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THE BODY POLITIC 1 - Frederic William Maitland, The Collected Papers of Frederic William Maitland, vol. 3 
The Collected Papers of Frederic William Maitland, ed. H.A.L. Fisher (Cambridge University Press, 1911). 3 Vols. Vol. 3.
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THE BODY POLITIC1
I hope that you will forgive me for choosing a subject which lies very near to that which Sidgwick discussed at our last meeting. I had thought of it before I heard his paper, and though to my great delight he said some things which I had long wanted to hear said, his object was not quite that which I have in view. He spoke of the means, the very inadequate means, that we have of foretelling the future of bodies politic, I wish to speak of the means, the very inadequate means as some people seem to think them, that we have of filling up the gaps that at present exist in our knowledge of the past history of these political organisms. The two processes, that of predicting the future and that of reconstructing the past are essentially similar, both are processes of inference and generalization. Of course when the historian tells us a single fact, for example, gives the date of a battle, inference and generalization are already at work. He has got this supposed fact from (let us say) some chronicler or some tombstone, and he has come to the conclusion that about such a matter this chronicler’s or this tombstone’s word may be trusted. But when he goes on to represent as usual or rare some habit or custom or mode of thought or of conduct he is very obviously drawing general conclusions from particular instances, and is, if I may so say, predicting the past.
Sidgwick drew a distinction between empirical and scientific predictions. I will apply this distinction to postdictions. I did not gather from him that he meant to draw a hard and accurate line between the empirical and the scientific. Certainly for my purpose I could not draw it with a firm hand. But still though we have before us a matter of degree the distinction is real and important. The historian of the old-fashioned type who does not talk about scientific method or laws of nature is drawing inferences and making generalizations, but these do not as a general rule go far outside the country and the time that he is studying. We may compare him to the chancellor of the exchequer who is estimating the produce of next year’s taxes. Sometimes the two procedures are very strictly comparable, as when the historian who thinks that he has examined enough accounts ventures on a general statement about the revenue of Henry II or George III. Now in a certain sense it is true that the method employed in these cases ought to be a scientific method, that is to say, it ought to be the method best adapted to the purpose in hand. Still it is only scientific in the sense in which the method of a Sherlock Holmes would be scientific. The end of it all is a story, a causally connected story tested and proved at every point. Also it must I think be allowed that history of this old-fashioned kind is successfully standing one of those tests of a science that Sidgwick mentioned last time. No historian dreams of beginning the work all over again. Even if he has a taste for paradox and a quarrelsome temper he accepts what is after all the great bulk of his predecessor’s results. Men are disputing now whether the forged decretals were concocted in the east or in the west of France, whether they shall be dated a little after or a little before 850; the man who attributed them to the popes whose names they bear would be in much the same position as that which is assigned to the man who says that the world is flat; he would be taking up arms against an organized body of knowledge. I should doubt whether books about the most rapidly advancing of the physical sciences become antiquated more rapidly than those books about history which do not belong to the very first class.
Now to this progress I do not think that we can set any narrow limits. During the present century there has been a rapid acceleration. Tracts which were dark are now fairly well lit and neglected and remote pieces of the story are being systematically explored. Of course I am including under the name of history what some people call archaeology; for to my mind an archaeology that is not history is somewhat what less than nothing, and a Special Board for History and Archaeology is like a Special Board for Mathematics and the Rule of Three. Whether we fix our eyes on the east or the west, on ancient or modern times, we see that new truths are being brought in and secured, and this in that gradual fashion in which a healthy body of knowledge grows, the new truth generally turning out to be but a quarter-truth and yet one which must modify the whole tale.
