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Why do nations and peoples exist, and why do particular nations exist in particular forms? Under the principle of national self-determination, more sovereign nations raised their flags during the past century than at any time in history. Many of them will not survive the next century. The old national states defined by language and ethnicity are in steep decline. Each of the world’s three most populous countries, China, India, and the United States, defies conventional definition in its own way.
Cookie-cutter political science has failed ignominiously, for example, the American conceit that what works in Baltimore or Buffalo also should work in Basra or Beijing. Political science needs a new start, and that is what the distinguished philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain offers in her latest book.
Our concept of the state, as well as the self, begins with our understanding of God, she contends. Absolutism and tyranny emulate a tyrannical God who rules by whim, subject to no law of nature save his own caprice. The constitutional state of self-imposed limits, by contrast, arose from the theology of love and reason taught by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. Others, notably Michael Novak, have made similar arguments, but Elshtain hacks much deeper at the root of the problem, namely the troubled notion of natural sovereignty. Her research surprises and disturbs, pointing to conclusions more radical than she is willing to draw.
Sovereignty, the one political idea the modern world takes for granted, was not the brainchild of the Enlightenment, but the conceptual bastard of medieval apologists for absolute papal power, Elshtain argues. In place of the separation of secular and ecclesiastical power, the antagonism of Empire and Papacy elicited apologies for the unrestrained exercise of power justified by a vision of a capricious and willful God. Their contention led to the ruin of both and the ascent of the sovereign nation. This is the red thread that Elshtain traces through the history of political literature in Sovereignty: God, State and Self.
Dietrich Bonhoffer, the German Protestant theologian and martyr of anti-Nazi resistance, culminates a line of Elshtain’s protagonists that begins with St Augustine.
Elshtain’s is a mighty contribution, but not yet a decisive one, for before there were states, there were peoples, and the character of state cannot be abstracted from the character of the people. Sovereignty first arose as nation-states defined themselves in war, but the crisis of the nation-state today arises from the enervation of the peoples. Most of the old national powers are hollowed out by depopulation and nihilism, to the point that the breaking-points of prospective instability derive more from demographics than defense. We must ask not only why nations are there, but also why peoples are there. Anyone who does not feel ill at ease about this has not understood the question. We are on the verge of a Great Extinction of peoples on a greater scale than late antiquity, and it behoves us to listen closely to the best minds of antiquity whose sad experience in some ways parallels our own.
If theology, as Elshtain shows, lies at the foundation of state, all the more so does it inform the existence of the peoples who antedate political systems. Elshtain cites, but does not explore, St Augustine’s refutation in The City of God of Cicero’s definition of a people as an assemblage of common interests: “A people [rather] is the association of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement of the objects of their love … to observe the character of a particular people we must examine the objects of its love.”
What if a people loves the wrong thing? That is a central theme of a new book by Professor Wayne Cristaudo of the University of Hong Kong, Power, Love and Evil. Apropos Augustine’s definition of a people, Cristaudo offers this counterpoint to Elshtain’s cantus firmus:
All social grouping is dependent upon love, and it is no less true for the fascist or terrorist than it is for the cosmopolitan and multiculturalist, no less true for those who adored Hitler or Stalin as for members of the Baha’i faith, or Catholics and Shi’ite or Sunni Muslims. The great political monsters of totalitarianism were able to be so evil precisely because they generated so much love, love towards them and love, hope and faith in a future which they promised would be heavenly for people just like them. “I cannot distance myself from the love of my people,” said Hitler to crowds of adorers ranging across both genders, all ages, and classes. Likewise, Stalin knew that the key to power lay in being both feared and loved.
St Thomas Aquinas taught that God is not absolutely transcendent, but rules through a natural law that is intelligible to human reason. In some ways this recalls the 19th-century Duke of Valencia, who averred on his deathbed that he did not need to forgive his enemies, for he had had them all shot. By the same token, it was possible to speak of reason during the Middle Ages because all the unreasonable people had been killed, sometimes in very large numbers.
