Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 240
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    According to a commonplace narrative, the rise of modern political thought in the West resulted from secularization—the exclusion of religious arguments from political discourse. But in this pathbreaking work Eric Nelson argues that this familiar story is wrong. Instead, he contends, political thought in early-modern Europe became less, not more, secular with time, and it was the Christian encounter with Hebrew sources that provoked this radical transformation. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Christian scholars began to regard the Hebrew Bible as a political constitution designed by God for the children of Israel. Newly available rabbinic materials became authoritative guides to the institutions and practices of the perfect republic. This thinking resulted in a sweeping reorientation of political commitments. In the book’s central chapters Nelson identifies three transformative claims introduced into European political theory by the Hebrew revival: the argument that republics are the only legitimate regimes; the idea that the state should coercively maintain an egalitarian distribution of property; and the belief that a godly republic would tolerate religious diversity. One major consequence of Nelson’s work is that the revolutionary politics of John Milton, James Harrington, and Thomas Hobbes appear in a brand-new light. Nelson demonstrates that central features of modern political thought emerged from an attempt to emulate a constitution designed by God. This paradox, a reminder that while we may live in a secular age, we owe our politics to an age of religious fervor, in turn illuminates fault lines in contemporary political discourse.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-05674-9
    Subjects: Political Science, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    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 ofpolitical theology. In the sixteenth century, however, this worldview brgan to...

  4. CHAPTER 1 “Talmudical Commonwealthsmen” and the Rise of Republican Exclusivism
    (pp. 23-56)

    The development of republican political theory in the West presents something of a puzzle. In late Medieval and Renaissance Europe, republicanism was always arelativeposition. That is, it was characterized by the claim that republics arebetterthan monarchies. Republicans could, of course, disagree sharply among themselves as to whether republics were always better, how much better they were, and why exactly they were better. But none had any interest in arguing that republics were the only legitimate or acceptable regimes. Even the most strident republican text of the period, Leonardo Bruni’s oration in praise of Nanni Strozzi (1428),...

  5. CHAPTER 2 “For the Land Is Mine”: The Hebrew Commonwealth and the Rise of Redistribution
    (pp. 57-87)

    It is one of the great ironies in the history of European political thought that republicanism has come to be associated with the redistribution of wealth. For contemporary political theorists—particularly those in the Anglophone tradition, but increasingly those on the Continent as well—a chief attraction of the republican perspective has been the belief that, unlike liberalisms of various sorts, republicanism incorporates a robust critique of economic in equality, as well as a commitment to its rectification. Thus, in Philip Pettit’s influential recent account, the republican view of freedom as “non-domination,” unlike the liberal view of freedom as “non-domination,”...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Hebrew Theocracy and the Rise of Toleration
    (pp. 88-137)

    When pressed to identify the salient and distinguishing features of political thought in the modern West, many of us would begin with the principle of religious toleration. Indeed, the notion that the state should be barred from using its coercive power to compel religious conformity stands at the very center of modernity’s self-understanding. Yet how well do we really understand the character and history of this crucial feature of our common world? Despite the recent proliferation of scholarship on the development of toleration in early-modern Europe, two serious misconceptions about it remain particularly widespread. The first is that toleration depends...

  7. Epilogue
    (pp. 138-140)

    The European romance with Hebraica did not end suddenly in 1700. Distinguished studies of the Hebrew republic continued to be published throughout the first half of the eighteenth century,¹ and this corpus of writings enjoyed a significant after life in the debates surrounding the American Revolution at the century’s end. Nonetheless, it is clear that the authority of Biblical example declined dramatically in eighteenth-century European political discourse. That authority had depended upon the conviction that although the Jews later fell from grace, God had initially chosen them from among the nations and had given them the Hebrew Bible as a...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 141-200)
  9. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 201-204)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 205-222)
  11. Index
    (pp. 223-230)