Words are only words, and their etymology is no guarantee that they bear an “essence” beyond what is traceable to their historical origin and its originary roots. But given its history, sovereignty is worthy of our interest for its reflection of a Christian world view that gradually takes on a national form, recalling that the Hebrew idea of nationhood, which would reemerge explicitly with the Reformation, had always been a corollary of the Judeo-Christian conception of God.
The term sovereignty, as Bernard de Jouvenel makes clear in De la souveraineté (Génin, 1955; translations mine), is associated with medieval kingship. Jouvenel emphasizes the difference between the way the word is used before the Renaissance and its usage in the “early modern” era beginning in the 17th century. His concern is to understand how a term that had originally emphasized one’s place in a hierarchy (“when one said [in the middle ages] sovereign, one simply meant superior”; “everyone had a superior” [217-18], the king’s presumably being God), came to designate absolute power, la volonté souveraine, which modern, that is, post-Revolutionary, writers attribute to “the people.” Thus Jouvenel traces a history from medieval, relative sovereignty, to the absolute sovereignty of the 17th century monarch, and from there to l’idée despotique of popular sovereignty that is in principle without “limit or regulation” (216-17).
The two phases of sovereignty that Jouvenel describes, with absolute monarchy serving as an intermediate stage—still submissive in principle to religious admonitions, still using the medieval phrase heureuse impuissance [fortunate incapacity] to justify the king’s refusal to grant certain requests—reflect two very different attitudes toward firstness. The earlier notion limits the sovereign’s initiative to the implementation of the traditional obligations of his office, enforcing rules established in custom and guaranteed ultimately by God, whereas the modern notion is one where the authority of the sovereign is limited only by his own judgment as the embodiment of the “people.”
I have in previous Chronicles touched on the subject of nationhood, focusing on the Judeo-Christian tradition in which the Hebrews, a particular community “chosen” by the universal God, can be called the first nation. But as writers from Ernest Renan to Benedict Anderson have noted, every nation is “chosen” in its particular way of receiving and passing on the original light unto the nations. Nor does this process exclude the possibility that something like the European Union could evolve into a new form of state that would combine different nationalities more organically, and at the same time less dictatorially, than what Yoram Hazony calls an empire (see Chronicle 597). But the means by which this might come about have not yet been successfully thought through, as witness the EU’s failure to guarantee its critical demographic/cultural mass before admitting millions of migrants from alien cultures, and the political turmoil that has resulted from it.
Firstness is less an objective state than a state of mind, one that may be supported by facts, but never objectively enough to convince the skeptics. The case of the Jews is all too obvious: how dare they claim to be “chosen”? If GA can claim a moral lesson on the side of firstness to counterbalance its affirmation of the originary moral model of universal reciprocity, it is indeed the principle of “a light unto the nations”—accepting the temporal priority of firstness with a minimum of resentment, recognizing with a minimum of envy the advantages it may have accorded its initiators, and seeing it as in essence the production of a benefit to be ultimately shared by all.
It is in this sense that we may say that the Hebrews shared with the world the concept of nationhood and with it, sovereignty as authority guaranteed by the One God rooted in the originary sacred center. Although national originarity is not that of the originary event, myths of national foundation are not simply fairy tales; they are ways of relating a given historical community to our common human ancestry.
If we take the concept of sovereignty as specifically national in the Judeo-Christian sense, then we must understand it as both deriving its authority from the One God and at the same time affirming, and helping the community as a whole to affirm, its national “firstness.” Having a legend of national origin is not the same as claiming to be first among nations. But the Hebrews did not claim to be first, only chosen. The Hebrews were chosen by God who speaks of them as “my people” in contrast to all others. But Isaiah’s metaphor can be taken to imply that other nations too should aspire to be chosen as God’s people, “in their light,” on their example. If the human race is to pursue its course peacefully, each nation must accept for itself the gift of nationhood under the One God that affords entry into the marketplace of world history.
The sovereign of a nation and that of an empire or tribe is concerned in the first place with maintaining order under never fully predictable historical circumstances. Whether he is a despot or a democrat, he is in the first place an executive whose tasks are never fully predictable in advance. That is, his role is prima facie antithetical to that of the inventor in the controlled environment of the laboratory. Yet firstness is implicit in sovereignty, seen in the light of its relationship to national exemplarity. Visionary totalitarian leaders have been able to insulate entire states from external conditions long enough to subject them to political experiments, with generally appalling results. But it is of more value to consider the sovereignty-firstness relationship in less extreme cases, notably in liberal-democratic societies like our own.
The USA has realized in its national self-consciousness the clearest illustration to date of the nation-as-first-in-the-light-of-the-Hebrews. It is no accident that David P. Goldman (“Spengler”) likes to quote Lincoln’s quasi-prophetic appellation of the US as “that almost-chosen nation.” But if this bittersweet appellation can be taken as a special quality of the United States, it can equally well be understood as the status of the (non-Hebraic) nation in general.
