Book Preview: Ofir Haivry’s “John Selden and the Western Political Tradition”

This book is a study of the political thought of John Selden (1584-1654). Legal and political theorist, common lawyer and parliamentary leader, historian and polyglot, Selden was a formidable figure in renaissance England whose true importance and influence are now coming to be recognized after many years of undeserved neglect. Indeed, I will argue that in terms of the sophistication of his ideas and his impact on later political thought, there is ample reason not only to re-evaluate Selden’s significance, but also to count him as one of the most interesting and important early-modern political theorists, alongside such better-known thinkers as Hobbes and Grotius.

In this book I will argue that Selden’s multi-faceted intellectual and political endeavors share a common purpose: Selden strived, from early on in his career, to defend and justify a coherent worldview upholding the necessary and beneficial role of custom in political society—a position we would today call traditionalism. As he witnessed increasing attacks on the English legal and constitutional tradition at the hands of rising absolutist and naturalist theories, Selden found himself compelled to find adequate justification for the constitutional tradition of his nation. He thus embarked on a wide-ranging reflection on the nature of customary political and judicial systems, not only within the English context, but as a generally desirable feature of all political societies. The result, I will argue, was the richest and most impressive defense of political tradition to arise in British thought, informing and influencing the more familiar works of later thinkers who draw on him such as Hale and Burke.

The book will open with a short survey of the circumstances that compelled Selden and many of his contemporaries to devote so much of their efforts to thinking about the foundations of the political order: An unprecedented crisis of political legitimacy, arising directly from the disintegration of the principles and assumptions that had previously served as the accepted foundations of Western European polities (chapter 1). I will then explore the set of interrelated issues which form the framework of Selden’s political theory: his thought about the foundations and development of political order; his studies of the Jewish political tradition as a paradigm for national political traditions in general; and his views on the relationship between church and state (chapters 2-4). Next, I will consider the place of Selden’s ideas within the wider context of 17th century political thought, particularly as they relate to the more significant attempts by contemporaries like Grotius, Hobbes and Filmer to reconsider the foundations and ends of political society (chapter 5). Finally, I will look (chapter 6) at the impact and legacy of Selden’s political ideas, particularly within the political tradition of the English-speaking countries, where his ideas still exert a significant (though usually un-credited) influence on constitutional thought. I will argue that the significance of Selden’s ideas—in early modern political thought in general, and in the Anglo-American constitutional tradition in particular—is such as to merit placing him in the first rank of thinkers in the history of Western political thought.

Table of Contents

Introduction: England’s Forgotten Glory
Chapter 1 The Crisis of Political Legitimacy in 17th Century Europe
Chapter 2 Selden’s Theory of National Tradition
Chapter 3 Selden and the Jewish Tradition
Chapter 4 Selden on Church and State.
Chapter 5 Selden Versus Grotius, Hobbes and Filmer
Chapter 6 Selden and Later Anglo-American Constitutional Thought
Conclusion: John Selden’s Place in Western Political Theory