WINTER SESSION 2010-11
SEPTEMBER 21, 2010
INTRODUCTORY SEMINAR, THUCYDIDES 1-11.
My apologies for a beginning both late and shaky. Man proposes but God disposes. My thanks for both the
condolences and the congratulations.
This is POL 430Y/2021Y, Comparative Topics in Jewish and Non-Jewish Political Thought, a rubric that
leaves the instructor plenty of latitude. Its existence expresses my intention, conceived too late in life, but
better late than never, to explore the Biblical tradition on an equal footing with the classical and modern
ones. But while there are clearly classical and modern traditions of political thought, it is by no means clear
that there is a Biblical one. The Biblical tradition might be better understood as prepolitical and even
antipolitical. For politics, like philosophy, is an Hellenic notion, not an Hebraic one. As for modern politics, it
arises out of a transformation of the classical one.
Now there are some people around their epicenter is the Shalem Centre in Jerusalem who hold that
something called political Hebraism exerted an influence on the origins of modern political thought
comparable to the classical and Christian ones. Yes, there are people who think that, but theyre wrong.
There were indeed various Christian antiquarians in the 16th and 17th Centuries who were poring over the
Biblical texts with an eye to extracting a politics from it. But Christian antiquarians is what they were, who as
such exerted little influence on the development of modern thought. One thing that they have in common is
that you will never have heard of them. If the thinkers of whom you have heard, such as Hobbes, Locke, and
Spinoza, busied themselves interpreting the ancient Hebrew commonwealth, it was with the intention of
demonstrating the ultimate irrelevance of its practices to the modern world, to a political project
constructed on the basis of rational principles. At best they offered an historical vindication of the laws of
the Hebrews as necessary for a people as slavish and barbarous as the Hebrews had been on leaving Egypt.
Only in Puritan New England had the attempt been made to introduce select Biblcial laws into a quasi-
modern polity. (Those of you enrolled in Prof. Balots seminar will encounter a discussion of this in
Tocqueville.) But this attempt foundered: within a very few generations, the Puritans had become
Congregationalists, and then the Congregationalists Unitarians. Burning witches was strictly pass.
This isnt to deny a profound indebtedness of the modern tradition to the Biblical one. But it has nothing to
do with political Hebraism. I spoke earlier of the modern tradition having emerged from a transformation of
the classical one. It is here that certain elements of the Biblical tradition entered, themselves transformed to
serve as agents of this other transformation. In particular the notion of an omnipotent deity, as a model for
the will of man as newly conceived, and of the non-human world not a nature in the classical sense but as a
flux subject now to the will of man rather than of an omnipotent creator God.
In this years version of the course we will dwell primarily on the classical and Biblical traditions, with the
modern making only a cameo appearance. Certainly no-ne would deem the brief and mostly obscure Levite
of Ephraim as a representative of the modern tradition as weighty as Thucydides of judges. The work does
offer, however, a fascinating example of a great modern mind at work on a Biblical text, precisely the final
episode of the Book of Judges itself.
The glaring juxtapositions of one work that I used to know well with two others that like most of you I will
be learning for the first time. The second of these situations appears to me less problematic than the first.
Ignorance is readily sensed as such and just as easily discounted, but a lot of knowledge is a dangerous
thing. Of course, a lot may be an exaggeration because Im not sure how much is still left after nearly 20 years away from Thucydides. I could refer to my book, of course, to learn what I used to know, but that
would make for stale teaching, which is why I stopped teaching Thucydides upon completing the book. As
for my old teaching notes, they are stored in an obsolete electronic medium, so I would have to take them
to our Dept computer technician to decode them. But Im not inclined to do that, either. My present
intention is to reprepare Thu from the ground up. In so doing I will inevitably be jogged from time to time to
remember what I used to think. In all likelihood, however, Ill recall only a small percentage of it, so as far as
Thucydides is concerned you may do better just to read my book. [Note negotiations with Princeton editor.]
When it comes to Judges and The Levite of Ephraim, theres an entirely different reason for you not to take
the course, namely that, as already mentioned, I dont yet know squat about either.
Our theme: piety and strife, both foreign and domestic. It is an unfortunate fact about strife that even if the
existence of a foreign threat may begin by bolstering domestic unity, the strain of coping with it, especially
at length and at a steep cost, works to subvert such unity. Harsh times make for harsh politics. So civil strife,
if not the inevitable consequence of foreign strife, is a highly likely one. Civil strife in its turn invites foreign
intervention, just as the threat of foreign intervention is bound to aggravate civil strife. So theres a circle
thats vicious indeed. Its hardly an exaggeration to say that where you find one you will find the other: that
there is no major foreign war unaccompanied by civil strife, and no major civil war free of rival foreign
interventions. Both in Thucydides and in Judges well view the interactions of different levels of conflict,
which is a very neutral way of stating that well learn that war is one hell piled on top of another.
But war is also a pious hell, or at any rate a hell in which the issue of piety figures largely. Here I want to
begin with a piece of American folk wisdom: there are no atheists in foxholes. This statement seems to
imply that during war piety enjoys a field day, and that all concerned with fostering piety should therefore
wish for it. War makes people more pious; whats not to like about that? Response? The truth of the adage:
that war intensifies mens natural concern with their own fates and those of their loved ones, friends, and
fellow countrymen, and with it a longing for some indication of divine protection, a longing to find a
meaning or pattern in life and even in its most insignificant details. (Superstitions of all kinds multiply among
soldiers, much as they do among athletes. So and so caught a bullet because he wasnt wearing his charmed
socks that day.) As human beings become more needy and imperiled, so they become more prayerful (i.e.,
hopeful) and thankful. War increases attendance at church and synagogues; this was observed after 9/11.
The divine becomes more visible in wartime; in the sense that there are more sightings of it in wartime (cf.
But is this the whole story? For war, for the same reason that it subverts domestic tranquility, places piety
under great strain. The most terrible atrocities, including the grossest profanations of the sacred, are also
characteristic of wartime. Moreover, war doesnt simply strengthen faith; it also challenges it, sowing doubt
where there was none before. There turns out then to be a complex interplay between strife and piety, and
this interplay will furnish our general theme.
I want to stress, however, that I have no conclusions that Im planning to purvey in this course. These brief
and inadequate remarks have been intended as only the most provisional guidelines to reflections. The
books will speak for themselves, and we will listen. If I were confident of my understanding even of
Thucydides, I wouldnt teach him. It would be a waste of my time to do so.
How we will proceed. My distribution of my notes, to relieve you of the burden of excessive note taking.
Going around the room.
TURNING TO THUCYDIDES
By most traditional accounts of the divine, at what stage of human time is the divine and its works most
visible? In the beginning. The gods as the (beginnings, first principles), as the (rulers). The
gods as the first lawgivers; and as the teachers of the arts, and thereby the sources of human progress. Yet
that progress is ambiguous (hence Zeus prohibition against giving fire to man, flouted by Prometheus),
because in possessing these divine gifts men become less dependent on the gods and in departing from
their original simplicity become vicious (cf. here the agreement between the classical and the Biblical
The ancestors, in their turn, as the human beings closest to the divine, and as superior in virtue as a result.
(Here too there is agreement, mutatis mutandis, between the classical and the Biblical traditions.) According to the classical view the ancestors were even the children of the divine (i.e. heroes in the original sense or
demigods) whose prowess approached that of the di