God, Man, and Tyrants

John of Salisbury and the Bestselling Book of the Twelfth Century

By Dave Kopel

Liberty magazine, May 2004, pp. 37-38, 52. More by Kopel on Catholic theories of resistance to tyranny.

Who said "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God"? Pat yourself on the back if you answered "Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin." They proposed placing the motto on the Great Seal of the United States. Pat yourself even harder if you knew that the phrase was created by John Bradshaw (1602-1659), the lawyer who served as President of the Parliamentary Commission which sentenced British King Charles I to death. But who thought up the idea?

The idea is implicit in much of the Old Testament, which is full of righteous Hebrews overthrowing tyrants. And certainly the history of Republican Rome and classical Greece has many similar stories. But in the first millennium of Western Christianity, Christians fell under the sway of the law of the Roman Empire, which emphasized absolute obedience to government, and claimed that the government was above the law. Cicero, who lived in the last days of the Republic, was the last great writer to articulate the right of revolution.

The man who restored the right to Western political thought was an English bishop named John of Salisbury. In 1159, he wrote Policraticus ("Statesman's Book"), which became the best-seller of the century. Although Policraticus is mostly forgotten today, it is one of the few books which truly changed the world.

In 1075, Pope Gregory VII had started the Investiture Contest, by claiming that the Pope, not monarchs, had the sole authority to appoint Bishops. He further announced that he had the authority to depose monarchs.

In the decades of war that followed the assertion of Papal authority, a variety of pro-pope writers articulated theories supporting the Pope's position. For example, Manegold of Lautenbach, a scholar at a monastery destroyed by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, argued that the Pope had the authority to release subjects from their obedience to a ruler, as Gregory VII had done. Manegold analogized a cruel tyrant to a disobedient swineherd who stole his master's pigs, and who could be removed from his job by the master. So:

"[I]f the king ceases to govern the kingdom, and begins to act as a tyrant, to destroy justice, to overthrow peace, and to break his faith, the man who has taken the oath is free from it, and the people are entitled to depose the king and to set up another, inasmuch as he has broken the principle upon which their mutual obligation depended."

But the book that changed Western political thought forever was Policraticus.

John of Salisbury was a cosmopolitan and very well-educated English bishop, and "the most accomplished scholar and stylist of his age." (David Knowles, The Evolution of Medieval Thought).

Policraticus was perhaps the most influential book written since Byzantine Emperor Justinian's legal code had been compiled six centuries before. Policraticus "created an immediate sensation throughout Europe," explains Harold Berman in Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition. Berman observes that "For over a century Policraticus was considered throughout the West to be the most authoritative work on the nature of government."

In the13th century, Thomas Aquinas, whose work displaced Salisbury's, consciously built on Salisbury's foundation. Throughout the Middle Ages, John of Salisbury's writings were carefully studied by political reformers, lawyers, priests, and scholars. 

As an English bishop, John of Salisbury saw first-hand the tremendous Church vs. State struggle then underway in England. King Henry II (1154-89) was determined to rule the church. Although Policraticus did not mention Henry II by name, the book was dedicated to Thomas Becket, the great English bishop with whom Salisbury served for many years.

Policraticus was published around 1159, as the English struggle was intensifying.

In 1162 the King appointed Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest position in the English church. In 1164, King Henry forced Becket and other leaders to proclaim the Constitutions of Clarendon, which reasserted extensive royal authority over the church. The Constitutions of Clarendon were contrary to canon law (church law), Becket later asserted, and he repudiated the Constitutions. He publicly declared that King Henry was usurping power.

A bitter conflict ensued, and in 1170 an enraged Henry roared, "Will no one rid me of this pestilential priest?" Four knights heard the King's remarks, and promptly rode off to assassinate Becket, at Canterbury Cathedral. (The story is retold in the play Murder in the Cathedral.) Eleven years after Policraticus was published, John of Salisbury was present in Canterbury Cathedral when Becket was murdered

The murder of Becket horrified public opinion, and Henry accurately saw that his throne was in grave danger. He did penance, allowing himself to be scourged by some monks. He worked out a compromise with the Church in which he revoked the Constitutions of Clarendon, was allowed to claim that he never wanted Becket killed, but did take responsibility for indirectly inciting Becket's death by proclaiming the Constitutions in the first place.

Before Becket's death, Policraticus was already the bestseller of the century. Even so, the author's personal witness to the most infamous tyrannical crime of the twelfth century doubtless caused even more interest in what John of Salisbury had to say about resistance to tyranny.

Policraticus broke away from the old Two Swords debate, in which monarchs and the church argued with each other about who had supreme power--that is, whether the temporal sword was supreme over the church's sword, or vice versa. The Two Swords metaphor came from Jesus's Last Supper instructions to the disciples, telling them to start carrying swords. They responded, "Lord, lo, here are two swords." (Luke 22). Policraticus, though, turned the discussion to the rights and duties of government, and to people's remedies when the government exceeded its rights and failed to perform its duties.

The book was a direct shot at contemporary monarchs who oppressed the Catholic Church: Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (the teutonicus tyrannus), Roger II (the harsh Norman king of Sicily), Stephen of Blois (who ruled England, more or less, from1136 to 1154 after starting a civil war to usurp the throne from his cousin Matilda, and who plundered the church and threw bishops in prison), Eustace (Stephen's son, who was killed while pillaging the abbey of abbey of Bury St. Edmunds), and Henry II (Matilda's son).

