NL XXIV: The Body Politic, Social and Non-Social

Index to this series

Executive summary (added September 11, 2018): The subject of political theory is the kind of community called a body politic. For the Ancients, this is a society, composed of, for example, the citizens of Athens, excluding women, children, slaves, and foreigners. In medieval times, all human beings in the community compose a body politic, which is thus non-social, though having within it the societies called estates; sovereigns rule by force (e.g. by the bribery called the granting of liberties), but may in turn be ruled, as is the husband, sovereign of the wife. For Hobbes, a sovereign can also rule by authority. An eristic argument would insist that only one of these accounts of the body politic is correct; but the world is in the flux described by Heraclitus, and the way to come to terms with it is not eristic, but dialectic, as described in the Meno of Plato.

Dialectic is the way to come to terms with a world of constant change. On the internet in particular, too many persons engage in eristic, staking out a position like the Greeks at Troy, who built a wall around their ships on the shore and tried to defend it against all comers.

Dogs stake out their positions in the shade,

In the argument of the New Leviathan, we pass from the family to the state, which Collingwood calls the body politic. This is what political theory must give a scientific account of (24. 1). We consider three phases of political theory:

  1. ancient,
  2. medieval, and
  3. modern.

§1. Ancient Politics

For the Greeks, a body politic was a city, a πόλις, such as Athens (24. 15). It was a society in the sense of “a number of free agents united to pursue a common enterprise” (24. 14). These free agents were the citizens (24. 16), but the inhabitants of the city included also women, children, slaves, and foreigners (24. 2).

We have already said in Chapter XXI that any society may retain non-social elements (24. 22), and in Chapter XXIII we have seen the example of giving a way the bride in the European or at least English ceremony of forming the contract of marriage (24. 25). There is no such element of the Turkish civil marriage ceremony.

An aspect of non-sociality in the ancient Greek body politic is that you are allowed to belong to only one of these (24. 23). Collingwood does not spell out details. It sounds as if dual citizenship is not allowed. Perhaps the real point is that there is no conception of contracting to form a smaller society, even a marriage, within one’s πόλις; or of forming the larger society that we call Greece. The Greeks were able to unite to conquer Troy and to fend off the Persian invasions; but concerning the latter, according our tour guide in Delphi, individual cities would erect monuments that touted only their own accomplishments.

§2. Medieval Politics

The medieval body politic is the state, but this is not a society. Forgetting the terminology developed in Chapter XX, Collingwood refers to the medieval state as “a collection [rather than a community] of human animals, not necessarily free and not necessarily male, but just human” (24. 32). The community came to have “infections, so to speak, of sociality” (24. 34), “called ‘estates’, each with rights and duties of its own” (24. 35). According to a footnote, there were not three estates, but “a vague indefinite number.” Collingwood cites A. F. Pollard, The Evolution of Parliament (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1920). Evidently Collingwood’s assertion applies to England, for as Pollard says in his chapter “The Myth of the Three Estates,”

It is, indeed, hardly too much to say that parliament, so far from being a system of three estates, is the very negation of the whole idea. A system of estates is built upon the principle, not of national, but of class representation; it suggests that a nation is not one, but three states, each with an independent will of its own, and each entitled to veto national progress. It was by no accident that the first step in the first French Revolution was the fusion of the three estates into one National Assembly. The difference between English and French development was that in France the fusion was instantaneous and therefore caused an explosion, while in England it was a gradual transformation spread over centuries.

For Collingwood there are two key points of medieval theory.

  1. The same person can be sovereign and subject (24. 4). Collingwood’s only example here is that (for the medieval theorist) the husband is sovereign over the wife; the husband is presumably in turn subject to some other power, perhaps a local lord, or a king to whom that lord himself would be subject.
  2. The sovereign grants liberties to subjects (24. 41). Again, there is but one example: tenure of land “in a feudal country.”

Land tenure is granted “on condition of military service”; but somehow the balance is unstable. Again Collingwood seems not very interested in working things out in the terminology developed earlier, in Chapter XXI; but as he will say a bit later, the problem is that the sovereign is understood to rule by force. Liberties are rewards for allegience to the sovereign.

24. 43. When we emerge from the Middle Ages into the daylight of the Renaissance with Machiavelli (The Prince belongs to the year 1512) we find this pattern beginning to break down.

