Home Page
Fiction and Poetry
Essays and Reviews
Art and Style
World and Politics
Montreal
Archive
 

***

THE HEBREW REPUBLIC*

By Eric Nelson

(Excerpted from "The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought")

***

The Montréal Review, July 2011

***

"The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought" by Eric Nelson (Harvard University Press, 2010)

***

A CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title of 2010

***

"Rarely -- all too rarely -- one reads a book that can really transform a major field of study. Eric Nelson has produced such a book -- and he has done it with lucidity, economy, and grace. The Hebrew Republic teaches us to read early modern political thought in a radically new way."

- Anthony Grafton, author of Worlds Made By Words

***

It has become commonplace to attribute the rise of modern political thought in the West to a process of "secularization." In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, so the story goes, political thought was fundamentally Christian, an exercise in applied theology. To ask what form our political lives should take was, during this period, inevitably to ask what form God wished for them to take. Questions about politics quickly became questions about Revelation, about the proper understanding of God's commands as reflected in Scripture. It was, in short, an age of "political theology." In the sixteenth century, however, this worldview began to erode, and, in the seventeenth, to collapse. The new science of Galileo and Bacon, along with the strident philosophical skepticism of Montaigne and Charron, provoked a radical reconfiguration of European thought. Philosophers of the period no longer recognized religious claims as authoritative, and, given the horrors of the Wars of Religion, came to regard them instead as inherently dangerous to civil peace. The result of this intellectual upheaval has been called "the Great Separation," by which is meant the epoch-making exclusion of religious arguments from the sphere of political discourse. It is this separation, we are told, that is responsible for producing the distinctive features of modern European political thought, including (but by no means limited to) its particular notion of individual rights, its account of the state, and its embrace of religious toleration. These innovations could not appear on the scene until religion had effectively been sequestered from political science. It is, then, the peculiar achievement of the seventeenth century to have bequeathed us a tradition of political thought that has been purged of political theology.

This book begins from the conviction that the traditional story I have just sketched puts things almost exactly backwards. Leaving aside its overly schematic characterization of Medieval political thought, it is clear that this narrative seriously misrepresents the relationship between Renaissance political thought and the political thought of the seventeenth century. Renaissance humanism, structured as it was by the pagan inheritance of Greek and Roman antiquity, generated an approach to politics that was remarkably secular in character. The political science of the humanists did not rely on appeals to Revelation, but rather on the sort of prudential knowledge to be found in the study of history and in the writings of the wise. It was, rather, in the seventeenth century, in the full fervor of the Reformation, that political theology reentered the mainstream of European intellectual life. The Protestant summons to return to the Biblical text brought with it incessant appeals to God's constitutional preferences as embodied in Scripture. To use a crude but revealing measure: if one compares the average number of Biblical citations in the political works of Petrarch, Bruni, Machiavelli, More, and Guicciardini with the number in the political works of Grotius, Selden, Milton, Pufendorf, and Locke, one can be in no doubt about the direction in which the discourse is moving. It is, indeed, not for nothing that seventeenth-century historians have dubbed their period "the Biblical Century." Yet it is also unmistakably the case that many of the central ideas we associate with the emergence of modern political thought did indeed develop in the seventeenth century. What we are in need of, then, is an explanation of how these ideas might have been generated, not as a by-product of advancing secularization, but rather out of the deeply theologized context of the Biblical Century.

In what follows, I attempt to offer such an account. It centers on the sixteenth and seventeenth-century revival of the Hebrew language and on the consequences of that cultural and intellectual phenomenon for the development of European political theory. During this period, Christians began to regard the Hebrew Bible as a political constitution, designed by God himself for the children of Israel. They also came to see the full array of newly available rabbinic materials as authoritative guides to the institutions and practices of this perfect republic. My argument, in brief, is that the Christian encounter with these materials transformed political thought along several important dimensions. The first of these has to do with the idea of political science itself. Before the middle of the seventeenth century, European political thought was characterized by the complete hegemony of what we might call "constitutional pluralism." Following Aristotle and other classical authors, political theorists acknowledged the existence of several correct constitutional forms-monarchy, aristocracy, and polity (later called "republican" government)-which they distinguished from the corresponding incorrect, or degenerate forms: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. Although each theorist often had a view about the best constitution (either the best absolutely, or the best under particular circumstances), it was taken for granted that each of the correct forms was legitimate and even desirable under particular circumstances. In the middle of the seventeenth century, however, we find republican authors making a new and revolutionary argument: they now began to claim that monarchy per se is an illicit constitutional form, and that all legitimate constitutions are republican. In Chapter One, I make the case that this rupture was provoked by the Protestant reception of a radical tradition of rabbinic Biblical exegesis, which understood the Israelite request for a king in I Samuel as an instance of the sin of idolatry. This embrace of "republican exclusivism" heralded the decline of constitutional pluralism and therefore marks a crucial turning point in the history of European political thought.