It never would have occurred to Aquinas to include pagans or heretics in a body politic founded upon natural law. As the Catholic theologian Michael Novak quotes Aquinas, “As for heretics their sin deserves banishment, not only from the Church by excommunication, but also from this world by death.” Between 200,000 and a 1,000,000 Albigensian heretics died in Provence during the crusade of 1209-1229, for example, out of a French population of only 9 million.
In historical context, Novak argues, Aquinas had no alternative. For his “fragile” epoch, “Those who deny the articles of the Catholic faith implicitly deny the claims of rulers to derive their authority from God. They are enemies not merely of God and of the souls of individuals, but of the social fabric. Their questioning of religious truth involves a questioning of the monarch’s command over the law; as enemies of the law, they are its legitimate targets, and the position of primacy accorded to legislation against heretics is thus entirely proper.” It is easy to forget that Aquinas’ 13th century was an oasis of prosperity and benign order after the barbarian wars that halved the population of Europe between the 6th and 10th centuries, and that heresies threatened to destroy the social order.
What, or better, who, was this Europe? Europe did not consist of a random sampling of peoples upon which political philosophers performed experiments. Europe, rather, was the creation of the Church, which converted the invading tribes that replaced the extinguished population of the Roman Empire, and nurtured them into Christian kingdoms. Those whom it could not convert it slaughtered, as Charlemagne did the Saxons. The peoples of Europe were the fledglings of the Church, speaking languages derived from Latin (including the grammar of modern High German).
In the passage (Book XIX, Chapter 23) Elshtain quotes, Augustine makes the more unsettling claim that without faith in the true God, there can be neither republic nor people:
God rules the obedient city according to His grace, so that it sacrifices to none but Him, and whereby, in all the citizens of this obedient city, the soul consequently rules the body and reason the vices in the rightful order, so that, as the individual just man, so also the community and people of the just, live by faith, which works by love, that love whereby man loves God as He ought to be loved, and his neighbor as himself – there, I say, there is not an assemblage associated by a common acknowledgment of right, and by a community of interests. But if there is not this, there is not a people, if our definition be true, and therefore there is no republic; for where there is no people there can be no republic [emphasis added].
No people, no republic: for Augustine the congregation comes first, then the people, and only afterwards its political life. But does Augustine intend to say that a people that does not recognize God is not a people to begin with? He means, I think, what Kevin Madigan and Jon Levenson wrote of the Biblical view of peoplehood in their book Resurrection, which I reviewed several weeks ago (Life and death in the Bible Asia Times Online, May 28, 2008). A people that foresees its own extinction experiences death in life, but God’s People, which believes it will endure forever, trusts in life beyond death.
It was the genius of the Church to create new peoples out of the chaos of Rome’s decline, and it was the tragedy of the Church to fail to meld them into a People. To Thomas Aquinas, as Elshtain notes, Christian universality was the overarching principal of political organization to which nations were subordinate. Aquinas, in fact, prescribes political organization only in one location, but his views are unambiguous. 
“Sovereignty” arose as an apology for papal absolutism, but it became flesh as the expression of the national will of the European nations in rebellion against Christian universalism.
Elshtain tells the story of bad theology and its later manifestation in political thought that justifies the untrammeled power of the sovereign nation by reference to the capricious power of an absolutely transcendent God. Her antagonists include the medieval nominalists who preached God’s unrestricted sovereignty, and their progeny in political philosophy: Jean Bodin, the 16th-century apologist for French absolutism; Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century theorist of the absolutist state; and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the inventor of the malignant idea of “national will.”
Of these, Rousseau’s influence upon 19th-century European nationalism was the most direct, and surely the most pernicious. Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy called him a precursor of Hitler. Elshtain highlights a side of Rousseau of which I was not aware:
There is an interesting wrinkle given our current preoccupations … and that is Rousseau’s encomiums on behalf of the “wise system of Mohammed” whose “very sound views” tied together religion and the political system, “completely uniting” it. So what Christianity weakens, Islam strengthens, and Rousseau supports this “wise system” by contrast to “Christian division.”
