Body Politic

Body Politic The Body Politic   Excerpt from Sherman, Imaging Aristotle, p. 216: …[A] basic metaphor of Western political thought [was] the analogy of the body political. First developed by Plato in the Republic and the Laws, it is restated by Aristotle at the beginning of […]

Body Politic

The Body Politic


Excerpt from Sherman, Imaging Aristotle,
p. 216: …[A] basic metaphor of Western political thought [was]
the analogy of the body political. First developed by Plato in
the Republic and the Laws, it is restated by Aristotle
at the beginning of the Politics: “The polis is prior
in the order of nature to the family and the individual. The reason
for this is that the whole is necessarily prior [in nature] to
the part. If the whole body be destroyed, there will not be a
foot or a hand.” Substantially expanded by John of Salisbury
in the Policraticus to create specific equivalents among
parts of the body and parts of the state, the analogy of the body
politic figures in Oresme’s glosses and commentaries on Chapter
9 of Book II, Chapter 4 of Book V, and Chapter 10 of Book VII
of the Politiques. Oresme also includes a reference to
the analogy in the index of noteworthy subjects of the Politiques
under the heading of Moiens en richeces : “Item, encor
appert par une bele consideration qui compare la policie et ses
parties a un corps et ses membres” (Item, it again appears
[through] a beautiful metaphor that compares the form of government
and its parts to a body and its members.


A rare visualization of the body-politic
metaphor occurs in the Morgan Avis au roys. Adapted from
the iconography of the zodiacal
, a nude, well-porportioned, crowned, and beared male figure
represents the physical embodiment of the political body. Inscriptions
identify parts of the human body with functions and offices of
certain social classes and institutions of government. The resulting
hierarchy of political and social values corresponds to the traditional
evaluations of the organs of the human body in ancient and medieval
anatomical and philosophical texts. For example, occupying the
representational and metaphorical top of the hierarchy of the
body politic is the king who is its head. As the most distinctive
part of the human anatomy, in which the soul, reason, and intelligence,
and sensations reside, the head is the ruling principle to which
all other parts of the human body and the body politic are subject.
Next, associated with the vital human faculties of vision and
hearing, the seneschals, bailiffs, and provosts and other judges
are compared to the eyes and ears of the body politic. The counsellors
and wise men are linked to the essential function of the heart.
As defenders of the commonwealth, the knights are identified with
the hands. Because of their constant voyages around the world,
the merchants are associated with the legs. Finally, laborers,
who work close to the earth and support the body, are its feet.

Oresme’s interpretation of the analogy
emphasizes the economic context of undue concentration of power
in a few hands as a threat to the welfare of the / p. 217 body
politic. As noted earlier, Oresme had sounded this theme in his
influential treatise of about 1356, De moneta. Because
of his reference to the Politics, Oresme’s treatment of
the analogy is worth citing:

The state of the kingdom, then, is
like a human body and so Aristotle will have it in Book V of the
Politics. As, therefore, the
body is disordered when the humours flow too freely into one member
of it, so that member is often thus inflamed and overgrown while
the others are withered and shrunken and the body’s due proportions
are destroyed and its life shortened; so also is a commonwealth
or a kingdom whien riches are unduly attracted to it.

Interwoven with the body-politic analogy
is Aristotle’s concern with proportional relationships in aesthetics,
ethics, and politics. Oresme’s translations of the Ethics and
the Politics reflect these important concepts. In addition,
from a mathematical point of view, about 1350 he wrote a treatise
on proportion, the De proportionibus proportionum.


p. 378 n. 16: For a helpful discussion and bibiography,
see David C. Hale, “Analogy of the Body Politic,” in Dictionary
of the History of Ideas
, ed. Philip Wiener (New York: Scribner, 1973), vol.
I, 68-70. See also Anton-Hermann Chroust, “The Corporate Idea and the Body
Politic in the Middle Ages,” Review of Politics 9/4 (1947): 423-52;
and Jean Dunbabin, “Government,” in CHMPT, 483. For the discussion
by John of Salisbury, see Policraticus: Of the Frivolities of Courtiers and
the Footprints of Philosophers
, ed. and trans. Cary J. Nederman (Cambridge
and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), Books V and VI, 65-144.

