Political Ideas

Two concepts of the State

Authored by: Anne McLaren

The Elizabethan World

Print publication date:  September  2010
Online publication date:  September  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415409599
eBook ISBN: 9781315736044
Adobe ISBN: 9781317565796


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Early modern political ideas drew on conceptions of the body with an immediacy and specificity that we find difficult to recapture. English men and women regarded themselves as living in a ‘body politic’, and organological metaphors featured prominently in political debate. The MP who announced in 1566 that ‘the prince and commonwealth ioyned together make a perfect man consisting of head, bodie and members’ affirmed what was, for contemporaries, a truism that was both profound and compelling. 1 The ‘perfect man’ was, of course, Christ. Thus, the body politic denoted a quasi-spiritual union of king and subjects, joined together by bonds of faith and allegiance in the service of God. This understanding of political and what we would call national identity focused enormous attention on the physical body of the king, who represented (in Paul Friedland’s terms ‘re-presented’) the realm and its inhabitants in his person. We see it expressed in striking visual form in the famous title page of Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 work, Leviathan (Figure 6.1), where many small male bodies compose the figure of the king. ‘The life of a king containes a thousand thousand liues,’ wrote one contemporary, articulating another truism. Those monsters of nature who were prepared to commit or countenance regicide were ‘no lesse then Regnicides’ – that is, killers of kingdoms. 2

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