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Part of Haivry’s answer is that to Selden, the Jewish tradition offered an exceptional case-study of 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.

These seven precepts overlap with some of the Ten Commandments; unlike the latter, they are not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, being later extrapolations by Jewish writers. They prohibit idolatry and blasphemy, and murder, theft and sexual misconduct, and they also require the maintenance of a legal system; but the seventh precept, forbidding tearing a limb from a living animal and eating it, has always posed problems for commentators.

In his great treatise on natural law, De iure naturali & gentium, iuxta disciplina Ebraeorum (“On natural law and the law of nations, according to the teaching of the Jews”), Selden gave these precepts a foundational role for all societies: they had been revealed by God, but in principle they could also be deduced by natural reason. Human beings could also deduce that God exists, and that God would not leave evil deeds unpunished; and this was sufficient to show that the precepts were not just pieces of good advice, but laws, issued by a higher authority.

Was this a breakthrough in the development of natural law theory and political philosophy? In the cool light of history, one has to say: no — almost the opposite. It was a dead end, and much of the neglect of Selden that followed reflected a general inability to accept that a Talmudic tradition, little known except to people like him who were steeped in rabbinical learning, could hold the key to all human political organisation. The explanatory superiority of this unusual account over standard natural law theory (as set out by Thomas Aquinas and his followers) was not apparent. And indeed some of the points for which Haivry gives Selden special credit, such as his insistence that legal obligation presupposes the authority of a law-giver, can be found just as well in the Thomist tradition.

Nevertheless, this is a rich and thought-provoking study of a major thinker, who was a significant figure in English history and, as Haivry shows, an influence on English conservative thinking about laws and institutions and their essential “rootedness”. My only complaint is that the Cambridge University Press seems to have afforded Professor Haivry the services of neither a copy-editor nor a proof-reader. A book of this importance deserved better.
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