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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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The analogy of the body politic is the perception and
elaboration of correspondences between society or the
state and the individual human body. These corre-
spondences may then be applied in a variety of ways
in political analysis or argument. In their simplest form,
these arguments assert that given the organic nature
of the state, then certain political structures or actions
are necessarily appropriate. A “natural” society is one
which functions in a manner similar to the human
body. In the history of political philosophy and po-
lemic, the analogy has been applied to many different
forms of government and in support of a variety of
particular opinions. In general, however, these states
are hierarchical and authoritarian and the ideas being
supported are conservative, stressing social order and
obedience. There are a number of important excep-
tions. As a strategy of argumentation, moreover, the
analogy is used in many different genres—philosophical
treatise, political exhortation, sermon, poem, or drama.
The analogy may appear as an allusive phrase or it
may provide the structure for an extended discussion.
Historically speaking, the analogy was used extensively
from the time of the Greeks to the seventeenth century,
when it was effectively challenged by another analogy,
that of the social contract; in the nineteenth century
developments in the study of biological evolution gave
new impetus and application to the analogy.


The analogy of the body politic rests on two princi-
ples which were articulated by the Greeks. First, the
doctrine of hylozoism asserts that mind or life perme-
ates the natural world. The individual possesses life or
soul or mind which is in some way identical to the
homonoia which animates, unifies, and directs the state.
This mind is the source of the regularity in nature
which makes possible science, including political sci-
ence. This concept permits discussion of the relative
health or sickness of the body politic and the suggesting
of cures, perhaps by a ruler acting as a physician. The
second basic principle asserts that one simple pattern
exists at many levels of being; this pattern is most
perfectly manifested in the human body (Plato,
Timaeus 30c). In a variety of accounts, creation consists
of the imposition of this pattern on previously chaotic
matter. Since the citizen, the microcosm, and the larger
world of the state possess an identical life and an iden-
tical physical structure, then more specific description
and prescription are possible.

The earliest, though fragmentary, examples of the
analogy come from India. The Rig-Veda (X, 90) con-
tains a hymn describing the creation of four castes—
priests, warriors, shepherds, and servants—from the
body of Purusa, a sacrificial personification of the
world-soul. The Mahabharata (XIV, xxii) gives a debate
between the mind and the perceiving organs, the point
of which is that human arrogance comes from an ig-
norance of how the members of society must cooperate.

More substantial examples appear in Greek political
writers, who specifically apply the analogy to the polis.
Plato begins the Republic by establishing analogy as
a mode of inquiry: if justice in a state can be defined,
then justice in an individual can also be determined.
He then contrasts a simple, “healthy” society and a
“feverish” one corrupted by luxury. By an extension
of the analogy, the cure for a “festering” society is
not the multiplication of petty laws, but a rigorous
transformation of the state and the individual so that
both will exhibit a centralized, rational control and an
appropriate division of labor. In the later Laws
(628c ff.) Plato characterizes the highest good as a
peaceful, friendly state, like a healthy body that does
not require medical attention. The organic nature of
the state is specifically enunciated by Aristotle: “Thus
the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and
the individual... for example, if the whole body be
destroyed, there will be no foot or hand...” (Politics
1253a). Society, therefore, is a creation of nature, not
of man; man's greatest fulfillment comes from being
a part of the polis.

Other Greek writers also used the analogy. Aris-
tophanes sees one function of the comic poet as the
difficult task of curing the diseases of the state (Wasps
650-51). Demosthenes regards Philip of Macedon as
an attack of fever which Athens must resist. Of partic-
ular interest is the Aesopic fable of the belly and the
members (Aesopica, ed. B. E. Perry, Urbana, Ill. [1952],
No. 130). In its simplest form the fable teaches the
cooperative structural relationship between the gen-
erals and soldiers in an army. The fable is explicitly
political in the Roman tradition (Livy, II, 32) in which
Menenius Agrippa ends a plebeian secession by ex-
plaining the nourishment the belly (Senate) provides
for the hands and feet (common people). The analogy
was also applied occasionally to smaller groups; in
Xenophon's Memorabilia (II, iii) Socrates urges recon-
ciliation between quarreling brothers by citing the
harmony of pairs of hands, feet, and eyes.

After the conquests of Alexander, the city-state was
a much less relevant political unit; by praying for
homonoia between Macedonians and Persians, Alex-
ander indicated that the analogy of the body politic
could be applied to the much larger Hellenistic mon-
archy or even all mankind. Philo Judaeus urges accep-
tance of personal disaster by comparing the actions
of divine providence to an amputation performed by
a surgeon on a partially diseased body. The writings
of the Roman Stoics contain many passages which
argue analogically for the necessity of subordinating
the desires of the individual to the well-being of the
state or humanity. Cicero writes that if each part of
the body tries to appropriate the health of the others,
then the body will die; such behavior in men would
be equally destructive (De officis III, 22). Echoing Plato
and Aristotle, Seneca says that as it is unnatural for
the hands to destroy the feet, so the need for harmony,
love, and mutual protection causes mankind to protect
individuals (De ira II, 31).

