward the needy,
and the idolatry of money for what they are is not some alternative way to
address the problem – it is simply to fail
to address the problem.
with millions of children murdered in the womb, millions more left fatherless
and consigned to poverty, millions of woman left unmarried and lonely after the
men who use them have moved on to marry someone younger, millions of men
addicted to pornography – to fail to put forward vigorous moral criticism of all this is simply to fail to tell the truth about it.
And to pander to the modern individualist self by refusing to level
moral rebuke is precisely to reinforce
it in its idolatrous self-regard rather than to help free it.
Idolatry is, indeed, the deep problem here – and idolatry of an especially diabolical kind. The pagan who worshipped Zeus or Odin at least
aimed his devotion at something higher than himself, even if not at the true
God. By contrast, the modern self
worships nothing nobler than the pathetic bundle of disordered desire it sees
in the mirror. It is like Lucifer, refusing
to submit to any external authority and wanting to put itself on the divine
throne. The last thing it needs or
deserves is pandering to its intense dislike of being criticized for the way it
exercises its “right to choose.”
To be fair
to Trueman, there are certainly unsubtle and shallow ways of moralizing about
these matters. But what is needed is a deeper and more intelligent moral
critique, not a non-moral one. Moreover,
even the spelling out of a positive vision is going to entail such a moral
critique by implication. For no matter
how pretty you paint the alternative picture, the individualist self is going
to regard it as at most one further option it may or may not choose, as it sees
fit. If the individualist self asks: “That’s
all very nice, but why must I choose
it?” there is no way to answer other than frankly to affirm that to fail to do
so is to remain lost in idolatrous self-regard and disordered desire.
It is also
only fair to Trueman to note that what I am responding to are some brief
comments in an interview, which perhaps do not fully convey his meaning. It may be that he would not disagree with anything
I’ve said here. I look forward to
reading his book and finding out.