John of
Salisbury, Policraticus

Based in classical
authority, t
he following
excerpt by John of Salisbury was highly influential in establishing the metaphor
of “Body Politic” in late Medieval political discourse:

John of Salisbury, Policraticus:
of the Frivolities of Courtiers and the Footprints of Philosophers
, ed.
and trans. by Carl J. Nederman, Cambridge University Press, 1990: Book V, Chapter
1 (p. 65): Plutarch’s Letter instructing Trajan: There exists Plutarch’s letter
instructing Trajan, which describes the idea of a certain sort of political
constitution. It is said to be thus: ‘Plutarch sends greetings to Trajan. I
know that in your moderation/ p. 66 you do not desire rulership, which yet it
is always merited by devotion to good morals. You are of course judged so much
the worthier in so far as you are seen to be more removed from the accusation
of ambition. I accordingly congratulate your virtue and my fortune, if you yet
administer carefully that which you properly merit. I do not doubt that you
are in other respects subject to danger, and that I am subject to the angry
tongues of detractors, since not only does Rome not suffer the weaknesses of
emperors, but also common gossip is accustomed to refer the transgressions of
disciples back to their teachers. Hence, Seneca was slandered by the tongues
of his detractors for the offences of Nero, the recklessness of Quintilian’s
young charges was referred back to him, and Socrates was accused of being too
indulgent towards his pupils. Yet you administer everything most correctly if
you do not desist from knowing yourself. If you first of all compose yourself,
if you dispose all your affairs towards virtue, everything proceeds properly
for you. I have written out for you the strengths of the political constitution
of our forebears through which you will have Plutarch as an advisor in living
if you comply with it. Otherwise, I invoke the present letter as witness that
you do not advance the advice of Plutarch in the destruction of the empire.’


Chapter 2: According to
Plutarch, what a republic is and what is held in it by the soul of the members:
The parts of this political constitution follow thereafter in a pamphlet entitled
‘The Instruction of Trajan’, which I have sought to incorporate partially into
the present treatise, yet in such a way as to reproduce the outlines of its
meaning rather than its actual words. It is first of all required that the prince
evaluate himself entirely and direct himself diligently to the whole body of
the republic, whose condition he enjoys. For a republic is, just as Plutarch
declares, a sort of body which is animated by the grant of divine reward and
which is driven by the command of the highest equity and rule by a sort of rational
management. By all means, that which institutes and moulds the practice of religion
in us and which transmits the worship of God (not the ‘gods’ of which Plutarch
speaks) acquires the position of the soul /p. 67 in the body of the republic.
Indeed, those who direct the practice of religion ought to be esteemed and venerated
like the soul in the body. For who disputes that the sanctified ministers of
God are his vicars? Besides, just as the soul has rulership of the whole body
so those who are called prefects of religion direct the whole body. Augustus
Caesar himself was constantly subject to the sactred pontiffs until the time
when he created himself a Vestal pontiff and shortly thereafter was transformed
into a living god, in order that he would be subject to no one.


The position of the head
in the republic is occupied, however, by a prince subject only to God and to
those who act in His place on earth, inasmuch as in the human body the head
is stimulated and ruled by the soul. The place of the heart is occupied by the
senate, from which proceeds the beginning of good and bad works. The duties
of the ears, eyes, and mouth are claimed by the judges and governors of provinces.
The hands coincide with officials and soldiers. Those who always assist the
prince are comparable to the flanks. Treasurers and record keepers (I speak
not of those who supervise prisoners, but of the counts of the Exchequer) resemble
the shape of the stomach and intestines; these, if they accumulate with great
avidity and tenaciously preserve their accumulation, engender innumerable and
incurable diseases so that their infection threatens to ruin the whole body.
Furthermore, the feet coincide with peasants perpetually bound to the soil,
for whom it is all the more necessary that the head take precautions, in that
they more often meet with accidents while they walk on the earth in bodily subservience;
and those who erect, sustain and move forard the mass of the whole body are
justly owed shelter and support. Remove from the fittest body the aid of the
feet; it does not proceed under its own power, but either crawls shamefully,
uselessly and offensively on its hands or else is moved with assistance of brute

de Pizan

Christine de
Pizan, The Book of the Body of Policy, p. 275-277: …I hope to speak, by the
grace of God, of the order of living pertaining to noblemen and knights, and
thirdly, of the common people.


These three
estates ought to be united in one commonwealth, like /p. 276: a living body,
according to the saying of Plutarch, who sent a letter to the Emperor Trajan
comparing the commonwealth to a living body, of which the prince holds the place
of the head, since he is or ought to be the ruler, and from him come the laws,
as from the mind of man come the plans that the limbs achieve. The knights and
noblemen hold the place of the hands and arms. As the arms of a man are strong
to sustain labor and pain, they must defend the right of the prince and the
commonwealth; and they are also the hands because as the hands discard harmful
things, they must get rid of all that is destructive or unprofitable. The common
people are all the stomach, feet, and legs. As the stomach receives all that
sustains the head and the limbs, the deeds of the prince and the nobles must
turn to the good and the love of the commonwealth, as will be declared hereafter.
As the legs and feet support the actions of the human body, similarly the laborers
support all the other estates….


Now it is necessary
to govern effectively the body of policy so that the head will be healthy, that
is to say virtuous. For if it is sick, all the rest shall feel it. We will begin
to speak of the medicine for the head, that is to say the king or princes; and
since our work begins with the head, we will take the first head of age, that
is to say the childhood of the prince when he is nourished under the guidance
of his relatives.

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