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The Dangerous Mr. Nelson

Eric Nelson is a danger to academia. 

Relevant Links
Created Equal  Joshua Berman, Oxford University Press. While ancient Greece is often considered the cradle of political thought, “the patrimony of modern political thought rests no less squarely in the texts of the Bible.”
The Bible and the Good Life  Aryeh Tepper, Jewish Ideas Daily. Arguing with God is one thing. Where is the evidence that the Bible is a philosophical text?
Jerusalem and Athens  Leo Strauss, Jewish Ideas Daily. Strauss’s seminal essay on the Greeks, the Hebrew Bible, and the profound differences between the two.

You would not think so from his background.  He is the Frederick S. Danziger Associate Professor of Government at Harvard University.  He has had a proper education, at Harvard and Trinity College, Cambridge.  Although both of these institutions were founded by believing Christians, Harvard and Trinity got over all that a long time ago.

Nelson knows that taking the Bible seriously as a source of political theory is simply not done.  His first, highly regarded book, The Greek Tradition in Republican Thought, establishes the central importance of Greek texts—which had been newly recovered in the Renaissance—in the formation of early modern republicanism.  His second book was a scholarly edition of the translation of Homer done by Thomas Hobbes—that Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century thinker who helped found modern political philosophy by rejecting ancient authority and arguing that the principles of just government can instead be reasoned out by an intelligent mind closely observing nature and its mechanisms.  Intellectual historians understand that Hobbes and the philosophers who followed him drew on Greek and Roman ideas but most certainly not on the political ideas found in the Bible. 

We have all been taught that it was the dethroning of revealed religion that produced political modernity.  Everyone knows this, knows that European political thought was not transformed and made modern by reading the Bible (let alone the Talmud); it was remade by a rejection of the Bible in favor of rationalism.  So how can a Harvard professor like Nelson have produced the book he did, entitled The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought?  

Nelson is one of a group of scholars engaged in the enterprise of re-evaluating the origins of modern political theory.  As is well known, in the broad intellectual questing that marked the Renaissance, scholars increasingly ventured beyond the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible to seek, firsthand, the meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek biblical texts.  During the Reformation that followed, the number of Christian scholars working in Hebrew grew dramatically.  The 17th century saw the publication of over a hundred books by Christian scholars about the political ideas and constitution of ancient Israel.  Most were written by Protestant reformers, some by Catholics.  More than a few of these books, prefiguring Nelson's latest work, were titled "The Hebrew Republic."  

These were serious efforts to derive the principles of just government from the pages of the Bible—and the Talmud.  But the importance of this fact has perhaps not been fully considered until now.  Indeed, Nelson and others argue that the foundational impact of these texts on political theory in the 1600s, the early dawn of the Enlightenment, has been virtually ignored. 

Anyone who has read Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, as many of us did as undergraduates, knows that this sort of thing—near-universal inattentiveness by researchers to facts that, in retrospect, look critical—happens all the time.  When a coherent, persuasive theory, supported by solid evidence, dominates any field of thought, it can be difficult for scholars to perceive the theory's flaws and omissions.  In the assessment of the origins of modern political theory, perhaps something more personal has operated as well.  Most academics are "freethinkers," a word coined in the 1690s to describe the new phenomenon of men who rejected the authority of revealed faith; modern academe is made up largely of men and women who reject God.   It is not, of course, necessary for a contemporary scholar to believe in God in order to argue that the Bible and men who did believe had a profound impact on Western political theory in the seventeenth century.   But nothing is more deeply and personally congenial to an atheist than the idea that it was the rejection of God that gave birth to modernity; thus, there is nothing more difficult than to see the flaws in this idea.   

I do not know Eric Nelson; but I know that in completing his graduate work and producing his first book, The Greek Tradition in Republican Thought, he must have read page after page in which the early modern thinkers engaged in serious discussion of biblical texts.  To judge by Nelson's early work, his reading of these pages did not immediately make him question the basic paradigm, in which the rejection of religion is accepted as the source of modern thought.  But at some point in the process of his scholarship, Nelson must have begun to mutter under his breath, like Galileo after being told countless times that the earth was stationary, "And yet it moves." Nelson is persuaded that in the Bible was a motive force in early modern political history. In The Hebrew Republic, he argues that, "Taken together, these texts"—not their rejection—"radically transformed European political thought."

Nelson makes three discrete points.   First, he argues that "republican exclusivism"—our modern idea that democratic elections are the only legitimate basis of government—came into the world at the hands of John Milton, who drew it from the pages of the Bible and the Talmud.  Second, Nelson proposes that the doctrine of religious toleration, which appeared in the 17th century and greatly influenced the American founding fathers (who are the subject of Nelson's next book), is biblically based.  Third, he argues that the biblically-mandated redistribution of land in Jubilee years made the idea of redistributing wealth to achieve political and social equality a mainstream concept in European political thought.

