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.

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

 

What Egypt’s Withdrawal from the “Arab NATO” Signifies for U.S. Strategy

A few weeks ago, Egypt quietly announced its withdrawal from the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), a coalition—which also includes Jordan, the Gulf states, and the U.S.—founded at President Trump’s urging to serve as an “Arab NATO” that could work to contain Iran. Jonathan Ariel notes three major factors that most likely contributed to Egyptian President Sisi’s abandonment of MESA: his distrust of Donald Trump (and concern that Trump might lose the 2020 election) and of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; Cairo’s perception that Iran does not pose a major threat to its security; and the current situation in Gaza:

Gaza . . . is ruled by Hamas, defined by its covenant as “one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.” Sisi has ruthlessly persecuted the Brotherhood in Egypt. [But] Egypt, despite its dependence on Saudi largesse, has continued to maintain its ties with Qatar, which is under Saudi blockade over its unwillingness to toe the Saudi line regarding Iran. . . . Qatar is also supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, . . . and of course Hamas.

[Qatar’s ruler] Sheikh Tamim is one of the key “go-to guys” when the situation in Gaza gets out of hand. Qatar has provided the cash that keeps Hamas solvent, and therefore at least somewhat restrained. . . . In return, Hamas listens to Qatar, which does not want it to help the Islamic State-affiliated factions involved in an armed insurrection against Egyptian forces in northern Sinai. Egypt’s military is having a hard enough time coping with the insurgency as it is. The last thing it needs is for Hamas to be given a green light to cooperate with Islamic State forces in Sinai. . . .

Over the past decade, ever since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, Israel has also been gradually placing more and more chips in its still covert but growing alliance with Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s decision to pull out of MESA should give it cause to reconsider. Without Egypt, MESA has zero viability unless it is to include either U.S. forces or Israeli ones. [But] one’s chances of winning the lottery seem infinitely higher than those of MESA’s including the IDF. . . . Given that Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest and militarily most powerful state and its traditional leader, has clearly indicated its lack of confidence in the Saudi leadership, Israel should urgently reexamine its strategy in this regard.

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More about: Egypt, Gaza Strip, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy