In On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill declared the age of “Christian morality” to be over. The ethical system grounded in Scripture could no longer be taken seriously as a basis for modern conceptions of liberty. The New Testament is not a complete moral system at all, nor does it claim to be; whereas the Old Testament, though certainly containing an ethical doctrine “elaborate indeed,” was “in many respects barbarous, and intended only for a barbarous people.”1
Mill thus sounded a solemn death knell for three centuries of political Hebraism. For three hundred years, political thinkers mined the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, and rabbinic literature for ideas, examples, and full-fledged political systems, with the aim of applying them to contemporary
Mill’s heirs, including late-twentieth-century liberals like Isaiah
And yet the story of political Hebraism, the sustained effort to read the Bible politically during the seventeenth century, is one of the most exciting chapters in the history of political thought—and it is a chapter rather than an anecdote. This essay attempts to point out some of the most interesting, most thought-provoking, and least studied Hebraic and Judaic origins of early modern political thought in
The history of ideas is a wily creature. In the last three decades the seventeenth century has become the locus of a “new,” or “contextual,” history of political thought. Its concepts of liberty, carved out during the Dutch struggle for independence, the English civil war, and the Glorious Revolution, are a major focus of scholarly work. And while both founding fathers of the contextual history of political thought, John Pocock and Quentin Skinner, have warned against the facile drawing of present-day political conclusions from the study of historical texts, recent works (including Skinner’s) have increasingly sought out contemporary relevance in the history of political ideas.5 As Richard Tuck put it, “The point of studying the seventeenth century… is that many of the conflicts which marked its politics are also to be found in some form in the late twentieth century, and indeed, the better our historical sense of what those conflicts were, the more often they seem to resemble modern ones.”6
In Skinner’s cautious formulation, “There must be some deeper level at which our present values and the seemingly alien assumptions of our forebears to some degree match up… Intellectual historians can hope to produce something of far more than antiquarian interest if they simply ply their trade. It is enough for them to uncover the often neglected riches of our intellectual heritage and display them once more to view.”7 The present writer, who belongs to an academic culture far more willing to politicize its intellectual history than that of the Regius Professor at Cambridge, is in full agreement with him about the need for historians to simply “ply their trade.” The texts themselves, however, excavated and quoted and discussed in their own contexts, sometimes scream to be made relevant right over the historian’s bowed head. In particular, a new foundation has been sought recently for contemporary concepts of liberty, which attempts to reconstruct seventeenth-century republican ideas as possible sources of inspiration for a model of political liberty broader, or better balanced, or more subtle, than the classical “thin” liberalism, the liberal theory that insists almost exclusively on civil rights and freedom of expression.
In this essay, I would like to consider an as-yet-unreconstructed piece of the seventeenth-century matrix for rethinking contemporary liberalism. Most of the recent contextual historians who have given new relevance to seventeenth-century political thought have paid little attention to its voluminous Jewish sources—biblical, talmudic, and rabbinic. By most accounts, republican liberty flowed into Europe directly from
Something is surely amiss. Jewish texts were not accidental sources for the subtle discussion of liberty engaged in by seventeenth-century thinkers. There were several important ideas about the nature of freedom, which early modern
This is not an essay about “Jewish” philosophy as such, or about “Christian” readings of Jewish sources, but about early modern European political philosophy, which felt fully and intimately at home with the Hebrew scriptural canon, enjoyed some familiarity with later Jewish texts and exegeses, and accommodated a very small number of living Jews within its sphere of discourse. The interpretations to be discussed here are neither Christian nor Jewish, but ethical and political. The “Hebrew republic,” the polity idealized—practically invented—by early modern Hebraists, is significant above all as a political model. It is part of “the often neglected riches of our intellectual heritage,” not as Jews (or, for that matter, as Christians or Moslems) but as denizens of modern polities in need of refining their concepts of political freedom and active citizenship.
The seventeenth century was the most biblical of European centuries. It transformed the Renaissance Hebraism associated with Pico della Mirandola, Erasmus of Rotterdam, and Johannes Reuchlin, as well as the theological Hebraism of the early Reformation. Martin Luther, who put the New Testament on the kitchen table of almost every literate home in northern
From the second half of the sixteenth century, when the Puritans began culling new political ideas from the Bible, until about 1710, when the early Enlightenment launched its attack against the new demon of “pious superstitions,” the Old Testament played some part in most discussions of the good state, of the best form of government, and of the proper relations between rulers and subjects. Seventeenth-century thinkers used their Bible in a multitude of ways: There were biblical royalists, biblical republicans, biblical regicides, biblical patriarchalists and defenders of the old order, biblical economic revolutionaries and deniers of private property, biblical French imperialists, biblical English patriots, and their biblical Scottish counterparts. Policies, polemics, and parodies were based on the Bible. Writers and readers alike were intimately familiar with the Old Testament.11 In Protestant Europe and in much of counter-Reformation
On the antipodes of political thought in that contentious and bloody century, we find at one extreme Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, an advocate of the French monarchy and an enthusiastic supporter of its claims to empire over
By focusing only on the biblical roots of republican ideas, we leave most of these interpretations aside. The seventeenth-century radical Baruch Spinoza, who was more of a democrat than a republican, also remains on the sidelines of this particular story. So does the tradition of religious tolerance that was transformed by Spinoza and Locke into a doctrine of political tolerance.14 For at issue here is neither toleration of the weak, the dispossessed, or the misguided, nor the question of metaphysical equality among God’s creatures, but rather the acts of citizens within the polity: The interrelations among active bearers of civic virtue, their dealings with their government and laws, and their commitment to what seventeenth-century thinkers still recognized—up to and including Locke—as the image of God within them.
A highly influential group of seventeenth-century thinkers found within Hebraic sources a cluster of significant ideas, and put them into the mainstream of European intellectual history. These thinkers, and the ideas about which they wrote, were linked to one another in several ways. The following sections of this essay discuss three seminal ideas, explicitly and often exclusively Hebraic in their inspiration—ideas for which Aristotle, Cicero, or Tacitus (among others) could not reasonably be credited—which played a crucial role in the genealogy of modern political thought. They affected early modern thinking about the state and about political liberty, and took part in the birth pangs of classical liberalism itself. They deserve study, and perhaps they merit the kind of cautious quest for new relevancy that historians are sometimes tempted to engage in while plying their trade.
