12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Broad Subject, Narrow Book,
This review is from: Sovereignty: God, State, and Self (Gifford Lectures) (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?) than three manifestations of one entity. The inherent nature of justice vanished from the late medieval mind precisely when the plurality and personhood of the Godhead lost its former vigor- thus the monistic, willing sovereign God of Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and eventually Luther and Calvin.
Alas, this connection is assumed on the part of the reader. Indeed, the whole debate surrounding the problem of universals that lies at the root of the realist-nominalist split goes without naray a mention; and conceptionalism, a third solution to the problem pioneered by Peter Abelard and back in force (in a way) with Immanuel Kant (hardly an insignificant aspect of his transcendent self Elshtain derides) isn't referenced at all. This is but one example. Personally, I found the whole section on divine sovereignty poorly explained and all-too-brief. And while I have no complaints on the factuality or clarity of the chapters on political sovereignty, I found these too brief as well and severely lacking in the non-intellectual history surrounding the rise of political sovereignty. The Peace of Westphalia is mentioned on but two pages.
As a typographical note, the author should fire her editor. The book is riddled with typos- hardly a page went buy without finding one. Moreover, sentences are poorly constructed with alarming frequency- dangling modifier here, split infinitives there, run-on sentences on the one hand and sentence-fragments on the other. I had to read several passages three times over, so much so that it took me a full week to read it cover to cover- something that should not have taken so long in a book concerning which I have complained of insufferable briefness.
That said, these negatives are warnings for the reader, not discouragements. The absence of medieval political thought in the modern teaching of the field is a great loss, and Jean Elshtain has done us all a great service with its publication. Thread of sovereignty as a holistic concept running from William of Ockham to Thomas Hobbes to Immanuel Kant- a thread, more amazingly, that runs the same course from theology through politics through anthropology- can no longer be ignored with the publication of this important book.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 11, 2009 7:51:50 AM PDT
Joseph M. Hennessey says:
Wow. Saying that a 480 page book is not long enough!
Posted on Feb 6, 2013 6:33:05 AM PST
Lost & Found says:
"The book is riddled with typos- hardly a page went buy without finding one. "
Was your own typo in this comment a sly comment on the distraction of typographical errors?
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