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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts


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.

Elshtain understands her book to be intellectual history. She is following the journey of an idea--sovereignty or will--not examining it analytically. Consequently, she believes she more carefully embeds her discussions historically than do many other writers. Chronologies and authors, nonetheless, sometimes seem jumbled as she moves back and forth among different medieval thinkers. There is a bit too much talk of migrating thoughts and currents of ideas. One would like sequences to be discussed more precisely or, failing that, a clear analysis of why such precision is unavailable and why Hegel, the grandfather of the intellectual history she is practicing, is wrong.

One most of all misses in Elshtain's historical account a clear view of the meaning of Christianity for thinkers such as Machiavelli and Bacon. Her discussions of papal and kingly rule, pretensions to rule, and theories of rule are enlightening, but they give little sense of Christianity's overall effect on human spirit, freedom, and earthly satisfaction. She bypasses the inevitable tension between faith and the unbridled attempt to know, or between theology grounded in revelation and reason grounded in nature alone. She does not bring out the first modern thinkers' attempts to overcome what they understood to be Christianity's dehumanizing and stultifying impact. She discusses Machiavelli narrowly and Bacon not at all.

Elshtain's historical approach leads her to downplay conceptual issues. Although her theme is sovereignty, she does not say in detail just what sovereignty is. She never works out explicitly her subjects' many forms, causes, and connections. A clear analysis of the basic elements or possibilities of "will"--choice, desire, spirited pride--would have been useful conceptually. It also might have controlled her tendency to identify will with mere willfulness, and to make too great a split between will and reason. After all, both Aristotle and Kant, the two great secular teachers of ethics, understood virtue or morality through the connection, or even identity, of practical reason and choice--Aristotle's deliberate desire or Kant's rational will.

Elshtain's decision to begin with Augustine is refreshing, but it does leave one asking about the Greeks, whom she mostly ignores. One wonders just how the willful selves she examines differ from Plato's tyrants, medieval law from the classical discussion of law, and the nihilism she connects to notions of divine willfulness from Plato's discussion of sophistic negation.

Moreover, Elshtain concentrates so much on sovereignty's roots in notions of nihilistic willfulness that she forgets to say enough about the fear of punishment that gives the ruler's arbitrariness or his laws, even his rational laws, their teeth. The power of punishment is one effectual truth of sovereignty, and is especially central politically.

Sometimes she dissolves in the acidic sameness of self-sovereignty important intellectual and practical differences in the ways modern thinkers understand individuality. She overlooks, for example, important differences among Kant's moral will, Hegel's rational will, and Nietzsche's self-overcoming will.

These conceptual and historical issues lead to the book's most significant theoretical problem. Elshtain does not sufficiently plainly distinguish teachings of willful sovereignty from teachings of individual rights or, indeed, give a clear account of the origin and justification of individual rights. At times she praises what sovereignty has accomplished, but on no clear grounds.

Individual natural rights and dominant individual wills are not the same. Liberalism is not nihilism, and the man who holds rights equal to others is not the willful Nietzschean or existential self, let alone a would-be god. John Locke, for example, connects individual rights to will and reason, but also to preservation, comfort, property, and satisfaction. Exercising rights requires effort, responsibility, and industry. Without these characteristics one will be overwhelmed by nature and by others, however sovereign one believes one's self to be. Securing equal rights and their conditions both directs and limits government, so that government neither altogether forms souls nor ignores them.

To advance freedom, of course, is not fully to guide its proper use. For this one needs to understand moral, intellectual, artistic, and political excellence. Liberal regimes require a liberal education which, from the standpoint of mere equality, is inherently illiberal. So, although it certainly is true that liberalism can favor or degenerate to the sovereign selves Elshtain fears, it need not. Its principle of equal rights is less excessive, and is suited to natural ends.

Just as the equality and reason that shape and limit individual rights show liberal freedom's difference from tyrannical, willful, self-assertion, so, too, does unalloyed political mastery differ from the liberal state's sovereignty, for this seeks to regulate its own scope and methods. Liberal democracy carries within it an inherent tension between individuals and majorities, neither of which is altogether powerful.

Elshtain indicates some of this, of course, but does not make enough of it.

She is generally friendly to the merits of sensible liberal democracy. Yet her invariably thoughtful and sometimes courageous arguments do not always support her friendship. If we do not convincingly distinguish equal rights from individual willfulness, we risk contributing to the very license that rightly concerns her. If we do not see that countries based on equal rights require and promote certain virtues, and are thus not as morally neutral as they sometimes seem, we risk diminishing these countries, and our appreciation of their merits. If we do not account properly for human strength, self-assertion, competition, and our ability to shape nature's material, we risk a quietism that Elshtain might decry but against which her arguments (in my judgment) provide insufficient defense.

Our human goal is not just to love and be loved, but also to educate and be educated, and to stand up for ourselves. These goals sometimes conflict because we and what is ours differ from the perfections for which we strive. Perhaps these limits show us most clearly that, as Elshtain reminds us in this intelligent book, we are "less than sovereign."

Mark Blitz, the Fletcher Jones professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, is the author, most recently, of Duty Bound: Responsibility and American Public Life.