Hobbes: What’s a Body to Do?
Even people who have never read a page of Hobbes have probably seen the frontispiece of Leviathan.
It’s a body, made up of bodies. (Yeah, there are other bits down below. We’ll talk about those another time perhaps.)
As Michel Foucault reminds us, bodies carry cultural meanings. Bodies embody meaning. Simply: Bodies are places where we put meanings.
The meanings that an author or a culture attributes to the properties “having a body” or “being like a body” can change over time. So for Hobbes, what did it mean for the state to be like a body?
Two related things, I would say. First, a body has a creator. And second, a body has — or at least is capable of having — an ordering that is both harmonious and intentional. It is also capable of suffering disorder or disease. Usually not, however: Even Voltaire, who thought God was mostly indifferent to us, still marveled that God had so arranged the internal organs that they did not harm one another and that, in day-to-day life, a healthy person was nearly unaware of them.
The creator of the human body, of course, is God. God created man in his own image, so of course the body was built according to a perfect prototype. Subsequent infirmities are the result not of God or of his design, but of the Fall of Man. There is a harmonious ordering — created by a designer — and there is a constant danger of disorder. Both have normative valences.
As above, so below: The state and its laws were not created by God, but by a legislator, who stands in God’s place. A wise legislator will create a harmonious social ordering through an exercise of the will or the intention.
An interesting contrast can be made with naturalistic evolution. In it, the body is arranged not by a single, intentional design, but by selection according to reproductive fitness given various (and changing) environmental constraints. The result does appear harmonious, at least very often it does, but it is in no sense the product of an intentionality. And, as theory predicts, there are places where the harmony isn’t quite perfect — there always will be, too.
That’s what it means, to me, to have a body. So… if the state is like a body — yes, that’s a big if — we might suggest that it is at least a somewhat unintentional product, bringing with it hernias and hiccups that a fully informed and conscious designer would never have allowed. We can’t deny, of course, that there do exist consciously willed fashionings of the state-body, but the overall design just can’t be ascribed to any one legislator, not even in the most totalitarian regimes.