Such statements are the source of one of the most
influential uses of the analogy, Saint Paul's first epistle
to the Corinthians: “For as the body is one, and hath
many members... so also is Christ.... And the eye
cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor
again the head to the feet, I have no need of you....
Now ye are the body of Christ and members in partic-
ular...” (I Corinthians 12:12-27). Love (agapē) be-
tween the members unifies the body (I Corinthians
6:15-16). Though some of Paul's language is tradi-
tional, the application of the analogy to the followers
of Christ is a significant departure, which contains the
radical implication that faith determines the body of
which a man is a part. In the early Church, Paul's
words were frequently quoted in admonitions against
dissension and factionalism (e.g., Saint Basil's Letters
66, 203, 222). Saint Augustine occasionally describes
the Cities of God and Man as bodies, but his emphasis
is on the concept of a mystical body of the faithful,


united by having sacramentally eaten the body of

In the Middle Ages the analogy of the body was
developed substantially. Most previous applications
had been rather brief; medieval authors extend it in
elaborate, sometimes fantastic detail. Though its influ-
ence on the West is uncertain, the tenth-century Ency-
of the Arabic Brotherhood of Sincerity uses
organic analogies at great length: the human body is
compared to a city and a kingdom; the senses are to
the soul as counsellors to a king, and so on. Among
Christian writers the analogy is used for a variety of
purposes. Most simply, it appears in devotional litera-
ture to explain charity, grace, or some other aspect
of doctrine. It could supplement the concept of the
three estates: clergy-eyes-guidance, nobility-hands-
defense, peasants-feet-agriculture. John of Salisbury's
Policraticus (1159) adopts for its structure a substantial
comparison of the human body and a kingdom. After
identifying the soul and the clergy, John discusses in
detail the other members of the body: head-prince,
heart-senate, hands-soldiers, stomach-treasury, and
feet-farmers. He emphasizes the need for spiritual unity
in the state and proposes cures for various political
diseases, including tyranny. The fable of the belly
explains and defends systems of taxation.

The Church developed Paul's words about the body
of Christ to explain the structure and importance of
ecclesiastical institutions. The Church becomes corpus
mysticum et politicum
of which the Pope is the head,
kings and emperors but members. Organic analogies
buttress both sides of the period's most profound polit-
ical controversies. Saint Thomas Aquinas finds four
points of identity which unify both natural and mysti-
cal bodies, and asserts that the supremacy of the spirit-
ual authority corresponds to the soul's rule of the body.
There are three responses to such claims: to proclaim
the importance of some other organ, such as the heart,
with which a king may be equated; to define the state
as a body distinct from the body of the Church; or
to deny the importance of the papacy by claiming that
only Christ is the head of the Church. In the late
Middle Ages the second alternative, an extension of
the idea of a “mystical body,” is a convenient illus-
tration of the growing self-consciousness of the national
states. Sir John Fortescue's De laudibus legum Angliae
(ca. 1470) says that a body politic, specifically England,
is a corpus mysticum; the laws are the nerves which
unite the body and public spirit is the life-giving blood.
An example of the third alternative is Henry VIII's
assumption of the title “Supreme Head of the Church
in England.”

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the anal-
ogy persisted as part of the period's vigorous medieval
heritage, but at the same time other ideas developed
which effectively challenged the validity of the anal-
ogy. The three main questions to which the analogy
was applied are the nature of the Church, the nature
of the state, and the relationship of the two. Theolo-
gians and polemicists had much to say about the effect
of the Reformation on the body of the Church. Kings
and popes competed for the title “head,” and they
denied that each other's institutions could be described
by organic analogies.

Secular rulers invoked the analogy repeatedly to
enforce conformity and at least passive obedience.
Even in matters of religion, the word of the prince
had to be followed; rebellion in the state was as un-
natural as internal conflict in a body. The Elizabethan
Homily Against Disobedience claims that for a subject
to judge a ruler is impiety, “as though the foot must
judge of the head....” At a more perceptive level,
the analogy became a vehicle for social criticism.
Thomas Starkey's Dialogue between Pole and Lupset,
early in the sixteenth century, catalogues diseases or
imbalances in the four humors as a structure for discus-
sing political and economic abuses and proposing rem-
edies. A few more radical applications appeared, as
in John Milton's Of Reformation in England (1641),
which transforms the old fable of the belly to attack
the episcopacy as a cancerous wen.

Shakespeare's Coriolanus is perhaps the most
thoughtful consideration of the applicability of organic
analogies in politics. In the first scene, derived from
Livy and Plutarch, Menenius recounts the fable of the
belly in a partially successful attempt to calm a rioting
mob. Organic imagery recurs frequently through the
play as the characters attempt to define the suitability
of the proud protagonist. The action shows that the
Senate is not a generous nourisher of the state, the
plebeians are not docile workers; Coriolanus vigorously
denies any unity, organic or otherwise, with the lower
classes. The distinction of Shakespeare's play is that
it dramatizes the gap between the ideal commonwealth
suggested by the idea of a body politic, and the politi-
cal behavior of men. In some instances the familiar
analogy appears to be little more than a pious fraud
perpetrated by ruthless aristocrats.