The first of these was a concept of international borders, nonfeudal demarcations of sovereign states, which underpinned a novel, natural-law-based theory of the state, law, and rights. Second, a “moral economy,” based on primeval universal community, entailing mutual social responsibility and imposing limits on property rights. Third, the idea of the federal republic as modeled on the twelve tribes of
John Selden was an English jurist who devoted his entire life to the study of ancient Hebrew law. His great ambition was to demonstrate that the laws of the Jews, given in the Pentateuch and interpreted in the Talmud and in Maimonides’ Mishneh Tora, constitute the historical core of the natural law common to all mankind. Enlightenment thinkers, notably Voltaire, would later mock Selden’s effort as the scholastic triflings of a dusty erudit, but in his own day admiration for
This same thesis, that divine principles were geared towards a just and practical constitution, appeared to
Hobbes, too, was a dedicated Hebraist, and two of Leviathan’s four books rely heavily on the ancient Israelite model. As Menachem Lorberbaum has recently argued, Hobbes politics was essentially a political theology: He invoked biblical authority for his doctrine that the ruler alone is the legitimate interpreter of the divine will. Both the will of God and the assent of his creatures are necessary to justify the establishment of a political community. After the initial democratic moment, when the civil compact is signed in accordance with the model of the covenant between God and Israel,24 the sovereign proceeds to rule alone, as the source of law and guarantor of the social order.25 Selden and Hobbes thus followed a common route: A biblical foundational moment yields a political matrix, and a theological scaffolding gives way to a solidified constitutional model. In ancient
What, then, did
The occasion for
It was within these Bodinian, Hobbesian, and Seldenian states, headed by a sovereign and enclosed within clearly delineated national borders, that a new idea of European liberty, based on natural law, could flourish. The state was the source of law and hence the source of rights, and its subjects could therefore become bearers of rights of a new kind, universal and equal.31 Just as the unambiguous boundaries of biblical Israel defined a space in which “the same rule shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you,”32 so too the new sovereign European state created a new space for legal equality.
Biblical inspiration must, again, be measured against its own limits: Not civil rights, but the delineated political space within which they could be enacted, was the outcome of
It is likely that John Selden never met a Jew in his lifetime: Jews had been expelled from
Cunaeus’ great work, Respublica Hebraeorum (“The Commonwealth of the Hebrews”), was published in 1617.35 It was preceded by about a dozen works by other authors bearing the same title, but Cunaeus’ effort stood apart, for the first time presenting the Israelite state of the First Temple period, and especially the united monarchy under Saul, David, and Solomon, as a practical model for the newly independent United Provinces. Cunaeus addressed his book to the General Estates of
What did Cunaeus see in the ancient Hebrew polity? First and foremost, the biblical historical narrative from Exodus to Kings, and its exegesis in Jewish literature, provided him with a realistic source of political inspiration.38 He read Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities and Contra Apion, as well as Maimonides’ Mishneh Tora, and these works assisted him in translating the Bible’s political imagery into familiar Greco-Roman terms. In Cunaeus’ opinion, however, the Hebrew republic was of a higher order than the Greek or Roman states. Because its god was the true God, the Hebrew state, a real polity in every sense notwithstanding its divine origins, could function as an archetype for the ideal republic. Its laws corresponded to natural law, and its social spirit flowed directly from the divine imperative of justice. This state was neither a monarchy nor an oligarchy nor a democracy, but a republic, whose senate—the Sanhedrin—and magistrates, including judges and priests, enforced and executed divinely ordained laws in ordinary civic situations.39
Two aspects of this ancient polity intrigued Cunaeus. First, the agricultural and social laws of the Bible; and second, his understanding of the Israelite kingdom of the
Cunaeus’ second concern was with the constitution of ancient
What held this republic together—until Jeroboam came and divided it irrevocably—was the principle of the concordia, the basic human social impulse towards unity that was celebrated by Cunaeus’ great teacher and rival, Hugo Grotius. The very concordia that held the tribes of Israel together throughout their early republican age would serve during the seventeenth century as the basis for the powerful idea that Grotius would pass on to his disciples, and especially to John Locke: The idea that a sense of social responsibility and a natural desire for peace connect the members of every civil society, and bring polities and their neighbors into peaceful cohabitation.43
The three interlinked concepts derived from the Bible were thus well established by the middle of the seventeenth century: Political boundaries as the basis for the application of universal laws; rules of social and economic justice as an inseparable component of a well-governed republic; and the decentralized federal state, existing by virtue of the concordia prevailing in a people that lives in accordance with the natural law.
The glory of the Hebrew republic in Western political thought reached its apex in the middle of the seventeenth century, when the English republican revolutionaries made it their central historical model, sometimes alongside the Roman republic, but more often above it. James Harrington did so in his Oceana (1651), John Milton followed suit in his In Defense of the English Nation (1658), and they were joined by several other republican writers who have recently enjoyed a revival of scholarly interest, such as Algernon Sidney and Marchamont Nedham.44
These thinkers all repeat, with individual variations, the same basic theme: The people of
Some thinkers, including Cunaeus and Sidney, deemed the Hebrew republic an aristocracy, governed by a Sanhedrin that functioned as a senate, ruled by priests and other magistrates—and, when necessary, by a warrior-judge.50 But civic participation and the relative equality of property guaranteed that it was nevertheless a true republic. Harrington in particular made a point of emphasizing ancient
Most of these authors painstakingly showed that the Bible favored the early republic over the subsequent kingdom, and argued that it was the very existence of an Israelite monarchy as such, or at least its division into two rival kingdoms, which brought decline, destruction, and exile upon the Chosen People.53 In this view, the coronation of Saul was both a theological and a political error, because kingship rightfully belongs to God alone, and because the revelation at Sinai was aimed at creating a republic, not a kingdom:54 A polity blessed with republican laws and institutions, and with a civic spirit.55 In its demise, however, the republic of the Hebrews passed the divine command on to other republics. From the perspective of the English revolutionaries, they had inherited a godly mandate for political existence, subject to a constitution independent of church and crown.
The Hebrew Bible, buttressed by Josephus and Maimonides, thus offered these devout republicans an archetypal political community, divine in source but wholly historical in its life and aims. This republic would partake of wars and internal struggles like any other historical nation, but would at the same time be bound to an imperative for social justice embodied in its unrivaled code of law.56
The demise of the Israelite commonwealth was no evidence against its political wholesomeness. As disciples of Aristotle, Polybius, and Livy, these early modern republicans knew only too well that history, alas, devours all its political creations. The republic of the Hebrews is no more; its progeny wander through
John Locke, the founder of classical liberalism, was a Christian who based his political outlook on the imperative of obeying God-given duties. Indeed, Locke may have been the last major political theorist of the Western canon who possessed, and deployed, a detailed knowledge of the biblical text.57 His immediate followers, in particular the thinkers of the French and Scottish Enlightenment, found little room for the Scriptures on their desks.
