One of the most obvious aspects of modern public life is the central role that sex plays within it.
The most private and intimate act has become the defining characteristic and primary category of our identity. There was a time when sex was regarded as something human beings did; now it is to be understood as who human beings are.
Trueman traces this path from Marx to Nietzsche and Wilde. A brief comment on these is necessary. For Nietzsche, modern morality turned appropriate morality on its head. What is appropriate morality? Strength is good; weakness is bad. Just the opposite of the Christian message, no doubt – a message designed such that the weak can demonize and manipulate the strong, according to Nietzsche.
Dwell on that for a moment. In the bastardized form that many Christians practice today, we see that Nietzsche was right in a sense – the weak (more accurately, those on the fringes of society) use Christian morals to demonize those who hold to Christian morals, and many Christians have allowed themselves to be so demonized. But, of course, the Christian message doesn’t end there (and for this, an understanding of natural law ethics is necessary).
Returning to Nietzsche, the moral codes that hinder strong individuals must be shattered. But he did not pursue this via a return to natural law or to seeing God at the top of the hierarchy; instead, he gave us the superman: “a free spirit who transcended the spirit of his own age.”
Which brings Trueman to Oscar Wilde. Wilde is described as the quintessential figure of modernity because the self-expressive individual that Nietzsche envisaged finds it most obvious manifestation in the shattering of traditional sexual moral codes.
Jacques Barzun addressed Wilde’s influence in his book From Dawn to Decadence. He comments on Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest. This is not because Earnest has the moral qualities praised by the Victorians, but because a young woman he loves fancies the name.
“I live constantly in fear of not being misunderstood,” says Wilde, meaning: the public should be baffled by new art, not reduce it to something it already understands.
In other words, not earnest, as in a character trait, but Earnest as the formal form of Ernie. Barzun concludes that the sexual revolution took place, not in the 1960s, but in the 1890s – during Wilde’s time. Returning to Trueman, and his comments on Wilde: ethics is just a matter of taste. Citing Wilde: “All imitation in morals and life is wrong.”
…actions cease to have intrinsic moral value; what makes them “moral” rather is the freedom with which they are performed.
In this one can see the libertine libertarians: having the freedom to perform any act as long as the non-aggression principle is respected. That’s fine for figuring out criminal trespasses. As we have come to see the fruits of the success of those like Marx, Nietzsche and Wilde, it isn’t fine if one wishes to live in a free society.
This has come down in our time to the central public role that sex plays in self-identity. As imitation in morals is wrong, the alphabet soup of identity markers is a sign of “right.” No one should imitate anyone else, so everyone is entitled to (in fact, almost required to take) a new marker.
Happiness is no longer understood as beatitudo, or fulfilment through other-regarding action. At best, one is left to define happiness as avoiding pain and experiencing pleasure. Well…what is the strongest feeling of pleasure? Freud answers the question (but I bet you know the answer already): sex. “…[man] should make genital eroticism the central point in his life.”
Virginity, chastity, modesty, and even monogamy – all out the window. Human flourishing is almost synonymous with sexual fulfillment. “Primitive man was better off in knowing no restrictions of instinct,” Freud would write. Such as these, apparently, are to be considered the most virtuous among us.
Relying on instinct, of course, is to devolve man to the level of the basest and least-developed of animals. Frankly, it is even degrading to animals.
All of this has led to sex becoming political. How could it not? If we are at root defined by our sexual desires, then rules governing sexual behavior are rules that determine what is or isn’t our proper identity.
This brings Trueman to an individual new to me: William Reich, introduced as the person in whom Marx meets Freud. Reich writes:
The free society will provide ample room and security for the gratification of natural needs. …any adult who hinders the development of a child’s sexuality should be severely dealt with.
In other words, only affirming counseling is allowed; so-called (and poorly labeled) “conversion” therapy is disallowed and even illegal. Further, neither the family or the Church can be trusted in such matters. Therefore, it is society (the political) that must take the lead role – and this starts in elementary school and even before.
Reich wrote in the 1930s. Augusto Del Noce would write in the 1970s:
It is clear that what is called the left today fights less and less in terms of class warfare, and more and more in terms of “warfare against repression,” claiming that the struggle for economic progress of the disadvantages is included in this more general struggle, as if the two were inseparable.
This turn isn’t new. Many view it as having its roots in the 1960s, with Barzun offering that it occurred even seventy years before this. Del Noce certainly saw the focus of the left changing fifty years ago.
Mere tolerance is no longer acceptable. Recognition, affirmation, support, and even encouragement. This is the current standard. Anything less is psychological oppression.
I leave the conclusion to Trueman:
We can now see that once identity is psychologized, anything that is seen to have a negative impact upon someone’s psychological identity can potentially come to be seen as harmful, even as a weapon, that does serious damage. This includes those words and ideas that stand over against those identities that society chooses to sanction. This has clear implications for traditional freedoms: religion and speech.