In sum, in The Hebrew Republic Nelson has thrown down the gauntlet of a revolution.  He means to overturn the accepted foundations of modern intellectual history by re-evaluating the early modern period and asking whether biblical and Jewish ideas were as foundational as Greek and Roman thought in creating the modern world.  And Nelson, in being persuaded that the Bible was a motive force in early modern political history, is not alone.

A lot of ink will be spilled, and careers and reputations will lie bleeding on the ground, before this battle ends.   It is likely to be exciting, not least because it is fun to watch evidence-based scholarship triumph over dogma defended as truth.

Diana Muir Appelbaum is an American author and historian.  She is at work on a book tentatively entitled Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy.

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david Levavi on February 6, 2012 at 11:18 am (Reply)
The great political and economic surge that pushed the West into modernity and and left the rest of the world far behind begins with a smelly, unwashed, sexually confused German monk named Martin Luther rummaging in the Church's dustbin and discovering the long-suppressed Hebrew Bible. He barely appreciated the Jewish prize he had stumbled upon but understood enough to undergo a revolution in his thinking. As fortune or the Lord's will would have it, Luther's discovery coincided with the organization by another German, named Gutenberg, of block type (a Korean invention) into the first mechanical printer. The Hebrew Bible became widely disseminated. Christians discovered the Jewish ethic, which they promptly dubbed the "Protetant Ethic." Western civilization, largely Jewish in its origins, surged ahead. Luther gave plain instructions to the translators of the Hebrew Bible into German: Never let German readers imagine that the sympathetic characters in Biblical narratives are Jewish. Let them believe that they are Germans. Under Adolf Hitler, the Lutheran Church in Germany picked up on Luther's instruction, launching a modern project to "deJudaize" the Bible. Western civilization rests mainly on the contributions of three great peoples: Jews, Greeks, and the Romans. Greek and Roman influences are recognized and revered by Christians. The Jewish influence is scanted and rejected. A Christian enters the world to the Jewish ceremony of tvilah--baptism--and leaves it to readings from the Hebrew Psalms. In between, he complains bitterly about Jewish influence. While Christians and Muslims, who owe everything to Jews, detest them, Buddhists and Hindus, who owe Jews nothing, evidence no hostility to Jews or Judaism. Eric Nelson has his work cut out for him. The opposition to his ideas will be fierce.
Paul Marks on February 6, 2012 at 11:38 am (Reply)
Thomas Hobbes was not interested in "just government." Indeed, the central point of his philosphy is that external standards (like "justice" or "natural law" either do not exist (he defines them so as to make them merely the will of the state) or cannot be applied to government. To Hobbes, "tyranny is but the name of sovereignity"--though, astonishingly, intelligent and learned writers such as the late M.J. Oakeshott see something in Hobbes other than what he clearly was, a lickspittle apologist for tyranny (whether by a single ruler or by a group). Hobbes admits that an individual has the right to run away or even resist a government that is trying to kill them--but not on grounds of justice, simply on grounds of survival, irrespective of whether the person was guilty or innocent of a crime (which, to Hobbes, is merely whatever government says it is). Hobbes certainly does not admit that people have a right, let alone a duty, to come to the aid of innocent persons being persecuted by the state. If Hobbes is the "founder of modern political philosophy," it is founded on terrible principles.
Sue on February 6, 2012 at 12:25 pm (Reply)
I would love to be a miniscule mouse in the pockets of those "learned" intellectuals at the very thought that their "ideas and resolutions" will probably, in the long run, be wrong. Why is it that "smart people" have a hard time seeing their own flaws, and normal Janes like me don't? Could it be the mitigated gall of their personalities and egos?
Dr Ashrafi on February 6, 2012 at 1:58 pm (Reply)
Is it Mr. Nelson or his book that Ms. Applebaum believes to be dangerous? She barely discusses the contents of the latter and, regarding the former, appears to assume that a Harvard-Cambridge education offers a good chance of keeping someone from being a danger to the academic world.
Robert on February 6, 2012 at 5:20 pm (Reply)
Ms. Applebaum believes Mr. Nelson's emerging view will be dangerous to the long-held hypothesis that the modern republic was made possible by "abandoning" the Hebrew Scriptures. Mr. Nelson's Harvard-Cambridge education would have likely have inculcated that long-held hypothesis, since it would have dovetailed nicely with a tendency toward atheism (and maybe some anti-Semitism). If "dangerous" is too loaded, consider the reference to Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolution;" in those terms, Mr. Nelson is being revolutionary.
Albert Gedraitis on February 6, 2012 at 10:18 pm (Reply)
What a refreshing breeze comes with word that Dr. Eric Nelson has broken thru the leftist miasma favoring an atheist historiography of the Renaissance and Reformation. For reformational Christians of the Protestant demographic, this opens the way for our historians and philosophers to deepen our appreciation of the sources of some of our oldest texts relevant to the political philosophy of the West (which Enlightement prejudices sought to bury in the name of their no-god). Reformational scholars and the broader sector of Evangelicals have been mining the Hebrew Bible since Calvin studied and published his commentaries on it. Calvin was a theologian, but he laid the basis for reflection on the state, brought to full luster by Althusius and being advanced and refreshed in the Netherlands (Kuyper, Dooyeweerd), the United Kingdom (Chaplin), Canada (Koyzis, Jeff Dudiak), and the United States (Skillen). Some of the responders to her here have made their blind spots all too apparent.
Michael on February 7, 2012 at 5:01 am (Reply)
Nietzsche insisted on the causal relationship between Jewish morality (of which he considered Christianity one expression) and European democratization. Properly understood, Christian morality elevates the common man, and even the underclass, to a position of moral superiority by defining virtue as the opposite of power and success. It follows that the humble ought to rule. The paradox this entails was not considered problematic. The irony of pursuing the logic of religiously propounded democratic morality at the same time that religion's persuasiveness was waning finds expression in Hobbes' Leviathan, half devoted to Machiavellian pragmatics and half to an attempt to reconcile its main thrust, power-worship, with scripture. But the evolution of early modern political thought was quite complex in its origins and effects--and a range of different approaches to tease these out and observe their interplay is in order.
Paul Marks on February 7, 2012 at 1:24 pm (Reply)
It is strange that people (even intellectuals) could believe that political thinkers were not influenced by scripture. The societies they lived in were saturated with scripture (as can be seen even in private letters) and with concern about religion. Even Thomas Hobbes (a determinist and materialist, often accused of athiesm) writes about scripture and religious matters very extensively. Why would these interests not influence his political thought? Sometimes their interpretation of scripture is odd (at least to modern eyes)--for example, both Hobbes and Locke interpret First Samuel, Chapter Eight as if what happened therein was a good thing. Such an interpretation would seem to do violence to the actual text, which seems to be a clear warning against trusting government to fight our battles for us. Both Catholic and Protestant writers, such as James Buchanan in 16th century Scotland, were concerned with limiting the power of government both through structural means and by limiting what government had a right to do. Although the first-rate Spanish Catholic writers on political theory and economics seem to have had zero influence on Spain's real-life arbitrary and tyrannical Catholic rulers, perhaps the fact that these writers saw so much bad politics and bad economic policy made them less liable to fall into the folly of government worship, as Hobbes does.
Ben Tzur on June 7, 2012 at 9:42 am (Reply)
Eric Nelson's book is indeed worthy of the praise given it here, and it will stand as a landmark in the new field opened up of the subject of "political Hebraism": the chief influence of "Hebraic" sources (the Bible, the Talmud and later rabbinic commentaries and literature) in early modern political theory and in the foundations of liberal democracy itself, the ways, as Nelson puts it in his "Introduction," that "the recovery of Hebraica reoriented European political thought" in the early modern period.

