The Body Politic: Anatomy of a Metaphor

By Harvey, A. D. | Contemporary Review, August 1999 | Go to article overview

The Body Politic: Anatomy of a Metaphor


Harvey, A. D., Contemporary Review


Eighty-one years ago the oldest political metaphor in history contributed to the formulation of the most important tactical innovation of twentieth century warfare. Today the implications of the same metaphor are still being worked out as we move into an era when a coup d' etat through the Internet is a growing possibility.

According to the Rig-Veda, written in Sanskrit during the Second Millennium B.C., the priesthood was the mouth of prototypical Man, or Mankind, the warrior class came from his arms, the shepherd class from his thighs, and the labourers from his feet. Aesop's fable of the Belly and the Members, in which the belly was denounced for its parasitical idleness and finally boycotted by the hands, mouth and teeth, with the result that they pined away, obviously incorporates the same general idea of using the body as a metaphor.

Though Aesop's fables were known as a collective entity to Herodotus and Aristophanes in the Fifth Century B.C., they were not necessarily all the same fables that were attributed to Aesop subsequently: the earliest surviving texts are at least six hundred years later. It is not clear therefore whether Aesop was the source of a story recounted by Titus Livy at about the time of the birth of Christ, or whether the version that has come down to us of Aesop's fables borrows from Livy. The latter recounts how, when the common people defected from Rome in the early days of the Republic, Menenius Agrippa was sent to persuade them to return. He described to them how 'In the days when all parts of man were not as now in agreement, but each member had its own ideas and speech, the other parts felt it improper that by their care and hard work and service the stomach acquired everything, while lying passively in their midst enjoying itself; so they agreed that the hands would not carry food to the mouth, nor the mouth take in anything offered, nor the teeth chew.' The same story was also told of Menenius Agrippa by Plutarch a few decades later, Livy being presumably his source, and from Plutarch it was taken over by Shakespeare, in Coriolanus (Act 1, Scene 1).

What is arguably another version of the same basic concept appears in the second chapter of the Book of Daniel, in the Old Testament, where Nebuchadnezzer dreams of an enormous statue of which the head was of gold, the chest and arms silver, the belly and thighs brass, the lower legs iron and the feet commingled iron and clay: the connection between the two versions is suggested by Plato's Republic which in Book Three refers to rulers as gold, soldiers as silver and husbandmen and artisans as bronze and iron, and in Book Four argues that man, like the city-state, is divided into an intellectual part, a spiritual part (i.e. anger, sense of honour etc.) and a physical part (carnal appetites).

The simile received further elaboration during the early Middle Ages. In the version in John of Salisbury's Policraticus (mid-Twelfth Century) the prince is the head, the senate is the heart, giving both good and bad deeds their impulse, the judges are the eyes, ears and tongue, the soldiers are the hands, the revenue collectors are the belly, which if over-stuffed and holding on too obstinately to its contents causes illness, and the peasants are the feet. The terms John of Salisbury uses, senatus, judices et praesides provinciarum, quaestors et commentarienses, suggest the later Roman Empire rather than any regime he was likely to have known personally, indicating an earlier western European source, now lost. Christine de Pizan, in Le Livre de Corps de Policie of 1406, has the prince as head, knights and nobles as hands and arms, and labourers as legs and feet. A few years later Jean Gerson's Oratio ad regem Franciae revived the story of Nebuchadnezzer's dream, glossing the statue's golden head as the king and royal family, the silver chest and arms as the 'chevallerie', the brass belly and thighs as the clergy and the iron of the legs and the iron and clay of the feet as the bourgeoisie and peasants, 'on account of their hard work and humility in serving and obeying'. …

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