Review Essay of The King’s Two Bodies
Kantorowicz’s book—one of the most significant titles ever published on political theory—traces the nation-state or body politic to the mystical body of the church. The author shows how the idea of death on the battlefield—dying for one’s country—descended from Christian martyrdom.
"Professor Kantorowicz has written a great book, perhaps the most important work in the history of medieval political thought. Here, in superbly designed chapters based upon the best scholarship in every field even remotely concerned with the Middle Ages, is the development of the theory and symbolism of the early national states from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries." —P. N. Riesenberg, American Political Science Review
"Professor Ernst Kantorowicz has in this volume given us a monumental work of superb scholarship and profound learning.” —B. Chrimes, The Law Quarterly Review
Ernst Kantorowicz was a historian of political and intellectual history who taught at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where he published his masterpiece, The King’s Two Bodies.
Read at no charge: Excerpts from THE KING’S TWO BODIES
In The King’s Two Bodies, Ernst Kantorowicz describes a profound transformation in the concept of political authority that occurred over the course of the Middle Ages. Kantorowicz found in Edmund Plowden’s reports (1571)—a collection of law cases written under Queen Elizabeth I—the first clear elaboration of “that mystical talk with which the English crown jurists enveloped and trimmed their definitions of kingship and royal capacities.” The following discussion of the “King’s Two Bodies” is based on Kantorowicz’s presentation and analysis of Plowden’s reports.
The King, Plowden says, has two bodies: “a Body Natural and a Body Politic.” The King’s Body Natural is his mortal body, subject to “all infirmities come by nature or accident,” the “imbecility of infancy or old age,” and the “defects that happen to the natural bodies of all people.” In short, it is the biological body that the King has in common with each of us—a body that ages and eventually dies.
However, the King also has a Second Body, a Body Politic. This body—that “cannot be seen or handled”—is “utterly void of old age and other natural defects and imbecilities” to which the Body Natural is subject. The King’s Second Body, in other words, is invulnerable, immortal and “cannot be invalidated or frustrated by any disability in his natural body.”
Still, the King’s Body Natural is not “distinct or divided” from his Body Politic. Rather, his Body Natural and Body Politic are “together indivisible.” The two bodies are “incorporated in one person.” The body corporate is contained within the Body Natural; and the Body Natural within the body corporate. The King’s Two Bodies thus form “one unit indivisible, each fully contained in the other.”
Yet, Plowden explains, while the King’s two bodies form an indivisible unity, no doubt can arise regarding the “superiority of the Body Politic over the Body Natural.” Not only is the Body Politic “more ample and large than the Body Natural,” but in the Body Politic dwell certain “truly mysterious forces which reduce, or even remove, the imperfections of the fragile human nature.” Although the King contains within himself two bodies—one and indivisible—the Body Politic is the greater of the two.
This Body Politic draws the King’s Body Natural into itself, altering the latter. The Body Politic “takes away the imbecility of the Body Natural.” When the Body Natural fuses with the Body Politic—when these two bodies unite—the Body Politic acts to “wipe away every imperfection” of the Body Natural. By merging with the Body Politic, one’s natural body is transformed into an omnipotent body.
The King’s Body Natural (like the body of other human beings) is subject to passions and death—but not when it is united with his Second Body. For as to his Body Politic, “the King never dies.” When a King dies, his Second Body is “transferred and conveyed over from the Body Natural now dead to another Body Natural.” In short: “The King is dead—long live the King.”
The idea of the King’s Second Body has profound implications for our understanding of the human being’s relationship to civilization. The King’s Second Body, I suggest, symbolizes culture itself, that which (as Anthropology and Sociology texts used to say) “lives on.” The Second Body of the king—the Body Politic—is culture: that part of human beings which endures even while individuals pass away.
Social theorists typically view the self as created and shaped by culture. However, we may also view culture as the creation of the self. I propose the idea of culture as a double of the self: the King’s Second Body; fantasy of an immortal self-bound to our mortal selves.
We project our bodies into the symbolic order. We create and nurture cultural objects that symbolize our Bodies. Culture thus constitutes the Second Body of the King: the fantasy of an immortal, self-perpetuating body not subject to death or decay.
Egyptian pyramids mark the beginning of Western civilization. Well before the Middle Ages, Kings were conceived as partaking of immortality. A pyramid was the Pharaoh’s Body Politic: his immortal body that transcended his natural body.
Egyptians believed that the Pharaoh could live forever—within a massive structure that contained and symbolized his body. Pyramids constituted a double of the Pharaoh’s self: the King’s Second Body.
The Pyramids were the result of hundreds of thousands of hours of labor and the expenditure of enormous wealth. Human energies were poured into building these gigantic structures—that had no practical value whatsoever.
Civilizations begin with the fantasy of immortality—projected into monumental creations that stand as a double of the self. Monumental structures such as the pyramids embody the fantasy of living on even as our actual bodies die.
Each of us is like a King or Pharaoh: we project our bodies—our life energies—into the creation of cultural objects which, we imagine, will live on even though we are fated to die. Cultural objects are the Second Body of the King: symbolizing a body (politic) not subject to death or decay; the superorganic; that which transcends the lives of individuals and lives on.
