John Locke and the Hebrew Republic

I’ve said before that I find it almost impossible to suppose that John Locke’s references to the Old Testament in the Second Treatise of Government are there merely to avert the wrath of religious authorities. There are so many references and they are so apt.

I studied Locke with students of Leo Strauss who encouraged me to let my eyes slide over the references and quotations. But the idea of ignoring Locke’s words, the idea of explaining away uncomfortable passages, seemed – well – “un-Straussian.” Strauss at his best is the philosopher who supremely teaches us to pay attention to passages in classic texts  that make one uncomfortable.

So I’ve begun asking questions. And as I’ve come to realize in the past year or so, I am far from the only one. Here’s a report from the academic front:

In the current issue of Azure magazine, Yoram Hazony sums up a wealth of scholarly opinion on the influence of biblical and rabbinic thought on Hobbes, Locke, John Milton, John Harrington and others, in a review of  Eric Nelson’s The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010).

The review begins: “It is an unspoken rule of modern historiography that the Hebrew Bible could not have contributed anything significant to the rise of modern ideas and institutions. This rule has been at the basis of academic writing on the history of the West for at least two hundred years. And its influence has been decisive: Nearly every serious book available about the rise of the modern world has taken this “no biblical influence” rule as axiomatic.

“The only problem is that it’s false.”

“What is most impressive in The Hebrew Republic,” Hazony argues, is Nelson’s “willingness to pick an open fight with a truly massive opponent.” The “opponent,” as he goes on to say, includes Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, and Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West.

What follows from the idea that the makers of modernity read the bible with an open mind, and read rabbinic commentary? A good question, as the professor likes to say.

Azure magazine is available on line and is easy to retrieve. (Get the publication called Azure from the Shalem Institute, not the architectural journal with the same title.) Hazony’s substantial review article in the current issue is entitled “The Biblical Century.”

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2 Responses to “John Locke and the Hebrew Republic”


  1. 1 bre October 19, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    I am a 8th grade teacher in NC and came across your site while researching some information about John Locke for my History class this year. I just wanted to thank you for the great information and articles about John Locke, my students liked them and it helped me with my lesson plan.

    We would love it if you could write a few articles for our educational website for teachers, but understand that you are probably busy. I have included a link to our page about John Locke below in hopes that if you can’t write some resources for us that you can at least link to it, tweet it, or add it to your Facebook profile to help us spread trusted resources throughout the educational community.

    http://www.thefreeresource.com/john-locke-facts-biographical-timeline-quotes-and-resources

    Thanks and keep the great resources coming :)

    Bre Matthews

  2. 2 W Lindsay Wheeler December 17, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    Well, thanks for this info. It is great but sadly depressing because what we practice now, modern republicansim, is not European but Judiac. European culture was destroyed by this idea of a “Hebrew Republic”.

    I’m the author of “The Spartan Republic” online. The Doric Greeks of Laconia lived a true republic which is mixed government. I have another article at Wikinfo, The Classical definition of a republic, here:
    http://www.wikinfo.org/index.php/Classical_definition_of_republic

    The Enlightenment was not an enlightenment at all but a “Revolution within the form”. But thanks for this info. Re-educate yourself on what is the true form of a republic.


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