In the past three decades, several major works re-examining Locke have transformed his previous image as a theorist of “thin” or “negative” liberalism, as the spiritual father of capitalism, and as the herald of secular political rationalism.58 Locke held that promises will not be kept without God, and that no social contract and no civil society can be maintained without keeping promises. He believed not only that the state needs to guarantee its citizens’ rights to life, liberty, and property, but that its citizens also have duties toward the state, and particularly toward their fellow men, who partake in the image of God.
Locke argued for these principles with reference to both the New Testament and the tradition of natural law. But the key to the link between Locke’s theory of political obligation and his idea of social obligation lay in the Hebrew Bible. Robert Filmer, against whose ideas Locke’s first Treatise of Government was principally directed, had argued that the king rules by the grace of God and, being a direct heir of Adam, is exempt from human control. Locke summoned all his biblical expertise in order to refute the argument that God gave Adam absolute sovereignty, or that this sovereignty was passed on, first to Noah and then by lines of legitimate patrimony all the way to James II of England. Rule is not an absolute possession, Locke asserted, and it is not passed on through lineal inheritance.59 The right to rule depends on the ruler’s commitment to the rights of the ruled, and it may be annulled and transferred when the violation of the subjects’ rights transcends tolerable limits.
What did Locke learn from the Hebrew Bible? First, that men left the state of nature and established civil society out of necessity. Locke’s state of nature is occasionally conflictual, demanding temporal leadership and justice. Appealing to divine intervention may prove insufficient in such pre-political quarrels: Otherwise, why would the children of Israel and the Ammonites take up arms after the judge Jephthah had explicitly called upon God to judge between the two?60 Like several Calvinist thinkers before him, Locke saw in the period of the judges a transitional stage between the state of nature and civil society, and discerned in its failings a proof of the necessity of the state for resolving disputes.61 It was the Bible, he argued, that documented the particular moment that “puts men out of a state of nature into that of a commonwealth, by setting up a Judge on Earth” and establishing “a political, or civil, society.”62
The Israelites founded a state that was not only unique and divinely ordained, but which “favours not at all paternal dominion.”63 At its foundations lies the Tora, the legal basis of what Locke had called in an earlier work the “national Jewish liberty.”64 But because God himself had established the “government of the Jews” and devoted special attention to it, Locke found it necessary to remark on “the Scriptures being utterly silent” about everything that pertains to other governments, and to note that the Bible “speaks very little of polities.”65 This does not mean that God is not present in the state. On the contrary, true religion, for Locke, was the only guarantee for any political transaction. But no ruler can arrogantly assume absolute dominion while at the same time relying on God’s grace. If a ruler is tyrannical, the divine right flows through those who would rebel against him—as Locke found in the assistance God rendered to Hezekiah in rebelling against the king of
But if no king can claim an unreserved birthright dating from Adam, no owner can claim property rights going back to the same primeval bearer of rights. For just as Adam was not absolute sovereign of the earth, neither was he its owner: He received no dominium from his Creator over the land beneath his feet—and neither did Noah or his sons. In the beginning, said Locke, all the world belonged to all human beings.67 Here was the subtle link between Locke’s theory of government—the limitation of political dominium—and his moral economy, which was based on the limitation of material dominium. The link lay in the second and third chapters of the book of Genesis, Locke’s oft-ignored primary source of reference.
Locke, to be sure, was no Leveller.68 Most of his interpreters today agree that he viewed the historical phase prior to the enclosure of property, a phase identified with the early part of Genesis, as a “negative community” from which people took for themselves private property over the course of time, and not as a “positive community,” according to which all of the land belongs to all human beings in perpetuity.69 There is nothing wrong with private property because, as the republicans argued, it serves as the basis for civic participation in the political community.70 But material possessions “are never so much ours that they cease to be God’s.”71
This claim is a cornerstone of Locke’s political philosophy: To him, “property” includes our lives, our liberty, and our private possessions, which are also the key to our membership in the political community. But precisely for this reason there is a limit on private property. In the distant past, human beings owned whatever land they could till by their own labor, and enjoy for their own consumption.72 The invention of money, however, greatly increased the possibility of accumulating wealth and property. But if a fellow human is starving, his right to life overrules our right to property, and we are obligated to feed him.73 In Locke’s words: “God, the Lord and Father of all, has given no one of his children such a property, in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods; so that it cannot justly be denied him, when his pressing wants call for it.”74 Absolute ownership is thus as unacceptable as absolute rule. Early liberalism drew its principles of social justice from the same wellspring from which it drew its principles of limited government.
Locke still belonged to the class of “moral economists,” whose political thinking could never ignore the three great symbols of the biblical needy: The stranger, the orphan, and the widow. He would have agreed with Leibniz’s succinct equation, that justice is none other than charity.75 And it is worth noting that whereas in Latin and its daughter languages there is no etymological connection between justitia and caritas, the Hebrew equivalents, tzedek and tzedaka, are semantical twins.
The rise and fall of the “republic of the Hebrews” in European political philosophy was part of the rise and fall of moral economy. So long as the right to property was offset, as in Locke, by the hungry man’s “right to surplusage,” the early Hebrew commonwealth could present a unique model of an altruistic community rooted in law.76 But perhaps a reversed causality also holds true. So long as jurists and political thinkers read the Bible as a historical and political text, they remained committed to the principles of moral economy.
Several explanations have been given for the decline and fall of the Bible as a political text in the early eighteenth century. Historians have attributed it to the demise of radical Protestantism, to the growing revulsion against pious enthusiasm,77 to the downfall of the English revolutionary republic, to the rise of centralized monarchy based on raison d’etat, and to the decline of Latin and Hebraic erudition in the wake of Enlightenment philosophie and the witty vernacular prose of Addison and Voltaire.