Rousseau’s demand that every individual submit to the “general will” and become an “indivisible part of the whole” revives pagan integralism against Christianity. I reviewed this issue in a recent essay for First Things (October 2007)’
If we follow Augustine, however, the history of Europe’s political failures is not only the history of misguided ideas, but of misplaced love. The nations of Europe rebelled against their foster-mother the Church, and abjured their loyalty to the People of God, that is, the common Christian congregation to which all the tribes of Europe were converted. They loved their own ethnicity better, and thus became peoples who are not peoples, in Augustine’s uncanny phrase.
To make sense of this we need to peer deeper into Europe’s character. On this account, Cristaudo’s slim volume provides balance to Elshtain’s account. Cristaudo develops the ideas of Eugene Rosenstock-Hussy (1888-1973), one of the last universal minds of high German culture. A converted Jew, Rosenstock-Hussy collaborated with his cousin Franz Rosenzweig, although their view of the world is quite different. Underneath the surface of European civilization, Rosenstock-Hussy perceives ancient undercurrents that erode the seemingly stable ground.
It is encouraging that Rosenstock-Hussy, who is nearly forgotten in his adoptive American home, remains in the curriculum at the University of Hong Kong. Although I reject many of his conclusions, the great German scholar is an inexhaustible mine of insights in several fields of inquiry. Cristaudo’s present book is dense – it reads less like narrative than lecture notes – and saturates the reader with German cultural references that I find less distracting than Elshtain’s folksy citation of rock-band lyrics. He has published creditable work on Franz Rosenzweig, and – full disclosure – cited this writer’s study of Rosenzweig’s analysis of Islam.
“There is something about our species,” Cristaudo writes, “that cannot simply let the past be. Perhaps it is the resilience of whatever it is that has been divinised that haunts the solitude of the self.” The struggle for Europe’s soul lies between idolatry and divine love. Of the latter, Cristaudo’s exemplars are the anti-Hitler conspirators Dietrich Bonhoffer and Helmut von Moltke. Between Nazism and these Christian martyrs there lay
the opposition between loves, between one who saw the sacrificial nature of love as divine, and who willingly went under for that, and those poor souls serving a phantastic beloved who could only deliver mass death, who could only promise a world worthy of life by killing … the difference between divine love and idolatry.
Idolatry in the form of ethnic self-adoration never waned among the European peoples, despite their centuries of Christian tutelage. Was it coincidence that the political backing for Luther’s schism came from Saxony, seven centuries after Charlemagne killed the Saxons or converted them at sword-point? Christian universal empire broke up into the nation states whose sovereignty was affirmed at the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, dictated by France to the decimated German states.
Some aspects of Cristaudo’s (and Rosenstock-Hussy’s) theology disturb me. They ferret out the sources of evil in Europe’s sad history, in the form of national idolatry and its undead gods. But Cristaudo seems to believe that the worst forms of evil fit into a grand plan of necessity. He writes, for example,
Evil teaches us what we must never repeat unless we want to reap the same consequences. Evil forces us to bond when we steadfastly refuse to take more benign paths of cooperation. It forces the love that we refused to give freely …for example, nothing has contributed more to expanding consciousness about the moral intolerableness of racism than the evils of Nazism. Only when humanity saw its evils did it seriously confront the link between its thoughtless everyday cruelties, envy and bigotries.
That sounds a bit like Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss, who assured Candide that without all the unspeakable tortures he had suffered, he would not now be eating strawberries. In his broad and erudite vision of Western culture, Cristaudo wants to see an ultimate purpose for everything, even the ugliest consequences of evil choices. I cannot agree. It is dangerous to arrogate unto ourselves the capacity to detect the traces of Providence in history. We have faith that they are there, but we dare not sit in judgment of Providence without reducing God to an immanent principle of history, rather than the personal God of the Bible. Sometimes Mephistopheles is right: what arises well may be worthy of its own destruction, and to be past sometimes is as good as never having been at all.
The peoples of Europe failed, not only their political theorists. A new people had to come into existence with the founding of America before limited constitutional government could be created. Aquinas conceived of a Christian empire whose citizenship transcended ethnicity, continuing the original design of the Church fathers. The disintegration of this design required a fresh start, in the formation of the first non-ethnic nation in Western history, the United States.
