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Sep 7, 2018

John of Salisbury: A Politics of Virtue

The medieval thinker John of Salisbury explored the relationship between virtue and the state, concluding that the good life requires freedom.

John of Salisbury would surely have been an eccentric figure by today’s standards. He could be described as a poet, moralist, political thinker, speculative philosopher, or indeed a combination of all of these things at once. He has been described as “the finest flower of the twelfth century Renaissance” and was one of the most learned men of the Middle Ages.1 His political philosophy is marked by commitment to the promotion of virtue. According to John, the best way to promote virtue is to promote liberty.

John was born into a non-noble family around 1120 AD in the town of Salisbury in England. Little is known about John’s early life up until 1136 AD, when he travelled to France to study at the University of Paris. Following this, John focused on theology at Chartres. During his university years, John studied under the hard-hitting intellectuals of his era, including William of Conches, Peter of Abelard and, most importantly, Bernard of Chartres. Bernard inspired John’s love of classical writers who shaped heavily the development of his philosophical writings. Thanks to his rigorous education and enduring enthusiasm for scholarship, John quickly rose up the ranks of the Church hierarchy.

Later, John became a controversial figure as a result both of his scathing criticism of the royal court as well as his opposition to the king’s imposition of taxes upon the Church. King Henry II wished to wage yet another war on France. In order to raise the necessary funds, he deemed it necessary to create new taxes, which largely fell disproportionately upon the Church. John was an ardent defender of the Church’s traditional liberties and thus opposed Henry’s targeted measures.

In response to Henry’s encroachments, John wrote a book entitled Policraticus; an expression newly coined by John that translates from the Greek as “The Statesman’s Book.”2 Policraticus was a controversial book and John knew it; in a letter to a friend, John admits that his work “will scarcely find a single friend at court.”3 Within the Policraticus, John unleashed a swathe of criticism, condemning the corruption of the court. He believed that this corruption was detrimental to both the spiritual and the political wellbeing of the English Commonwealth since, as he asserted, members of the court lied and flattered rulers with poor advice that greatly hindered the common good. Because of these beliefs he quickly fell out of political favour and was exiled to France.

In Policraticus, John discussed numerous topics including the importance of free speech, the duties of a just ruler and even a justification for tyrannicide. While these subjects are all fascinating and important, his most unique contribution is that of his conception of virtue and liberty and how the two are deeply related to one another. To appreciate fully the nuances of John’s philosophical thought, we must first examine how that of Aristotle (and to a lesser extent, that of Cicero) informed his views.

Aristotle’s work had a profound impact upon European philosophy. His writings were quickly assimilated and adapted into medieval Christian ethics. The famous philosopher Thomas Aquinas would eventually refer to Aristotle as “The Philosopher,” highlighting the strength of his legacy.4 Unfortunately, John wrote before the advent of this Aristotelian revolution; however, he was still deeply indebted to Aristotle. John read those of Aristotle’s treatises on logic and language (which often also discuss moral theory) that were available to him, grouped collectively under the title Organon.5 These texts inspired and informed many other sources, including Cicero’s De Officiis and De Inventione. John studied Aristotle’s idea of the “Golden Mean” in relation to moral virtue. This theory deeply influenced John’s idea of an intrinsic relationship between liberty and virtue, which is discussed in Policraticus.

What is the “Golden Mean?” Aristotle believed that virtue is the highest good attainable in life and that it is essential for human flourishing, or what he called “Eudaimonia.” Virtue can be attained through good actions, but this is not always a simple affair. To illustrate this concept in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle used the example of a soldier. If a soldier is too reckless, he will die in combat because he will charge into battle irrespective of potential danger. On the other hand, if he is too cowardly he will not even fight. Both approaches, recklessness and cowardice, make for bad soldiers, injustice is found in both excess and deficiency.6 For Aristotle, the key to attaining virtue was moderation. He wrote that “whereas the vices either fall short of or exceed what is right in feelings and actions, virtue ascertains and adopts the mean.”7

Aristotle argued that too much of anything is almost always bad. As we have seen, too much courage gives rise to recklessness, while a lack thereof results in cowardice. Thus Aristotle concluded that a virtue such as courage always resides somewhere between deficiency and excess. Cicero also expounded this idea but did not explicitly credit it to Aristotle. In De Inventione, Cicero insisted that “each virtue will be found to have a vice bordering upon it.”8 The mean does not strictly define the halfway point between extremes. Instead, it denotes any point between the two extremes that could be the ideal point for virtue. This makes the practical skill of discerning moderation extremely valuable as it allows one to locate the position at which virtue is to be found. Praising moderation, John exclaimed that “nought is so splendid or magnificent that it does not need to be tempered by moderation.”9

John agreed with Aristotle that virtue is the highest good possible. He also concurred with Aristotle’s idea of the Golden Mean. Throughout Policraticus, John insisted that virtue lies between extremes stating, that “exceeding the mean is a fault. Every virtue is marked by its own boundaries and consists in the mean. If one exceeds this one is off the road, not on it.”10 John elaborated further on the nature of virtue, arguing that virtue cannot be attained without the liberty to exercise one’s faculties. He wrote that “virtue cannot be fully attained without liberty, and the absence of liberty proves that virtue in its full perfection is wanting.”11