It is worth noting, in this context, that few Protestant cultures gave up the Scriptures so quickly and so thoroughly as did the Scottish Enlightenment. Despite the clerical background of some of its leading lights, and in line with the professed secularism of its greatest mind, David Hume, the particular Scottish understanding of economics and society disposed of moral economy efficiently and persuasively. Adam Smith’s economic world is certainly a moral place, but its morality is based neither on Genesis nor on Deuteronomy. It relies on the natural functioning of the marketplace, guided by an invisible hand and founded on the principle of absolute property rights.78 Private property, for Hume and for Smith, no longer requires a divine dimension. Brotherly altruism is no longer expected from men created in God’s image. Hume and Smith saw modern European man as a merchant rather than a citizen, gracious and refined, but self-serving to the core. Public welfare is no longer founded on his conscious charity. It is, rather, an unintended benefit of his self-interested activity, thanks to the corrective mechanisms of the modern marketplace. He is a man of his word and tends to keep his promises—as a result of social pressure and concern for the opinion of his neighbor, not out of the fear of God. An individual may or may not be moral, but society as a whole cannot be moral, nor does it need to be.79 Justice is blind, or—in eighteenth-century terms—it is beautifully mechanical. When setting out to invent the modern science of economics, Hume and Smith put aside the Bible and Cicero, and eagerly opened
This was the first major break in the ranks of classical liberal thought,81 and with the help of a selective reading of Locke it grew progressively deeper. The citizen was increasingly seen as enjoying rights granted by the state, but was freed of performing voluntary moral duties toward his community. Constitutions and governmental mechanisms took the place of individual civic involvement. Hume deemed it unwise to base a large modern state on the virtues of its citizens.82 Jean-Jacques Rousseau redefined “republic” as any state in which the rule of law prevailed.83 Immanuel Kant concluded that an ideal state may be run by demons, so long as they are guided by reason.84 In considering the success of the future European state, all three placed their trust not in citizens but in reason, institutions, and law. In this way, classical liberalism had internalized the concept of territory and law which John Selden had derived from the Bible and the Talmud—but not the imperative of mutual responsibility gleaned by Cunaeus and Locke from the same sources.85
Enlightenment philosophes no longer needed the Old Testament and the republic of the Hebrews. The political writings of Hume, Kant, and the American founders make few references to the Jews, and care little for their ancient political experience. The glaring contradiction between the grandeur of the Jewish texts and the miserable state of contemporary Jews, a constant source of astonishment to seventeeth-century readers, no longer troubled the eighteenth century: The Hebrew texts were as obsolete as the living Jews themselves. The books, not to mention the rabbis, could no longer provide sustenance for new theories of government and society.86 European liberalism regarded the Jews as objects of distaste, curiosity, or charity, but not as partners in conversation, certainly not within the realm of political thought.87
This was not a question of anti-Semitism. Many of the seventeenth-century thinkers, including Selden, had no difficulty combining a disdain for the Jews of their time with great interest in and respect for the ancient Hebrew republic, and even for the later rabbinic writers. By the eighteenth century, no such contrast could be found. For Montesquieu and for Hume, biblical history provided at best some minor political examples, as would any book in an educated man’s library.88 For others, such as Kant, the Jewish political tradition became a negative precedent in every respect.89 The customs of Israel documented in the Bible no longer exemplified the historical application of natural law, and the Israelites were no longer the fortunate nation that had once been, by means of the revealed law, so close to carrying out God’s own political design. The commonwealth of the Hebrews no longer stood for liberty.90
An offhand remark by Hume, in his essay “Of Public Credit,” supplies a vivid example that dramatizes this change. The Bible makes mention of the treasury of King Hezekiah, writes Hume, “if I remember correctly.”91 One doubts that John Locke could possibly refer to the Old Testament in so careless a manner. Yet many in the generation following Hume no longer even took the trouble to attempt to “remember correctly.”92
A lone voice in the wilderness was Moses Mendelssohn, who, in his book
And it was precisely this attitude that the thinkers of the Enlightenment passed on to later European liberalism. The Jew was no longer a political mentor, but an object of tolerance. The Jews of Europe were addressees, but no longer correspondents. The Jew depicted in the writings of Lessing and Walter Scott and George Eliot is a beneficiary of kindness, at times an erotic creature, an attractive and esoteric bearer of ancient wisdom—but his book of books had been removed from the desk of the political philosopher. It is back in its late-Renaissance place, on the preacher’s pulpit or under the philologist’s lamp.95
Until the last quarter of the twentieth century, the idea of liberty in Western liberal thought, which Jewish scholars such as Isaiah
In the last three decades, the situation has changed. Classical liberalism has sustained sharp criticism from thinkers who have internalized its values. “Thin” liberalism, they argue, is not enough; ensuring basic civil rights and a free market cannot suffice. Isaiah Berlin’s cherished “negative liberty,” the freedom of the individual from the gross interference of state, church, or other establishments, does not exempt us from confronting the question of “positive liberty,” the freedom to undertake civic activity on a communal level, whose enforcement Berlin so greatly feared. Liberals today are raising questions of social, and not only civil, rights; of group rights and group identity, and not only individual identity; of the cohabitation of different cultures within the same political framework; of the varieties of political life far from the centers of political power. Hence, critical-liberal and post-liberal Jewish thinkers, such as
At this particular juncture in the history of political thought it may well be worthwhile to take a fresh look at the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, and the Mishneh Tora: The political Bible, which for the philosophical Christian reader was holier than Tacitus, yet more historical and political than the New Testament; the Bible as a textbook on political borders and universal laws; the legal Bible, whose God is first and foremost the judge of all the world, a title which at times allows a mortal like Abraham to bring even God’s own actions—vocally and unequivocally—under judicial review.99
But not only the political Bible and the legal Bible await those who read Locke’s sources seriously. So does the social Bible, whose regulations were so great an inspiration to utopian republicanism and moral economy in the seventeenth century. Had this tradition not been cut off in its prime, it could have had a direct impact on much of the social thought of the early twentieth century. The early Labor Zionists knew something of this powerful link of inspiration; A.D. Gordon and Berl Katznelson and Martin Buber certainly did. Labor Zionism and the founders of the kibutzim and moshavim knew intuitively that biblical influence fed the modern longing for social justice, but they did not know that Selden and Cunaeus and Harrington and Locke had already explored this ground. Nor did they know that early modern Europe had invested great efforts that might have built a bridge connecting ancient
What, then, does the seventeenth century offer us in reading the classic Jewish sources? I have suggested here three principles: The importance of the rule of law within fixed borders; a non-Roman republicanism based on the idea of mutual responsibility and a higher moral calling, which finds expression in social laws; and finally, the model of the federal republic. This last principle is needed not only because Europe is establishing itself as a federal republic before our eyes, but because in some sense modern Israel itself is, whether we like it or not, a federal republic of sorts. With good reason do the twelve tribes serve as a metaphor to describe our breathtaking cultural, social, and intellectual diversity. I therefore suggest that we listen to those republicans, Cunaeus and Harrington, and take note of what they found in the Bible: At the feet of the Ark of the Covenant they discovered a polis. In that ancient theocracy they found a decentralized state rich in local customs and in strong-willed leaders. The seventeenth-century republicans needed those Jews of old, who dared criticize even God’s own plans. They needed them because those Israelites were different from the pagans of
My point here is not to glory in whatever Jewish chromosomes may be found in the genome of Western political thought. It is, rather, to consider and reconsider which parts of these sources, and of the inspiration they offered to European theorists of liberty, might be of value to us today. For example, ought we not reconsider the seemingly simplistic dichotomy between Judaism and modern liberalism? Between the seemingly competing claims that modern
Perhaps the Bible’s greatest gift to its politically minded readers was the awareness of the importance of individual personalities within political history, of the perfectly singular mind of a warrior-judge like Gideon, of a leader like Deborah, of a political dissident like Nathan, of a killer like Yael the Kenite, of a social reformer like Amos, or simply of an all-too-human figure like Saul. The Bible, anticipating Machiavelli, heralded the arrival in Western history of the political actor—the thinking and acting individual who wrestles with political virtue and political vice, who has a will to power and yet practices self-restraint, who brings all the grandeur and pettiness and restlessness of the human personality into the theater of political life. This was part of the Bible’s charm for the republicans, but not necessarily for the liberals. The latter—from Hume and Kant to
Whoever feels today that this gamble on the part of post-Enlightenment liberalism did not pay off, that legal mechanisms are not always enough, that institutions and laws and even rights are at times insufficient, is invited to return to the great laboratory of the seventeenth century. For it is from there, if we look again to the ancient Hebrew republic for inspiration, that we may yet restore the questions of human nature, communal responsibility, and the deliberate actions of the individual into the heart of our own political discourse.
