Monday, January 24, 2011
Peter Cunaeus’ Biblical Turn to the Redistribution of Wealth
Eric Nelson's The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought is an analysis of the origins of Enlightenment political liberalism. Nelson makes the case, that contrary to popular belief, Enlightenment political liberalism came out of not secularism, but early modern Christian Hebraism and its turn toward the Old Testament as a political constitution, particularly at the expense of classical sources. Aristotelian political thought could recognize monarchy, aristocracy and democracy as all being legitimate forms of political authority. For early modern Christian Hebraists, the Old Testament recognized one form of government as being legitimate, the republic.
One of the issues that Nelson discusses that caught my attention is the redistribution of wealth. He argues that before the sixteenth century all discussions about the redistribution of wealth took as their starting point Cicero's vehement rejection of Roman agrarian reform laws, whether that of the Gracchi brothers or that of Julius Caesar, which attempted to give land to Rome's poor. Even opponents of private property like Machiavelli and Thomas More based their opposition solely on civic morality and not out of a desire to create a more equitable society. According to Nelson:
When [Peter] Cunaeus, professor of jurisprudence at the University of Leiden, came to reflect on the equal division of land mandated by God among Israelite families and tribes – it seemed immediately obvious to him that this should be called an "agrarian law" (lex agraria), just like the one proposed by Licinius Stolo among the Romans. With one small gesture of analogy, Cunaeus rendered the agrarian laws not only respectable but also divinely sanctioned. If God had ordained agrarian laws in his own commonwealth, then Cicero had to be wrong. (pg. 64.)
Cicero's opposition to agrarian laws made him a hero for libertarians such as Hayek, who saw in Cicero the foundational figure of the principled defense of private property as the very basis of any law and order society. History vindicated Cicero as the agrarian laws turned out to be cover for Caesar's takeover of power and the destruction of the Roman republic. So who do we blame for the West's turn away from path of Cicero, the Bible or Christians trying to interpret the Bible and making a mess out of it (as usual)?