If one is forced to do a good deed, for example donating to charity, they did a good act, but they are not made more virtuous as the will to act was not their own. In addition, since they did not pause to reflect on the nature of their action, they did not develop the important skill of moderation which is essential to a moral life. When rulers force people to be virtuous through involuntary servitude, as John adamantly stated, they eradicated all potential for virtuous lives. Dominating people is detrimental to their moral flourishing as freely acting agents in both the short and long term. He compared this condition of compulsion to slavery, to which he grimly referred as the “image of death.”12

John stated that liberty “means judging everything freely in accordance with one’s individual judgement.”13 People have to use their own judgement and willpower in order to cultivate virtue. In addition, John held that the virtue of an act is relative to the agent. He believed that the ethical acts a person should perform are regulated by a swathe of circumstances. Not all people have the same duties in comparable situations. For example, a man with a broken leg and a fully mobile person do not have the same obligation to stop a thief who runs past them; this is due to their relative ability in relation to their circumstance. In order to allow virtue to flourish, a ruler has to allow people to be free to employ their own judgement in situations that call for moral action. John concluded that “he who is most virtuous is most free and the freest man enjoys the greatest virtue.”14

Another important idea that John adopted from antiquity is Cicero’s version of skepticism, usually referred to as “academic scepticism” given its origins in the later academy of Plato. Cicero made no claim to knowledge of absolute truths, believing instead that ideas should be adopted or believed based on their probability of being true. Describing his views, Cicero wrote: “so I, differing from them, call some things probable, some improbable. What is there, then, that can hinder me from pursuing those things that seem to me probable, rejecting those things that seem improbable, and, while I shun the arrogance of positive assertion, escaping the recklessness which is at the farthest remove from wisdom.”15 This skepticism appealed to John and led him to believe that, since absolute knowledge is a rarity, a prince ought always to err on the side of tolerance and moderation on most issues.

John did not believe that, when left to their own devices, people will always be morally good. Liberty necessitates a variety of results. Some people will be virtuous and moderate while others will be unethical and hedonistic. John argued that provided the immorality of one does not directly harm others it ought to be permitted. A ruler “who is too ready to fault his subjects, and take revenge on them for their faults” was condemned by John who, adopting an approach of Ciceronian skepticism, argued that we should always err on the side of tolerance unless concerning something “it is not permissible to tolerate or which cannot be tolerated in good conscience.”16 He questioned the value of liberty if not available to all, even “those who desire to ruin themselves by luxury.”17 Tolerance is a crucial virtue in John’s ideal state; praising the importance of tolerance he wrote that “the merit of tolerance is resplendent with a very special glory.”18

This adoption of tolerance led John to suggest that liberty be curtailed in two particular circumstances; firstly, as mentioned previously, when it harms other people; secondly, and distinctly medieval in attitude, when it endangers religious orthodoxy. Besides these two caveats, John believed that the role of the ruler is not to force people to be virtuous, but instead to preserve peace and order. A well-ordered and peaceful society provides a framework for the individual’s cultivation of virtue. Virtue does not lie at the end of a straight and sure path; rather, each individual must find their own way of fostering and promoting virtue relative to their skills and circumstances. Compared to his contemporaries, John was unusually dedicated to a doctrine of non-intervention in people’s private lives, a rarity in the medieval period.

John enumerated three corruptible tendencies of human nature, all of which make a regime of moderation and tolerance difficult to maintain. Firstly, people naturally desire power, but also wish not to be dominated. As John wrote, “those who are willing to be ruled are extremely few, and each seeks with all his might to be exempted from subjection to his own proper ruler.”19 Secondly, those in power are constantly expanding their influence and will always attempt to push beyond it its current boundaries.20 People with power are dangerous and are bound to “lord it as far as his power extends.” Finally, John believed that power is an ever-present danger, always poised to creep back into the limelight. With this in mind he warned, “ambition can never wholly be quelled.”21 John tackled the issue of the corrupting tendencies of human nature through a firm commitment to the rule of law. The law John discusses was not that of human creation, but of God’s making.

In order best to promote virtue, John argued that rulers must be kept in check by a power above themselves; this power is law. True law is not made at the whim of a ruler. He wrote that “those laws which carry a perpetual inclination or prohibition are not subject at all to their pleasure.”22   When John says that these laws “carry a perpetual inclination,” he means that these laws are immutable, eternal, unaltered by human intervention and bestowed upon humanity by God. Law is “the gift of God, the model of equity, a standard of justice, a likeness of divine will.”23 Given law’s divine nature, no person can be above it, as “all are accordingly bound by the necessity of keeping the law.”24 Even the kings of John’s day were no exception to this ironclad rule since “every magistrate is but a slave to justice.”25 Adherence to the rule of law limits the ruler’s power and prevents him from overstepping into areas in which he ought not to tread. The rule of a higher law was essential for John’s idealised, virtuous community to thrive, undisturbed by unwarranted interference.

