The 12th‐century clergyman John of Salisbury has been relegated to obscurity today. This is a great shame because his treatise on politics entitled Policraticus despite it’s medieval trappings articulates a love of freedom, a respect for free speech and most controversially, discussions of when it is morally permissible to kill a tyrant.
When we think of the liberal values of tolerance, limited government, the separation of church and state, and freedom of speech, we most certainly do not think of medieval Europe. A smorgasbord of hereditary monarchies supported by a patchwork of privileged nobles, most liberals rightly think of the medieval ages as a dark time for human freedom. The strict enforcement of religious orthodoxy, a lack of gender equality, a rigid hierarchical system, and legal systems that favored the privileged elite make medieval Europe a time to which liberals rarely look back, for any sort of political wisdom. But even in the most unfree of times, there are a select few who can conceive of a better world, ruled not by what has always been, but instead by what ought to be.
While admittedly far from being a contemporary liberal or libertarian, I believe that the 12th‐century medieval thinker John of Salisbury deserves a place in the limelight for his political writings, which stressed the importance of free speech, the value of liberty, and most controversially, for his day, when it was morally justifiable to kill a tyrant. One of the best‐educated scholars of his day, John’s writings went on to be recognized as of the most nuanced political musings since the fall of the Roman empire. While his writings contain at times unsavory medieval mores, this is compensated for by his proto‐liberal values inspired by the writings of antiquity that guided his thought.
In reality, we know very little about the earliest days of John’s life. He was born sometime around 1120AD. He was born in England in a place called Old Sarum, or as it is called today, Salisbury. His family were by no means aristocrats. At best, they were well to do but with little status or prestige. John’s nickname was Parvus, the Latin for small, this could have been a joke about his stature, but more likely, it pointed to his humble origins. His education was funded in part by his family, and wealthy patrons supplied the rest.
The first year we can point to in John’s life with any degree of certainty is 1136, when he arrived in Paris as a student at roughly the age of fifteen, the usual age when one would begin higher education at the time. At this time, education was generally undertaken to become a member of the clergy. John was educated by the best of his era, including Peter Abelard, one of the most renowned theologians of John’s day. While engaged in his studies, John learned about philosophy, rhetoric, literature, and of course, theology.
In his later writings, found within his work known as the Metalogicon, John provided a colorful description of medieval university life and his experiences within it while defending the importance of the trivium, the teaching of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. By 1137 John moved to Chartres to study grammar, rhetoric, logic, and classical literature. Influenced by a disciple of Bernard of Chartres, John became convinced of the importance of studying the thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome for what he believed to be their timeless wisdom. Because of Bernard’s influence, John would frequently pepper his later writings with references to ancient Greece and Rome, not only to show off his education but to show the timelessness of their words. By 1140 John returned to Paris to study theology. To help fund his studies, John tutored children of the local nobility.
After a little over a decade of studying, John completed his education and decided to settle in Troyes, a town in northeastern France. Not much is known about precisely what John was doing here at this time and whether or not he was in service of any particular person. What is known is that while residing in Troyes, he met a very influential churchman Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard took a liking to John and helped propel his ecclesiastical career by recommending him to Theobald, the current archbishop of Canterbury, the most important person in the English religious hierarchy. Theobald was an ardent defender of the church’s rights against the encroachments of the English monarchy.
John became Theobald’s most esteemed secretary. He composed letters, oversaw administrative matters, advised the archbishop, and represented him as an envoy on continental Europe with John traveling to Rome on numerous occasions. Suffice to say; John was a close and intimate ally of Theobald. Many of Theobald’s associates had a similar education to John’s, and thus he always found himself surrounded by fellow intellectuals to discuss and debate to his heart’s content. While working, John met Thomas Becket, the future saint who was also in Theobald’s service before becoming the King’s chancellor in 1154.
During the medieval ages, monarchy was the dominant form of government. But even monarchies were subjected to a higher power. The Catholic church held immense sway over political life, holding the power to excommunicate pious rulers, which delegitimized the often fragile balance of power in medieval politics. At a time when nearly everyone believed in heaven and hell, excommunication was a huge deal, to be ruled over by a king who was not part of the church was questionable. On top of this, bishops were generally very wealthy, holding huge tracts of land and acted as advisors to their respective kings. If a churchman was accused of a crime, he was not tried by the King’s court but, in fact, by a separate church court where punishments were often much more lenient. While John was completing his studies, the King of England, named Stephen of Blois, was an extremely weak monarch who relied upon the support of the pope. The pope backed Stephen’s cause, but only on the condition that he vowed to give the church in England a massive degree of autonomy over its laws, lands, and money.