Fania Oz-Salzberger is a Senior Lecturer in the
I wish to thank Shlomo Avineri,
1. “But before pronouncing what Christian morality is or is not, it would be desirable to decide what is meant by Christian morality. If it means the morality of the New Testament, I wonder that any one who derives his knowledge of this from the book itself, can suppose that it was announced, or intended, as a complete doctrine of morals…. To extract from it a body of ethical doctrine, has never been possible without eking it out from the Old Testament, that is, from a system elaborate indeed, but in many respects barbarous, and intended only for a barbarous people.” J.S. Mill, On
2. A similar attitude can be seen in the majority of general surveys of the liberal tradition, such as John Gray, Liberalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1986).
3. The collection Liberalism and Its Critics, edited by Michael Sandel, a central work on the polemic between advocates of classical liberalism and its critics, does not contain a single reference to the Jewish sources, neither from the side of the “liberals” such as Isaiah Berlin, nor from that of liberalism’s “critics,” such as Hannah Arendt and Michael Walzer. It is particularly interesting to compare Walzer, who parallel to his critique of liberalism developed a profound discussion of Jewish political thought (and at a later stage integrated the two), with such Catholic critics of liberalism as Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre. Already in the 1970s, these thinkers openly articulated the political relevance to be found, in their view, in Catholic moral philosophy: See Michael J. Sandel, ed., Liberalism and Its Critics (New York: New York University, 1984).
4. It is interesting to note that even adamant political “moderns,” thinkers who claimed that the modern era had political insights that departed from the entire range of possibilities offered by the tradition of the ancient world and hence required novel theoretical structures, still found interest in ancient
5. Cf. Quentin Skinner, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” History and Theory 8 (1969), pp. 3-53; Iain Hampsher-Monk, “The History of Political Thought and the Political History of Thought,” in Dario Castiglione and Iain Hampsher-Monk, eds., The History of Political Thought in National Context (Cambridge: Cambridge, 2001), pp. 159-174.
6. Richard Tuck, Philosophy and Government 1572-1651 (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1993), pp. xi-xii.
7. Quentin Skinner,
9. Skinner, Liberty Before Liberalism, part 1.
10. J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton, 1975); Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, vol. i, The Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1978), chs. 4, 6; for political theory anchored in the history of political thought, see Phillip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997).
11. See, for example, Leibniz, who makes a parody of Bossuet’s presumptuous derivation of a French “right of conquest” in Europe from the rule (autoritas) that Moses took from God and borrowed from the Egyptians, a right which also applied to the conquest of
12. Notwithstanding the sharp differences between them, Bossuet and “Brutus,” each in his own way, raised the political use of the Bible to a high art. Both saw in the relation of the people to their king a covenant on the part of God (though they disagreed regarding the possibility of annulling it), and both found in I Samuel 8, which depicts the anointing of Saul, the historical centerpiece of their political outlook. Both moved within the monarchical paradigm, which is outside the ken of our present discussion. Cf. Stephanus Junius Brutus, the Celt (pseudonym attributed to Hubert Languet), Vindiciae contra Tyrannos: Or, Concerning the Legitimate Power of a Prince Over the People, and of the People Over a Prince (1579), ed. and trans. George Garnett (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1994). On the New Testament as a unique source within the model of natural law, see George Garnett, “Introduction,” in Junius Brutus, Vindiciae contra Tyrannos, pp. xxx-xxxi. Bossuet, who was active some hundred years later, was dubbed a “Judaizing Calvinist” by the historian of political thought Judith Shklar. While
13. Christopher Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution (London: Penguin, 1993).
14. On the thought of the politiques in France and in the Netherlands, and on the attitude to Jews within the paradigm of religious toleration, see Miriam Yardeni, Huguenots and Jews (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar, 1998) [Hebrew]; on Spinoza and Locke, see Jonathan Irvine Israel, Locke, Spinoza, and the Philosophical Debate Concerning Toleration in the Early Enlightenment (c. 1670-1750) (Amsterdam: Koninklijke Nederlands Akademie van Westenschappen, 1999).
15. At the same time, Leibniz considered
16. Selden, De jure naturali & Gentium juxta Disciplinam Ebraeorum (“The Law of Nature and the Nations According to the Hebrews”) (
18. John Selden, A History of Tithes (
19. Selden, Uxor Hebraica (
20. Selden devoted his encyclopedic work, De Synedriis & Praefecturis Juridicis Veterum Ebraeorum (“On the Sanhedrins and the Judiciary Posts of the Ancient Hebrews”) (1750-1753), to the Sanhedrin as a legislative, interpretive, and judicial body, and as a precedent for nonclerical systems of law in later political societies.
21. On the centrality of
22. A delicious twist awaits us down the road from
23. The revolutionary onus remains with Selden and Hobbes, as creative readers of the Hebrew sources. My point here, as later, is not to celebrate the early modern rapture that biblical
24. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (
25. Menachem Lorberbaum, “The Return of the Leviathan: On Hobbes’ Political Theory,” in the journal Tarbut Demokratit, forthcoming.