But this process, rapid as it seems to me (for I am comparing it with the growth of historical knowledge in the last century), seems far too slow to some who compare it with the exploits of the natural sciences. They want to have a science of history comparable to some of those sciences, and, for choice, to biology. A desire of this kind there has been for a long time past; in our own day it has become very prominent and there are many writers and readers who seem to think that we are within a measurable distance of a sociology or an inductive political science which shall take no shame when set beside the older sciences. Having a science of the body natural we are at last to have a similar science of the body politic. The comparison of a state or nation to a living body is of course ancient enough. The Herbert Spencer of the twelfth century worked it out with grotesque medieval detail; the John of Salisbury of our own century teaches us that the comparison is just about to become strictly scientific since we have at last an evolutionary biology. Now the suggestions derived from this comparison have been of inestimable value to mankind at large and to historians in particular. I wish once for all to make a very large admission about this matter. But for this comparison, the vocabulary of the historian and of the political theorist would be exceedingly meagre, and I need not say that a rich, flexible, delicate vocabulary is necessary if there is to be accurate thinking and precise description. For the presentation—nay, for the perception—of unfamiliar truth we have need of all the metaphors that we can command, and any source of new and apt metaphors is a source of new knowledge. The language of any and every science must be in the eyes of the etymologist a mass of metaphors and of very mixed metaphors. I am also very far from denying that every advance of biological science, but more especially any popularization of its results, will supply the historian and the political theorist with new thoughts, and with new phrases which will make old thoughts truer. I can conceive that a century hence political events will be currently described in a language which I could not understand so full will it be of terms borrowed from biology, or, for this also is possible, from some science of which no one has yet laid the first stone. But I think that at present the man studying history will do well not to hand himself over body and soul to the professor of any one science; that if in one sentence he has spoken of political germs or embryos or organisms, he will not be ashamed to speak in the next of political machinery and checks and balances. He may write of the decay, death, dissolution of the Roman empire, but at times he will not contemn the classical decline and fall.
But I ought to be speaking not of metaphor but of method. Now were there to be any talk of scientific biology I would at once end this paper with a confession of blank ignorance, but my contention is that we ought not to believe ourselves to be within sight of such talk. To me it seems that if we start with the comparison suggested by such phrases as “body politic” or “social organism” we are not within sight of that sort of knowledge that every old woman in a village has and has long had of the human body. She knows truths about the span of life, about the growth of children, about their teething, about gray hairs, old age and death, the like of which we do not know, and so far as I can see are not going to know about the parallel social phenomena, if any such parallel phenomena there be. In effect she judges from time to time that some child is not in a normal condition, though she does not use the word “normal.” She sends for the doctor, or, may be, living in Devonshire, she sends for the seventh son of a seventh son. No matter what she does, no matter how absurd may be the remedies that she tries, she knows that normally a baby’s body is not covered with scarlet blotches. Have we brought, are we likely to bring our inductive political science up to this high level?
Take the best known truth about the life of man, the old major premiss, “All men are mortal.” Take a generalization which aims at greater precision, “The days of our years are three score years and ten.” Now among our sociologists I seem to see a great unwillingness to grapple with this somewhat elementary question. Are all states or nations mortal? Have you any phenomenon which is parallel to natural, as contrasted with violent death? Sidgwick touched this point last time, mentioning the case of the Roman empire. Now I should agree with him that if in this context we are to speak of death at all, it must be of violent death; “she died in silence biting hard among the dying hounds.” But biting and struggling in the strangest fashion so that when the turmoil is over we hardly know which is dead, the Roman wolf or the German wolf-hound. If really we are to apply this metaphor of death to the events of the fifth century we shall I think have to eke out the vocabulary of biology with that of psychical research. After a while we see, to use Hobbes’s splendid phrase, “the ghost of old Rome sitting crowned upon the ruins thereof.” But when did the ghost become a ghost? Of course we must not ask the sociologist for anything so unscientific as a precise date. I don’t want to pin him to 476 or to 1453 or to 1806, besides the question seems to me a foolish one. That a historian may now and again find it well to speak of the Empire perishing or dying in the fifth century I would not deny—though the contemporary history of what has once been even if it is not still the Eastern half of a single body politic will warn him that this analogy has difficulties before it—but I am sure that he will not ride his metaphor very far without a fall, and I don’t think that biology is going to dictate a peace to the scholars who are quarrelling bitterly as to the revival of Roman organization in Merovingian Gaul.
I suppose that sometimes a political organism of a low kind, some tribe or horde does cease to exist in a fashion that we can with no great strain of language compare to a natural death; but I cannot think of any instance in which this figure of speech could be consistently elaborated for the purpose of describing the disappearance of a political organism of a high type, and I see no reason whatever for the belief that the bodies politic which we know as France, Germany and so forth must grow feeble and die if they are not destroyed from without.