"All tyrants reach a miserable end," John announced. To prove this, he pointed to contemporary examples, such as Eustace, Geoffrey de Mandeville (the plundering Earl of Essex, who was killed in 1144), and Ranulf of Chester (another participant in the Stephen/Matilda war, killed in 1153).

And then there plenty of stories from the past : the anti-Christian Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate was said to have been stabbed to death with a lance by the martyr Mercurius "on the command of the Blessed Virgin." The Danish tyrant Swain, who imposed the Danegeld (a tax) on the British was slain by "the most glorious martyr and king Edmund."  And "Where is Marmion [another contemporary Briton] who, pushed by the Blessed Virgin, fell into the pit which he had prepared for others? Where are the others whose mere names would consume a book? Their wickedness is notorious, their infamy is renowned, their ends are unhappy…"

John of Salisbury lauded the military arts, and described Christian knighthood as an especially holy vocation.

Citing Bible examples, he explained that "one may frequently kill and still not be a man of blood nor incur the accusation of murder or crime." Citing King David and the prophet Samuel, he wrote, "This is indeed the sword of the dove, which quarrels without bitterness, which slaughters without wrathfulness and which, when fighting, entertains no resentment whatsoever." This is similar to what St. Augustine had written in the fifth century about the proper attitude for just war; in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas would elaborate along similar lines.

Hunting, theatre, gambling, and music were all approved as forms of recreation, provided that they were pursued in moderation.

John explained that a good Christian should not be expected to obey the law or a superior's order in all circumstances, for "Some things are…so detestable that no command will possibly justify them or render them permissible." For example, a military commander might order soldiers to deny the existence of God or to commit adultery.

Similarly, if a prince "resists and opposes the divine commandments, and wishes to make me share in his war against God, then with unrestrained voice I must answer back that God must be preferred before any man on earth."

John argued that intermediate magistrates--such as local governors--had a duty to lead forcible resistance if necessary, against serious abuses by the highest magistrate--such as the king. Interestingly, the theory of "inferior magistrates" not being bound, under all circumstances, to obey the supreme magistrate was also developing in canon law, as many bishops argued that they were not in all circumstances required to obey the Pope.

Policraticus drew heavily on Bible stories, and on examples from ancient Rome. John announced "That by the authority of the divine book it is lawful and glorious to kill public tyrants…"

John of Salisbury was the first Western writer to provide a detailed theory of tyrannicide. He went even further, and made tyrannicide a positive duty:

"[I]t 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.

"But 'receives' is to be understood to pertain to he who has rashly usurped that which is not his, now he who receives what he uses from the power of God. He who receives power from God serves the laws and is the slave of justice and right. He who usurps power suppresses justice and places the laws beneath his will. Therefore, justice is deservedly armed against those who disarm the law, and the public power treats harshly those who endeavour to put aside the public hand. And, although there are many forms of high treason, none is of them is so serious as that which is executed against the body of justice itself. Tyranny is, therefore, not only a public crime, but if this can happen, it is more than public. For if all prosecutors may be allowed in the case of high treason, how much more are they allowed when there is oppression of laws which should themselves command emperors? Surely no one will avenge a public enemy, and whoever does not prosecute him transgresses against himself and against the whole body of the earthly republic."

In short, "As the image of the deity, the prince is to be loved, venerated, and respected; the  tyrant, as the image of depravity, is for the most part even to be killed." Thus, tyrannicide was "honourable" when tyrants "could not be otherwise restrained."

There were two important limits: First, poison could not be used.  Second, a person could not rebel against a person to whom he legally owed fealty. 

The political theory of the Dark Ages had insisted that obedience to God required obedience to any ruler, no matter how awful. John of Salisbury turned this theory on its head: "it is just for public tyrants to be killed and the people to be liberated for obedience to God."

At great length, Policraticus denounced tyranny and justified tyrannicide. A few passages did counsel patient reliance on deliverance by God, warned against taking drastic actions based on small or isolated offenses, and urged prayer as the method of ending tyrannical oppression. These cautionary lines, however, did not undermine the revolutionary impact of the book.

Going beyond political tyranny, John of Salisbury explained that tyranny could occur in many forms; "many private men are tyrants." "[E]everyone is tyrant who abuses any power over those subject to him which has been conceded from above." A father, a land-owner, or a merchant could be a private tyrant, to those over whom they abused their power.

An ecclesiastical tyrant was a priest, bishop, or other church official who abused his power, harming rather than protecting the people in his spiritual care.

One of the problems of the tyranny of petty officials was that it was illegal to resist their depredations, even though, according to Justinian's code of Roman law, "it is otherwise lawful to repel force with force without blame if one has safeguarded moderation." However, tyrannicide was appropriate for only actual rulers of governments, not for private tyrants.

Over the next half-millennium, the right of revolution would be defended by Scholastics such as Thomas Aquinas and Francisco Suárez. Lutherans and Calvinists would initially adopt a limited form of the theory. Then the Calvinists, acknowledging that they were building on the Catholic intellectual heritage, would advance the full right of revolution. The "black regiment" of New England preachers would bring the right to its greatest fruition, exhorting their congregations to their sacred duty to overthrow King George and establish a free republic.

John of Salisbury never knew that there was a Western Hemisphere. But he did know that God wants man to be active and free, not passive and enslaved. All of us who enjoy civil liberty in the New World owe a debt of gratitude to the intellectual revolution set off by John of Salisbury.

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