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 god.
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.
End 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
Here’s what 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.
A man’s 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.
Sexual 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 families.
Obviously, 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.
Now, Trueman 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
Now, the 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).
Of course, 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.
But the 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.
The 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.
Then there 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 influence.
Since 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.
Feminism 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.”
Though, as 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.
This, I 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 perceive it.
Where Trueman goes wrong
Again, I 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.
For one 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 .)
Trueman also 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 and tolerant.
The reality 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.)
Trueman is 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.
Similarly, 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.