The tension between God’s uniqueness and the nation’s particularity can never be resolved: it is permanently productive. In that respect, all nations are equal, even if the Hebrews may appear “more equal than others.” If God is One, then his laws are universal, which means that the laws imposed upon the Hebrews are in principle imposed on everyone else. But there are laws and “laws.” Morality, the law of originary reciprocity, is unique, whereas ethics are adapted to the specific culture of each nationality. This was as true for primitive tribes and archaic empires as it was for the Hebrews. In contrast to the 613 “laws” of the Torah, the Decalogue corresponds more or less to the moral core that applies to all, and provides an implicit basis for the extension of the national concept to other peoples.
The explicit liberation of the Christian from the Law that is at the center of Paul’s theology permits a clean separation between the moral core and the Hebrew tribal ethic, thereby making possible a generalizable concept of nationhood. There is no specific set of Christian ethical laws; just as he renders to Caesar what is Caesar’s, the Christian follows the customs of each individual society. Yet these societies become nations through their common acceptance of the Trinitarian God, accepting the One God/Father through the mediation of the Son in whom chosenness becomes a transcendental model accessible to all.
Hillel had already affirmed that the “Golden Rule” “contains all the law and the prophets.” Imitatio Christi offers this same individual moral sense as a model for human interaction independently of local custom. The genius of this revelation is that once this model is accepted, the ethical specificity of the nation is not denied (as it will be in Islam) but declared culturally independent. What was implicit in the Hebrew distinction between the “law” and the moral law of reciprocity that informs the Decalogue and is concisely formulated by Hillel, is now unambiguously affirmed.
The ancient civilizations, who did not share the Hebrew revelation of the One God, never felt a contradiction between the universality of ideas and the singularity of deities. Xenophanes recognized the distinction between the unique idea of God and the black gods of the Africans or the equine gods of horses, but he could not conceive of a One God who stood behind all these notions and yet was not an idea but a transcendental self, an embodiment of the unity of the human race—and as history would show, open to the revelation of the Incarnation. If we are to give sovereignty a sense beyond the nominal reality of central authority, it is that of recognizing in this authority the universal, humanity-wide nature of its sacredness.
With the Christian idea of sovereignty, the abstract notion of the unity of the species receives a worldly embodiment in the nation. The members of any community recognize in principle that their mere belonging to the human race does not suffice to define them as human; each human being is and has always been part of a specific community. But a nation is a specific community that owes allegiance to the One God. It follows from this that the nations are more “internally mimetic” of each other, more in competition “ontologically,” as models of universal exemplarity, and not merely as rivals in military conquest. And it is not too far-fetched to correlate the development of patriotism, defined as loyalty to one’s nation as a unique exemplar of humanity-in-community rather than as the home of the most powerful god with the most powerful army, with the fact that, beginning with the total wars of the Revolutionary era, war’s increasing destructiveness in contrast with the productivity of peacetime industry obliges humankind to envision its abandonment as a means of national competition.
In light of this new emphasis on peaceful competition, the “double marketplace” of liberal democracy, where the economic market is managed by a political marketplace of ideas, cannot be separated from the global market that assesses the value of each nation statistically through measurements like longevity, crime and poverty rates, and levels of education, a value summed up in their relative attractiveness as places to live.
The question that inescapably arises today is whether the “Westphalian” model of nationhood, as consecrated after WWII by the United Nations and various treaties emphasizing respect for national borders, can maintain itself, let alone evolve more integrated forms such as the EU has striven to embody. We are living in an era where the entire inhabited world is divided into nations, but where the national concept has been meeting with growing resistance from “global” political actors who have no alternative model to propose. The world always needs new degrees of freedom, but the current disproportional preoccupation with such things as transgenderism strikes me, with all due respect to the few for whom it is indeed an issue, as a symptom that our demand for cultural “diversity” has outstripped the supply. In such situations, wisdom resides in resisting the siren call of the victimary critique that would undermine the national concept and its call to firstness.
In this regard, we should note the difference between the Judeo-Christian nation-concept and the Islamic conception of the Umma. The “third-world” nature of most Muslim societies should not obscure the position of Islam in the historical dialectic after Judeo-Christian nationhood. Whatever the value of Hazony’s use of the term within his system of reference, the Umma is not a return to the archaic notion of empire. It must be understood as a far more ambitious project of universal unification—as a super-nation. A system of nations can share the One God and even the Christian religion, without however forming a single community. In contrast, the Umma tolerates national differences only as temporary obstacles to the universal caliphate that is Islam’s ultimate goal. Yet whatever the enthusiasm of its adherents, it is difficult to conceive this as a possible solution for the modern world.
Finally, there is a unique Asian model of sovereignty, not that of Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, which are recognizably Western in inspiration, but that of mainland China. China is not a “nation” but an empire, one whose history is very different from that of empires in the West, none of which has survived into the present century. Unrivaled in its cultural hegemony for millennia, China shares the Hebrews’ sense of chosenness without the need for One God to guarantee it against ostensibly more powerful rivals.
China’s imperial tradition has paradoxically found itself more compatible with the unapologetically hegemonic Western philosophy of Marxism than the Western nations that, having promoted it, have now with trivial exceptions abandoned it. I am not certain that even the most accomplished Sinologists yet possess enough information to begin to explore this crucial question; certain that I do not, I will leave it as a subject for future reflection.