Picture of author.
29+ Works 1,137 Members 8 Reviews

About the Author

Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at The University of Chicago.
Image credit: Photo courtesy the University of Chicago Experts Exchange (link)

Works by Jean Bethke Elshtain

Democracy on Trial (1993) 139 copies
Women and War (1987) 90 copies
Public Man, Private Woman (1981) 77 copies
The Jane Addams Reader (2001) — Editor — 40 copies
Just War Theory (1991) — Editor — 31 copies

Associated Works

The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology (2003) — Contributor — 86 copies
Moral Issues and Christian Responses (1997) — Contributor, some editions — 83 copies
The Blackwell Companion to Religious Ethics (2005) — Contributor — 51 copies


Common Knowledge



Jean Elshtain examines how the myths of Man as "Just Warrior" and Woman as "Beautiful Soul" serve to recreate and secure women's social position as noncombatants and men's identity as warriors. Elshtain demonstrates how these myths are undermined by the reality of female bellicosity and sacrificial male love, as well as the moral imperatives of just wars.
MWMLibrary | Jan 14, 2022 |
The most infuriating book I've read in a very, very long time. Elshtain's 'argument' (maybe 'statement' is a better word) is that the idea of sovereignty can be traced from a Thomist sovereign God of reason and love through a nominalist sovereign God of will to a sovereign state of will to a sovereign, willing individual. She provides no evidence for this, but it makes some kind of sense.

What makes no sense at all is her refusal to distinguish descriptive from prescriptive passages in the authors she references; her refusal to distinguish statements of ideas from the way people actually live their lives; and her concomitant refusal to show how these ideas - almost all of which are taken from the highest of high philosophers and theologians - have an impact on daily life. This wouldn't be a problem if this was just an intellectual history, but it isn't. It's a polemic against, well, people she doesn't like: abortion doctors, geneticists, atheists in general, philosophers in general, feminists who aren't lovey-dovey enough for her liking, and... wait for it... moralists who are always judging other people. Um, okay.

It's meant to be the fault of Ockham/Hobbes/Descartes/Kant/Hegel/Emerson/Nietzsche/de Beauvoir that people get abortions, and treat each other like shit. Okay then. If only the masses stopped reading Quodlibeta Septem and the Phenomenology of Geist, I'm sure the world would be just nifty.

I suppose JBE could be going for irony with her high theory in praise of embodiment, nature, history and social relationships. Ironic, because she ignores actual embodiment (nothing about physical suffering, for instance, makes it in; she only sneers at the way people actually use their bodies most of the time, "writhing and contorting and self-mutilating" ). She ignores social life (there's no indication that she's even aware that social conditions have changed a little since, say, Augustine's time; if you think there's such a thing as structural racism, you're being sovereigntist- although surely the point of saying there's structural anything is to dispute individual sovereignty?). She ignores history (the idea that the above thinkers might have been *responding* to something, rather than making grand claims about an immutable human nature, is never even mentioned. To wit, she criticizes Kant in *exactly the same way* that Hegel criticizes Kant, and then criticizes Hegel for being a Nazi or something).

Her solution to this 'problem,' whatever it is, is to believe in concrete embodiment (= "some institutional or relational form that has some sturdiness and capacity for perdurance".) Ordinarily I would avoid pointing out that the Soviet Union was a sturdy institutional form with a capacity for perdurance, but since JBE doesn't hesitate to pull out the Hitler Argument at every conceivable opportunity (if you like the Human genome project, you're a nazi etc...), I have no qualms: she simply says we should be part of institutions without recognizing that institutions can be just as evil as sovereign selves. Maybe she can beg this question by saying that we must also "insist... on the fact that there is a human nature and resist all attempts to turn it into the rubble of historic forces." So then a good institution is one that enables us to fulfill our human nature. But since she doesn't give any evidence that such a thing exists, let alone describe what it is, I can't quite see the point.

I'm obviously very upset at this book, and for good reason. First, the topic is a good one- both tracing the concept 'sovereignty' and criticizing contemporary society. So I had high hopes. But the result is morally over-bearing. It's massively self-contradictory (she accuses others of being 'prisoners of a picture,' while ignoring anything that doesn't fit into her postmodern, quasi religious anti-utopianism - how can you call yourself Christian and *not* yearn for a perfect world???) And it's intellectually weak: JBE lumps together people who think we're just the result of genes, or utility maximizing machines, with Pelagians and German idealism. She defines a totalitarian society as "a story of unbridled freedom to kill," which describes almost every society known to human or animal kind.

Most disturbing of all, for me, is that she misses the true target: our problem is not sovereignty, but positivism. JBE, like most recent intellectuals (but unlike, say, Augustine or Thomas or Hegel or any number of the thinkers she quotes here), thinks that things are a certain way and that's how they have to be and we have to just deal with it. She quotes Benedict XVI: "In a world that in the last analysis is not mathematics but love... the smallest thing that can love is one of the biggest things." It's a lovely thought, but she does nothing to show that we're living in that world. In this world, everything is, in the last analysis, mathematics: we need to *fight* for a world in which everything would be love. You can't do that when you're weighed down by pomo human naturalism.

… (more)
stillatim | 2 other reviews | Dec 29, 2013 |
An examination of the concept of sovereignty and how it has shifted from religion to the state and the individual.
Fledgist | 2 other reviews | Nov 24, 2012 |


You May Also Like

Associated Authors


Also by
½ 3.7

Charts & Graphs