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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought

image of moses and the tablets of the law

Eric Nelson
Harvard University


Date: Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010
Time: 12:00-1:15 PM
Location: Boisi Center, 24 Quincy Rd

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 his latest book, 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 transformation.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Christian scholars began to regard the Mosaic constitution in 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.

headshot of Eric Nelson

Eric Nelson is Professor of Government at Harvard University. His research focuses on the history of political thought in early-modern Europe and America, and on the implications of that history for debates in contemporary political theory. Particular interests include the history of republican political theory, the reception of classical political thought in early-modern Europe, theories of property, and the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Nelson is the author of The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Harvard/Belknap, 2010) and 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). His essays have appeared in a wide range of scholarly journals and edited volumes. Nelson received his AB summa cum laude from Harvard University (1999) and his PhD from The University of Cambridge (2002). He has also been a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows, a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and a British Marshall Scholar.

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