After King Stephen’s reign ended, Henry took the throne in 1154 and pushed back against ecclesiastical power, not because of any principle of equality before the law but instead to cement his own power. When Henry ascended to the throne, he was anxious to establish English control over Wales and the English territories within France. England had just come out of a civil war which had been aptly dubbed the Anarchy by later historians. After a long and hard‐fought war, England’s finances were in tatters, and it was up to Henry to restore the state’s financial health. By setting up his traveling royal court, he could prosecute all people under one law as opposed to delegating this responsibility to local authorities. Importantly, this also meant that he could collect all of the fines and taxes for himself and help restore the state’s financial health.
The archbishop of Canterbury Theobald, John’s superior, was an ardent defender of the church’s independence from the secular government who had been exiled before under the reign of Stephen of Blois. Eventually, Theobald died in 1161, and his successor for the archbishop of Canterbury was Thomas Becket. Being a past member of the King’s court, Henry expected Becket to be a perfect pushover, but instead, Becket, like his predecessor, defended the church’s traditional liberties. It is during this time with the backdrop of conflict between both the church and state that John of Salisbury was writing.
Despite the business of his work, John managed to complete writing what is today his best‐known work Policraticus by 1159. So far, all that has emerged of John’s life is that he was a well‐educated churchman, with no as yet discernible liberal underpinnings. But John’s interest in liberal principles is evident when we read Policraticus. John wrote a few other books of note but nothing as pertinent for a liberal audience today. So I will limit myself to talking about Policraticus.
Policraticus is a Greco‐Roman neologism from John himself translating to the statesman. It belongs to a genre known today as the mirror of princes. These were usually handbooks or treatises on how monarchs ought to act both publicly and privately. It was a little bit like a royal self‐help book. The book was dedicated to Thomas Becket but was intended to be read by the top echelons of English society. In Policraticus, John takes on a broad range of topics. Overall it isn’t the easiest read due to its eclectic nature covering such a broad canon. If I were to attempt to summarize the whole book, I would be here for quite some time. But there are three important themes that I will discuss, three big ideas in Policraticus that make it worth knowing about John’s articulation of the huge value of liberty, the importance of free speech, and most famously when it is permissible to kill a tyrant.
John came at a time in western thought when much of the seminal writings of ancient figures such as Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero were mostly still lost besides a few fragmentary texts. His studies at universities gave him a great sense of reverence for the wisdom of the ancients, and as such, John read and translated anything he could find. He was most impressed by Cicero’s De Officiis and Aristotle’s writings on logic known as the Organon.
From Aristotle, John adopted the idea of 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 consists of doing what is morally right, but what is morally right is not always so clear cut and simple. For example, a soldier who is faced with battle has a multitude of ways to react. He can dull his sense of fear and throw himself headlong into battle and earn a heroic victory. Or, he could listen to his gut instinct and run away from the conflict and preserve his life. For Aristotle, both of these approaches fail because they are too extreme, either extremely reckless or extremely cowardly. Virtue was not attained through extremes but instead by moderating our conduct and finding the right balance. Cicero’s thought on ethics resembles Aristotle with him stating in De Inventione that “each virtue will be found to have a vice bordering upon it.”
So for Cicero and Aristotle, virtue is found between extremes, what would be called the golden mean. Now, this does not mean the halfway point, but instead, any point between the excesses or deficiencies. To figure out what is right, we must develop our sense of practical moderation by weighing up our options and examining the actions and lives of others through what was called exempla, or moral examples.
John wholeheartedly took on this philosophy stating that “nought is so splendid or magnificent that it does not need to be tempered by moderation.” Throughout Policraticus, John concurs with Aristotle and Cicero on the nature of virtue. John’s moral beliefs transfer to the political realm. If the only way to attain virtue was to use one’s sense of judgment, John argued that liberty then ought to be given to the highest degree possible so that we may practice our skill of moral decision making to become virtuous people. What’s more, an obligation for one person might not be an obligation for another. In times of war, physically capable people might be expected to enlist in the army while people with disabilities would be exempt. Not all people have comparable situations, and therefore not all people have the same obligations.
John wrote that “virtue cannot be fully attained without liberty, and the absence of liberty proves that virtue in its full perfection is wanting.” For example, if I am forced to go out and pick up trash on the weekends by a local authority, I am not developing my sense of morality because my own judgment was not used, and I had no choice in the matter. This is why charity and community service are viewed as very different things. But when rulers attempt to make people virtuous through heavy‐handed means, John believed they eliminated any potential that people had for virtuous lives. Being under the threat of physical coercion, for John, was a condition similar to slavery. He described people dominated by others as “the image of death” as their freewill; what made them human is removed.