There are many other questions that I should like to ask. How are we to picture some such historical events as the partition of Poland, the transfer backwards and forwards between France and Germany of lands which in a neutral language are called Alsatia and Lotharingia, the peopling of North America by men of many different races. Poland we say is torn to pieces and devoured. Yes but for a long time the undigested fragments of it which lie in three separate stomachs are striving to be one again. The Irish in North America have a for us most unfortunate habit of regarding themselves as part of the Irish nation. This cross organization, if I may so call it, is one of the great difficulties. The man who is an Englishman if you please but first a Catholic bids us pause, for surely we are sticking in the very bark of our social science and becoming the slaves of that militancy that Mr Spencer detests if we will have no organisms except such as are defined for us by international lawyers. Of course the history the Catholic church gives us is by far the grandest instance of a super-national or extra-national organization. But we have not seen the last of phenomena which in one respect we may call similar. We have not I fear seen the last of a super-national or infra-national organization of anarchists, whose doings are likely to produce remarkable changes in the police organization of various countries. We see too the beginnings of many societies which aim, it may be at the spread of science and learning, it may be at the encouragement of sport, but which neglect national boundaries. If we have a long peace before us all this may become of great importance. We may be destined to hear “An Englishman if you please but first a professor of sociology in the University of Man.”
Now that complication and interdependence of all human affairs of which we find a by no means solitary example in this cross-organization gives as one of the reasons why we are not bringing our generalizations about social organisms up to that standard of precision that the old woman has attained when she speaks to us of life and death and the teeth of babies. It seems to me that those who are talking most hopefully about sociology are constantly forgetting the greatest lesson that Auguste Comte taught, though I cannot say that his practice came up to his preaching. I mean the interdependence of human affairs, for example the interdependence of political, religious and economic phenomena. It seems to me that the people who have learnt that lesson are not the sociologists but the historians. If I may make a guess, and it is here that they would find their defence against a criticism which, if I remember rightly, Sidgwick passed upon them, namely that in their keen hunt for new discoveries they neglect what after all are the important matters. They would I think say—We do not yet know except in the roughest way what are the important, the causally important matters, only this we know for certain that they were neglected by even the greatest of our predecessors. Even if you only wish to study political organization (giving to political its narrowest sense), you are perforce compelled to study a great many other phenomena in order that you may put the political into their right places in a meshwork of cause and effect. You may for instance write a political or constitutional history which says very little of religion, or of rents and prices. Life is short; history is the longest of all the arts; a minute division of labour is necessary. No one man will ever write of even a short period of that full history which should be written if we are to see in all completeness the play of those many forces which shape the life of man, even of man regarded as a political animal. And therefore I think it is that some of the best because the truest history books are those which are professedly fragmentary, those which by their every page impress upon the reader that he has only got before him a small part of the whole tale. That is the reason why, though history may be an art, it is falling out of the list of fine arts and will not be restored thereto for a long time to come. It must aim at producing not aesthetic satisfaction but intellectual hunger.
All this by the way. The fault, so it seems to me, of the would-be scientific procedure of our sociologists lies in the too frequent attempt to obtain a set of “laws” by the study of only one class of phenomena, the attempt for example encouraged by this University to fashion an inductive political science. Too often it seems to be thought that you can detach one kind of social phenomena from all other kinds and obtain by induction a law for the phenomena of that class. For example it seems to be assumed that the history of the family can be written and that it will come out in some such form as this:—We start with promiscuity, the next stage is “mother right,” the next “father right,” and so forth. Or again take the history of property—land is owned first by the tribe or horde, then by the house-community, then by the village-community, then by the individual.
Now I will not utterly deny the possibility of some such science of the very early stages in human progress. I know too little about the materials to do that. But even in this region I think it plain that our scientific people have been far too hasty with their laws. When this evidence about barbarians gets into the hands of men who have been trained in a severe school of history and who have been taught by experience to look upon all the social phenomena as interdependent it begins to prove far less than it used to prove. Each case begins to look very unique and a law which deduces that “mother right” cannot come after “father right,” or that “father right” cannot come after “mother right,” or which would establish any other similar sequence of “states” begins to look exceedingly improbable. Our cases, all told, are not many and very rarely indeed have we any direct evidence of the passage of a barbarous nation from one state to another. My own belief is that by and by anthropology will have the choice between being history and being nothing.
