A Passion for Truth: In Memoriam Jean Bethke Elshtain (1941-2013)

The first thing to be said about Jean Bethke Elshtain is that she embodied paradigmatically the idea of a public intellectual, an engaged spectator, to use Raymond Aron’s famous formulation. For her, the concept of liberty as articulated by the dissidents of Eastern Europe (Sakharov, Havel, but also John Paul II) symbolized an indispensable anchor, a source of hope in our turbulent and dismaying world. Both in her writings (21 books and hundreds of articles) and public interventions, Jean was direct, honest, unabashedly dedicated to defending truth against opportunistic lies and cowardly conformity. She identified herself as a Christian thinker and, at the University of Chicago, held appointments both in political science and in the Divinity School.

I first met her in the spring of 2006, at a dinner organized by our common friend, Martin Palous, former Charter 77 spokesman, philosopher and at that moment the Czech Republic’s ambassador to Washington. My wife, Mary, and I spent hours in one of the most enriching intellectual conversations of our lives. A few days later, I was approached by Robert Boyers, the editor of “Salmagundi,” who invited me to a conference on Jihad, violence, and terrorism. He told me that it was Jean Bethke Elshtain who had recommended me. The proceedings came out as a special issue of the journal.



The “Boston Globe” reported on the conference and described my intervention as the most adamant in support of the war. In fact, I was simply voicing there the ideas held by Joan Bethke Elshtain, Vaclav Havel, Andre Glucksmann and many others who saw the value of a just war against a despicable criminal despotism. It was a difficult task taking into account that Christopher Hitchens, who was also listed as a participant, had to cancel his presence at the very last minute. So, there I was, the East European, debating such hyper-controversial issues with famous critics of the war, including Benjamin Barber, Martha Nussbaum, and Peter Singer. “Public intellectuals, much of the time at least, should be party poopers,” Jean Bethke Elshtain declared in 2001. On that occasion, I definitely was one.

For Jean, values and principles mattered, truth was not a malleable, fluid, relative entity, and the dignity of the individual needed to be defended against any attempts to diminish it. A professor of moral and political philosophy at the University of Chicago, Jean delivered major lectures on various campuses, authored influential books on burning political and ethical issues, including the acclaimed “Democracy on Trial.” She was not afraid to defend her views, to offer logical, historical, and ethical arguments for the need to engage in the Iraq war.

A lifelong student of Augustine (a passion she shared with Hannah Arendt), Jean knew that refusal to act against evil inevitably leads to acquiescence and complicity with it:

The fight against German fascism and Japanese militarism put us in the world to stay. With our great power comes an even greater responsibility. One of our ongoing responsibilities is to respond to the cries of the aggrieved. Victims of genocide, for example, have a reasonable expectation that powerful nations devoted to human rights will attempt to stay the hand of the murderers.

For her, September 11 was a not a “bad accident,” but a fundamental change in world affairs. It marked a mutation not only in political strategies, but also in the American way of dealing with the horrors of war:

I come from a small people, Volga Germans, who would have been murdered or exiled had they remained in Russia rather than making the wrenching journey to America. … An image that crowds out many others in my mind is that of tens of thousands fleeing New York City by foot. As I watched and wept, I recalled something I had said many times in my classes on war: “Americans don’t have living memories of what it means to flee a city in flames. Americans have not been horrified by refugees fleeing burning cities.” No more. Now we know.

At the end of his life, the great sociologist Daniel Bell confessed that he was most worried by the loss of historical sense among America’s youth. His was also Jean Bethke Elshtain’s concern. For her, like for Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, Isaiah Berlin, Leszek Kolakowski, Judith Shklar, and Paul Ricoeur, truth and memory are inseparable. In the preface of her book, “Sovereignty: God, State, and Self,” she wrote:

One of my persistent worries about our own time is that we may be squandering a good bit of rich heritage through processes of organized “forgetting,” a climate of opinion that encourages presentism rather than a historical perspective that reminds us that we are always boats moving against the current, “borne back ceaselessly into the past,” in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s memorable words from The Great Gatsby. This historic recognition should not occasion resentment or dour heaviness; rather, it should instill gratitude. As this book drew to a close, I realized that it was no culminating magnum opus — few books are — but, rather, a contribution to the shared memory of our time and place. And that is enough.

In her endless quest for truth, Jean Bethke Elshtain illustrated in a most inspiring way that quality described by Thomas Mann as the nobility of spirit.


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