After escaping an assassination attempt earlier that morning, Cicero entered the senate under armed guard. It was 7 November 63 BCE, and the Roman Republic hovered on the brink of revolution. Catiline, the aristocrat behind the assassination plot, stood opposite. Faced with the man who had tried to kill him, Cicero gave one of the most powerful orations in all of antiquity: ‘O tempora, o mores!’(‘Oh these times! Oh the ways of men.’)
Central to Cicero’s speech is a provocative metaphor. The republic is a body, and Catiline a plague. Reasoning within this metaphor, Cicero prescribed a cure: to remove the disease, exile Catiline.
Cicero was utilising perhaps the most fundamental metaphor of political discourse: it runs through Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian war, anchors the political philosophy of Aristotle and Plato, and animates the rhetoric of Roman statesmen and Stoics. It re-emerges in the major political philosophers of the European tradition. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill and many others deploy the metaphor to support a diverse range of arguments about human societies. We still speak casually of ‘heads’ of state and the long ‘arm’ of the law, of ‘backbones’, ‘heartlands’ and even ‘armpits’ of countries. Schools rally the ‘student body’, recruiters persuade people to join the marine ‘corps’, the press ‘corps’ or ‘corporations’ (all from the Latin corpus, for ‘body’).
The idea of political entities as figurative bodies doesn’t have a monopoly on metaphors for human collectives. Ancient Greek philosophers and historians often evoked the ‘ship of state’, an image that implies risk, a destination, and a crew and passengers with entangled fates; while those aboard have an interest in cooperating, they are not genetic relatives. The concept of a fatherland – the words ‘patriot’ and ‘paternal’ share Latin roots – goes further, joining citizens as metaphorical siblings with a common filial obligation to the state. But the body politic metaphor proposes something even more radical. Other people are not just related to you; they are you. [Continue reading…]