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What is the Body Politic?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 29 March 2014
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The term “the body politic” is used to describe the people of a government considered as a whole, from the government's leader right down to ordinary citizens. Some people describe the government itself as the body politic, excluding the citizens, but more commonly, this term refers to the government and the people as a collective. The idea behind the concept is that healthy governments should focus like a healthy human body.

This concept is quite ancient; the Greeks, for example, sometimes used the body as a metaphor to describe the state, as did people in India. However, the term “the body politic” is usually credited to author Thomas Hobbes, who mentioned it in his 1651 book Leviathan. Later authors ran with the idea, sometimes producing tortuously complex lines of thought to talk about the subject.

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When considering any society, many people think that it is critical to look at the role of the people, considering the society as a whole. In some cases, a government only exists with the will of the people, and the opinions of the people have a profound impact on the nature of the government. In other instances, unrest among the people can lead to problems at the head, even if he or she does not rule by consent of the people. While the head of state may be at the head of the body politic, the head cannot function in a vacuum. It needs other parts of the body to survive, like a supportive cabinet, a legislature, and a willing populace.

Opinion columnists often talk about the body politic when they want to stress the idea that a society must function as a whole. It may also be criticized as a collective when things are not going well, under the logic that since all members of a society are responsible for the function of a society, everyone is culpable when a society is struggling. Philosophers, economists, and political theorists also like to explore the concept of the body politic, with new interpretations of this concept emerging on a regular basis in scholarly journals and books.

In addition to appearing in a political sense, the body politic is also sometimes used in a religious sense. The Church sometimes views itself as the body politic, viewing God as the head of the body, and the Church as its heart. This sense of the metaphor appears most commonly in the Catholic Church, although other branches of the Christian faith may use it as well, emphasizing the interconnected nature of God, Church, and the faithful.

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I have heard of this metaphor in the sense of the church relationship between God, the Son and the church. I had not heard of the actual political view. I like this and it makes a lot of sense to me.

I wonder if we truly believed that we, as individuals and voters, could make a difference and viewed ourselves as part of the governing body, if we could make headway in our government and actually change things for the better. Any one have any thoughts?

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