This paper explores the figurative significance of Niccolò Machiavelli's lurid account in The Prince of the death scene of Remirro de Orco in Cesena in 1502. This death scene represents a fundamental challenge to the ancient metaphor of the body politic whose health consisted in the harmonious integrity of the whole. By means of this death scene, Machiavelli suggested that sovereigns must be prepared to exercise violent power over the divisible bodies of subjects in the name of securing the polity. I will argue here that the decline and death of the ancient metaphor of the body politic can be interpreted in light of the rise of the modern concept of sovereignty with its characteristic concern to secure the polity even while claiming a lethal power over the individual bodies of its subjects. My analysis begins with an exploration of the difficulties presented by the “body politic” metaphor in grasping the nature of supreme political power in medieval political thought. Attention then shifts to discussion of the emphasis on bodily integrity in the old metaphor, which made the violent exercise of sovereign power a potentially self-destructive activity. Finally, another source of strain on the metaphor is identified in the growing perception of social and religious disunity in early modern political thought, which called into question the social and political union integral to the metaphor. The result was that early modern European political thinkers groped for less organic and consequently more functional and contractual accounts of the relationship between sovereigns and subjects.
Bruce Buchan; Duo pezzi in su la piazza: The Death of the Body Politic in Western Political Thought. South Atlantic Quarterly 1 October 2011; 110 (4): 901–915. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-1382312
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