Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

History of Western Metaphysics and Political Thought, Pt. 2: Early Usages and Implications of the Metaphor Body-Politic

Biologically-speaking, it isn’t difficult to recognize the human body and animal bodies as a living whole. All of the members of the body contribute the functioning and livelihood of the entire body. As such, when one of the part or members of the body “breaks down,” the entire organism as an organic whole risks death, risks the end of its living. This is not a new idea, and one of the earliest references to this idea of unison of the body dates to one Aesop’s fables. The story describes how certain members of the body perceive the stomach as mechanically useless and lazy gourmandise and, subsequently, no longer functioned for the stomach.


Aesop’s The Stomach and the Body **

Back when all the parts of the human body did not function in unison as is the case today, each member of the body had its own opinion and was able to speak. The various members were offended that everything won by their hard work and diligent efforts was delivered to the stomach while he simply sat there in their midst, fully at ease and just enjoying the delights that were brought to him. Finally, the members of the body revolted: the hands refused to bring food to the mouth, the mouth refused to take in any food, and the teeth refused to chew anything. In their angry effort to subdue the stomach with hunger, the various parts of the body and the whole body itself completely wasted away. As a result, they realized that the work done by the stomach was no small matter, and that the food he consumed was no more than what he gave back to all the parts of the body in the form of blood which allows us to flourish and thrive, since the stomach enriches the blood with digested food and then distributes it equally throughout the veins. [[Source: Aesop’s Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. **Oxford University Press (World’s Classics): Oxford, 2002.]]

This story details with the simple fact that not serving the stomach will destroy the body and its members. This idea is nothing new, and while the biological details have been much deepened in the last 2000 so years, the logic remains the same: the biological parts have to serve the whole or the whole and the parts will die.

We find this same idea repeated La Fontaine in the first part of his poem:


Les Membres et l’Estomac (première partie)

Je devais par la Royauté
Avoir commencé mon Ouvrage.
A la voir d’un certain côté,
Messer Gaster en est l’image.
S’il a quelque besoin, tout le corps s’en ressent.
De travailler pour lui les membres se lassant,
Chacun d’eux résolut de vivre en Gentilhomme,
Sans rien faire, alléguant l’exemple de Gaster.
Il faudrait, disaient-ils, sans nous qu’il vécût d’air.
Nous suons, nous peinons, comme bêtes de somme.
Et pour qui ? Pour lui seul ; nous n’en profitons pas :
Notre soin n’aboutit qu’à fournir ses repas.
Chommons, c’est un métier qu’il veut nous faire apprendre.
Ainsi dit, ainsi fait. Les mains cessent de prendre,
Les bras d’agir, les jambes de marcher.
Tous dirent à Gaster qu’il en allât chercher.
Ce leur fut une erreur dont ils se repentirent.
Bientôt les pauvres gens tombèrent en langueur ;
Il ne se forma plus de nouveau sang au coeur :
Chaque membre en souffrit, les forces se perdirent.
Par ce moyen, les mutins virent
Que celui qu’ils croyaient oisif et paresseux,
A l’intérêt commun contribuait plus qu’eux.

*What a Poor Gaster! *

Menenius Agrippa: Metaphor of the Body-Politic

In contrast, biology becomes politics on the verbal level when this biological fact about the integrity of the body with its parts is transferred to the nature of a human society, which, in its least metaphysically-charged expression, represents a collection of human beings. One of the most important and oft-repeated examples of this metaphorical-political transfer (of interpreting a collection of different humans like as biological body) is the story of Menenius Agrippa.

