Body politic  

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"The cover of Hobbes' Leviathan famously portrays the 'body politic' metaphor by showing a body formed of a multitude of citizens which is surmounted by a King's head."

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

A body politic is a metaphor in which a nation is considered to be a corporate entity, being likened to a human body. A body politic comprises all the people in a particular country considered as a single group. The analogy is typically continued by reference to the apex of government as the head of state, but may be extended to other anatomical parts, as in political readings of the Aesop's fable, "The Belly and the Members". The metaphor also appears in the French language as the corps-état.

The metaphor developed in Renaissance times, as the medical knowledge based upon the classical work of Galen was being challenged by new thinkers such as William Harvey. Analogies were made between the supposed causes of disease and disorder and their equivalents in the political field which were considered to be plagues or infections which might be remedied by purges and nostrums.

The concept may be seen in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which declares: "The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals; it is a social compact by which the whole people covenants with each citizen and each citizen with the whole people." It is also annunciated in the Declaration of Independence, which posits as self-evident truth "that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

Literal manifestation

In one use "body politic" derives from the mediæval political concept of "the king's two bodies" first noted, as a point of theology as much as statehood, by the fifteenth-century judge Sir John Fortescue in The Difference between an Absolute and a Limited Monarchy, written from exile in about 1462. He explains that the character angelus of the king is his royal power, derived from angels and separate from the frail physical powers of his body. However, he uses the phrase body politic itself only in its modern sense, to describe the realm, or shared rule, of Brutus, mythical first king of England, and how he and his fellow exiles had covenanted to form a body politic. Unusually for the time Fortescue was writing in English and not Latin: "made a body pollitike callid a reawme". In 1550 the jurist Edmund Plowden merged Fortescue's concepts, at the same time removing them from abstraction into a real, physical manifestation in the body of the king. Plowden reports how lawyers codified this notion in an examination of a case of land-ownership turning on a disputed gift by an earlier monarch; they determined that the "Body politic…that cannot be seen or handled…[is] constituted for the direction of the People…[and] these two bodies are incorporated in one person…the Body politic includes the [king's] Body natural." In 1609 Attorney General Edward Coke pronounced his dissenting opinion, that mortal power was God-made while the immortality of royal power existed only as a man-made concept; Coke later succeeded in limiting the royal power of Charles I with his Petition of Right. When the monarchy, in the person of Charles II, was restored at the end of the Commonwealth the idea remained current and royalty continued to use the notion, as a buttress to its authority, until an assertion of the rights of Parliament brought about the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

The pre-revolutionary monarchy of France also sought legitimacy from the principle, extending it to include the idea that the king's heir assimilated the "body politic" of the old king, in a physical "transfer of corporeality", on accession.

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Body politic" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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