26. Abraham Berkowitz, “John Selden and the Biblical Origins of the Modern International Political System,” Jewish Political Studies Review 6:1-2 (Spring 1993), pp. 27-47. This reading of Selden is supported by Richard Tuck’s suggestion that
27. This initiative began by an order of James I, but the book was published during the reign of his heir. In terms of his own political stance,
28. Hugo Grotius, Mare Liberum (1609), translated by R. Magoffin as The Freedom of the Sea (New York: Oxford, 1916).
29. John Selden, Of the Dominion and Ownership of the Sea (Mare Clausum) (commenced in 1618, published in 1635), trans. Marchamont Nedham (1652); Berkowitz, “
30. Bodin, too, was a political Hebraist. Without going into his Hebraism at great length, I will make do with two observations. First, Bodin, as opposed to Selden, employed the ancient Israelite model (in addition to the Greek) specifically in order to demonstrate that “civil society,” understood as a federation of tribal unions, was a transitional phase between the family and the sovereign state. The people of
31. On Hobbes’ contribution to the discussion of universal rights in the generations that followed him, see Tuck, Natural Rights Theories. As for Bodin, it is interesting to note that Pierre Bayle used Bodin’s depiction of Moses in order to ground his claim that Bodin was not a benighted absolutist, but a brilliant early theoretician of liberty, who attempted to combat religious oppression and persecution in an age of wars of religion, especially papist persecution, which made use of the doctrine of sovereignty. See Pierre Bayle, “An Historical and Critical Dictionary,” in Pierre Bayle, Political Writings, ed. Sally L. Jenkinson (
32. Numbers 15:16.
33. The pinnacle of this dialogue, the acid test in which its intellectual victory and human defeat were sealed, was the case of Baruch Spinoza, the tragic crosser of boundaries and the great bearer of Jewish-Christian “otherness.”
34. Grotius was more pragmatic than John Selden, when he proposed seeing in the “Hebrew republic” a practical model for the establishment of the young Dutch republic. But Grotius’ work on this subject, Republica Emendanda (“The Republic Reformed”), was not published until a century after his death.
35. I make use here of the new bilingual edition edited by Lea Campos Boralevi, who brings the Latin source alongside the English translation (by Clement Barksdale) of 1653: Petrus Cunaeus, The Commonwealth of the Hebrews (1617/1653), intr. Lea Campos Boralevi (Florence: Centro Editoriale Toscano, 1996). [Note: page-number references for Cunaeus reflect the facing Latin/English pagination.]
36. Cunaeus, Commonwealth, p. 4/5.
38. My analysis of Cunaeus is indebted to Lea Campos Boralevi’s Introduction to her edition of Commonwealth.
39. On the Sanhedrin as a senate, see Cunaeus, Commonwealth, pp. 58/59, 142/143, and elsewhere. The motifs of
40. Cunaeus, Commonwealth, p. 60/61. Cunaeus quotes at length, in this context, from Leviticus 25, emphasizing the mechanism of invigorating and renewing the division of land and of agrarian justice by means of the sabbatical and jubilee years, as well as the prevention of poverty and harmful urbanization by means of the laws governing treatment of the stranger and the widow, the first fruits, and tithes—in contrast to the centralization of land ownership, degeneration, and ethical corruption in ancient Rome. Cunaeus, Commonwealth, ch. 3.
41. The connection between moral economy and political liberty will be further discussed below, with reference to John Locke.
42. Cunaeus, Commonwealth, pp. 6/7-10/11, but compare with the author’s discussion of the centrality of Jerusalem according to the Talmud and the identification of its fall with that of the Jewish commonwealth (Cunaeus’ term for the era of the Second Temple) in ch. 7.
43. See primarily Tuck, Natural Rights Theories, pp. 72-74. The idea of the concordia, which Grotius attributed to prestate human society as a whole, in the sense of its being a basic model of the state of nature based upon “natural rights,” was applied by Cunaeus to the description of the multilayered federal government of ancient
44. Nedham translated Selden’s Mare Clausum into English in 1652.
45. A comprehensive discussion of the commonwealth of the Hebrews appears within an overt polemic against the royalist reading of the Bible: James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), ed. J.G.A. Pocock (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1992); Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government (1698), ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1990). The latter is a polemic work directed against Robert Filmer’s utopia, Patriarcha, which is a central text of seventeenth-century Hebraic monarchism.
46. On Harrington, the most prominent of the republican thinkers drawing on Hebraic sources, see primarily J.G.A. Pocock, “Historical Introduction,” in J.G.A. Pocock, ed., The Political Works of James Harrington (New York: Cambridge, 1977); Blaire Worden, “James Harrington and the Commonwealth of Oceana,
47. Josephus, Contra Apion II.165, discussed “the republic of the Hebrews” as a “theocracy,” thus pioneering the political conceptualization of the biblical state in Greco-Roman terms.
48. Exodus 19:6.
49. The inclusion of the priests among rank-and-file magistrates—in this case subject to the king—already appears in Bodin, Six Books, book iii, ch. 6, p. 360.
51. The English republicans shared Cunaeus’ emphasis on biblical agrarian law as a basis for the just division of property—an important condition for the vibrancy of the republic and for sustaining the federal principle. Alongside Leviticus 25 they also cite in this context Joshua 13-19.
52. According to Harrington, the superiority of
53. This point is repeatedly illustrated by citing Moses in Deuteronomy 4:5, Gideon in Judges 8:23, the full text of I Samuel 8, especially v. 7, and Hosea 13:10-11. Cf., for example, John Milton, A Defense of the People of England (1658), in John Milton, Political Writings, ed. Martin Dzelzainis, trans. Claire Gruzelier (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1991), p. 102 and passim; Algernon Sidney, Court Maxims, ed. Hans W. Blom, et al. (New York: Cambridge, 1996), pp. 42-43 and passim.
56. John Pocock’s seminal study of the revolutionary English republicans as the conveyors of the “Machiavellian moment” to early modern European and American political discourse underrates, in my view, the political Hebraism of “English Machiavellism,” most notably Harrington’s. Cf. Pocock, Machiavellian Moment, chs. 10-11.
57. On the “theocentrism” of Locke’s political theory, see first and foremost John Dunn, The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument of the “Two Treatises of Government” (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1969). Locke was educated as a Puritan, though his mature political thought steered away from Puritan extremism. In his later years he wrote interpretations of Scripture, conversed with Isaac Newton on the secrets of biblical chronology, and died in 1704 while the mistress of the house was reading to him from Psalms. See Mark Goldie, “Introduction,” in John Locke, Political Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1997), pp. xiv-xv.
58. It was understood thus by C.B. Macpherson in his well-known book, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Clarendon, 1962). Some of the more significant reassessments that have appeared recently are mentioned in subsequent footnotes.
59. Locke dedicated the first of his treatises on government to this subject: John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (1690), ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1996). His refutation of the hypothesis of lineal inheritance, making extensive use of the Bible, appears on pp. 218-236.
60. Judges 11:27. Jephthah went as far as confronting the Ammonites with legalistic arguments regarding the right of the Israelites to their land.
61. The story of Jephthah is a crucial biblical reference. It was repeatedly cited by Locke (and similarly by Grotius and Pierre Jurieu). See Locke, Two Treatises, First Treatise, section 163, p. 260; Second Treatise, section 109, p. 340, and section 176, p. 376; but see primarily Second Treatise, section 21, p. 282, and the editor’s comment on that page.