Treated as having to be bribed into allegience, the subjects of a monarch, like children, demand more and more.


Now we come to the reason for the title of Collingwood’s book.

24. 47. The medieval pattern has for [Machiavelli] broken down because those who hold liberties by princely gift are not sure to honour the obligations arising out of them. They are not conscious of any obligations; only of liberties.

24. 48. What Hobbes discovered was that ‘the state’ or ‘the sovereign’ does not rule by force at all, but it still rules; it rules by authority (20. 45). It rules because its constituent subjects, who are (some of them; not all) across the boundary which divides man as a social being from man in a state of nature, have achieved social life and are therefore able to confer authority.

24. 49. This is the great discovery of Hobbes in political science; a greater discovery than any other made in that science since perhaps the time of Aristotle.

Collingwood has already said that societies may retain non-social elements from the communities that they evolved from. Evidently many states are ruled by force, in the sense that the ruler does not recognize any kind of responsibility in the citizens, but demands their support in return for what he gives them. This is the theory of the current ceremonial president, and would-be executive president, of the Turkish Republic. He expects votes, because he has built a new bridge over the Bosphorus, and a new tunnel under it, and is currently building the world’s largest airport in a cleared forest. Many of his followers have become rich under his rule.

But when it is said that there is no more rule of law in Turkey, this is not true either. The president may be a micromanager, but he cannot preside over every courtroom. He has to rely on the ability of other state officials to make independent decisions, according to their training in the country’s laws, as well as what they can infer about the president’s own desires.

The body politic is always in flux (24. 51). The Greek state of free citizens corporately ruling themselves is the goal; the medieval state of “a human herd which strong men rule and good men would wish to rule well” (24. 5) is the starting point.

§4. Dialectic

Collingwood’s reader may object that a theorist must choose either the Greek model or the medieval model. “A body politic, he may say, must be either a society or a non-social community” (24. 54).

24. 55. The answer is: ‘Must be, say you, but when? We are in a world where nothing stays put, but everything moves; the things we say must move, too, in the same rhythm as the things we are talking about.’

24. 56. This answer was worked out by Plato, who did a good deal of the pioneer work out of which Aristotle systematized what we call ‘logic’.

One may object that Plato’s “ideas” or “forms” are permanent and unchanging; but we are talking about talk about things on earth. The Latin saying verba volant scripta manent is taken to praise the written or printed word: “Speech flies away, while writing stays put.” The saying can be taken the other way: “Speech comes to you [or can do so], while written words just sit there.” This is the argument of Socrates in the Phaedrus (275d–e):

Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.

Like Socrates, one may adjust one’s speech to fit one’s audience. I return to Collingwood’s own discussion of Plato.

24. 57. All logic is concerned with discussions; but Plato distinguished two kinds of discussions, ‘eristical’ and ‘dialectical’ (Meno, 75 c–d).

24. 58. What Plato calls an eristic discussion is one in which each party tries to prove that he was right and the other wrong.

24. 59. In a dialectical discussion you aim at showing that your own view is one with which your opponent really agrees, even if at one time he denied it; or conversely that it was yourself and not your opponent who began by denying a view with which you really agree.

The cited passage from the Meno is spoken by Socrates:

if my questioner were a professor of the eristic and contentious sort, I should say to him: [75d] I have made my statement; if it is wrong, your business is to examine and refute it. But if, like you and me on this occasion, we were friends and chose to have a discussion together, I should have to reply in some milder tone more suited to dialectic. The more dialectical way, I suppose, is not merely to answer what is true, but also to make use of those points which the questioned person acknowledges he knows. And this is the way in which I shall now try to argue with you.

As I noted in considering Chapter XXIII, Heraclitus observed the world to be in flux (24. 62).

24. 63. Plato’s discovery was how the intellect could find its way about in a Heraclitean world. The answer is: think dialectically.

This means not to compromise, but to change (24. 64). “This readiness to give up something which at a certain time you settled upon as true is dialectical thinking” (24. 65). It was observed in Chapter II that the body and mind are the same thing, approached by natural science and by reflection, respectively. We may likewise approach the same community as being social or non-social (24. 67). As children may grow up to join the family society (24. 74), so subjects may grow up to share the work of ruling (27. 75).

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