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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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.