One of the earliest examples can be found in Titus Livius or Livy’s monumental history of Rome, Ab Urbe Conditain. Livy (traditionally 59 BC – AD 17) writes about the founding of Rome through the reign of Augustus. This text is both a historical document retelling events and an ongoing political commentary. For example, he wrote (of the year 445 BC):

War and political dissension made the year a difficult one. Hardly had it begun, when the tribune Canuleius introduced a bill for legalizing intermarriage between the nobility and the commons. The senatorial party objected strongly on the grounds not only that the patrician blood would thereby be contaminated but also that the hereditary rights and privileges of the gentes, or families, would be lost. Further, a suggestion, at first cautiously advanced by the tribunes, that a law should be passed enabling one of the two consuls to be a plebeian, subsequently hardened into the promulgation, by nine tribunes, of a bill by which the people should be empowered to elect to the consulship such men as they thought fit, from either of the two parties. The senatorial party felt that if such a bill were to become law, it would mean not only that the highest office of state would have to be shared with the dregs of society but that it would, in effect, be lost to the nobility and transferred to the commons. It was with great satisfaction, therefore, that the Senate received a report, first that Ardea had thrown off her allegiance to Rome in resentment at the crooked practice which had deprived her of her territory; secondly, that troops from Veii had raided the Roman frontier, and, thirdly, that the Volscians and Aequians were showing uneasiness at the fortification of Verrugo. In the circumstances it was good news, for the nobility could look forward even to an unsuccessful war with greater complacency than to an ignominious peace. (Livy’s History of Rome, Penguin Classics, 1982, ISBN 0-14-044388-6, cited in “Livy,” Wikipedia)

This extract represents a kind of political realism about the actual tensions of Rome’s political life.

Livy recounts in Section 31-32 a period of political chaos in Rome. Initially there was an external war, which had been recently “successfully managed.” In spite of this external pace, the state remains divided by “domestic differences.” Political and economic issues become so drastic that the then dictator Valerius declares before the senate:

“I am not acceptable,” says he, “as an adviser of concord. You will ere long wish, depend on it, that the commons of Rome had patrons similar to me. For my part, I will neither further disappoint my fellow citizens, nor will I be dictator to no purpose. Intestine dissensions, foreign wars, caused the republic to require such a magistrate. Peace has been secured abroad, it is impeded at home. I will be a witness to disturbance as a private citizen rather than as dictator.”

He then resigns as dictator, and the city becomes further politically unstable with the senate and the people still divided and with a now leaderless army. The legions are sent outside the city out of fear because their loyalty oats were made to the dictator and as such might not owe anything to the consuls. Consequently:

by the advice of one Sicinius, retired, without the orders of the consuls, to the sacred mount, beyond the river Anio, three miles from the city: this account is more general than that which Piso has given, that the secession was made to the Aventine. There without any leader, their camp being fortified with a rampart and trench, remaining quiet, taking nothing but what was necessary for sustenance, they kept themselves for several days, neither being attacked, nor attacking others. Great was the panic in the city, and through mutual fear all was suspense. The people left in the city dreaded the violence of the senators; the senators dreaded the people remaining in the city, uncertain whether they should prefer them to stay or to depart; but how long would the multitude which had seceded, remain quiet? what were to be the consequences then, if, in the mean time, any foreign war should break out? they certainly considered no hope left, save in the concord of the citizens; this should be restored to the state by fair or by unfair means.

The divided peoples are in a state of “civil succession” or even semi-anarchy. A legitimate leader has not been found, and as such, power and loyalty is split. At that moment:

It was resolved therefore that there should be sent as ambassador to the people, Menenius Agrippa, an eloquent man, and one who was a favourite with the people, because he derived his origin from them. He being admitted into the camp, is said to have related to them merely the following story in that antiquated and uncouth style;

This is moment of political disorder where a certain Menenius Agrippa, a man between two worlds, a speaker of both “eloquent” word and of these people’s “antiquated and uncouth style” is delegated. He recounts the story of Aesop but with an extremely important “spin.” In his rhetorical speech, he connects metaphorically the unity of the biological body with the political unity of these collections of humans:

