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For other uses, see Body politic (disambiguation).
The cover of Hobbes' Leviathan famously portrays the metaphor by showing a body formed of a multitude of citizens which is surmounted by a King's head.[1]

A body politic is a metaphor in which a nation is considered to be a corporate entity,[2] being likened to a human body. The word "politic" in this phrase is a postpositive adjective; so it is "a body of a politic nature" rather than "a politic of a bodily nature". 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 top of government as the head of state,[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

Literal manifestation[edit]

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".[2] 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."[6] 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.[7][8]

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.[9]


  1. ^ Kenneth Olwig (2002), Landscape, nature, and the body politic, University of Wisconsin Press, p. 87, ISBN 978-0-299-17424-8, "The frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan ... is a particularly famous example of the depiction of the body politic ..." 
  2. ^ a b "body politic", Oxford English Dictionary, "A nation regarded as a corporate entity" 
  3. ^ A. D. Harvey (2007), Body politic: political metaphor and political violence, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, ISBN 978-1-84718-272-2 
  4. ^ de Baecque, Antoine (1997). The Body Politic: Corporeal Metaphor in Revolutionary France, 1770-1800. Trans. Charlotte Mandell. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. p. xv. ISBN 978-0-8047-2817-1. 
  5. ^ Jonathan Harris (1998), Foreign bodies and the body politic: discourses of social pathology in early modern England, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-59405-9 
  6. ^ Kantorowicz, Ernst H (1957). The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 9. ISBN 0691071209. 
  7. ^ Kantorowicz (1957: 423)
  8. ^ Olwig (2002: 102)
  9. ^ de Baecque (1997: 100–102}

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