Throughout Policraticus, John defined the unjust tyrant and the just prince by their respective attitudes towards law. Tyrants are characterised by an antagonistic relationship with the law: “the tyrant thinks nothing is done unless he brings the law to nought, and reduces the people to slavery.”26 His description of the prince stands in stark contrast to that of the tyrant. The prince acts as an agent of the law: “for the authority of the prince depends upon the authority of justice and the law.”27 His rule is legitimised by his adherence to a law above himself. As John exclaimed, “all are accordingly bound by the necessity of keeping the law.” Even kings are not exempt from the binding rule, “in the teeth of all the world, that kings are bound by this law.”28

Virtue is the highest good humanity can achieve. Like all good things, it requires dedication and practice in order to flourish. One’s sense of moderation must be trained. People cannot achieve moral development if they are not free to discern for themselves how they ought to act based on their personal circumstances and faculties. John argued that, as a result of the intimate relationship between liberty and virtue, neither can be achieved without the other.

According to John, without the risks of liberty there is little for humanity to aspire to; the freer the populace, the greater the potential virtue for all. However, freedom is not perfect and, given people’s weak wills, it offers no guarantee of virtue. Despite these drawbacks, John nevertheless argued that giving people a greater degree of freedom is better than the alternative: forceful rule that enslaves people under the “yoke of vice” that is slavery.29 In order to curtail their natural desire for the expansion of power beyond its proper sphere, rulers must be bound to a higher law. Faithful observation of this higher law legitimizes a ruler’s reign. Conversely, ignoring this law means one’s rule is fundamentally flawed and unjust.


  1. David Knowles, The Evolution of Medieval Thought (New York: Random House, 1962), p.140.
  2. Cary J. Nederman, “John of Salisbury’s Political Theory,” p.258 in Christoph Grellard and Fréderique Lachaud, A Companion to John of Salisbury (2014).
  3. John to Peter of Celle (1159), The Letters of John of Salisbury, vol. 1, ed. W. J. Millor and H. E. Butler (London, 1955), p.182.
  4. McInerny, Ralph and O’Callaghan, John, “Saint Thomas Aquinas,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta.
  5. Cary J. Nederman, “The Aristotelian Doctrine of the Mean and John of Salisbury’s ‘Concept of Liberty,’” Vivarium, Vol 24, No.2 (1986) p.132.
  6. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1134a8-9.
  7. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1107a.
  8. Cicero, De Inventione 2.65.
  9. Richard H. Rouse and Mary A. Rouse, “John of Salisbury and the Doctrine of Tyrannicide,” Speculum, Vol. 42, No. 4 (1967), p.697.
  10. Cary J. Nederman, “The Aristotelian Doctrine of the Mean and John of Salisbury’s ‘Concept of Liberty,’” Vivarium, Vol 24, No.2 (1986) p.132.
  11. Ibid. p.138.
  12. Quentin Taylor, “John of Salisbury, the Policraticus and Political Thought,” Humanitas, Volume XIX, Nos.1 and 2 (2006) p.149.
  13. Cary J. Nederman, “John of Salisbury’s Political Theory,” p.268 in Christoph Grellard and Fréderique Lachaud, A Companion to John of Salisbury (Leiden, 2014).
  14. Cary J. Nederman, “The Aristotelian Doctrine of the Mean and John of Salisbury’s ‘Concept of Liberty,’” Vivarium, Vol 24, No.2 (1986) p.138.
  15. Cicero, De Officiis, II.2.
  16. Cary J. Nederman, “John of Salisbury’s Political Theory,” p.272 in Christoph Grellard and Fréderique Lachaud, A Companion to John of Salisbury (Leiden, 2014).
  17. Cary J. Nederman, Worlds of Difference: European Discourses of Toleration, C. 1100-C. 1550 (Pennsylvania, 2010) pp.40-43.
  18. Quentin Taylor, “John of Salisbury, the Policraticus and Political Thought,” Humanitas, Volume XIX, Nos.1 and 2 (2006) p.150.
  19. Ibid. p.142.
  20. Ibid. p.150.
  21. Ibid. p.141.
  22. Ibid. p.147.
  23. Marvin Perry, Sources of the Western Tradition, Volume 1, (Boston, 2013) p.275.
  24. Quentin Taylor, “John of Salisbury, the Policraticus and Political Thought,” Humanitas, Volume XIX, Nos.1 and 2 (2006) p.148.
  25. Cary J. Nederman, “John of Salisbury’s Political Theory,” p.277 in Christoph Grellard and Fréderique Lachaud, A Companion to John of Salisbury (Leiden, 2014).
  26. Cary J. Nederman, “John of Salisbury’s Political Theory,” p.268 in Christoph Grellard and Fréderique Lachaud, A Companion to John of Salisbury (Leiden, 2014).
  27. Quentin Taylor, “John of Salisbury, the Policraticus and Political Thought,” Humanitas, Volume XIX, Nos.1 and 2 (2006) p.147.
  28. Ibid. p.148.
  29. Cary J. Nederman, “John of Salisbury’s Political Theory,” p.270 in Christoph Grellard and Fréderique Lachaud, A Companion to John of Salisbury (Leiden, 2014).