“At a time when all the parts in the human body did not, as now, agree together, but the several members had each its own scheme, its own language, the other parts, indignant that every thing was procured for the belly by their care, labour, and service; that the belly, remaining quiet in the centre, did nothing but enjoy the pleasures afforded it. They conspired accordingly, that the hands should not convey food to the mouth, nor the mouth receive it when presented, nor the teeth chew it: whilst they wished under the influence of this feeling to subdue the belly by famine, the members themselves and the entire body were reduced to the last degree of emaciation. Thence it became apparent that the service of the belly was by no means a slothful one; that it did not so much receive nourishment as supply it, sending to all parts of the body this blood by which we live and possess vigour, distributed equally to the veins when perfected by the digestion of the food.”

Menenius Agrippa more or less repeats the moral of Aesop’s tale, but his conclusion in this particular context of political disorder and division amongst the Romans is new. While the moral of Aesop’s story was that the stomach’s role was of “no small matter,” there is a slight difference as to the appearance of the stomach. The other parts of the body perceive the stomach as “slothful” but subsequently then recognize its central importance. It’s not unlikely the poor, worker plebeians saw the rich, aristocrat patricians as lazy and slothful as enjoying the fruit of their labors without putting in any work. Agrippa answers and reinterprets their perception of the rich:

By comparing in this way how similar the intestine sedition of the body was to the resentment of the people against the senators, he made an impression on the minds of the multitude.

This is a rhetorical speech that metaphorically compares the Roman society to that of a human body in order to “show” literal unity amongst the people. A certain recognition is made by the plebeians of the need of patricians if society is going to function as whole. This speech leads to “reconciliation” and the creation by the senate of magistrates and tribunes for the plebeians (or commoners).

The death of Agrippa Menenius reveals his political role as a “go-between”:

a man during all his life equally a favourite with the senators and commons, still more endeared to the commons after the secession. To this man, the mediator and umpire in restoring concord among his countrymen, the ambassador of the senators to the commons, the person who brought back the commons to the city”

This idea of mediation and reconciliation between separate groups is an extremely important theme in politics from the early Romans up to our contemporary politics. If human society is like a body with separate “members,” then, so the argument goes, members should act in accordance with the needs of this societal whole. In this metaphor of the body-politic, there is an obvious political justification for the state of things, for the way that particular society (whether egalitarian or dictatorial) is and should stay. In this particular Roman context, this political justification carries with the supposed rightness and necessity of patricians ruling over plebeians. According to the metaphor of the body-politic, hierarchy is both natural and necessary to maintain the health and life of the body. Whether thousands of years ago or in today’s contemporary discourse, speaking of a political collection of peoples as a body evokes this very, very old political metaphorification of the body-politic. This metaphorical usage does not really justify the content of the society and how it should be ordered. It merely declares unity between parts and whole as necessary for proper functioning.

La Fontaine repeats this same message in the second part of his poem:


Les Membres et l’Estomac (seconde partie)

Ceci peut s’appliquer à la grandeur Royale.
Elle reçoit et donne, et la chose est égale.
Tout travaille pour elle, et réciproquement
Tout tire d’elle l’aliment.
Elle fait subsister l’artisan de ses peines,
Enrichit le Marchand, gage le Magistrat,
Maintient le Laboureur, donne paie au soldat,
Distribue en cent lieux ses grâces souveraines,
Entretient seule tout l’Etat.
Ménénius le sut bien dire.
La Commune s’allait séparer du Sénat.
Les mécontents disaient qu’il avait tout l’Empire,
Le pouvoir, les trésors, l’honneur, la dignité ;
Au lieu que tout le mal était de leur côté,
Les tributs, les impôts, les fatigues de guerre.
Le peuple hors des murs était déjà posté,
La plupart s’en allaient chercher une autre terre,
Quand Ménénius leur fit voir
Qu’ils étaient aux membres semblables,
Et par cet apologue, insigne entre les Fables,
Les ramena dans leur devoir.