The second dimension has to do with the early-modern understanding of the state and its purposes. Before the seventeenth century, it had been an unchallenged orthodoxy of republican political theory that a free state ought not to use its coercive power to redistribute wealth. Renaissance republicans learned from their Roman authorities that the most famous ancient attempt at the redistribution of wealth-the Roman agrarian laws-had been unjust, seditious, and ultimately responsible for the collapse of the Roman republic. Even those republicans who rejected the Roman inheritance and instead derived their political commitments from Greek philosophy nonetheless accepted this orthodoxy. These dissenters were occasionally prepared to argue for the abolition of private property, but never for redistribution, which they continued to regard as both dangerous and impolitic. By the middle of the seventeenth century, however, a dramatic transformation was underway. Quite suddenly, republican authors began placing redistribution (in the form of agrarian laws) at the very center of republican politics. My suggestion, which I defend in Chapter Two, is that it was the meditation on Biblical land law-seen through the prism of rabbinic commentaries-which convinced a new generation of republican writers to reexamine the antipathy toward redistribution they had inherited from their forebears. The result was a major reconfiguration of the republican tradition, with consequences extending into our own time.

The third and final dimension concerns the relationship between church and state, and, in particular, the question of religious toleration. It is in this context that the traditional narrative has been perhaps most influential. We are told that the rise of toleration depended upon the advance of secularization, both historically and at the level of theory; that only when religion had finally lost its grip on the European imagination could theorists begin to contemplate broad protection for non-conformist religious belief and practice. We are also told that toleration depended upon, and emerged out of, the belief that church and state should remain fundamentally separate, neither encroaching on the prerogatives of the other. My argument in Chapter Three is that both of these assertions are largely mistaken. The pursuit of toleration was primarily nurtured by deeply felt religious convictions, not by their absence; and it emerged to a very great extent out of the Erastian effort to unify Church and State, not out of the desire to keep them separate. Once again, I argue that the Hebrew revival played a crucial role in forging this nexus between a pious Erastianism and toleration. It was a particular understanding of what the Jewish historian Josephus had meant by the term "theocracy," mediated through a series of rabbinic sources, which convinced a wide range of seventeenth-century authors that God's own thoroughly Erastian republic had embraced toleration.

The combined significance of these three transformations is clear enough. Once we are talking about a world in which a republican constitution is seen as a requirement of legitimacy; in which the state uses its coercive power to redistribute wealth; and in which broad toleration is the rule, we are recognizably talking about the modern world. And if that world was, to an important degree, called into being, not by the retreat of religious conviction, but rather by the deeply held religious belief that the creation of such a world is God's will, then the traditional narrative will have to be significantly revised, if not discarded. In short, it may well be that we live, as Charles Taylor tells us, in a "secular age," but, if so, we nonetheless owe several of our most central political commitments to an age that was anything but. And it seems reasonable to suppose that we will not be able to understand the peculiar fault lines and dissonances of our contemporary political discourse until we come to terms with that basic, paradoxical fact.

***

Eric Nelson is Professor of Government at Harvard University. He is the author of The Greek Tradition in Republican Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2004), as well as editor of Hobbes's translations of the Iliad and Odyssey for the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes (The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2008).

***

* Reprinted by permission of the publisher from "The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought" by Eric Nelson, pp. 1-5, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2010 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

***

 
 

Subscribe
Submissions Guide
Letters to the Editor
pdf
RSS

 
 
 
home | past issues | world & politics | essays | art and style | fiction and poetry | newsletter
Copyright © 2014, T.S. Tsonchev Publishing & Design, Canada. All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911
about | contact us | copyright | user agreement | privacy policy