Liberty is best described as choice. Whether that choice is good or bad is up to the actions of individuals and their judgment. John argued that liberty “means judging everything freely in accordance with one’s individual judgement.” Without practicing this judgment, there is no hope of attaining virtue. The fate of both virtue and liberty are inherently intertwined, as John stated: “he who is most virtuous is most free and the freest man enjoys the greatest virtue.”
But liberty also means the ability to make good and bad choices. When left to their own devices, people are not angels. They will not always be moral. John explained that as long as the immorality of one does not harm another, it ought to be permitted. Taking a stance of moderate skepticism following Cicero’s teachings, John believed that a ruler should always err on the side of tolerance. John chastises rulers who are eager to find faults in their people’s behavior and correct them or even take revenge. Thus for John, tolerance along with moderation are essential virtues for any ruler. Sounding quite like some sort of proto‐liberal, he said that “the merit of tolerance is resplendent with a very special glory.” Now John was a medieval man, which means that he had some unsavory parts to his beliefs, such as that liberty ought to be curtailed when it threatened religious orthodoxy. While beliefs such as this dull the liberal edge of John’s philosophy, nonetheless, for his time, he was a unique thinker in his approach to the relationship between liberty and virtue.
A cadre of aristocrats often surrounded the King, which was known as a king’s court. John had traveled across Europe and had been at many different courts. His experiences showed him that the inner circles of various European courts were hotbeds of luxury, excess, and, worst of all, flattery. At court, everyone wanted to curry favor with the King to get ahead. Kings commanded an immense amount of power, and being on their good side could result in wealth, land, and prestige. So kings tended to be surrounded by spineless suck‐ups and sycophants that John called flatterers that would say anything to please their King.
Members of the court were meant to help run the country, but flatterers did their best to appease the King with sweet talk and convince him to follow their plans, which nearly always were to benefit themselves at others’ expense. John observed that flatterers often obstructed open debate and criticism to make their ideas sound better. By suppressing conflicting and often better ideas, they make their own seem more plausible. John noted that flattery is always “accompanied by deception, fraud, betrayal, and the infamy of lying.”
Flattery at court, in John’s eyes, led to the King following flawed advice. John criticized flatterers by citing Cicero’s view of friendship. Cicero and John believed friendship is at its finest when pursued for its own sake regardless of rewards or gain. Real friends are partners in the good life who strive towards virtue and the truth together, therefore by definition, bad people can never be friends because they do not aim for virtue, nor do they care about the truth if it is inconvenient to their goals. John concludes that “those who are vulgar and base flatterers are not admitted among friends.”
John believed that the good life depends on truth and that friends ought not to lie and deceive one another for gain. Therefore John stated that it is better to suffer “the chastisement of a friend” rather than “the fraudulent kissing up of a flatterer.” To the future King, he advises that free and open debate ought to be a regular feature at any well functioning court. He argued that a good king would allow criticism, which would lead to people freely expressing what they thought was best because “no critic need be feared by the lover of truth.” John advised that those in power ought to be lovers of the truth, though the truth may be harsh when it is necessary both in a king’s private and public life.
From Cicero’s writings, John adopted a stance of skepticism of absolute knowledge, quite the divergence from the dogmatism with which medieval thinkers are often associated. John held that beliefs should be based upon their probability of being true writing that “I … 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.”
Therefore the best way to attain something close to the truth is to hear out every possible argument. In this case, what is true for the individual is true for the government. Free speech is the government’s most valuable tool for assessing what the best course of action is. John believed the King ought to allow a great deal of free expression, writing that “even if criticism carries open or covert malice, to bear it is in the eyes of wise men a far finer thing than to seek to punish it.” John understood that the health of society depends on the ability of free agents to speak out against the oppressive and immoral conduct of government. John’s defense of free speech was based on its utility in the exposure of poor government conduct, both in terms of policy and personal virtue.
Ultimately, John of Salisbury is arguably most famous for his idea of tyrannicide, the killing of a tyrant. For the medieval mind, the Bible was the most authoritative source on right and wrong, but on the topic of tyrannicide, scripture wasn’t always clear. On one end, there are multiple tyrants in the Bible who are brutally killed, such as Holoprornes, who is beheaded with his own sword by the divinely aided Judith.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Jesus also argued Christians should obey the authorities of the secular world, famously saying “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Many later authors interpreted this as Jesus commanding Christians to obey the authority of secular rulers. Saint Paul wrote that “everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities.” These sentiments were not ignored, In the 5th century AD, the authoritative Church Father Augustine argued that nobody may kill another, even a criminal. Augustine believed that the secular state was beneath God’s divine morality and thus had little interest in the efficacy of the state which paled in comparison to the city of God. Thus christians should ignore the miseries of secular power and simply bear and grin until they reach salvation. The only time Augustine thought a tyrant could be rightfully deposed was if he infringed upon Christians’ ability to practice their faith as this would jeopardize their entry to heaven.
