Illnesses of the Political Body


Maria Jose Lopez, Philosopher and Academic of the Philosophy Department,

Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities, Universidad de Chile.

Translated by Natalia Tranchino

The question concerning corruption is almost as old as the question about what a political community is, what constitutes it, and how it is founded. The word corruption comes from the Latin corruptio (onis) and refers to the action and effect of damaging—or even destroying—something completely or globally, whether it be material or immaterial. The root of the word is derived from the verb rumpere, where our verb to break comes from, which indicates the radical action of breaking, tearing apart; destroying in a violent way.

Being related from its onset to the notion of human decomposition, corruption is the quintessential principle behind the first conceptions about disease in the classical world. Generally, this corruption, understood as an imbalance of the humors that constitute the body, could be dealt with by treatments that could drive out the humors, which allowed for the restoration of corporal balance and, ultimately, health, according to Hippocrates. On the other hand, Galeano understands health as the balance between the parts or elements that make up the soul as well as the body. Thus, health depends on healthy bonds between its elements.

Nevertheless, it is the Renaissance philosopher Machiavelli who was directly involved in the politics of his city, the one who straightforwardly reflects on the corruption of the political body, which suffers the most serious diseases. Machiavelli considers himself a “buon medico” (good doctor) able to identify the diseases of Florence and accordingly prescribe, effectively and swiftly, the necessary medications, as indicated in “For Purging the Moods of Those Towns” by Sandro Landi, recovered in Metaphors and Concepts of the Social Bond in Modern and Contemporary History.

And yet, is the political community a body? Does it make sense nowadays to talk about it in those terms? It is an old metaphor, but in my opinion it is still useful. The reason is that thinking about the political community as if it were a body, recognizing it as an organic paradigm, implies recognizing it as a reality that is constantly changing, which has a history and different elements that can nevertheless be coordinated. In addition, if the political community suffers diseases, if it is corrupted, it means that it is alive; we tend to forget that corruption occurs in a living body.

But what is it that corrupts political bodies? For Machiavelli, all communities, especially the best ones, are vulnerable to corruption. In Speech about the First Decade of Tito Livio the dilemma moves between two poles that legitimately mobilize political life: on the one hand, the quest for greatness, associated equally to ambition, and to the individual virtú. And on the other hand, the true greatness, which can only belong to the Republic, to the political community as a whole.  Thus, how can the almost natural inclination towards individual self-interest, i.e. towards corruption, be avoided? How can the interest in the public good be kept alive in a community for a period long enough to achieve the civic greatness of the city?

In this regard, Machiavelli’s answer—at least in the Discorsi—rests on a quite unshakeable confidence in the people, who are neither the only force nor the only group; however, they turn out to be more reliable than any prince. This is basically because the people, who are diverse and multitudinous, can reach greater virtú, and their errors can be corrected better and more effectively than those of the prince. Thus, the same people are the best guardians of liberty and, in general, there is no need to be fearful in times of turmoil and division.

In fact, it is necessary to know how to use those moments in order to reinforce the bonds of the community, with at least two complementary strategies: on the one hand, the maintenance of certain levels of equality that can diminish the effects of envy and resentment. On the other hand, the need to have the people exercise their freedom—that they be able to think and participate in the government both in times of peace and war.  These ongoing commitments and activities of citizenship will strengthen the bonds between the elements or groups that compose the political body, and keep it healthy.

Corruption advances when the differences turn into disintegration; the parts of the body separate, generating hostile umori along with the negative spread of rumori. Let us get it right, Machiavelli is not after a unity founded on a homogenizing will, which is far from the Florentine’s agonist spirit, strongly committed as he is to criticism and dissenso. Rather, it is about the disintegration of the parts from the whole, which is expressed as a lack of affection towards the city. This, as Landi points out, is manifested as a specific form of incontinence, which echoes malediction and potentially seditious speech.

It is also not about imposing a fallacious reconciliation between the different parts that make up the Republic, parts that are mainly irreconcilable and possibly share only their connections to the whole.  In fact, according to Machiavelli, the lack of unity and dissidence were not an obstacle, but they fed and made the greatness of Rome possible. Because of the discussions it generated and the institutions it allowed to establish, this lack of unity—which is not full dismemberment—actually freed Rome. Thus, corruption does not come from the differences, from irreconcilable viewpoints, or from turmoil in the town. Rather, it comes from the absence of a deeper vision, which the Florentine thinker perceives.

Here, the main corruption corresponds to a loss of the virtú of its citizens, and with it the loss of interest in the common good and in politics, which made people sluggish and inept. In addition, it has to do with losing the sense and the opportunity of greatness, which can only be achieved in community; in the political body. For Machiavelli, it is about limiting interests to personal interests, thus losing the view of the Republic as a whole. This is the crux of the issue, which today is still a very relevant question:  What is the political community?  What constitutes it?  What moves and gives life to the political body? Without a doubt, the answer is individual interests and the desire for glory or power, but these are only part of the story.

It may be the case that the idea of community is not so popular; perhaps its leaders are, just as the citizens, confused, or inept, or are full of bad humors. However, we are still part of a whole. We continue to comprise a political body that has its own life, despite ourselves, and its own history and its possibilities for change.  If we only have our own particular needs in sight, our own interests, it is because we imagine ourselves as isolated organs.  And just as for Machiavelli, this illusion is the true illness for us; this mirage of parts, which nevertheless feel that they are something more than just parts. Not wanting to see, not knowing how to see, and not being able to see the whole is, in the end, our true illness.



Machiavelli, N. Speech about The First Decade of Tito Livio.

Landi, S.  (2015). For bleeding the moods of those towns. In En Godicheau, F. and Sánchez León P. [Eds.]. Words that tie: Metaphors and concepts of the social bond in modern and contemporary history. Mexico.

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