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 Elsthain 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, Elsthain 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 Elsthain's protagonists that begins with St
Elsthain'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 Elsthain's cantus firmus:
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.
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
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 Elsthain 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".
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
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