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Cogent, Concise, and Crisp...
on July 4, 2010
On a sparingly furnished stage the author conjures and comments with clear and crystalline voice the great Protestant political thinkers of the XVIIth century: Erastus, Grotius, Harrington, Hobbes and, as grand finale, the secularising Spinoza, as they argue their political thoughts. The great Talmudists - from Rabbi Yehudah to Maimonides - form the choir that gives strength to the voices seeking dramatic illumination as to the character of the perfect common-wealth.
Nelson's main point is that the Renaissance did not innovate much in political thought, as it is usually thought - hugging the ancient Romans too closely as well as the Medieval philosophical tradition. The three great novel principles:
* Republican exclusivism (the idea that a Republic is the ONLY possible political system);
* Redistribution of wealth in favour of the poor;
* Religious tolerance;
emerged in the Low Countries as Protestant scholars sought a reading of the Bible not contaminated by 1000 years of Catholic tradition and hit on the Talmudic commentaries, which had arrived with the Jews expelled from Lisbon.
So well is the dramatic representation crafted, so subtle the marshalling of the arguments that I found myself compelled not to put down the pleasingly shortish book - and for sure the subject matter is arcane, and the arguments far from easy to grasp in their subtle differences. This work is an intellectual feast of the prime order - one that is seldom on the academic menu. Mostly one gets contrived and confused cogitations of obtuse minds in desperate search "theory" - as if intellectual life depended on it.