September 23, 2008

Menenius makes his mark

The argument that the state ressembles the human body has a long pedigree: we ourselves perpetuate it by calling Queens and Presidents, heads of state. As an image it is incredibly versatile. One interesting variant is used in Livy to justify oligarchic rule by the senate by Menenius Agrippa- I think it is worth quoting in full before we analyse it:

Long ago when all the members of the human body did not, as now they do, agree together, but had each its own thoughts and the words to express them in, the other parts resetned teh fact that they should have the worry and trouble of providing everything for the belly, which remained idle, surrounded by its ministers, with nothing to do but enjoy the pleasant things they gave it. So the discontented members plotted together that the hand should carry no food to the mouth, that the mouth should take nothing that was offered it, and that the teeth should accept nothing to chew. But alas! while they sought in their resentment to subdue the belly by starvation , they themselves and the whole body wasted away to nothing. By this it was apparant that the belly, too, has no mean service to perform; it receives food indeed; but it also nourishes in its turn the other members, giving back to all parts of the body, through all its veins, the blood it has made by the process of digestion; and upon this blood our life and our health depend (II 33)

The first thing that is fascinating about this is the mechanistic way that it describes the body- as a machine essentially for the processing of food. Notice too that at the centre of that machine is not the heart- which we know pumps the blood around the body- but the belly which in Livy's view does not pump but produces the blood and nourishes it with food. The belly is also for Livy inactive- it does not convert food, it consumes it and transmits it around to other parts of the body. That too establishes a vast difference between how we see ourselves and how Livy saw himself- what for us is a mechanism performing various tasks is for him a mechanism which performs similar but distinctly different tasks. That conception of the body makes his idea of his own individuality very different- for a start what we see as a pump, he does not give any role in the physical process of blood transmission.

Notice too how this effects politics- if our metaphors for politics are bodily then the evolution of how we understand the body changes our understanding of politics. I'm not sure today that we would explicitly connect consumption in the same way to the ability to decide things- Livy did because of what he beleived that the belly did (or he thought it was plausible to do so because that is what he thought the function of the belly was). The metaphors that we use about politics and life are often extensions of the other sciences- the same functions in reverse as well- competition in the animal kingdom is not always conscious! The Livyan world is distinct from ours not just because of Livy's explicitly different moral, religious and political contexts but also because of his scientific and medical context. That provides him and us with the raw material to understand politics and the world through.

The second thing that is so interesting about Menenius's explanation is the way that it perfectly gets the advantages of the division of labour. I have no doubt that this is not a full explanation of the division- seeking for the roots of Adam Smith's philosophy in even Augustan Rome is a futile task of anachronistic idiocy. Rather what I want to draw attention to is the rational basis for an aristocratic government of the world. Essentially what Menenius is saying is not counter intuitive- though of course it may well be deeply incorrect- his argument is that some people are better at making decisions so let them do it. It may look like they make decisions for their own good- but that good filters down to every class of the population and were they not to do that, the state would fail. To some extent Livy agrees with him- afterall Menenius, Livy tells us, died having performed 'great' services for the commonwealth (II 34) and this episode is distinctly mentioned.

What Livy is not is a democrat- and if my last post gave you any such idea then I was wrong- what he is is a believer in constitutional balance. The point of this speech is that it reasserts a moderate position between the aristocratic hauteur of the senate and the mob feelings of the populace- it avoids the trap of oligarchy and that of Athens. In a sense therefore Livy's places this speech by Menenius deliberately at the end of his passage extolling the role of the plebs- he wants to demonstrate that he is no democrat, despite his sympathy for the small farmer in arms.


Crushed said...

I would say Livy believed in an early version of 'separation of powers', kind of a 'balanced republic'.

It seems clear he believes in an Aristocracy, in the orginal sense of 'government by the best', as opposed to Oligarchy.

There is perhaps a sense in which the model republic depicted in the early years is a not so much real as ideal. A bit like Plato's republic, or the Sparta of Lycurgas.

Certainly he seems concerned with the idea of constituitional checks and balances.

Perhaps his own time had showed him the dangers of when those slide...

James Higham said...

Wonder which part of society is represented by a middle finger pointing upwards. does Livy enlighten us? :)