Sovereignty: God, State and Self

Sovereignty: God, State and Self

by Jean Bethke Elshtain

Throughout the history of human intellectual endeavor, sovereignty has cut across the diverse realms of theology, political thought, and psychology.

Examining the early modern ideas of God which formed the basis for the modern sovereign state, Elshtain carries her research from theology and philosophy into psychology, showing that political theories of state sovereignty fuel contemporary understandings of sovereignty of the self.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Philosophy
  • Rating: 3.65
  • Pages: 352
  • Publish Date: June 10th 2008 by Basic Books
  • Isbn10: 0465037593
  • Isbn13: 9780465037599

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While on the other hand I believe that aborting a pregnancy if it is known that the birth would result in an extremely diseased or handicapped human being is justified. Which is why I personally would not choose to bring life into it. Personally, I'm more concerned that our existence is archived and documented so that if there is any other life out there in this vast universe, they may one day find our left behind data and history. It is not my concern as to whether humanity continues on.

Elshtain's 'argument' (maybe 'statement' is a better word) is that the idea of sovereignty can be traced from a Thomist sovereign God of reason and love through a nominalist sovereign God of will to a sovereign state of will to a sovereign, willing individual. Ironic, because she ignores actual embodiment (nothing about physical suffering, for instance, makes it in; she only sneers at the way people actually use their bodies most of the time, "writhing and contorting and self-mutilating" ). She ignores social life (there's no indication that she's even aware that social conditions have changed a little since, say, Augustine's time; if you think there's such a thing as structural racism, you're being sovereigntist- although surely the point of saying there's structural anything is to dispute individual sovereignty?). She ignores history (the idea that the above thinkers might have been *responding* to something, rather than making grand claims about an immutable human nature, is never even mentioned. Her solution to this 'problem,' whatever it is, is to believe in concrete embodiment (= "some institutional or relational form that has some sturdiness and capacity for perdurance".) Ordinarily I would avoid pointing out that the Soviet Union was a sturdy institutional form with a capacity for perdurance, but since JBE doesn't hesitate to pull out the Hitler Argument at every conceivable opportunity (if you like the Human genome project, you're a nazi etc...), I have no qualms: she simply says we should be part of institutions without recognizing that institutions can be just as evil as sovereign selves. JBE, like most recent intellectuals (but unlike, say, Augustine or Thomas or Hegel or any number of the thinkers she quotes here), thinks that things are a certain way and that's how they have to be and we have to just deal with it.

In many ways, Elshtains Sovereignty is a history of this complicated idea from its deeply religious and theological associations in Augustine and Aquinas to what she refers to as a monist, psychologized sovereignty of the self that holds the most sway in our fractured modernity. In the first part of the book, Elshtain sees an important shift from Thomistic conceptions of sovereignty, which emphasize Gods love and rationality and especially the ability of the human being to use her intellect to deduce these things about God, toward the nominalism of William of Ockham. Instead of following arguments, this part of the book blames everything from radical feminism to eugenics to cloning as being part of the irresponsible shift of sovereignty to the level of the human body.

The author makes the courageous claim that an individual's answer to this question, as it pertains to one's attitude toward the nature of God's sovereignty, will inevitably shape his attitude toward the sovereignty of the state and the self. Discussion of the sovereignty of God and the state were much more abstract and extremely difficult to grasp, even as a student well versed in history and philosophy.

Jean Bethke Elshtain is an American political philosopher. Jean Bethke Elshtain, scholar of religion and political philosophy, 1941-2013