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“Talmudical Commonwealthsmen” and the Rise of Republican Exclusivism

“Talmudical Commonwealthsmen” and the Rise of Republican Exclusivism

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Published by Paideia Institute
By Eric Nelson of the Harvard University
The Hebrew Republic
Chapter One
By Eric Nelson of the Harvard University
The Hebrew Republic
Chapter One

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Published by: Paideia Institute on Nov 04, 2011
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05/12/2014

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40 Nelson, The Hebrew RepublicChapter One“Talmudical Commonwealthsmen” and the Rise of Republican ExclusivismThe development of republican political theory in the West presents something of a puzzle. In late Medieval and Renaissance Europe, republicanism was always a “relative” position. That is, it was characterized by the claim that republics are
better 
thanmonarchies. Republicans could, of course, disagree sharply among themselves as towhether republics were always better, how much better they were, and why exactly theywere better. But none had any interest in arguing that republics were the only legitimateor acceptable regimes. Even the most strident republican text of the period, LeonardoBruni’s oration in praise of Nanni Strozzi (1428), concedes that monarchy is “lawful”(
legitimus
), one of the “correct” constitutions identified by Aristotle in Book III of the
 Politics
.
1
This commitment reflects the fundamental pluralism and modesty of thehumanist persuasion; it follows from a deep skepticism concerning the ability of any principle to take sufficient account of all possible circumstances and situations, and fromthe conviction that there are always good arguments on both sides of any important 
1
 
 Leonardo Brunis Rede auf Nanni Strozzi: Einleitung, Edition, und Kommentar 
, ed.Susanne Daub (Stuttgart and Leipzig, 1996), pp. 285-6. See the analysis of this speech inJames Hankins, “Rhetoric, history, and ideology: the civic panegyrics of LeonardoBruni” in
 Renaissance Civic Humanism
, ed. James Hankins (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 151-78. Hankins is also to be credited with having first noticed the turn toward “exclusivism”in seventeenth-century republican thought. I am greatly indebted to his unpublishedessay “Exclusivist Republicanism and the Non-Monarchical Republic.”
 
41question.
2
By the end of the seventeenth century, however, we see for the first time theappearance of what we might call republican “exclusivism,” the claim that republics arethe only legitimate regimes. This transformation is largely responsible for the shape of  political life and thought in the modern world, so we have good reason to ask why it took  place. Our question quickly turns into a puzzle, however, once we recognize that themost obvious traditions of thought to which we might initially turn for an answer simplycannot provide one. There is nothing in the surviving sources from Greek or Romanantiquity which defends such a view (early-modern authors were quite aware of thisfact),
3
nor is it explained by anything in the “social contract” tradition passing from 
2
David Wootton has suggested that the Venetian Traiano Boccalini (1556-1613) should be regarded as an “exclusivist” in my sense—that is, one who did not merely prefer republican government, but instead insisted on “the destruction of monarchy” (Wootton,
 Paolo Sarpi: Between Renaissance and Enlightenment 
(Cambridge, 1983), p. 74). Hisevidence comes from Boccalini’s posthumously published
Osservazioni politiche sopra i sei libri degli Annali de Cornelio Tacito
(1669), in which Boccalini writes that “Goodkings, who deserve the name of God’s lieutenants on Earth, who are images of the gods,who are sought after, and are depicted with the pen, are in fact like the Sirens, theHippogriffs, the Tritons, and unicorns who are likewise depicted. They are the stuff of fables, and cannot be found” (
 I Principi buoni che meritano nome di Luogotenenti di Dioin Terra, che
sint instar Deorum,
 si desiderano, si dispingono, con la penna, sono à guisadelle Sirene, de gli Hippogriffi, delli Tritoni, delli Alicorni che si dipingono, sono favolosi, e non si trovano
) (
 La bilancia politica di tutte le opere di Traiano Boccalini
, 3vols., ed. Ludovico Du May (Castellana, 1678), vol. 1, p. 344). This is indeed a strongstatement—Boccalini’s seventeenth-century editor apologetically characterizes it in afootnote as “troppo ardito”—but Boccalini makes clear that he is talking only aboutabsolute monarchs. He immediately distinguishes the government he has in mind from“un Principato misto,” which he regards as perfectly acceptable. Indeed, he begins thetext by noting that the title of king has been distorted in the modern world, so that itrefers only to the rank of an absolute monarch (
un assoluto Monarca
)—and not, as it didin ancient times, to a “king with greatly limited authority” (
 Rè con autorità moltolimitata
) (
 La bilancia politica
, sig. A1^v). Boccalini was not alone, of course, inregarding
absolute
monarchy as an illicit constitutional form, indistinguishable in practice from tyranny. But this is very far from the view that monarchy per se isillegitimate.
3
The classical text which most closely approximates such a position is Cicero’s
 Deofficiis
, but even here the theoretical possibility of an acceptable monarchy is retained
 
42Grotius through Pufendorf and Locke. Indeed, authors in what became known as the“modern school” of natural right were at pains to insist that there is nothing in thecontractarian position which precludes monarchical government — most were, after all,monarchists of some stripe. So where should we look for the origins of republicanexclusivism?A valuable clue is to be found in a most improbable place: chapter 35 of Hobbes’s
 Leviathan
(1651), entitled “Of the Signification of the Kingdom of God.” Hobbes’s aimin this chapter is to refute the suggestion that the phrase “the kingdom of God” refers to aspiritual realm to which we are dispatched “after this life.” His motivation isstraightforward. As he had already explained in chapter 29, if belief in such a spiritualkingdom “moveth the Members of a Common-wealth, by the terrour of punishments, andhope of rewards” to disobey the orders of their civil sovereign, the state will be thrust“into the Fire of a Civill warre.”
4
Hobbes therefore attempts to show that the phrase“kingdom of God” refers in the Bible, not to the world to come, but rather to the ancientcommonwealth of the Hebrews, “wherein God was king.”
5
He defends this claim with athree-paragraph discussion of a famous passage in I Samuel, chapter eight: “when theElders of Israel ... demanded a King, Samuel displeased therewith, prayed unto the Lord;and the Lord answering said unto him,
 Hearken unto the voice of the People, for they
 (see, for example,
 De officiis
I.64-65; III.84-86). Moreover, Cicero offers an unreservedendorsement of Aristotelian constitutional analysis in
 De republica
I.25 (although mostof this text was lost until the nineteenth century, this passage was well known to early-modern readers because it is quoted in Augustine,
City of God 
II.21). For a recentdiscussion of Cicero’s anti-monarchism, see Peter Stacey,
 Roman Monarchy and the Renaissance Prince
(Cambridge, 2007), pp. 23-30. Machiavelli’s
 Il Principe
(1513)famously dissolves the distinction between prince and tyrant, but he certainly has nointerest in arguing that one-man rule is illegitimate.
4
Hobbes,
 Leviathan
, ed. Richard Tuck, Rev. ed. (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 227-8.
5
Ibid., p. 282.

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