The doubts Shakespeare raises about the validity of
the analogy are part of a larger process of questioning
and substitution. Some writers differentiated the bodies
as politic and natural; Fernando Vasquez observes that
in a man a limb cannot change its position, no other
part can become the head, authority always resides in
the head, and the death of the head always causes the
death of the body—but none of these is true of the
body politic (Controversarium III). Hugo Grotius made
a similar distinction by pointing out the contractual


origin of the state and the right of a part to protect
itself by secession or other means (De jure II).

To this increasing general skepticism must be added
two very significant factors which essentially destroyed
the traditional analogy. The first is the new science
which undercut the basic premisses. Materialism re-
placed hylozoism. The pattern which permitted struc-
tural correspondences could be dismissed as the vain
attempt of men to find order where none in fact existed.
The analogy of the body politic exemplifies the Baco-
nian Idols which obstruct scientific inquiry.

Secondly, the concept of a body politic was effec-
tively replaced by the old, but not widely popular, idea
of a social contract. For Calvin and his followers the
Church as mystical body was supplemented by a great
emphasis on a covenant, modeled on the one between
God and Abraham. These theories of covenant and
contract view church and state as artificial institutions,
created by an act of will of their individual members
and subject to change by them. The new analogy
attempts definition in terms of origin, for which organic
analogies seemed deficient. A striking fusion of the two
traditions is Hobbes' statement (in Leviathan, Part I,
Introduction) that the state is an artificial body, a
machine assembled by man. More typical of the transi-
tion are these words from the Mayflower Compact
(1620): “We... covenant and combine ourselves to-
gether into a Civil Body Politike....” The main point
is the combining; “Body Politike” is simply a synonym
for “political entity” with no further analogical mean-
ings intended.

For the last three centuries extended organic analo-
gies have been generally absent from discussions of
political issues. The phrase “body politic” persists, but
as a dead metaphor rather than a meaningful concept
for analysis or argument. Two types of exceptions may
be cited from the nineteenth century. First, there was
a moderate amount of imagery used to characterize
the Industrial Revolution and an ideal alternative
which might exist in the future or the medieval past.
Thomas Carlyle writes in Sartor Resartus (1833) that
government is the “outward Skin of the Body Politic,”
binding and protecting its constituent parts; the vivify-
ing nervous system is religion. Mechanism, capitalism,
and utilitarianism are symptoms of a “universal Social
Gangrene”; England is “writhing powerless on its
fever-bed....” To recreate something like the organic
interdependency of the Middle Ages, Carlyle advocates
hero-worship, “a new body... with a resuscitated
soul” (Past and Present, 1843).

A new development was the application of biological
evolution to the study of political institutions, e.g., in
so-called Social Darwinism. Herbert Spencer's The
Principles of Sociology
(3 vols., 1876-96) contains as
many comparisons between natural and politic bodies
as anything from the past. The significant differences
are a much greater variety of bodies and a concern
for change from one form to another. A primitive
society evolves into an industrial nation just as a small,
simple form of life becomes a larger, more complex
organism. Though the state may partially resemble a
living being, few modern thinkers are willing to extend
similarity to identity.


There is no comprehensive discussion of the topic. Various
aspects are treated in R. Allers, “Microcosmus from
Anaximandros to Paracelsus,” Traditio, 2 (1944), 319-407; P.
Archambault, “The Analogy of the 'Body' in Renaissance
Political Literature,” Bibliotèque d'humanisme et renais-
29 (1967), 21-53; N. O. Brown, Love's Body (New
York, 1966); A.-H. Chroust, “The Corporate Idea and the
Body Politic in the Middle Ages,” Review of Politics, 9
(1947), 423-52; F. W. Coker, Organismic Theories of the
State: Nineteenth-Century Interpretations of the State as
Organism or as Person
(New York, 1910); G. P. Conger,
Theories of Macrocosm and Microcosm in the History of
(New York, 1922); O. Gierke, Natural Law and
the Theory of Society,
trans. E. Barker, 2 vols. (Cambridge,
1934); idem, Political Theories of the Middle Ages, trans.
F. Maitland (Cambridge, 1900); D. G. Hale, The Body
Politic: A Political Metaphor in Renaissance English Litera-
(The Hague, 1971); E. H. Kantorowicz, The King's Two
(Princeton, 1957); E. Lewis, “Organic Tendencies in
Medieval Political Thought,” American Political Science
32 (1938), 849-76; H. de Lubac, Corpus Mysticum:
L'Eucharistie et l'église au moyen âge (Paris, 1949); W.
Nestle, “Die Fabel des Menenius Agrippa,” Klio, 21 (1927),
350-60; J. E. Phillips, The State in Shakespeare's Greek and
Roman Plays
(New York, 1940); E. M. W. Tillyard, The
Elizabethan World Picture
(London, 1943; New York, 1961).


[See also Class; Evolutionism; General Will; Health and
Disease; Macrocosm and Microcosm; Myth; Nature; Or-