The Belly and the Members  

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"The Belly and the Other Members"[1] is a fable from The Fables of Aesop.

Sometimes called "The Belly and the Members", it is considered the world's oldest body-state metaphor. Written by Aesop, the short, simple fable describes a revolt of the body parts against the stomach, as the stomach gets all of the food. After refusing to supply the stomach with nourishment, the "other members" realize they, too, are weakened. They realize that the stomach provides valuable hard work in its own way, and for their own good. The moral of the story is that the hard work and contributions of others are not always immediately recognizable as such, and that one part's suffering can result in the suffering of the whole.

This story has its earliest outing in the second book of Livy's History of Rome.

The Apostle Paul of Tarsus, educated in both Hebrew and Hellenic thought, updated it when he wrote a letter to friends in Corinth (1 Cor. 12:12-26). It was also updated by Shakespeare in Act 1 of his play, "Coriolanus." Many versions of it are found all over the world, some furthering the metaphor from the body to the state.


William Caxton translation (1484)

Of the handes / of the feet / & of the mans bely

How shalle one do ony good to another / the which can doo no good to his owne self / As thow mayst see by this fable / Of the feet and of the handes / whiche somtyme had grete stryf with the bely / sayenge / Al that we can or may wynne with grete labour thou etest it all / and yet thow doost no good / wherfore thou shalt no more haue nothynge of vs / and we shalle lete the deye for honger / And thenne when the bely was empty and sore hungry / she beganne to crye & sayd Allas I deye for honger / gyue me somwhat to ete / And the feet and the handes sayd / thou getest no thynge of vs / And by cause that the bely might haue no mete / the conduyts thorugh the whiche the metes passeth became smal and narowe / And within fewe dayes after the feete and handes for the febleness whiche they felte wold thenne haue gyuen mete to the bely /& but it was to late / for the conduits were ioyned to gyder / And therfore the lymmes myght doo no good to other / that is to wete the bely / And he that gouerneth not wel his bely with grete payne he may hold the other lymmes in theyr strengthe and vertue /

Wherfore a seruaunt ought to serue wel his mayster / to thende that his mayster hold and kepe hym honestly / and to receyue and haue good reward of hym / when his mayster shalle see his feythfulnesse

Roger L'Estrange translation (1692)


The Commoners of Rome were gone off once into a direct Faction against the Senate. They’d pay no Taxes, nor be forc’d to bear Arms, they said, and ‘twas the Liberty of the Subject to pretend to compel them to’t. The Sedition, in short, ran so high, that there was no Hope of reclaiming them, till Menenius Agrippa brought them to their Wits again by this Apologue. / The Hands and Feet were in desperate Mutiny once against the Belly. They knew no Reason, they said, why the one should lie lazing, and pampering itself with the Fruit of the others Labour; and if the Body would not work for company, they’d be no longer at the Charge of maintaining it. Upon this Mutiny, they kept the Body so long without Nourishment, that all the Parts suffer’d for it: Insomuch that the Hands and Feet came in the Conclusion to find their Mistake, and would have been willing them to have done their Office; but it was now too late, for the Body was so pin’d with over-Fasting, that it was wholly out of Condition to receive the Benefit of a Relief; which gave them to understand, that Body and members are to live and die together.

THE MORAL. The Publick is but one body, and the Prince the Head on’t; so that what Member soever withdraws his Service from the Head, is no better than a negative Traitor to his Country.

George Fyler Townsend translation (1887)

The Belly and the Members

The Members of the Body rebelled against the Belly, and said, "Why should we be perpetually engaged in administering to your wants, while you do nothing but take your rest, and enjoy yourself in luxury and self-indulgence?' The Members carried out their resolve and refused their assistance to the Belly. The whole Body quickly became debilitated, and the hands, feet, mouth, and eyes, when too late, repented of their folly.

Joseph Jacobs translation (1894)

The Belly and the Members

One fine day it occurred to the Members of the Body that they were doing all the work and the Belly was having all the food. So they held a meeting, and after a long discussion, decided to strike work till the Belly consented to take its proper share of the work. So for a day or two, the Hands refused to take the food, the Mouth refused to receive it, and the Teeth had no work to do. But after a day or two the Members began to find that they themselves were not in a very active condition: the Hands could hardly move, and the Mouth was all parched and dry, while the Legs were unable to support the rest. So thus they found that even the Belly in its dull quiet way was doing necessary work for the Body, and that all must work together or the Body will go to pieces.

See also

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