But tyrannicide was generally quite a taboo topic. All authority came from God, and that included the state’s authority, therefore to rebel against the state was possibly to rebel against the will of God himself who had established such states. A keen student of the ancients, John was influenced by his two best buds Cicero and Aristotle, who both said that those who kill tyrants should be praised for their service.
John argued that kings were not unlimited in their power. There is a law higher than them to which they must answer. Law is not the arbitrary whim of a ruler. Instead the law is “the gift of God, the model of equity, a standard of justice, a likeness of divine will.” These natural laws of justice from God cannot be ignored whenever the ruler wants. John said that “every magistrate is but a slave to justice.” Adherence to the law is the defining quality of a proper king”. In fact, the primary difference between a tyrant and a king is their relationship with the law. The authority and legitimacy of the King depend upon his adherence to the law, “in the teeth of all the world, that kings are bound by this law.” Tyrants are characterized 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.” By replacing the law with the arbitrary will of another, tyranny takes root.
Unlike Augustine, who argued for silently suffering under tyrannous reign, John argued that after a degree of suffering had occurred and the tyrant’s intentions and behavior were evident to all, tyrants had no right to protection. John pointed to times throughout history where tyrants met gruesome ends. After listing his extensive examples, he concludes that “It is not only permitted, but it is also equitable and just to slay tyrants. For he who receives the sword deserves to perish by the sword.” Tyrants commit a crime that is more than just a regular crime; instead, he commits a crime of majesty, and “it is permissible for all to prosecute those charged with the crime of majesty.” At times John upgrades the permissibility to a duty, writing that “Whoever does not prosecute [the tyrant] sins against himself and against the whole body of the secular republic.” As long as the killing of a tyrant is done without loss of religion or honor, there is no reason not to kill a tyrant.
John’s advice generally tended to fall on deaf ears. By the 1160s, John was reluctantly drawn into the conflicts between Becket and the King, where he supported the former as his secretary. However, in reality, John viewed both parties as overly stubborn in their positions and wished for some form of compromise. John eventually fell out of favor with the King, who viewed him as merely a mouthpiece for the church’s ambitions. John was forced into exile in France for a large chunk of the 1160s. By 1170 the King had had enough of Becket’s defiance and was purported to have said, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” A group of knights took this entreaty literally and murdered Becket in cold blood; with John was a witness to the brutal event. Though he continued to serve the English church, John was eventually promoted to bishop at Chartres in 1176, where he did not achieve much of note besides promoting the memory of Becket. By 1180 John passed away.
In subsequent centuries John became a renowned name among scholars who admired his non‐dogmatic and rigorous analysis of politics. Before John, few medieval thinkers had applied speculative philosophy to politics due to their view of public affairs as a corrupt activity. But John demonstrated that politics does not have to be so debased and can in fact incorporate the highest of moral principles. Since the fall of Rome, the western world had not seen such a grand attempt at philosophizing about the nature of politics. The scholar Cary J. Nederman writes that “John of Salisbury richly deserves a reputation for having restored the theoretical study of politics to a place of prominence in the intellectual system of the medieval West.” That is some hefty and in my opinion, justified praise indeed.
John of Salisbury is by no means an unambiguous liberal hero. Restricted to the dominant beliefs of the time, he took monarchy as one of the only competent forms of government and had little room for religious toleration in his philosophy. But I think we can forgive some of these unfortunate anachronisms based on when he was writing. After all, John did himself write, of his old teacher Bernard of Chartres, that Bernard “used to compare us to dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.” In this vein of thought, John represents an upwards thrust towards the priceless values of liberty and free speech. The medieval ages are hardly a time renowned for tolerance, liberty, and rebellion, so the fact that John preached these values in this intellectual milieu is all the more impressive. John of Salisbury is not a commonly known name today amongst even the biggest political philosophy nerds. But John deserves a bit more credit than simply being a wallflower of political philosophy’s canon. He was a key figure in revitalizing the classical tradition of synthesizing high minded philosophizing with politics, an endeavour rarely taken up until he wrote Policraticus which then repopularized this trend.
Liberals and libertarians alike ought to respect a man who reclaimed the righteous tradition of setting a check on the absolutist powers of rulers and of urging rebellion when such rulers turned tyrannous. John’s legacy is as timeless to us as were the writings of ancient Greece and Rome to him.