But it is not quite the Cortez-like discovery of a new land that is perhaps suggested in this review article. Rather, Nelson's book offers the first overall summary of very many new researches over the past decade or more, as can be seen from its excellent bibliography. Also see his footnotes 2, 11, and 57 to his "Introduction," given in pp. 141, 143, and 149 of his notes, which list some of the chief of these researches from the 1980s (and even some studies from earlier decades) onwards.

The key chords of this symphonic collaboration of researchers were already sounded by Fania Oz-Sulzberger in her 2002 "The Jewish Roots of Western Freedom," in Azure 13: 88-132. Another extraordinary landmark book, in at least my opinion, is that of Jason P. Rosenblatt, Renaissance England's Chief Rabbi John Selden (Oxford UP, 2006), which proves the deep knowledge of Talmudic sources and chief reliance on them by the most influential architect and shaper of the 17th century British parliamentary system, the system that is behind modern parliamentary liberal democracy throughout the English-speaking world.

An important conference covering many aspects of this new academic field was held in Jerusalem in August 2004, "the first-ever concentrated effort by scholars from across the gloobe to recover the meaning and extent of Hebraism in the politics and political thought of early modernity," as was stated in Meirav Jones' "Introduction" (p. x) to the published results of that conference, Political Hebraism: Judaic Sources in Early Modern Political Thought, eds. Gordon Schochet, Fania Oz-Salzberger, and Meirav Jones (Shalem Press, 2008). I recommend both this symposium and the Rosenblatt book as exciting and revelatory reading to anyone wanting more in-depth knowledge of the important subject Nelson introduces in his book. All are available in paperback editions.

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