Nations function like the Second Body of the King. One’s nation is a double of one’s self: a larger, “more ample” body with which we identify. Our nation is a Body Politic that seems more powerful than our actual body. We identify with a nation as if it were our own body. We project our bodies into a Body Politic. We wage war in the name of our nation to defend the fantasy of an omnipotent body that will live forever.
Whatever theories scholars put forth, we nevertheless exist: each human being lives within his or her biological body. In order to escape one’s biological body (and the death that it contains), we identify with nations, cultures and the symbolic order. The Body Politic—our Second Body—is conceived as an omnipotent body that will wash away weakness, defect and death.
We seek to bind our actual body to this symbolic body: The King is dead, long live the King. Or as the song from a James Bond movie puts it: “You only live twice: one life for yourself and one for your dreams.” Our life in culture is a dream life: the projection of a fantasy.
Our actual bodies are small, frail and vulnerable. The Body Politic is large and apparently invulnerable. What’s more, the national body seems to contain “everything” within itself. We want it all, and we want it all forever. We project our beings into this dream body.
The “split subject” is a human being that exists in two places; two dimensions of reality. On the one hand, we exist in a concrete place and time. On the other hand, we are “spirited away” by the symbolic order. We identify our existence with another dimension of reality—none other than “culture” itself: a world that seems to exist “out there,” separate from us and moving eternally through time and space like a film that never ends.
We want to be part of this never-ending movie. We would prefer to be a character in it—a Queen or King ourselves (“Fame, I want to live forever, baby remember my name”). If this is not possible, we link ourselves to individuals who seem to be part of the Body Politic; to exist within it. Famous people—like those who are written up in history books—are like bodies contained within the Body Politic: part of the cellular structure of a nation.
The immortal bodies with which we connect may be sports figures (Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig), singers (Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson), movie stars (James Dean or Marilyn Monroe), political figures (John F. Kennedy or Lee Harvey Oswald), scientists (Albert Einstein), or academic heroes (Lacan). Each is dead, yet we experience them as if they still exist: they constitute the Second Body of the King.
Human beings pour their life-energies into the creation of cultural objects—symbols of our own bodies—that we hope will become elements of culture: fusing with the Body Politic. In this sense, the pyramids represent a paradigm for how human beings connect or relate to civilization. Pyramids symbolize our aspiration to create, preserve and identify with “permanent” objects. A poem by the baseball umpire Grantland Rice concludes: “For all men die, but the Record lives.”
To create a cultural object is to create a double of the self: a symbol of one’s body that makes its way into—finds a place in—the external world. One pours one’s energies into the creation of an object which, one hopes, will continue to exist after one dies. One dreams that one’s own body will be preserved within one’s creation. The created object (a Beethoven sonata, a Picasso painting) is the Second Body of the King.
One may create and produce a “book,” hoping it will rest on the shelves of a library, snuggled next to the other symbolic bodies. If a book becomes a “classic” (part of the canon), we imagine that this entity will survive forever. Huckleberry Finn will live forever, as will its author, Mark Twain. Catcher in the Rye will live on, as will J. D. Salinger. Though Salinger hid himself away through his lifetime, his Second Body is seen, touched, held and read by millions.
Perhaps the fundamental fantasy sustaining civilization is the idea that human beings exist in—are preserved within—the cultural objects they create. We imagine that the created object is the Second Body of the King: a body without defect, subject to neither decay nor death. One’s life may revolve around the fantasy of fashioning an immortal object containing one’s self. We imagine that a “piece” of our body will continue to exist, contained within and preserved by the cultural object one has created.
Today, mass media functions as the Second Body of the King. We possess our own lives, but also possess another: the life we lead by virtue of identifying with events and people “brought to us” by television, radio, the Internet, movies, etc. For some, this world constitutes reality itself.
Do we exist where we are—or “out there”? Do we identify with our concrete existence, or with significant events and famous people that are quite distant from our lives. It is common and ordinary for people to bind their lives to Another World (the title of a television soap opera). This other world seems to contain abundance and infinite possibilities. What’s more, this other world keeps moving on endlessly. When one anchorwoman leaves the show, another takes her place: The Queen is dead, long live the Queen.
What are the consequences of identifying so deeply with the cultural world? I’ve been discussing this tendency as if it’s a benign fantasy. However, there is a profound price to be paid. Norman O. Brown states that the essence of sublimation is the “reification of the superfluous sacred into monumental, enduring form.”
Using the pyramids as a paradigm, Brown suggests that sexual energies are siphoned off for the purpose of creating sacred structures that exist solely to materialize fantasies of immortality. Death is overcome, Brown says, on condition that the “real actuality of life pass into these immortal and dead things.”
According to Plowden, there is no doubt that the Body Politic is superior to the Body Natural. Hitler explained to his people: “You are nothing, your nation is everything.” Lacanians often claim: “There is no other but the Other.” What happens when a Body Politic with which an individual identifies overwhelms his or her actual body? What is the price we pay in order to sustain our belief that we possess a second, immortal body?