The Curious Case of Brexit, Part 2: The Body of Britain

I will not cease from mental fight

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land

More than 200 years ago, English poet William Blake extolled his homeland’s ancient connection with Christianity and projected that connection forward into a future in which a new Jerusalem will arise in England. These words from Blake’s preface to his epic poem Milton have since become both anthem and hymn, imbuing English patriotism with a sacrality uncharacteristic of the country’s increasingly secular society.

Jerusalem is a potent and multivalent symbol in the Judeo-Christian tradition, particularly when associated with visions of the future. In the Biblical book of Revelation, Jerusalem sits at the end of time as the culmination of the relationship between God and man, where they will dwell together and “reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 22:5). Jerusalem in the original Greek text of Revelation is described as a polis, a political unit, that will endure eternally. The Latin text carries the same connotation: here Jerusalem is a civitas – a “city” in the sense of an incorporated government as opposed to an inhabited place (urbs in Latin), a political abstraction rather than a geographic location.

The language of Revelation describes the perfection of the relationship between God and man not as a home, a family, or a temple, but as a State in which all previous relationships and institutions will dissolve, as they will no longer be needed. When the final book of Christian scripture chooses the vocabulary of politics to describe the ultimate experience of the sacred, it is not hard to make the assumption that there must be something of the sacred in the political. Until William Blake’s own generation, that assumption was indeed nearly universal.

Last week I lightly sketched a few defining features of Britain’s political history, calling attention to the assumptions that underlie the functioning of the UK’s “unwritten constitution.” My interpretation owes a debt to J.G.A. Pocock‘s essay “Burke and the Ancient Constitution,” in which the author – one of the preeminent historians of Anglo-American political thought – notes how the English political vocabulary derives from legal terms relating to property rights, essentially making those rights one of the strands of England’s political DNA.

Like property rights, theology is also part of that genetic material, but is perhaps not as easy for historians to trace. While property rights provided the literal vocabulary for talking about rights in general, theology provided the ontological concepts that underlie Western assumptions about the existence and endurance of the state. Medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz explored English political theology in his 1957 classic The King’s Two Bodies, which functions as a sort of case study testing ideas originally proposed by Carl Schmitt in his seminal 1922 work, Political Theology:

All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development – in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent god became the omnipotent lawgiver – but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts.

Kantorowicz acknowledged his intellectual debt to Schmitt in spite of the circumstances that separated these two eminent German scholars: Schmitt joined the Nazi Party following Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933, while Kantorowicz, who was Jewish, fled his homeland in 1938 as Nazi race laws made his life there increasingly difficult. Before being ostracized by his Nazi colleagues, Kantorowicz had been part of conservative intellectual circles that revered the 19th-century German Romantics, supported militant anti-communism, and eventually threw their support behind Hitler. After emigrating to Britain and then to the US, Kantorowicz continued his scholarship in a conservative Prussian mode, skeptical toward secularism, rationalism, and liberal democracy. In the expansive, fascinating, and sometimes frustrating work that is The King’s Two Bodies, he argued that England’s unwritten constitution – and by extension the Anglo-American political tradition – ultimately rests on the dual foundations of Christian theology and traditional kinship structures.

According to Kantorowicz, English political theory assumed (but rarely stated explicitly) that the Crown was a mystical body in which each individual monarch was present in the same way that each individual Christian was present in the Body of Christ. The distinction between the mystical body of the Crown and the physical body of the monarch provided a theoretical basis for opposing royal authority when English jurists translated these otherworldly concepts into the practical language of common-law property rights. The monarch held the Crown in trust, as a guardian would with the estate of an underage orphan in their care. If said guardian used the child’s estate for their own gain, the rest of the family could rightfully remove the child from the guardian’s care. Parliament thus used its position as the kingdom’s preeminent defender of property rights to monitor the monarch’s guardianship of the Crown, reserving the right to remove the Crown from any monarch who treated it in a manner not keeping with tradition.

The King’s Two Bodies inspired me to investigate similar assumptions underlying the political structures of medieval Catalonia for my dissertation. In archives in Barcelona, I found charters that described the Crown of Aragon enduring “for ever and ever,” intentionally echoing the language of Revelation. I suspect that many more parallels can be found in other countries in Western Europe, with each of them staking a claim to the eternal Jerusalem. The UK is unique among these countries in that it has persisted without a written constitution, continuing to accept tradition as the basis of its polity. Thus it is easier to discern there than elsewhere the mystical glamour at the heart of the Western political tradition, for the British have not yet painted over it with the dull beige hues of Enlightenment rationalism.


One thought on “The Curious Case of Brexit, Part 2: The Body of Britain

  1. Pingback: The Curious Case of Brexit, Part 3: From Britain to Babylon | postwestphalian

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