If we climb a little higher the outlook for science is far more hopeless. If the creator of the universe had chosen to make a world full of compartments divided by walls touching the heavens, had put into each of those cells a savage race—if at some future time the progress of science had enabled men to scale these walls—I won’t say but that this would have been an interesting world. We imagine the inquirer passing from cell to cell, examining the present state of its inmates, exploring their past history as recorded by documents which range from the chipped flint to the printed book. After a while he begins to know what he will find in the next box—“Ah! I thought so, promiscuity, group-marriage, exogamy,—fetishism, polytheism, monotheism, positivism—picture writing, ideogram, phonogram, ink, block-books, movable type,—the old tale.” After a while he has got a law—What, no evidence of a polytheistic stage in this country. I supply that stage with certainty; the evidence must have been lost. He comes to a more puzzling case where twist the evidence how he will it breaks his law. But by this time he is justified in using such terms as “morbid,” “abnormal,” “retrogression”—here is a diseased community and he will investigate the climate of the cell and so forth in order to get at the cause of the disease. There remain many compartments with walls so high that they are still insurmountable. “Considering my many thousands of observations,” he says, “I feel entitled to make a scientific prediction as to what is behind these barriers—in some cases I shall be wrong and to details I will not commit myself—but in general I shall be right.”
A very interesting world this would be, but exceedingly unlike the world in which we live. In the real world the political organisms have been and are so few and the history of each of them has been so unique that we have no materials apt for an induction of this sort, we have no means of forming the idea of the normal life of a body politic. Not to speak of the biologist’s materials we are not within sight of materials of that kind where our villagers have drawn their rude laws of life. We do not know, if I may so put it, that Siamese twins are abnormal. A funny comparative anatomy we should have had if the only living things that the men of science had seen were those collected in the booth of a fair—the two-headed nightingale, the pig-faced lady, and the five-legged donkey. Of course I am exaggerating if I take the monstrous assembly as a fair representative of the family of nations. Nations have much in common, but then a very great part, an indeterminately great part of what they have in common is the outcome of deliberate imitation. Of course I am aware that human beings imitate each other and that within limits they can modify the structure of their bodies by this imitative conduct—but I do not think that those who know about this matter will contradict me if I say that these modifications are trivial when compared with the changes produced in bodies politic by the analogous process. Mr Leslie Stephen has compared the acquisition by a state of a new kind of artillery to the acquisition by an animal of new and stronger teeth. The modern state says, “Go to! I will have strong teeth because another state has got them”—and straightway within a year the teeth are there. A superficial change, we may say, is to be compared with the acquisition of artificial teeth. Yes, but what a series of social changes a new weapon may set up. I read, and I suppose this to be a plausible theory, that one of the most decisive steps in that process which we call the feudalization of Gaul, and therefore of western Europe, was the outcome of an effort to obtain a cavalry able to cope with the Saracen horsemen and is it not trite that the invention of gunpowder has profoundly modified our social and political organization.
I will take an example of imitation. Near the end of the last century England had a criminal procedure that was all her own, trial by jury. I believe that I am right in saying that there was then nothing that resembled it in any country, at all events in any country that was at all likely to be taken as a model by other states. The difference was great; the whole civilized world was against us. Our procedure was public, accusatory, contradictory, theirs was secret, inquisitory and relied on torture—the same procedure in all its main features was common to all states in the western half of Europe. And then country after country copied, deliberately and professedly copied us. Now I am very ready to allow that if England had never existed the continental procedure which was stupid and cruel would sooner or later have been destroyed, but I do not see the remotest probability that a jury or anything resembling a jury would have been introduced. I am not praising the constitution of ours; I am not at all certain that foreigners might not have done better if they had not copied it; but copy it they did and at first in minute detail. I am also very ready to admit that deliberately copied institutions rarely produce in their new home all the good that is expected of them and often turn out to be failures. I am quite willing to believe, for example, that this pretty new constitution of Japan will break down—I do not mind saying, though I know little that entitles me to say, that the Japanese have tried to skip too many stages—but of one thing I feel moderately certain, namely that they can never return to the place where they were in 1850, and that the great attempt to be European will for a very long time to come give shape and colour to the whole history of Japan. To what changes in the body natural can we liken these changes.
And this sort of thing has been going on since the remotest past. How pleasant it would be to have a natural history of one of the chief of those instruments which have modelled the body politic. I mean the alphabet. How nice to say you start with pictures, you pass to ideograms, to phonograms, to letters. Have we four instances of the completed process, have we three, have we two? I do not know, but the number of alphabets which were regarded as independent has been decreasing very fast of late—and now I suppose it to be established that the Egyptian alphabet is the mother of a very numerous family. Would the Greeks have evolved an alphabet if they had not borrowed from borrowers—and what changes must we not introduce in Greek political thought and political practice—and therefore in the political thought and practice of the whole western world in later times—if we deprive Greek thinkers of the alphabet.
