The Pathos of Politics (20) John of Salisbury

John of Salisbury

No one should seek his own interest but that of others. ~ John of Salisbury

English author, clergyman, and diplomat John of Salisbury (1120–1180) was the reincarnation of Cicero politically, albeit in papalist garb. Like Cicero, John’s political disposition was utilitarianism: “attend to the common utility of all.”

Like Augustine, John was a firm believer in eternal law.

Law is the gift of God, the model of equity, a standard of justice, a likeness of the divine will, the guardian of well-being, a bond of union and solidarity between peoples, a rule defining duties, a barrier against the vices and the destroyer thereof, a punishment of violence and all wrongdoing. ~ John of Salisbury

John’s most important work is Policraticus (The Stateman’s Book) (~1159). Though John originated no political doctrine, he uniquely formulated familiar, isolated ideas into a coherent pattern. Because of his style – its freshness, integrity, and sense of humor (exceedingly rare for the time) – John was the most influential medieval political writer.

John portrayed “the state as an organism,” with the ruler the head of the body, and the church acting as its soul. John championed the supremacy of ecclesiastical power over secular rulers.

The head is quickened and governed by the soul. ~ John of Salisbury

In buttressing his arguments, John, like most medieval papalists, relied heavily on the Old Testament, with its firm bias against temporal rulers. The New Testament had a more positive tone that “the powers that be are ordained of God,” but, reflecting Jewish animosity of the Romans, the Old Testament’s fire and brimstone hostility against secular authority was unequivocal. John made such an overwhelming case for the moral sovereignty of the church that later protagonists of the papal cause found it easy to plead for legal supremacy as well.

Projecting Christian esteem for love into the political theater, a virtuous king rules through kindness.

Kindness will compel the most faithful and constant love from even the sternest, and will increase and confirm the love which it has produced. ~ John of Salisbury

An ethical ruler adheres to eternal law, and so seeks to serve others. In contrast, a tyrant exercises power for himself.

He who rules in accordance with the laws is a prince. A tyrant is one who oppresses the people by rulership based upon force. ~ John of Salisbury

John found tyrannicide eminently justified. In violating the rule of law, a despot assails the grace of God.

The prince, as the likeness of the Deity, is to be loved, worshipped, and cherished; the tyrant, the likeness of wickedness, is generally to be even killed. The origin of tyranny is iniquity, and spring from a poisonous root, it is a tree which grows and sprouts into a baleful pestilent growth, and to which the axe must by all means be laid. ~ John of Salisbury

For papal apologists such as John, in seeking to curb authoritarianism, liberty itself was at stake: a larger issue than any petty rivalry between popes and emperors.

Nothing but virtue is more splendid than liberty, if indeed liberty can ever properly be severed from virtue. A man is free in proportion to the measures of his virtues, and the extent to which he is free determines what his virtues can accomplish. ~ John of Salisbury