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 this pathbreaking work, 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 radical transformation. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Christian scholars began to regard 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.
This volume in the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes contains his translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, edited by Eric Nelson. Hobbes translated the Homeric poems into English verse during the course of the 1670s, when he was already well into his eighties. These texts constitute his most extensive single undertaking, as well as his last major work. Yet, despite the explosion of interest in Hobbes over the last fifty years, this is the first modern critical edition of the Homer translations. Nelson provides extensive annotation detailing Hobbes's interactions with the Greek text of the epics and with other early-modern editions and commentaries, as well a substantial scholarly introduction placing Hobbes's enterprise in the wider context of Restoration politics and poetics. Nelson also offers a detailed analysis of the translations themselves, identifying the numerous instances in which Hobbes rewrites the poems in order to bring them into alignment with his views on politics, rhetoric, aesthetics, and theology. Hobbes's Iliads and Odysses of Homer, Nelson suggests, should be regarded as a continuation of Leviathan by other means. This edition will be fascinating reading for anyone interested in early-modern political philosophy, literature, and classical studies.
The Greek Tradition in Republic Thought completely rewrites the standard history of republican political theory. It excavates an identifiably Greek strain of republican thought which attaches little importance to freedom as non-dependence and sees no intrinsic value in political participation. This tradition's central preoccupations are not honour and glory, but happiness (eudaimonia) and justice - defined, in Plato's terms, as the rule of the best men. This set of commitments yields as startling readiness to advocate the corrective redistribution of wealth, and even the outright abolition of private property. The Greek tradition was revived in England during the early sixteenth century and was broadly influential throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Its exponents included Sir Thomas More, James Harrington, Montesquieu and Thomas Jefferson, and it contributed significantly to the ideological underpinnings of the American Founding as well as the English Civil Wars.