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Political Representation

Medieval Corporatism And The Origin Of Political Representation

The medieval conception of representation moved beyond the idea of consent, based on the principles of the right of the majority to determine an issue and the quod omnes tangit. These principles alone, realized in the context of feudal and Germanic law, were inadequate to produce the concept of representation. This tradition of law contemplated only real individuals as persons with rights and interests, and consequently contained only the concept of a proctor: one real person acting on behalf of another real person, as an agent. Political representation only arose after 1150 C.E. when the concept of the proctor was conjoined to the concept of a corporation, a fictive person comprised of a group of individuals with similar interests which was itself considered the seat of rights and interests. The corporation introduced the idea of the conscious embodiment of a collective unity, a social community, for the sake of the defense and advancement of the common interests of the community as a whole. Such representative relations are referred to repeatedly by Thomas Aquinas, for example, in the Summa Theologia (1265–1273), where a temporal or ecclesiastical authority, prince, king, ruler, pope, bishop, or other, is said to "represent" their communities in the sense that they stand as allegorical images or symbols of the collective and disembodied whole. This symbolic representation functions specifically when magistrates, by virtue of their office, represent the image of the whole state, and generally when the weightier part (sanior pars) of any group is taken (both definitionally and procedurally) as the majority (maior pars).

The idea of a corporation, and the collectivist conception of the relation between representative and constituency, was soon challenged by William of Ockham with his conception of a constituency as the aggregation of real individuals. Ockham's nominalism, applied to the corporate theory of representation, rejects the attribution of rights to abstract fictions such as the collective entities, the church and the state. Only real individuals have rights and interests, and these cannot be alienated to a fictive corporate entity. The notion of a representative of the corporate whole does not take into account the fact that real individuals cannot delegate all their authority or alienate all their rights: Delegation is always subject to the reservation that the delegate do nothing contrary to the faith and to sound morals. In rejecting the corporate account of representation, and in insisting that delegates can only represent real individuals and groups of individuals, Ockham prevents the assimilation of the representative to the community it represents. This distinction between representative and constituency clears the path for the development of a theory of the representative's accountability and responsiveness to the constituency.

It was the medieval development of parliaments that accrued to themselves the powers of deliberation and decision, first in 1188 in the Spanish kingdom of Leon, that brought the concept of representation to a proper political setting. These parliaments were power-sharing arrangements, particularly regarding the levy of taxes and troops, among crown, bishops, nobles, and wise men. The authority that the consent of such parliaments conferred was bolstered as they came to be understood as representative in nature. The first explicit recognition of political representation is found on the occasion of the English Parliament of 1254, when knights of the shires were elected in county courts and empowered to speak for and bind the whole county. The authority that such direct consent conveyed was repeatedly affirmed in formulations such as that of the Chief Justice of England who, in 1365, proclaimed that "Parliament represents the body of all the realm." By the fourteenth century as well, members of Parliament were expected to convey the grievances of their constituencies to the king and his counselors, giving rise to the formula "Redress of grievances before supply." Thus the function of the representative was to serve as a two-way channel of communication, expressing grievances and popular opinion, while garnering popular support for the policies of rulers. This in turn gave rise to the affirmation that rulers, in so far as they are representative, must act in the interests of those they represent.

The political theorists of Renaissance Italy, while interested in republican and participatory theories of government, had no conception that legislatures might properly consist in representatives elected by the people rather than the people themselves. There was some development of a protodemocratic conception of representation among some Puritans, especially the Levelers in England. In their search for a practical expression of their demands for a broader franchise and a government responsive to a broad electorate, they merged the democratic idea of rule by the people with the idea of representation. Through the seventeenth century, the corporate conception of representation in which individuals were considered to be subsumed into the political body and its image, the representative, dominated both theory and practice.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Planck mass to PositPolitical Representation - Classical Consent, Medieval Corporatism And The Origin Of Political Representation, Representing The Rights And Interests Of Individuals