The Magazine

To See Ourselves

'The willful, or sovereign, self is ... the cause of our troubles.'

Jun 16, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 38 • By MARK BLITZ
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God, State, and Self

by Jean Bethke Elshtain

Basic Books, 480 pp., $35

Scholars--"we scholars," as Nietzsche mockingly calls us and himself--often trace today's personal and political excesses to the triumph of the self over the soul.

While we once thought our humanity to be distinguished by souls with common powers of reason, love, and spiritedness, we now claim instead to be defined by unique selves. The masterful expression of each special one replaces the soul's love of common intellectual and ethical perfection. Politically, Nazi and Stalinist willfulness and tyranny attempt to destroy communities guided by justice and the common good.

We often trace the intellectual beginning of this personal and political willfulness to Rousseau near the end of the 18th century, and its first culmination to Nietzsche at the end of the 19th. The effect is to tie together views which claim that will, not reason, does (or should) dominate us; that goods we naively believe to be natural are, in fact, values relative to time, place, and person; and that politics is primarily a matter of history's stages and direction, and the clash of ethnicities and identities.

Jean Bethke Elshtain's view in her fine new book is that the willful, or sovereign, self is indeed the cause of our troubles, but that we must follow its origin to an earlier beginning. That beginning is not opinions about political or personal domination, but Christian views about God.

Medieval controversies about divine sovereignty are the chief source of later arguments and positions: "As sovereign state is to sovereign God, so sovereign selves are to sovereign states." Political sovereignty names "self determination for a territorial, collective entity," and "it is altogether unsurprising that the logic of sovereignty came unbound and migrated, becoming attached more and more to notions of the self."

Professor Elshtain follows her theme from St. Augustine through medieval nominalists such as Ockham, and from thence to, among others, Luther, Calvin, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Hawthorne, Hegel, Nietzsche, Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir. She concludes with contemporary themes. Indeed, she advises those "more concerned with contemporary cultural criticism" than with the "history of political and theological thought" to begin with her final chapters.

She is not telling us literally to read backwards from the last word to the first, of course, for probing medieval mysticism or coyly announcing a breakthrough in esoteric reading is not her intention or style. (Were she to announce a mystical breakthrough, she would do so, I fear, by referring to the hidden message in some Beatles record played counterclockwise. She too often employs today's irritating device of interrupting serious discussions with unilluminating references to popular culture. We scholars should not pretend that our need to awaken somnolent students with a bracing jolt of their own vulgarity is a virtue to be displayed publicly.)

Although I would not advise THE WEEKLY STANDARD's harried cultural critics to read the last chapters first, it is useful for those unfamiliar with the author to know how her book comes out politically in the end. As Elshtain has throughout her career, she defends sensible, moderate practices. Here, she seeks to buttress her views by reestablishing political thought in a theological framework so that the better elements of that framework can modify, and to a degree guide, our liberal polity. She is no friend of radical feminism, genetic manipulation, and easy abortion. She traces these problems to the victory of hard and soft versions of the sovereign self. She would like to recapture or revivify selves who are enmeshed in the virtues of our everyday dependencies, but still aware of their own dignity.

What we find in Augustine is certain universal claims about human dignity and value--we are all God's children--but this recognition can only be specified and realized concretely, in and through speech and fellowship and loving and serving one another.

"Above all," she writes, "we are created to love and be loved."

Intellectually, the best parts of Sovereignty are Elshtain's accounts of figures she has studied carefully and also admires. Her discussions of Augustine and Luther are sympathetic and thoughtful, free of condescension or unwarranted veneration. Her remarks on Hawthorne, Bonhoeffer, and Camus are illuminating. She also has interesting things to say about Nietzsche and Hobbes, whom she considers with an open mind, if not with pleasure.