Viral Courage in the Social Body
January 1, 0001
In this this episode we talked about Agrippa Menenius Lanatus. Having been sent in 494 B.C. to negotiate with the Plebs to return to Rome, he gave the following speech (Liv. 2 32 Benjamin Oliver Foster translation):
On being admitted to the camp he is said merely to have related the following apologue, in the quaint and uncouth style of that age:
In the days when man’s members did not all agree amongst themselves, as is now the case, but had each its own ideas and a voice of its own, the other parts thought it unfair that they should have the worry and the trouble and the labour of providing everything for the belly, while the belly remained quietly in their midst with nothing to do but to enjoy the good things which they bestowed upon it; they therefore conspired together that the hands should carry no food to the mouth, nor the mouth accept anything that was given it, nor the teeth grind up what they received.
While they sought in this angry spirit to starve the belly into submission, the members themselves and the whole body were reduced to the utmost weakness. Hence it had become clear that even the belly had no idle task to perform, and was no more nourished than it nourished the rest, by giving out to all parts of the body that by which we live and thrive, when it has been divided equally amongst the veins and is enriched with digested food — that is, the blood.
The original text in Latin:
is intromissus in castra prisco illo dicendi et horrido modo nihil aliud quam hoc narrasse fertur:  tempore quo in homine non ut nunc omnia in unum consentiant, sed singulis membris suum cuique consilium, suus sermo fuerit, indignatas reliquas partes sua cura, suo labore ac ministerio uentri omnia quaeri, uentrem in medio quietum nihil aliud quam datis uoluptatibus frui;  conspirasse inde ne manus ad os cibum ferrent, nec os acciperet datum, nec dentes quae acciperent conficerent. hac ira, dum uentrem fame domare uellent, ipsa una membra totumque corpus ad extremam tabem uenisse.  inde apparuisse uentris quoque haud segne ministerium esse, nec magis ali quam alere eum, reddentem in omnes corporis partes hunc quo uiuimus uigemusque, diuisum pariter in uenas maturum confecto cibo sanguinem.
Shakespeare also dramatizes this speech in Coriolanus:
MENENIUS. There was a time when all the body’s members Rebell’d against the belly; thus accus’d it:– That only like a gulf it did remain I' the midst o' the body, idle and unactive, Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing Like labour with the rest; where th' other instruments Did see and hear, devise, instruct, walk, feel, And, mutually participate, did minister Unto the appetite and affection common Of the whole body. The belly answered,–
FIRST CITIZEN. Well, sir, what answer made the belly?
MENENIUS. Sir, I shall tell you.–With a kind of smile, Which ne’er came from the lungs, but even thus,– For, look you, I may make the belly smile As well as speak,–it tauntingly replied To the discontented members, the mutinous parts That envied his receipt; even so most fitly As you malign our senators for that They are not such as you.
FIRST CITIZEN. Your belly’s answer? What! The kingly crowned head, the vigilant eye, The counsellor heart, the arm our soldier, Our steed the leg, the tongue our trumpeter, With other muniments and petty helps Is this our fabric, if that they,–
MENENIUS. What then?– ‘Fore me, this fellow speaks!–what then? what then?
FIRST CITIZEN. Should by the cormorant belly be restrain’d, Who is the sink o’ the body,–
MENENIUS. Well, what then?
FIRST CITIZEN. The former agents, if they did complain, What could the belly answer?
MENENIUS. I will tell you; If you’ll bestow a small,–of what you have little,– Patience awhile, you’ll hear the belly’s answer.
FIRST CITIZEN. You are long about it.
MENENIUS. Note me this, good friend; Your most grave belly was deliberate, Not rash like his accusers, and thus answer’d: ‘True is it, my incorporate friends,’ quoth he, ‘That I receive the general food at first Which you do live upon; and fit it is, Because I am the storehouse and the shop Of the whole body: but, if you do remember, I send it through the rivers of your blood, Even to the court, the heart,–to the seat o’ the brain; And, through the cranks and offices of man, The strongest nerves and small inferior veins From me receive that natural competency Whereby they live: and though that all at once You, my good friends,'–this says the belly,–mark me,–
FIRST CITIZEN. Ay, sir; well, well.
MENENIUS. ‘Though all at once cannot See what I do deliver out to each, Yet I can make my audit up, that all From me do back receive the flour of all, And leave me but the bran.’ What say you to’t?
FIRST CITIZEN. It was an answer: how apply you this?
MENENIUS. The senators of Rome are this good belly, And you the mutinous members; for, examine Their counsels and their cares; digest things rightly Touching the weal o' the common; you shall find No public benefit which you receive But it proceeds or comes from them to you, And no way from yourselves.–What do you think, You, the great toe of this assembly?
FIRST CITIZEN. I the great toe? why the great toe?
MENENIUS. For that, being one o' the lowest, basest, poorest, Of this most wise rebellion, thou go’st foremost: Thou rascal, that art worst in blood to run, Lead’st first to win some vantage.– But make you ready your stiff bats and clubs: Rome and her rats are at the point of battle; The one side must have bale.
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