For this reason if we are to talk of organisms at all it seems to me expedient that we should very often regard the whole progressive body of mankind as a single organism—I feel inclined to add: and as one infected by that strange, that unique disease called civilization which is running through all its organs, always breaking out in fresh places, and the end whereof no man has seen. And for this reason it is that I have a special dread of those theorists who are trying to fill up the dark ages of medieval history with laws collected from the barbarian tribes that have been observed in modern days. This procedure urges me to ask, If these tribes of which you speak are on the normal high-road of progress why have they not by this time gone further along it? If I see a set of trucks standing on a railway line from week to week, I do not say, This is the main up line to London, I say, This must be a siding. The traveller who has studied the uncorrupted savage can often tell the historian of medieval Europe what to look for, never what to find, for the German or the Slav hardly appears upon the scene before he is tainted by the subtlest of all poisons.
For one last illustration may I return to criminal procedure. Perhaps I exaggerate its importance but on the whole I think that if some fairy gave me the power of seeing a scene of one and the same kind in every age of the history of every race, the kind of scene that I would choose would be a trial for murder, because I think that it would give me so many hints as to a multitude of matters of the first importance. Well, are we to have some law as to the normal development of judicial organization in its higher stage, if so which piece of history are you going to treat as typical for that stage of progress which our modern nations covered between let me say 1100 and 1789? Is it to be the English or French, they are radically different. If we regard the mere number of persons or the mere number of nations that stand on the two sides, there can be no doubt that we must decide in favour of the French. I believe that a certain amount of generalization is possible here—that the current of changes in Italy, Spain, Germany and the Low Countries flows in the same direction as the current of changes in France, though France leads the way, and there is a great deal of deliberate imitation of French institutions. A very careful French historian with this problem before him has pointed to a course of divergence and I have little doubt that he has pointed in the right direction. Of all these countries at the critical time, say between 1150 and 1300, Britain was the only one in which there was no persecution of heretics, in which there were no heretics to persecute. Everywhere else the inquisitory process fashioned by Innocent III for the trial of heretics becomes a model for the temporal courts. I do not think that this is the full answer. If I were to say more I should have to speak of the causes which made the England of the twelfth century the most governable and the most governed of all European countries, for if a Tocqueville had visited us in 1200 he would have gone home to talk to his fellow-countrymen of English civilization and English bureaucracy. However there can I think be no doubt that we have laid our finger on one extremely important cause of divergence when we have mentioned the Catharan heresy. Behind that stand Bulgarian monks and so we go back to Manes. Or if we ask why this faith becomes endemic in the south of France we have to explore the political and economic causes which had made Languedoc a fertile seed-bed for any germs of heresy which might be blown thither from any quarter. Now the question that I have proposed seems to me one which cannot be answered and should not be asked. The history of judicial procedure in England seems to me to be exactly as normal as the history of judicial procedure in France or in Germany, or (to put it another way) the idea of normalness is in this context an inappropriate and a delusive idea; it implies a comparison that we cannot make. What I have said about judicial procedure might I think be said also, with the proper variations, about governmental and legislative organization. The history of the parliament of Westminster is neither more nor less normal than the history of the parliament of Paris. But a science of bodies politic which knows nothing of the normal or the abnormal—which cannot apply either of these adjectives to the process which made a Louis XIV the absolute king that he was, or the process which subjected William III to the control of a house of commons—seems to me a science falsely so called and one which must expect to hear from the other sciences—“Well you don’t know much and that’s a fact.”
That is the reason why when I see a good set of examination questions headed by the words “Political Science” I regret not the questions but the title. Each question if anything more than the loosest, vaguest, baldest answer is expected is really a question about some specific piece of history, and I regret the suggestion that names and dates may properly be omitted. For example a question about the causes of feudalism seems to me to be a question about a certain specific piece of Frankish history, though no doubt a full answer would say something about the causes which prepared other nations to receive willingly or unwillingly certain Frankish institutions. The answer would not be the worse for saying a word about Japan—but so far as I can learn from some commended book on Japanese history I think it should say that of the origin of the so-called feudalism of Japan next to nothing is known and that men who profess to know what is known say nothing about that precarious tenure of land by warriors which I had thought to be the very essence of Frankish and therefore of European feudalism in its first stage. I do not regret the questions—on the contrary it seems to me very desirable that under whatever name youths should be taught as much history as possible—but I do regret the suggestion that at the present time the student of history should hope for and aim at ever wider and wider generalizations.
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