Flowing or Pumping? The Blood of the Body Politic in Burton, Harvey, and Hobbes

  • Robert Appelbaum


One of the most important events in the cultural history of blood was the discovery by William Harvey of the circulation of blood, which was first publicized in print in 1626. It would take several centuries for medical science to understand the chemical composition of blood, and how, by virtue of this composition, blood actually served the life-functions of the body. The discovery of oxygen in the 1770s was one of the keys. But already, in 1626, William Harvey was publicizing the fact that blood circulated in the bodies of mammals and other animals, that the heart operated as a kind of pump, and that blood moved through the body both out of the heart and back into it, delivering nutrients and “spirit” to the rest of the body. Harvey thus solved a technical problem in Galenic physiology of which people had been aware at least since the time of Michael Servetus, who published speculations about pulmonary circulation in 1553.1 But Harvey’s achievement was not only an empirical finding; it was also a demonstration of the utility of the experimental method in natural philosophy; and it signaled a revolution in the terms by which the body and the mind were to be understood.


Civil Society Common Good Involuntary Motion Cultural History Body Politic 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Edwin Clarke, “Michael Servetus,” The British Medical Journal 2.48 (1953), 934; Christodoulos Stefanadis, Marianna Karamanou, and George Androutsos, “Michael Servetus (1511–1553) and the Discovery of Pulmonary Circulation,” Hellenic Journal of Cardiology 50.5 (2009), 373–8.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The most relevant study with regard to the present essay is Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (London: Routledge, 1995). For a general overview, see Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Geoffrey Gorham, “Mind-Body Dualism and the Harvey-Descartes Controversy,” Journal of the History of Ideas 55.2 (1994), 211–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    See for example Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton University Press, 1985), 127.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    On the history of the concept, see David George Hale, The Body Politic: A Political Metaphor in Renaissance English Literature (The Hague: Mouton, 1971).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C. B. Macpherson (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), 300.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Jerah Johnson, “The Money=Blood Metaphor, 1300–1800,” Journal of Finance 21.1 (1966), 119–22. After Hobbes, the expression became a commonplace of physiocratic and classical economic theory. See Christine Desan, “From Blood to Profit: Making Money in the Practice and Imagery of Early America,” The Journal of Policy History 20.1 (2008), 26–46, for its emergence in American discourse. For other accounts of Hobbes and the blood metaphor see Paul P. Christensen, “Hobbes and the Physiological Origins of Economic Science,” History of Political Economy 21.4 (1989), 689–709; and Deborah Valenze, The Social Life of Money in the English Past (Cambridge University Press, 2006), esp. 62–4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 9.
    For background on the text and its many editions, an invaluable resource is Angus Gowland, The Worlds of Renaissance Melancholy: Robert Burton in Context (Cambridge University Press, 2006).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 10.
    On Harvey’s life and work see Jerome J. Bylebyl, William Harvey and His Age: The Professional and Social Context of the Discovery of the Circulation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979); Geoffrey Keynes, The Life of William Harvey (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966); and Thomas Wright, Circulation: William Harvey’s Revolutionary Idea (London: Chatto & Windus, 2012).Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    Christopher Hill, “William Harvey and the Idea of Monarchy,” Past & Present 27 (1964), 54–72. Citation of Harvey on 54. Also see a response to Hill, Gweneth Whitteridge, “William Harvey: A Royalist and No Parliamentarian,” Past & Present 30 (1965), 104–9, and Hill’s reply, “William Harvey (No Parliamentarian, No Heretic) and the Idea of Monarchy,” Past & Present 31 (1965), 97–103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 12.
    1653 English translation of De Motu Cordis, in William Harvey, The Anatomical Exercises, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (New York: Dover, 1995), vii.Google Scholar
  12. 14.
    John S. White, “William Harvey and the Primacy of the Blood,” Annals of Science 43 (1986), 239–55. The quotation from Harvey appears on 242, and it comes from William Harvey, Anatomical Lectures, ed. Gweneth Whitteridge (Edinburgh: E. & S. Livingstone, 1964), 127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 15.
    Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Thomas C. Faulkner, Nicholas K. Kiessling, and Rhonda L. Blair (Oxford University Press, 1989).Google Scholar
  14. 19.
    I discuss Burton’s utopia in the context of the utopian tradition in Robert Appelbaum, Literature and Utopian Politics in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge University Press, 2002), 81–8. The readings in Gowland, Worlds of Renaissance Melancholy, and Adam H. Kitzes, The Politics of Melancholy from Spenser to Milton (New York: Routledge, 2006) are very different from my own, partly because they don’t take the utopian tradition seriously—or jocoseriously either.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 23.
    Hobbes, Leviathan, 81. And see Thomas A. Spragens, Jr, The Politics of Motion: The World of Thomas Hobbes (London: Croom Helm, 1973).Google Scholar
  16. 24.
    Thomas Hobbes, Elements of Philosophy, in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, ed. W. Molesworth, 11 vols (London: Bohn, 1839–45), 1: viii-ix.Google Scholar
  17. 30.
    Hobbes’s relation to liberalism and classical economic theory is a subject of some controversy, but I am inclined to the view that Hobbes’s relation to liberalism and classical economic theory is direct. The most influential (but also still controversial) analysis of Hobbes’s economic theory is still C. B. Macpherson’s neo-Marxist analysis, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962). As Taylor points out in a very helpful summary of the subject, there has been a lot of confusion between understanding the economic implications of Hobbes’s theory and the actual theory of economics that Hobbes develops. Quentin Taylor, “Thomas Hobbes, Political Economist: His Changing Historical Fortunes,” The Independent Review 14.3 (2010), 415–33. I find myself in agreement with Taylor about the genuinely proto-liberal tendencies in Hobbes’s economic thought, and even closer in agreement with Thea Vinnicombe, “Thomas Hobbes and the Displacement of Political Philosophy,” International Journal of Social Economics 32.8 (2005), 667–81. Vinnicombe sees Hobbes’s politics as being essentially economic.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Robert Appelbaum 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert Appelbaum

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations