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God, State, and Self


Jean Bethke Elshtain (View Bio)
Hardcover: Basic Books, 2008.


Jean Bethke Elshtain examines the origins and meanings of "sovereignty" as it relates to all the ways we attempt to explain our world. Starting with the early modern ideas of God, which form the basis for the modern paradigm of the sovereign state, Elshtain covers history up to our own time, claiming that political theories of state sovereignty are the basis for our contemporary faith in sovereignty of the self. When we understand why we have the politics we have, we will understand what makes humans tick. Elshtain argues that self-sovereignty—complete independence and self-government—is the bedrock on which human communities are sustained.

"These are bold claims, and Elshtain has written a bold book, one meant to shake up the now-entrenched view that we are at center of the universe and the better for it." — Alan Wolfe, Slate

"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. Elshtain’s insightful investigation explains how political thinkers such as Machiavelli and Hobbes first endowed the nation-state with absolute sovereignty over society…. Readers thus confront the perilous political dynamics in a nation-state…. Elshtain traces the lethal consequences of this modern theopolitics in the atrocities of the Fench Revolution, the Nazis, and the Soviet Communists…. 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." — Booklist (starred review)

"Elshtain has written an excellent and illuminating book." — David Gordon, The Mises Review

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