John Anderson and Carl Trueman

John Anderson Interview: Modern People Are Sad Because We Have Idolised Happiness

30 August 2021

4.2 MINS

In a fascinating conversation, John Anderson interviews professor and author Carl Trueman about the ‘modern self’ and how we can reclaim contentment from the jaws of modern despair.

Perhaps there is no greater irony in the modern world: the more we have prioritised our happiness, the less content and the more mentally out-of-sorts we seem to have become. This is one of the curious insights discussed in a recent interview between Former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, and one of today’s great minds on the modern self, Carl Trueman.

During their discussion, the pair echoed a truth that Jesus Himself spoke long ago:

“If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it.
But if you give up your life for My sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it.”
~ Mark 8:35

Modern SelfCarl Trueman is a professor and the author of a brilliant new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. This book is the subject of his must-watch interview on John Anderson’s Conversations — a series in which the former National Party leader speaks with the some of the world’s greatest minds about today’s pressing social, cultural and political issues.

Parallels between the Reformation and today

Anderson begins their conversation by noting some of the fascinating — if bizarre — parallels between our world today and that of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Today we see statues being toppled and an increasing intolerance for ideas that do not fit mainstream thinking, both of which are an eerie reflection of what took place five centuries ago.

Another parallel highlighted by Trueman is the revolution in information technology experienced in both eras. In the 16th century it was the printing press; today it is the internet and social media. During the Reformation, the printing press dramatically redefined social relations; how power is understood and distributed in society. So much of the flux and social unrest we are experiencing today, he remarks, was also seen 500 years ago.


The abolition of the private sphere

Anderson and Trueman agree that the main difference between that time and ours is that our technological revolution is so much more widespread and far reaching than anything seen in the past.

Not only has it allowed for the multiplication of voices, Anderson notes, it has also paved the way for invasive monitoring of people’s individual lives. Governments now have a terrifying capacity to monitor and control people in a way that no authoritarian government in the past has ever dreamed of.

An ‘annihilation of the private sphere’ is the phrase Trueman uses to describe this. He suggests that Western society has always been predicated on the separation of the public and private spheres. While the boundaries between these two have often been permeable, by and large we have been able to keep them separate.

Now, however, we’re in a position where someone can lose their job for saying the wrong thing on Facebook. Trueman describes this as frightful, unprecedented territory.

The modern self and the idol of happiness

The ‘modern self’ is a term Carl Trueman uses in the title of his book, and it may strike people as a rather odd sounding idea. Trueman clarifies that the idea of ‘self’ has always been around: it is the notion that every person has a sphere of self-consciousness that draws a clear line of separation between them and another person.

But in his book, he is using a more technical definition of the word ‘self’. He is asking what it is that makes modern people tick; what makes us feel that life is worthwhile; where we go to ground our identity; how we understand happiness.

Trueman makes a contrast between himself and his grandfather, who was a sheet metal worker in the industrial heartland of England in the 1930s-50s. If someone had asked Trueman’s grandfather whether he had ‘job satisfaction’, the likely answer would have been sure — I get paid a fair day’s wage for an honest day’s work, which enables me to put food on the table and clothes on my children, and that gives me satisfaction.

If the same answer was directed to Trueman himself, he explains, the answer would be quite different. He would say he gets a real buzz out of educating a classroom of young students. He experiences a feeling; an intrinsic psychological satisfaction in his work that has little to do with his commitments and duties to other people.

The difference between him and his grandfather, Trueman explains, is the difference between the ‘modern self’ and that which came before it. The modern self is a highly psychologised self that has come to regard personal happiness as a feeling of contentment and wellbeing.

In response, Anderson highlighted that the modern self does not just demand the right to pursue happiness — we assume a right to be happy. Moreover, if we are not happy, we tend to reason that someone other than me is likely to blame for it, and that anyone hurting my feelings is posing a hindrance to my happiness.

Victimhood, transgenderism, cancel culture and more

From here, a fascinating conversation ensues in which Anderson and Trueman explore themes like victimhood, transgenderism, cancel culture and personal discipline. If you want to expand your mind on why unhappiness is so widespread today — and how we might turn the tide on this epidemic — you must watch the interview in full.

Use the index below to explore the various themes that arise in their conversation. And for further reading, consult our review of Carl Trueman’s book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.

  • 00:00 Intro
  • 00:16 Introducing Professor Carl Trueman
  • 1:00 How does history give us a unique understanding of where we currently are as a society?
  • 3:41 How do today’s trends have similarities to the Reformation?
  • 6:42 Abolition of the private sphere in the technological revolution
  • 8:38 What is the modern self?
  • 11:08 The morality of capitalism and the right to be happy
  • 12:43 The old and new atheism
  • 14:36 The danger of great ideas and fascism
  • 16:35 What is anticulture?
  • 25:00 Social Darwinism
  • 26:18 Cultural Marxism and the sexual revolution
  • 30:42 How is modern society Freudian?
  • 33:29 Gratification and discipline in the modern age
  • 35:42 Victimhood and the modern dissatisfaction phenomenon
  • 37:16 The transgenderism movement and authoritarianism
  • 41:21 The ideological affirmation model
  • 47:00 Freedom of speech is under attack
  • 52:50 Cancel culture led by the elites
  • 54:20 What can we do as individuals amid a divided society?
  • 58:50 How can Christianity shed light on our culture for a return to decent humanity?
  • 1:03:30 Are things going well for progressives?
[Photos: Stephen Hicks; Pulpit & Pen]

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One Comment

  1. Phil 3 September 2021 at 10:42 pm - Reply

    I liked reading your article,

    Thanks very much Brother : )

    Bless you.

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