Elshtain, like Novak and some other researchers, traces American constitutional government back to Aquinas’ concept of natural law. The transmission of ideas from Aquinas to the American Founders is a tricky matter, which I will let the specialists debate. A simpler thought is that a people capable of governing itself was one in which Christianity had changed every individual, (in Augustine’s words) “so that, as the individual just man, so also the community and people of the just, live by faith, which works by love, that love whereby man loves God as He ought to be loved, and his neighbor as himself.” America selected its citizens out from among the nations to form a new people uniquely capable of self-government.
Sovereignty as the appropriation of divine whim works its way from the theory of the state to the individual, Elshtain observes in her concluding chapter, also with deleterious consequences in the form of previously undiscovered “rights,” for example, to abort fetuses. This is not freedom, in her view, but the mass production of little monsters of the will. As she quotes Bonhoffer,
Freedom is not a quality of man, nor is it an ability … it is not a possession, a presence, an object, nor is it a form of existence – but a relationship and nothing else. In truth, freedom is a relationship between two persons. Being free means “being free for the other,” because the other has bound me to him.
Despite my boundless admiration for Bonhoffer, his later vision of “religionless Christianity” in a new “Johannine epoch” of spiritual uplift seems quite inadequate. Without organized faith communities founded in some theological tradition, it is very hard to imagine what entity might oppose the arbitrary sovereignty of the individual that Elshtain deplores. Cristaudo sets the martyr-theologian more clearly in context.
Other scholars, as noted, have drawn the connection between theological and political debates, but none with the audacity to call into question the entire notion of sovereignty of nations as well as self. She leaves the reader disturbed at a concept that slips carelessly off the tongue, but which is found wanting upon consideration. Her conclusion, however, does not match the ruthlessness of her argument. She appears to believe that the idea of sovereignty is the changeling brat of bad theology, but we can do nothing except to qualify it a bit:
We presuppose – we believe – that God is sovereign (and this for hundreds of reasons), but we cannot assume that a nation-state is sovereign until it demonstrates its ability to be independent from the protection of another state, to treat its citizens decently, and to foster a vibrant civil society: sovereignty as responsibility.
That is a feeble formulation after her attack on the arrogation of God’s sovereignty to secular institutions.
Perhaps we should follow Elshtain’s logic instead to an unsettling conclusion: the sovereign nation-state defined by ethnicity and language might be a flawed experiment. Perhaps the future of the world lies in the supra-ethnic state, represented in quite different ways by the United States, China and India, which together comprise half the world’s population. The Islamic world, which also embraces a supra-ethnic principle of governments, includes another sixth of humanity. The world’s political future may depend not upon the character of sovereign states at all, but upon the character of supra-ethnic states, as much as it depended upon the character of Christian Empire a thousand years ago. The heritage of Western thought prepares us inadequately for these questions, but Augustine is not a bad place to start.
1. Aquinas and the Heretics Michael Novak, December 1995.
2. Aquinas wrote: “Wherever there are several authorities directed to one purpose, there must needs be one universal authority over the particular authorities, because in all virtues and acts the order is according to the order of their ends (Ethic i, 1,2). Now the common good is more Godlike than the particular good. Wherefore above the governing power which aims at a particular good there must be a universal governing power in respect of the common good, otherwise there would be no cohesion towards the one object. Hence since the whole Church is one body, it behooves, if this oneness is to be preserved, that there be a governing power in respect of the whole Church, above the episcopal power whereby each particular Church is governed, and this is the power of the Pope. Consequently those who deny this power are called schismatics as causing a division in the unity of the Church. Again, between a simple bishop and the Pope there are other degrees of rank corresponding to the degrees of union, in respect of which one congregation or community includes another; thus the community of a province includes the community of a city, and the community of a kingdom includes the community of one province, and the community of the whole world includes the community of one kingdom. ( Supplement, Question 40).”
Sovereignty: God, State and Self by Jean Bethke Elshtain (Basic Books: NY, 2008). US$35, 334 pages. Power, Love and Evil by Wayne Cristaudo (Rodopi: New York and Amsterdam, 2008)US$52, 166 pages.