Culture

'John of Salisbury': The Statesman’s Book and Its Contemporary Relevance

The beginning of the preface to Denis Foulechat’s French translation of John of Salisbury’s „Policraticus“ in the manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France (Public domain)

There are many theories purporting to explain the “march of history,” as, for example, the hoary notion of “scientific socialism” with its dialectical certainties, the “great man” hypothesis that focuses on towering figures like Napoleon or Winston Churchill who determine the course of events, or the “from below” perspective treating of the lives and social movements of the lowly, marginal, oppressed or otherwise unacknowledged peoples, most famously espoused in Howard Zinn’s politically skewed and tendentious A People’s History of the United States.

One theory that receives little exposure we may call the idea of the “virtuous leader” as the indispensable factor that allows for the establishment of a decent, well-governed, and “happy” state. The concept of the “virtuous leader” is a classical trope, going back to Epictetus (Enchiridion), Plato (Republic), Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics), and Cicero (On Obligations). The idea enjoys little traffic because there are so few such leaders and because virtue itself is a problematic concept. Indeed, whatever “virtue” might entail, we are all, as poet W.H. Auden wrote, “articled to error.” No human person, lay or elect, can be said to be unblemished, devoid of foibles, frailties, and defects of character, but so unfortunate a fact does not invalidate the approach to an elusive standard of virtue and exemplary leadership.

The subject was taken up by John of Salisbury, a 12th-century theologian, philosopher, and moralist who eventually became Bishop of Chartres and who is scarcely known today, but was an important figure in the late medieval Renaissance. An influential commenter on the affairs of the court of Louis VII, King of France (their dates are coterminous), with particular regard to Louis’ wife, the celebrated Eleanor of Aquitaine, he understood courts and royal goings-on and was intimately acquainted with the consequences of troubled statesmanship. The Policraticus, translated as The Stateman’s Book, is his most notable volume. As he writes, “This book concentrates in part on the frivolities of the courtiers…and busies itself with the footprints of philosophers”—a spectrum covering the terrain between foolishness and wisdom, the “yoke of vice” and the “rule of virtue.”

The themes he addresses are perennially relevant and particularly so in our current historical moment. He deals with the corruption of court politics, the great good of free speech, and the need for a “virtuous ruler” who institutes just laws ensuring the liberty of the people. His strictures apply to the common individual as well; a state of virtue, he argues, cannot be attained without the exercise of personal liberty that permits what we would call today a “psychological space” for reflection and conscience. “He who is most virtuous,” he writes, “is most free and the freest man enjoys the greatest virtue.” The absence of freedom, both political and spiritual, guarantees intellectual debasement and moral degeneracy. 

A just ruler is one who does not infringe on the private lives of his “subjects”—the concept of “citizen” had not developed in his time, but the implications are no less apposite today. The ruler must be “tolerant” of those he rules for “the necessity of tolerance gleams with a splendor all its own.” Tolerance of a person’s freedom to think for himself or herself, to arrive at rational conclusions, to believe in a higher power and serve a merciful God, to preserve an independent spirit—such tolerance is a signal aspect of sovereign virtue, a gift of lawful charity from the ruler to the ruled. 

At the same time, the desire to explore these exemptions from arbitrary domination—to think for oneself, to move freely in the public forum, to resist coercion, and to refrain from abetting such coercion, i.e., to take advantage of what freedom has to offer rather than renounce or abuse it—constitute a material expression of personal virtue. One thinks of Hannah Arendt’s remark from On Liberty, which applies to both ruler and subject, leader and citizen: “The raison d’être of politics is freedom, and its field of action is experience.”

The idea of the virtuous leader has been much on my mind of late as I survey the lamentable spectacle of our national leaders across the West, particularly in light of COVID legislation and the swarm of idiotic and destructive mandates they have unleashed. I recall the essential distinction in the Policraticus between the “prince” and the “tyrant.” The tyrant enslaves his people because he is himself enslaved to his ruling vice: unbridled ambition, the pursuit of limitless power, the levying of “mandates.” His authority is thus illegitimate. The prince who governs properly understands that “authority cannot be recognized in violation of justice and the law”—whether the law of God, the law of Nature, or the law of the “purified conscience” and “instructed will”—for this is what John of Salisbury means by virtue as a prerequisite for enlightened leadership.

As always, there is a dearth of virtuous leaders, and the current crop is no exception; the vast majority are especially vain, shallow, hypocritical and dramatically unintelligent, as well as given to strongly leftist, dictatorial tendencies. There is little doubt what John would think of Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron, Scott Morrison, Justin Trudeau, Jacinda Ardern, Boris Johnson and counting, not one of whom is remotely capable of reading John of Salisbury, not one is even superficially familiar with the history of the Judeo-Christian West, not one, it seems, who has ever inspected his or her conscience, and not one who comprehends that government authority cannot cancel or override or willfully re-interpret long-standing provisions respecting rights and freedoms specified by a Constitution or a Charter. John would have made short work of them.

This is not to say that there is not a modicum of approximately virtuous leaders, as John might have realistically understood them. Their record may be checkered but they are not tyrants “who oppress a people by forceful domination.” True, Viktor Orban did impose the draconian COVID apparatus, but abolished Gender Studies in the universities, incentivized the family and population growth, and revived both the Hungarian spirit and economy. Stefan Löfven of Sweden, who is stepping down in November, has helped to exacerbate the country’s Islamic problem and aggressively promotes the wind farm boondoggle, yet wisely kept Sweden open during the pandemic. Trump refused a salary and worked tirelessly to Make America Great Again, but promoted Operation Warp Speed that deluged the country with problematic vaccines, opening the door to Big Pharma profiteering. I would consider these three, in the intermittent light of relative accomplishment, and making allowance for their evident flaws and misconceptions, as somewhat “virtuous” leaders. There are very few national leaders who compare.

Clearly, John of Salisbury’s conception of the “virtuous ruler” is a noble fiction, if not a political hallucination. Judging by overall results, however, we can say that there were—and are—good leaders, effective leaders, reasonably competent leaders, inspiring leaders, though few and far between. But the virtuous leader who aspires to moral perfection and profound insightfulness remains a shimmering mirage. 

Was King David, beloved of God, defender of his nation, and ancestor of Christ, who lusted after Bathsheba and dispatched her husband to die in battle—was he a virtuous leader? In John’s own epoch, were the ridiculous Louis VII and the treacherous Henry II caring shepherds of their flocks? Or the extraordinary Eleanor of Aquitaine, said to be the most beautiful and intelligent woman of her time—“this unusual woman in an age of virginal saints,” as Thomas Cahill depicted her in Mysteries of the Middle Ages—married to Louis and then to Henry, and a sponsor of the failed and bloody Second Crusade, was she a virtuous leader? Has there ever been a King, Queen, president or ruler in all of human history fully approximating to the title?  Nonetheless, the idea of the relation between justice, law, liberty and virtue summed up in the figure of the virtuous leader, as John of Salisbury described it, abides as a criterion of purpose, an ideal to be aimed at though never consummated.

As he wrote in a letter to an acquaintance, John knew that his book “would not likely find even one friend at court,” and The Statesman’s Book would surely find no readers and advocates in our current legislatures and parliaments. But it is far superior to all the manuals of diplomacy and remains a fresh reminder of the quest for decency and responsibility in the dispiriting turmoil of political maneuvering, an expression of the reign of the prince rather than the rule of the tyrant.