The Jews...too, had an absolute monarchy and a hierarchy...These...subdued them to industry and order, and gave them a national life. But neither their kings nor their priests ever obtained...the exclusive moulding of their character. Their religion, which enabled persons of genius and a high religious tone to be regarded and to regard themselves as inspired from heaven, gave existence to an inestimably precious unorganised institution- the Order (if it may be so termed) of Prophets. Under the protection, generally though not always effectual, of their sacred character, the Prophets were a power in the nation, often more than a match for kings and priests, and kept up, in that little corner of the earth, the antagonism of influences which is the only real security for continued progress. Religion consequently was not there what it has been in so many other places- a consecration of all that was once established, and a barrier against further improvement. The remark of a distinguished Hebrew, M. Salvador, that the Prophets were, in Church and State, the equivalent of the modern liberty of the press, gives a just but not an adequate conception of the part fulfilled in national and universal history by this great element of Jewish life; by means of which, the canon of inspiration never being complete, the persons most eminent in genius and moral feeling could not only denounce and reprobate, with the direct authority of the Almighty, whatever appeared to them deserving of such treatment, but could give forth better and higher interpretations of the national religion, which thenceforth became part of the religion.
Accordingly, whoever can divest himself of the habit of reading the Bible as if it was one book, which until lately was equally inveterate in Christians and in unbelievers, sees with admiration the vast interval between the morality and religion of the Pentateuch, or even of the historical books (the unmistakable work of Hebrew Conservatives of the sacerdotal order), and the morality and religion of the Prophecies: a distance as wide as between these last and the Gospels. Conditions more favourable to Progress could not easily exist: accordingly, the Jews, instead of being stationary like other Asiatics, were, next to the Greeks, the most progressive people of antiquity, and, jointly with them, have been the starting-point and main propelling agency of modern cultivation. J.S. Mill Representative Government, 30-1. [Emphasis added]*
The central insight in Mill's remarkable interpretation of the Hebrew Bible -- it is far removed from Spinoza's focus on Moses's leadership qualities - is that all social and political progress is a consequence of a kind of dialectical process ( but there is a hint of Montesquieu and Hegel) in which opposing forces produce something better than the status quo through their interaction. Not unlike Lord Acton (who, recall, is a critical of nationalism), Mill thinks certain kinds of social frictions is useful in generating (civilizational) progress. Since the whole point of Mill's book is to vindicate an expanded franchise and representative government as a means toward progress in 'civilized' states, he invites the reader to consider what institution and political maxims can take the place of an Order of Prophets in polities today.
In Acton, the productive friction is caused by multi-nationalism within an imperial state, whereas on Mill’s creative reading of the Hebrew Bible the productive friction is caused by a kind of division of political and social powers. There is further important difference if we put Mill’s point on Hebrew prophets in larger context of the argument Representative Government: Acton sees groups as sites of social capital. Whereas Mill, who brings together ideas from Hume, Montesquieu, and Tocqueville, thinks (anticipating Dewey and Elizabeth Anderson) that a citizenry (or a large segment of the citizenry) that is regularly challenged to solve social problems and is tasked with considerable responsibilities in various ways is necessary to prevent social stagnation and a precondition to progress.** For Mill, the ongoing, moral and political education and cultivation of the citizenry is a cardinal task for the true statesman.
In Mill’s interpretation of the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible, King and Priesthood produce both order (which is desirable) and a permanent status quo bias. The members of the Order of Prophets are the source of innovation by challenging the status quo (or regressions from the status quo) and by creating an interplay of political forces that lead to a new status quo. Unlike say a more Protestant reading of the Old Testament, Mill insists that the Prophets don’t merely restore (as it were) original religion. They produce new interpretations and ideals that over time change the understanding of religion.; that is to say, on Mill’s interpretation of Biblical Judaism, the true religion is not a stable entity, but itself progressive in character. Mill does not comment on the fact if this progressive character was understood by the agents involved, or if the Prophets presented their innovations as restorations.
As an aside, Mill is, of course, not the first to note the presence of Jerusalem alongside Athens in the Western tradition. But I think he may well be the first to note not just (i) the significance of the creative tension between Athens and Jerusalem in driving progress, and (ii) giving Jerusalem equal billing and, not insignificantly, equal rational status it seems in ‘propelling’ progress.
As noted above, Mill raises the question what the modern analogue of the Order of Prophets, whose members are clearly a moral and cognitive (“genius”) elite. He thinks a free press is an imperfect analogy because the Prophets do more than speak truth to power. They also educate the populace and shape the future by being exemplars and articulators of shared national ideals. Mill pointedly fails to suggest that clergy or universities are the modern equivalent of the Order of Prophets (presumably because the nineteenth century university was primarily busy educating future clergy and members of some professions).
Rather, Mill is pointing toward the need and role of what we would call the public intellectual, like himself. And he is suggesting, I would argue, that if it wants to progress, a modern representative democracy needs to develop mores in which ‘a precious public institution’ of public intellectuals, who both speak truth to power and provide a vision that is an alternative to the status quo, is sanctioned and plays a predictable public role.