62. Locke, Two Treatises, Second Treatise, section 89, p. 325.
63. Locke, Two Treatises, Second Treatise, section 101, p. 334.
64. This liberty is based entirely upon obedience to the laws given at Sinai. It was abandoned, as Locke pointed out, both by the Pharisees, who were haughty enough to think that they “sat on Moses’ chair” (Matthew 23:2), and by Jesus, founder of “Christian liberty,” whose essential purpose was “not to submit to legal injunctions.” Locke, “First Tract on Government” (1660), in Locke, Political Essays, pp. 26-27.
65. Locke, Political Essays, p. 51. If the Holy Scriptures had been a complete constitution for all human concerns, argued Locke, then any new civil legislation would be considered blasphemy. See his “Second Tract on Government” (ca. 1662), in Locke, Political Essays, p. 72.
66. “And the Eternal was with him; wherever he went forth he prospered; and he rebelled against the king of
67. In his “First Treatise,” Locke argues that neither Genesis 1:28 nor any other source makes any reference to “Adam’s monarchy or private dominion, but quite the contrary.… To conclude, this text is so far from proving Adam sole proprietor, that on the contrary, it is a confirmation of the original community of all things amongst the sons of men, which appearing from this donation of God, as well as other places of Scripture; the sovereignty of Adam, built upon his private dominion, must fall, not having any foundation to support it.” Locke, Two Treatises, First Treatise, section 40, p. 169 (emphases in original). Cf. Peter Laslett, “Introduction,” in Two Treatises, p. 101.
68. On Locke’s concept of property, see Tuck, Natural Rights Theories; James Tully, A Discourse on Property: John Locke and His Adversaries (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1980); Dunn, Political Thought.
69. Tully, who thinks that Locke employs the principle of “positive community,” is in disagreement on this point with Tuck and Dunn (as well as Hont and Ignatieff, below), who attribute to Locke the model of “negative community.”
70. Locke’s approach was republican in its essence: Property is the basis of civic involvement, which in turn is the basis of liberty. Hence, the property confiscated by Charles II and James II deprived their opponents, among them radical Puritans of Locke’s own milieu, of their civic standing. Despite the fact that Locke’s mature political model was a limited monarchic one, some important republican elements may be discerned in his thought. He found elements of a federal republic in
71. Was it possible, Locke asked in this context, that God’s words in matters of property might contradict natural law? Was the Exodus from
72. Locke, Two Treatises, Second Treatise, section 36, pp. 292-293, and the editor’s note to this paragraph on p. 292. Locke’s famous statement, “In the beginning, the world was America” (Two Treatises, Second Treatise, section 49, p. 301), runs parallel to the biblical model: Genesis documents the transition from the age of communal property to the stage in which people (Cain and Abraham, for example) held a small and limited amount of private property. The biblical model appears in Locke’s two treatises both independently and in close conjunction with the pre-state model of
73. Several pivotal aspects of early modern natural jurisprudence remain beyond the present discussion, notably the distinction between “perfect right” and “imperfect right,” as well as the dispute between Filmer and Locke over the kind of consent involved in the original division of property. Locke took pains to emphasize, with the aid of the Bible, that the state of nature was an era of great abundance, and hence universal agreement was not required when some individuals began to appropriate land.
74. Locke, Two Treatises, First Treatise, section 42, p.
75. Justice, writes Leibniz, is “the charity of the wise.” Moreover, “Neither Moses, nor Jesus, nor the Apostles nor the ancient Christians, regulated justice otherwise than according with charity (caritas).” Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Elementa Juris Naturalis (“Principles of Natural Law”), Acad. Ed. VI, p. 481, quoted by Patrick Riley, “Introduction,” in Leibniz, Political Writings, p. 3; and compare Locke himself in Two Treatises, First Treatise, section 42, p. 170.
76. Karl Marx duly identified this element in the Bible, but his dialectical method proscribed any form of a “second
77. Michael Heyd, “Be Sober and Reasonable”: The Critique of Enthusiasm in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries (Leiden: Brill, 1995).
78. Adam Smith offered a new solution to the problem that had engaged natural-law theorists since Thomas Aquinas: How to reconcile absolute right of property with the moral imperative (which Smith did not deny) to feed the hungry. In modern economics, Smith claimed, a balance is created among capital, labor, and basic life necessities which will satisfy the demands of natural justice without imposing any limitation upon private property, or any moral imperative upon the wealthy (who are likely, in any event, to feel voluntary compassion). See Istvan Hont and Michael Ignatieff, “Needs and Justice in the Wealth of Nations: An Introductory Essay,” in Istvan Hont and Michael Ignatieff, eds., Wealth and Virtue: The Shaping of Political Economy in the Scottish Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1983), pp. 1-41.
79. Hont and Ignatieff, “Needs and Justice,” pp. 42-43. See also John Dunn, “From Applied Theology to Social Analysis: The Break Between John Locke and the Scottish Enlightenment,” in Hont and Ignatieff, Wealth and Virtue, pp. 119-135.
80. The Scots debated this idea among themselves. Representing the republican position within the Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Ferguson wrote of three special cases in which “democratic government” allowed the redistribution of property in order to advance liberty and social justice: Ancient Israel (at the time of the judges), Sparta, and Crete. However,
81. According to Dunn, “It is hard for us even today to grasp the profundity of this caesura in the history of liberalism.” These words refer to the Scottish Enlightenment’s departure from Locke’s position, resulting in the innovative claim that justice, property, rights, and obligations are no longer based upon piety, but upon human and societal “knowledge” alone. Dunn, “From Applied Theology,” p. 121.
82. Knud Haakonssen, “Introduction,” in David Hume, Political Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1994), p. xxiv.
83. Rousseau writes: “Call any state a republic which is governed by laws, under whatever form of administration it may be; for then only does the public interest (res publica) predominate.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right, trans. Henry J. Tozer (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1895), book 2, ch. 6, p. 132. The Bible provided seventeenth-century jurists with an important basis for asserting the subjugation of the monarch to law and justice, which is best illustrated in the cases of Saul and David. The biblical reference was dropped, however, by most later British and American theorists of the “rule of law,” and similarly by German rechtsstaat theorists.
84. Immanuel Kant, “Perpetual Peace” (1795), in Hans Reiss, ed., Kant’s Political Writings, trans. H.B. Nisbet (New York: Cambridge, 1997), pp. 112-113.
