Parasites and the body politic

It started with my dismayed reaction to recent political assaults on teachers (and, more generally, public employees) as drains on the economy, selfishly demanding decent wages and benefits while being “unproductive”, producing nothing of significance. Lots of things are going on at once here — contempt for the working classes and for service workers like maids, cooks, gardeners, and janitors (and, yes, teachers); classic American anti-intellectualism (cue Richard Hofstadter); marketplace valuation of people’s worth; and more — but parallel attitudes surface in the way many people view academics, so it hits close to home for me.

Then the anecdote. Some years ago I was at some large public function involving people of money and substance and, wine glass in hand, struck up a conversation with another attendee. This guy plunged right in by asking me what I do [for a living]. (In many cultures, the leading question would be some version of “Where are you from?”, meaning “Who are your people?”, but in ours it has to do with occupation. All such questions are designed to position a stranger socially.)

I said I was a university professor, and, without waiting to identify himself occupationally, he said

Artists and scholars are parasites on the body politic.

I was by then old enough and experienced enough to just turn on my heels and walk away in search of someone else who might be interesting to talk to. (After all, I consider myself an artist as well as a scholar.)

(Either he was serious, in which case he was a hopelessly prejudiced asshole. Or he didn’t believe what he’d said and was just trying to joust with me for sport, in which case he was a different kind of asshole.)

Eventually, I came to wonder about what he’d said. Not very likely to be a spontaneous utterance; “on the body politic”, even without “parasites”, sure sounds like a quotation, not something that an ordinary speaker would come up with on their own.

Turns out you can find lots of hits for

parasites on/upon/in the body politic

on the net, plus other references to parasites infesting the body politic, parasites dining on the body politic, parasites attacking the body politic, parasites growing inside the body politic, parasites sucking on the body politic, etc., mostly in political commentary.

So it’s a formula linking parasites and the body politic. But where from?

I appealed to the hounds of ADS-L a couple of days ago, but as yet have gotten no leads. For the moment, parasites and the body politic are a mystery.


10 Responses to “Parasites and the body politic”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Michael Palmer on Facebook:

    There’s Nietzsche’s “Der Kranke ist ein Parasit der Gesellschaft” (Götzen-Dämmerung: Streifzüge eines Unzeitgemässen, 36: Moral für Ärzte) (1888).

    The earliest reference revealed by Google’s timeline feature, is “We see a rapidly growing class in this country which has no recognized and honored place or part in our ideal scheme of democracy, a veritable parasite on the body politic.” article “A neglected problem”, Boston Daily Globe, November 25, 1900, p. 28 (link).

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Google Books offers 84 parasite/body politic quotes from 1800 through 1900, clustered at the end of the century. The earliest seems to be from Henry Wager Halleck’s Elements of Military Art and Science, or, Course of Instruction in Strategy (1860):

    We are declared not only parasites on the body politic, but professed violaters of God’s laws — men so degraded, though unconsciously, that “in the pursuit of justice we renounce the human character and assume that of the beasts” (p. 22)

    Even in 1860, it looks like the phrase was a familiar expression.

  3. Michael Palmer Says:

    Halleck’s Elements of Military Art and Science was in fact first published in 1846, so the expression was probably familiar by the 1840s.

    Interesting variants on “parasites” are:
    1. “incubus on the body politic”, in Caleb Atwater, A History of the State of Ohio, Natural and Civil (1838), p. 4
    2. “bloodsuckers on the body politic”, in Charles Chauncey Burr, The Nineteenth Century, vol. 2 (1848), p. 29

  4. Michael Palmer Says:

    “Parasite on the body politic” is of course one example of a larger theme, ” on the body politic”, which goes back to at least the 1750s. I checked Google Books for the period 1750-1846, and the earliest instance I could find is “wens on the body politic”, in James Hervey, Theron and Aspasio (1755), p. 409. The earliest instances are diseases or physical deformities: wens (1755), excrescences (Boswell, 1766), imposthume (1785), sores (1814), plague spots (1821), cancer (1823), gangrene (1831), leprosy (1832), tumour (1841), ulcer (1841), etc. However, animals (or perhaps more correctly, non-viral, non-bacterial, non-human life forms) enter into the picture fairly early. The London Magazine or Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, vol. 40 (1771), p. 308, states, “The respective orders of people who prey incessantly on the body-politic, have been not unaptly compared, by witty men, to the several species of vermin that prey on the human body.” Thus, fungus (1801), lice (1808), leech (1810), incubus (1832), and locusts (1842). [As an aside, as a European who grew up believing that the “verminization” of the Jews was a late-19th-century German phenomenon, I was surprised to find two diatribes against Jews in the Monthly Mirror, 1808, p. 401, and 1809, p. 244: the first refers to Jews as lice, the second as vermin. Both could have been written in Germany 120 years later.]

  5. Bodies politic « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] days ago I posted on parasites and the body politic — well, on a family of expressions linking the two, of which […]

  6. Michael Palmer Says:

    Just an update: “Vermine on the Body Politic” appears in Harvey’s Theron and Aspasio (1755), p. 165; “a Wen on the Body Politic”, appears in The Champion, Containing a Series of Papers, Humorous, Moral, Political and Critical (London), vol. 2, Saturday, March 15, 1739/40, p. 15.

  7. David Butcher Says:

    Neither Arnold Zwicky’s blog nor the comments say what is meant by ‘ the body politic’. Can anyone enlighten me? Is it just a grand phrase for ‘ society’?

  8. Paul Sutcliffe Says:

    A late eighteenth century author, whose name I now forget described the earliest trade unions as ‘wormes in the entrails of the body politic’.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      The reference to “worms in the entrails of the body politic” (said of corporations or other associations) is often attributed to Hobbes and Rousseau. What I’ve found so far is “Corporations may lesser commonwealths in the bowels of a greater, like worms in the entrails of a natural man.” (from Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651)) — which has the idea but not the precise wording.

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