Explaining Our World

Book cover
Sovereigntyby By Jean Bethke ElshtainBasic Books. 480p $35

Sovereignty is one of the most contested and yet indeterminate concepts in the field of political science. The casual observer will know that it has something to do with “unity of power,” “legitimate right to govern” and “absolute control of territory,” but may stammer a bit when pressed for greater precision. Not only is this concept hard to pin down in contemporary conversations, but the underpinnings of modern notions of sovereignty in ancient and medieval thought are complex beyond all telling.

Into the fray steps Jean Bethke Elshtain, a prominent public intellectual who teaches social ethics to divinity and political philosophy students at the University of Chicago. In this, a follow-up volume to her 2005-06 Gifford Lectures on the subject, Elshtain takes up the origin and meaning of sovereignty in a remarkably comprehensive way. Central to her argument is the reminder that although sovereignty as a term originated in the political realm, specifically as a quality of the nation-states that grew up in the early modern era, the concept possesses precursors as well as latter-day extensions that spread its semantic field considerably.


Before there were true states with aspirations to sovereign power there was God, of whom all sincere believers are obliged to predicate something very much like sovereignty. Of course, Christians are not the only ones to express the sentiment “for Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory now and forever.” But it was within the Christian West that notions of sovereignty, hitherto attributed exclusively to God, came to seep into theories regarding secular authorities and the resultant prerogatives of political entities like empires and nation-states.

The middle chapters of this book provide an insightful and quite reliable guide to the historical events (including the Augsburg and Westphalia settlements) and the intellectual developments that produced the political world as we know it today, where geographically defined national entities proceed as the major players on the world stage, based on claims of legitimate territorial rule.

Elshtain has rounded up all the right figures in her explanation of how Western political thought groped its way toward a complete picture of sovereign power. Looming large in the history of ideas she develops are Augustine and Aquinas, Scotus and Ockham, Luther and Calvin, Hobbes and Locke, Machiavelli and Rousseau. Beyond these usual suspects, however, Elshtain is not afraid to engage the contributions of lesser-known commentators on such topics as natural law, the “two swords doctrine” and the nature of political authority: John of Salisbury, Marsilius of Padua, Richard Hooker and Robert Filmer.

As with “director’s cuts” on film DVD’s, the reader receives some bonus material near the middle of the book. We get a fine reassessment of certain aspects of the French Revolution as well as Hegel’s take on state power. Even some figures remembered today almost exclusively for their literary contributions, like Dante and Shakespeare, are shown by Elshtain to have contributed in significant ways to the discourse on sovereignty and rightful kingly power. One might quibble that the author gives surprisingly short shrift to the texts of Jean Bodin, who is generally acknowledged to have taken the term sovereignty from an obscure term coined in the 13th century by French jurists and fashioned it into a full-blown doctrine of support for royal power and legitimacy.

Somewhat less satisfying is the final third of the book, where Elshtain attempts to trace the extension of the notion of sovereignty to modern selfhood. The key claims here seem to be these: 1) the individual will to power has lately run amok; 2) exaggerated notions of a sovereign and inviolable self are key culprits; and 3) the modern sovereign self is modeled on the territorial state and its strong claims of sovereignty. The author’s effort to link statecraft to soulcraft starts out well enough, with apt analysis of the influence of Descartes and Kant, but we soon find ourselves on shaky ground. Elshtain’s forays into cultural criticism are not nearly as convincing as her explication of philosophical texts and ideas. Her selection of evidence (largely from recent novels, poetry, film and jurisprudence) to establish her claims seems highly idiosyncratic, even to the sympathetic reader. Still, it is easy to agree with many of the arguments of the book’s final chapters, especially regarding the horrors (including liberal abortion regimes and the disturbing movement toward eugenics) resulting from certain contemporary approaches to issues regarding the sovereign physical body, an area where the will to power has proved triumphant.

Overall, Elshtain is quite successful in establishing her argument that the concept of sovereignty does indeed cut across many disciplines and applies richly to fields as diverse as law, political philosophy, theology and psychology. She argues persuasively against “monistic understandings of the sovereignty of God, states and selves.” Reprising the message of several of her most valuable previous works, she demonstrates with great erudition the absence of bright lines separating religion and politics, the personal and the political, the public and the private. And she makes a much-needed appeal for firmer limits to exaggerated claims of autonomy.

One unfinished strand of this volume concerns the relation between theists (who hasten to recognize a vertical dimension of sovereignty) and atheists (who would resist any references to transcendence, at least in public institutions). I wish Elshtain had addressed some of these tensions regarding political authority, which have hung in the air since at least the decades when Jacques Maritain proposed a “Christianly inspired civilization” without offering a convincing explanation of where non-Christians and unbelievers would find a place in this otherwise appealing political order. If anyone is qualified to make constructive suggestions along these lines, it is Elshtain, whose work so often touches upon these issues.

Although it proves hard to support all of Elshtain’s work as a public intellectual (her support for the war in Iraq and an extremely muscular version of the war on terrorism is well known), it is easy to admire her efforts to identify and even to build bridges between theological and political concepts. This volume provides a fine treatment of the notion of sovereignty—an important point where these two worlds of discourse intersect.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

“No sooner had Jesus knocked over the dragon of superstition,” wrote George Bernard Shaw in ”Androcles and the Lion,” “than Paul boldly set it on its legs again in the name of Jesus.” Shaw’s line captures the outsize and frankly uneasy influence that St. Paul had on the early church.

Daniel LuzerMarch 22, 2019
Colm Tóibín may have you reaching for your abandoned copy of "The Importance of Being Earnest" or "Dubliners," even if you have not touched those books since high school.
Emma Winters March 22, 2019
Are conspiracy theorists just trying to maintain their empires and hawk merchandise? Am I a conspiracy theorist about conspiracy theorists?
Brandon SanchezMarch 19, 2019
Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman in ‘The Bells of St. Mary‘s’ (photo: Alamy)
Crosby was the most Catholic superstar the United States has ever seen.
John AndersonMarch 08, 2019