Saturday, August 10, 2013

Eric Nelson & Hebrew Sources That Influenced Modernity

I've been discussing, of late, the notion that the concept of "republicanism" is contained in the Bible, specifically the Old Testament. I'm sorry, but perhaps I'm too much of a literalist in the way I read texts; but I don't "see" the concept there. For one, the Bible never uses the term "republicanism" or "republic" to describe the form of government of Ancient Israel.

Ancient Israel had a theocracy, not a "republic" and the form of government the Bible seems to speak of as most normative is monarchy.  Not just normative in an "is" sense, but in an "ought" sense as well; the Bible speaks of a "Kingdom," not a "Republic" of Heaven where Jesus' Kingdom is not of this Earth.

The concept of republicanism actually derives from the Greco-Roman tradition.

But that didn't stop many "key figures" from the "key era" that ushered in modernity (the 16th - 18th centuries) from arguing the Bible -- specifically the Old Testament -- to claim republicanism against monarchy.

Of actual, respectable and respected modern scholars, Eric Nelson of Harvard does cutting edge work demonstrating the influence of Hebrew thought on the concept of modern republicanism.

I use the terms respectable and respected because there is a cohort of Christian nationalists non-scholars who misunderstand and misuse many of these same sources in the record that demonstrate the influence of Hebraic thought on modern republicanism. They cite these sources to argue as though there was some golden age of Christianism in need of recapture. (Real scholars understand there wasn't.)

What Eric Nelson argues is modernism -- not in the radical sense, but in the ordinary, present bourgeois sense -- owes more to the understanding of Hebraic thought by the those who established modern republicanism (those British thinkers who influenced America's Founders like Sidney, Milton, Harrington and others) than a secular Enlightenment.

That is, it's not a mythic golden age we need to return to, but today's era of 1. regulated, managed capitalism that redistributes wealth when there are excesses, 2. popular sovereignty, and 3. religious toleration in which we currently live that is the result of the Hebrew Republic.

And yes, government bureaucrats who are elected democratically, get to decide how much wealth is too much. This is not Marxist egalitarianism that demands perfect equality according to need. But rather an egalitarianism more Rawlsian that accepts a need for some inequality for the system to function efficiently; but understands law and policy should step in and redistribute wealth for a more "just distribution."

Except these sources predate Rawls. You don't need continental Europeans Rousseau and then Marx to understand Egalitarianism's call for a kinder gentler distribution of wealth. You have James Harrington, a man who, unlike Rousseau, was greatly respected by America's Founders.

Now, I don't think Harrington's notion of "civic republicanism" prevailed among America's Founders. Though it did seriously influence them. As Bernard Bailyn noted there were five chief sources of thought that drove America's Founding: 1. Biblical; 2. Common Law; 3. Whig; 4. Enlightenment; and 5. Greco-Roman. To complicated matters further, a. these sources were not mutually exclusive; that is, they bled into one another; and b. they competed and conflicted with one another; that is, they often disagreed.

And, of course, this is just one paradigm where others might be valid.

I see America's Founding as more individualistically liberal than collectivistically republican. In short, Locke and Smith's more individualistic economic vision -- mainly because of James Madison --  prevailed over Harrington's more egalitarian economic vision.

But egalitarian's critique of the excesses of individualism exists in the ideological thought of the American Founding. And the egalitarianism thinker who most influenced America's Founders -- James Harrington -- used Hebraic sources to argue for his notion of a more "just distribution" as Rawls would later put it.

I learned that, and many other things, from Eric Nelson. Check out his book.

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