Sunday, 10 February 2019
Thomas Langley: Polis Body and Body Politic: Bodily Metaphors in the letters of Basil of Caesarea
While frequently discussing the politicisation of the human form, the metaphor of the state as body/body as state has been relatively neglected by late antique scholars. Yet such a metaphor is a prime example of patristic dialogue with both pagan and Christian pasts. Adapted and embellished from the Greek tradition by Cicero to become a mainstay of Roman Imperial political discourse, it was also important for St Paul's writing. Focusing on the letters of Basil of Caesarea gives us a unique glimpse into how this metaphor could impact real-world scenarios, by analysing in depth the particular contexts which they addressed. I will argue that the metaphor of the body was used in Basil's correspondence to establish an exclusive, Christian polis which made membership in the community coterminous with membership of Christ’s body. Though using Pauline examples, Basil ironically repurposed the metaphor in the service of the very tradition of polis rhetoric. Moreover, its deployment in the particular context of Basil’s letters gives a vital insight into the political and religious languages of the fourth century. The letters of Basil, one of the foremost episcopal reformers and controversialists of his age, are vital to bring to light the details of a highly significant decade in the Roman Empire's conversion . As well as illuminating a neglected aspect of patristic political thought, therefore, the metaphor of the body politic offers a fine-grained insight into the process by which Christianity became the religion of the polis and its civic elite.