Two bodies, one aim

Kings, more kings – Portraits of the kings of England by Matthew Paris (13th century) in British Library, Cotton MS Claudius D VI, f. 9v.

The single most consequential development in human thought, which proved to be humanity’s engine of growth, was the power of abstraction.

Moving from some to all, from physics to metaphysics, from now to tomorrow.

Looking beyond the visible, beyond the current moment, beyond the individual, in order to see what cannot be touched, cannot be seen. But that which can held in the mind, almost as firmly as in a grip.

In philosophy, it was the logos, the principle of all principles, the principle itself being an abstraction of all observable, understandable, phenomena. In theology, it was the soul, transcending the body, the gods transcending humanity, humanity transcending the individual. In political thought, it was the body politic, the polis, the res publica, the common weal.

As the world witnesses the passing of recent history’s longest reigning monarch, it is worth recalling what the historian Ernst Kantorowicz called ‘the king’s two bodies’ in his book by the same title.

According to medieval political thought, which is the basis of our current understanding of the concept of kingship, the king, or queen, never dies. The king has two bodies, the Body Natural and the Body Politic. The first is subject to the constraints of nature, but the second isn’t. The first is biological, the second is cultural. The king may be dead, but long live the king. For medieval and early-modern jurists, political theologians and theorists, the doctrine of the king’s two bodies guarantees permanence, continuity and immortality. Whatever you and I may think about the monarchy, about the kings and queens whose reigns fall within this centuries-old framework, one thing is clear: the modern state, and with it modern culture was shaped and continues to be shaped by the idea that, through a kind of mystical abstraction, something survives when everything dies. And all the -isms of the world, whether social or political, are part of the same dual-bodied scheme. Otherwise, we’d always go back to square one, never moving forward, but circling around, indefinitely.

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