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Sovereignty: God, State, and Self (Gifford Lectures) Hardcover – June 10, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

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*Starred Review* Dismissed by most political theorists as a mere encumbrance, theology serves Elshtain well in this historical analysis of the two incarnations of sovereignty that have forged the modern world: the nation-state and the individual self. Originally delivered as the Gifford Lectures of 2005–06, Elshtain’s insightful investigation explains how political thinkers such as Machiavelli and Hobbes first endowed the nation-state with absolute sovereignty over society by politicizing the innovative theology of nominalist philosophers such as William of Ockham, who elevated God’s sovereign will above His discernible reason. Readers thus confront the perilous political dynamics in a nation-state as powerful and as capricious as Ockham’s God. Elshtain traces the lethal consequences of this modern theopolitics in the bloody atrocities of the French Revolutionaries, the Nazis, and the Soviet Communists. Inevitably, the deified modern state fractured into millions of divinized modern selves, each intent on establishing and defending its own godlike sovereignty. Champions of modern selfhood celebrate the unprecedented autonomy of the liberated individual; Elshtain, however, warns that a self that claims its godhood by severing restraints imposed by ancestors, religious orthodoxy, and community will ultimately destroy the cultural ecology necessary to a meaningful life. An illuminating though sobering new perspective on the conjunction between religion and politics. --Bryce Christensen

About the Author

Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago. She is the author of Just War Against Terror and Democracy on Trial, among other books. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee and Chicago, Illinois.

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Product Details

  • Series: Gifford Lectures
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1St Edition edition (June 10, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465037593
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465037599
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #588,455 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 29 people found the following review helpful By G. D. Geiss on July 10, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This work will be valuable if you have any desire to understand (if I may paraphrase a Jamesian title) the varieties of sovereign experience. Tracing the origins of sovereignty back to the "birth", if you will, of the nation-state in the late Middle Ages, Professor Elshtain aptly demonstrates how misguided it is to lable this period "The Dark Ages". In as much as this time was (as she puts it) "God drenched", with its unquestioned interweaving of the religious and the political on a much broader framework than prevails today in the form of the decaying Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Papacy at the head of a "world-wide" Christian community, all such tracing must begin with theological notions of Divine Sovereignty.

Interestingly, one finds here diversity of opinion and approach, not the staid uniformity that is often the harbinger of current views on this Age generally and Catholic theology specifically. Initially there arose an image of God as a "bound" (the author's word) sovereign. Mighty? Yes, but operating only within the "bounds" of His own Creation, thus avoiding arbitrariness and allowing access by our limited human intelligence and understanding. This is a view of Divine Sovereignty that the author ascribes to the works and thoughts of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. [As a personal aside, I am not sure how our educational system can claim "educated" graduates while avoiding (as I believe it does) virtually all confrontation of these two towering intellects.] As I understand it, this is a sovereign concept based on authority, legitimized and in fact delimited by Creation itself. It is a sovereignty of mutuality and reason and of "natural" law decernible by and accessable to all- believers and unbelievers alike.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By William Rhea on March 23, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Applause to Jean Belthke Elshtain for taking on such a wide-ranging, cross-disciplinary topic and in the midst of it rewriting the story of political thought. One can see all the threads from her previous works coming together in this book, from war to feminism, theology to the private/public dichotomy. This was a book that needed to be written.

Her arguments are largely cogent, and offhand I cannot think of a one with which I can terribly disagree. For a work of nonfiction, the imagery is well-constructed- not surprisingly so, for her love of literature shows frequently in these pages. Consider these lines on the French Revolution: "One might say that the sovereigntism of Rousseau, with its sacralization of politics, demands human sacrifice. If ancient peoples sacrificed goats, the French Revoution sacrificed humans to propitiate the revolutionary gods" (137). Her appeal to the Augustinian tradition of personalism is, in my estimate, the best course for countering the autonomous individualism rampant in even the best of modern thinkers.

What the book lacks, unfortunately, is sufficient length. Another reviewer commented that Elshtain does not sufficiently explain the connection between late medieval nominalism and the supremacy of will within the Godhead. For the record, the connections comes about because as nominalism rejected metaphysical realism and essentialism as the twin bases for grounding the common reality of imminent realities, ideas of absolute (inherent) justice tended to collapse. At the same time, the Trinity- a single essence or being or substance existing as three persons- shifted away from that traditional definition, wherein the persons of the Trinity were less hypostatic identities manifesting a single substance (the nominalist: what substance?
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Certain Bibliophile on November 10, 2010
Format: Hardcover
The idea of sovereignty, like almost any other politically or culturally meaningful term, was not born in a vacuum, remaining unchanged through the centuries. In many ways, Elshtain's "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. As the title of the book indicates, Elshtain discusses sovereignty at what she perceives to be the three critical junctures of its development, with the sovereignty of the self being a product, or so she seems to think, of Enlightenment's secular humanism.

In the first part of the book, Elshtain sees an important shift from Thomistic conceptions of sovereignty, which emphasize God's 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. She associates Ockham's nominalism with a prevailing trend toward voluntarism, which shifts the focus away from God's love and rationality toward the omnipotent, volitional will. While theology was the locus classicus of this paradigmatic shift, it eventually spills over into the political realm wherein there is a consolidation of power into a single body (either the Pope or the prince), as opposed to the idea of the Gelasian Two Swords doctrine (as articulated by Pope Gelasius in a 494 letter titled "Deo sunt" to Emperor Anastasius I).
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