85. Spinoza, whose biblical education was probably as thorough as Locke’s, helped accelerate the rejection of Hebraist republicanism in favor of modern liberalism. Spinoza undermined the position of the Bible as a contemporary political text not only through his philological-skeptical approach to the ancient text, but primarily because he deployed the Jewish sources in support of democratic individualism rather than republicanism. By doing so, he helped to establish the mainstream Enlightenment view of contemporary Jews as subjects of tolerance but not as the heirs of viable political texts; as individuals deserving universal rights, but not as the offspring of the ancient republican Hebrews. See Steven B. Smith, Spinoza, Liberalism, and the Question of Jewish Identity (New Haven: Yale, 1997);
86. In the new context of political economy, the twelve tribes were an ancient society on the verge of transition from the stage of nomadic shepherding to that of agriculture. The early Hebrews, said Montesquieu, were certainly not a merchant people. Consequently, their history bears no lessons for modern Europeans. The source for Montesquieu’s statement, alongside I Kings 9 and II Chronicles 8, is Josephus Flavius’ Contra Apion. For example, the maritime trade in the
Nor does the Jewish contribution to the modernization of the European financial market provide any inspiration for modern political economy. Medieval Jews merely were forced into the base and degraded practice of usury. Montesquieu was among the first to realize that this forced degradation of the Jews led to the creation of financial tools requisite to modern trade, through the invention of letters of credit. By doing so the Jews served as catalysts of the first order in the process of modernization, namely, “How commerce in
Nor was the Old Testament a source of political inspiration. The laws of Moses, says Montesquieu, were “very wise” in the religious-historical context—in creating, say, a haven for unintentional killers—but there is no substantive connection between them and natural law. In fact, the Jewish codex at times openly contradicts natural law. Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, book xxv, ch. 3, p. 482. Montesquieu did not hesitate to condemn the Jewish people for being “dull-witted” in allegedly abstaining from self-defense on the Sabbath day. Precisely in such cases, Montesquieu reproachfully notes, the commandments of religion must yield to natural law. Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, book xxvi, ch. 7, p. 501.
87. The French Enlightenment presented a broad spectrum of attitudes towards ancient and contemporary Jews, ranging from the open hostility (coupled with an almost obsessive fascination) of Voltaire, to the lukewarm historicist references of Rousseau, to the universal generalizations typical of French Revolution writings. See Arthur Hertzberg, The French Enlightenment and the Jews (New York: Columbia, 1968); Adam Sutcliffe, Judaism and Enlightenment (
The Scottish thinkers, as I have mentioned, generally found little time for the Jews and even less for their literature. David Hume commented on the Jews’ “national” tendency toward dishonesty in his essay “Of National Characters.” In a footnote Hume adds that minority groups which have fallen victim to prejudices, and therefore no longer have a good name to defend, “become careless of their behavior except among themselves.” Hume, “Of National Characters,” in Hume, Political Essays, p. 84.
88. One of Hume’s footnotes can serve to illustrate his disdain for the niceties of seventeenth-century students of the Hebrew commonwealth, who labored to incorporate the priests within the temporal institutions of that commonwealth. The priests, quipped Hume, are always the enemies of freedom, and freedom is the enemy of their political power. Hume brought the Hasmonean state as an example of the oppressive cooperation between princes with tyrannical ambitions and the clerical establishment. Hume’s source is, typically, Tacitus’ History. Hume, “Of the Parties of
89. Kant went to the trouble of demonstrating that the early Israelites’ exultations of joy after winning military victories were opposed to both natural and divine justice and, in his phrase, to “the moral conception of a father of mankind.” Immanuel Kant, “Perpetual Peace,” p. 105 n. The idea of an antiwar “covenant,” presented by Kant as a partial, temporary alternative to the universal republic which he envisioned, is in no way based on the biblical covenant between the people and their God. The contractual tradition, as exemplified by Rousseau and Kant, had abandoned its biblical inspiration.
Elsewhere Kant states half-jokingly, insofar as he is capable of joking, that the Israelite prophets’ visions of destruction were in essence self-fulfilling prophecies, since “as the leaders of the people, they imposed upon their code so many legalistic (and thus also civil) stipulations until their state became unable to exist by itself, particularly in relation to other states. And thus, the priests’ prophecies of wrath in a natural way fell upon deaf ears, because those same priests themselves stubbornly adhered to their faith in the impossible constitution they had themselves established, and therefore they were able to anticipate the consequences with unmistakable certainty.” Immanuel Kant, “The Contest of the Faculties,” in Reiss, Kant’s Political Writings, p. 177. The confusion between priest and prophet exemplifies the carelessness, if not contempt, with which Kant made his infrequent use of biblical sources. Kant did not bother here, or in other places, to demonstrate any mastery of the texts. His primary purpose was to mock the political leaders of his time, who shared the biblical inclination towards unreasonable legislation and policy.
90. Among the Enlightenment thinkers there were some who accepted the Roman model, and others who developed an explicitly modern model—for example, on the basis of an idealization of the English form of government. Particularly significant is Montesquieu’s use of the English parliamentary monarchy. See Montesquieu’s comment about Harrington’s Oceana, whose author “sought this liberty only after misunderstanding it, and… he built
91. Hume, “Of Public Credit,” in Hume, Political Essays, p. 166.
92. Compare Adam Smith’s curt discussion of the Protestant interest in Hebrew studies, whose status in the university nevertheless remained secondary, “the Hebrew language having no connection with classical learning, and except the Holy Scriptures, being the language of not a single book in any esteem.” Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. Edwin Cannan (New York: Modern Library, 1937), pp. 722-723.
One should take note of an important nuance, however. In
93. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Nathan der Weise (1779). Montesquieu, for his part, included in Spirit of the Laws an interesting scene between a Jew and a Spanish inquisitor, which is one of the French Enlightenment’s best exercises in “hearing the voice of the other.” Like Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice, Montesquieu is deeply ambivalent about his Jewish protagonist. Yet the Jew’s soliloquy concludes with a resounding warning to the inquisitor: “If someone in the future ever dares to say that the people of
94. I would not like to underestimate the effectiveness of Mendelssohn’s political philosophy within the context of the German Enlightenment. Cf. David Sorkin, Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment (Berkeley: University of California, 1996). As a political thinker, however, Mendelssohn belongs not to the republican tradition but to the legalistic tradition whose roots lie in natural law. In German political philosophy this was part of a state-centered approach that did not found civil freedom on active civic participation.
95. Compare Kant’s brief but incisive comment that the Jews and their writings entered the arena of known history and came within the scope of an “educated public” only with the translation of the Septuagint, which brought the Bible into the world of Ptolemaic learning. The sole matrix of true scholarship is thus the Greco-Roman one. Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose,” in Reiss, Kant’s Political Writings, p. 52 n.
97. Yael Tamir, Liberal Nationalism (Princeton: Princeton, 1993);
98. Pocock, Machiavellian Moment; Skinner,
99. Famous objections regarding the rightness of God’s judgments were made by Abraham in Genesis 18:23-25 (“shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”), and also by Abimelech in Genesis 20:4-5.