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The 17th-Century Statesman and Philosopher Who Found in the Talmud the Key to England’s Political Future

A jurist, scholar, political thinker, and member of parliament, John Selden (1584-1654) played an important role in Britain’s political and religious development during one of its most tumultuous periods. His erudition extended not only to Latin and Greek but also to Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, and his systematic study of the Talmud and other rabbinic works informed much of his political thought. Reviewing Ofir Haivry’s recent John Selden and the Western Political Tradition, Noel Malcolm writes:

As Haivry shows, Selden’s political career, with its apparent shift from radical oppositionist to conservative critic of parliamentary innovations, followed a consistent set of principles. Selden was one of the leading English thinkers who developed a fully constitutional theory of the exercise of political power: [to him,] apparently exceptional areas of decision-making, such as the royal prerogative, or emergency powers justified by “reason of state,” had to be enclosed within a legal framework, and the final guarantor of that framework was . . . parliament itself. Yet the constitution was what it was, with the king’s distinct authority interlocking with parliamentary power; for parliamentarians to appropriate royal rights was just as bad as the king imposing taxes without their consent.

The principle that, legally and politically, we must accept that things are what they are—and not what our a-priori theorizing would prefer them to be—marks Selden down as a conservative; for Haivry, indeed, he is the unacknowledged founder of an English conservative tradition, as important as Burke but writing more than a century earlier. . . .

An important focus [in the book] is on Selden’s engagement with Jewish legal traditions. . . . On the face of it, the connection is problematic, as the Jewish nation had a very different history and culture from the English one. We could expect Selden to have become—as he did—an expert on Anglo-Saxon law in order to understand long-term English developments; but why the laws of the Talmud?

Part of Haivry’s answer is that to Selden, the Jewish tradition offered an exceptional case-study in how a complex legal system can be maintained, changing and developing incrementally all the while, over a huge length of time. In this sense it was just an exemplary model for English Common Law, rather than an influence. But, more importantly, Selden also believed that talmudic writers had preserved a fundamental set of natural laws, known as the “Precepts of the Sons of Noah,” which—Noah being the ancestor of the entire human race after the Flood—formed the basis of all legal and political systems.

Read more at Standpoint

More about: Christian Hebraists, England, History & Ideas, Philosophy, Political philosophy, Talmud

Hannah Arendt, Adolf Eichmann, and the Jews

Feb. 23 2018

In 1963—a year after Adolf Eichmann’s sentencing by an Israeli court—reports on the trial by the German-born Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt appeared in the New Yorker and were soon published as a book. This “report on the banality of evil,” as the book was subtitled, outraged many Jews, including many of her erstwhile friends and admirers, on account of her manifest contempt for the entire preceding, her disgust for the state of Israel, her accusation that a wide array of European Jewish leaders (if not the majority of the victims) were complicit in their own murder, and her bizarre insistence that Eichmann was “not a monster,” or even an anti-Semite, but a mindless, faceless bureaucrat. While extensive evidence has been brought to light that Arendt was wrong both in her claims of Jewish passivity and her evaluation of Eichmann as the head of the SS’s Jewish section, her book remains widely read and admired. Ruth Wisse comments on its enduring legacy:

When Arendt volunteered to report on the Eichmann trial, it was presumed that she was doing so in her role as a Jew. . . . But Arendt actually traveled to Jerusalem for a deeper purpose—to reclaim Eichmann for German philosophy. She did not exonerate Nazism and in fact excoriated the postwar Adenauer government for not doing enough to punish known Nazi killers, but she rehabilitated the German mind and demonstrated how that could be done by going—not beyond, but around, good and evil. She came to erase Judaism philosophically, to complicate its search for moral clarity, and to unseat a conviction [that, in Saul Bellow’s words], “everybody . . . knows what murder is.”

Arendt was to remain the heroine of postmodernists, deconstructionists, feminists, relativists, and internationalist ideologues who deny the stability of Truth. Not coincidentally, many of them have also disputed the rights of the sovereign Jewish people to its national homeland. Indeed, as anti-Zionism cemented the coalition of leftists, Arabs, and dissident minorities, Arendt herself was conscripted, sometimes unfairly and in ways she might have protested, as an ally in their destabilizing cause. They were enchanted by her “perversity” and were undeterred in their enthusiasm by subsequent revelations, like those of the historian Bernard Wasserstein, who documented Arendt’s scholarly reliance on anti-Semitic sources in her study of totalitarianism, or of revelations about her resumed friendship with Martin Heidegger despite his Nazi associations.

At the same time, however, the Arendt report on the Eichmann trial became one of the catalysts for something no one could have predicted—an intellectual movement that came to be known as neoconservatism. A cohort of writers and thinkers, many of them Jews from immigrant families who had turned to leftism as naturally as calves to their mother’s teats, but who had slowly moved away from the Marxism of their youth during the Stalin years and World War II, now spotted corruption and dishonesty and something antithetical to them in some of their very models of the intellectual life.

They and their Gentile colleagues had constituted the only European-style intelligentsia to flourish in America. Most of them were only one generation removed from Europe, after all, so what could be more natural than for them to serve as the conduit of European intelligence to America? Arendt’s ingenious twist of the Eichmann trial showed them how Jewish and American they actually were—and how morally clear they aspired to be.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Neoconservatism, New York Intellectuals