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John of Salisbury:
Policraticus, Book Four (selections)

Between a tyrant and a prince there is this single or chief difference, that the latter obeys the law and rules the people by its dictates, accounting himself as but their servant. It is by virtue of the law that he makes good his claim to the foremost and chief place in the management of the affairs of the commonwealth and in the bearing of its burdens; and his elevation over others consists in this, that whereas private men are held responsible only for their private affairs, on the prince fall the burdens of the whole community. Wherefore deservedly there is conferred on him, and gathered together in his hands, the power of all his subjects, to the end that he may be sufficient unto himself in seeking and bringing about the advantage of each individually, and of all; and to the end that the state of the human commonwealth may be ordered in the best possible manner, seeing that each and all are members one of another. Wherein we indeed but follow nature, the best guide of life; for nature has gathered together all the senses of her microcosm or little world, which is man, into the head, and has subjected all the members in obedience to it in such wise that they will all function properly so long as they follow the guidance of the head, and the head remains sane. Therefore the prince stands on a pinnacle which is exalted and made splendid with all the great and high privileges which he deems necessary for himself. And rightly so, because nothing is more advantageous to the people than that the needs of the prince should be fully satisfied; since it is impossible that his will should be found opposed to justice. Therefore, according to the usual definition, the prince is the public power, and a kind of likeness on earth of the divine majesty. Beyond doubt a large share of the divine power is shown to be in princes by the fact that at their nod men bow their necks and for the most part offer up their heads to the axe to be struck off, and, as by a divine impulse, the prince is feared by each of those over whom he is set as an object of fear. And this I do not think could be, except as a result of the will of God. For all power is from the Lord God, and has been with Him always, and is from everlasting. The power which the prince has is therefore from God, for the power of God is never lost, nor severed from Him, but He merely exercises it through a subordinate hand, making all things teach His mercy or justice. "Who, therefore, resists the ruling power, resists the ordinance of God," [Romans 13:2] in whose hand is the authority of conferring that power, and when He so desires, of withdrawing it again, or diminishing it. For it is not the ruler's own act when his will is turned to cruelty against his subjects, but it is rather the dispensation of God for His good pleasure to punish or chasten them. Thus during the Hunnish persecution, Attila, on being asked by the reverend bishop of a certain city who he was, replied, "I am Attila, the scourge of God." Whereupon it is written that the bishop adored him as representing the divine majesty. "Welcome," he said, "is the minister of God," and "Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord," and with sighs and groans he unfastened the barred doors of the church, and admitted the persecutor through whom he attained straightway to the palm of martyrdom. For he dared not shut out the scourge of God, knowing that His beloved Son was scourged, and that the power of this scourge which had come upon himself was as nought except it came from God. If good men thus regard power as worthy of veneration even when it comes as a plague upon the elect, who should not venerate that power which is instituted by God for the punishment of evil-doers and for the reward of good men, and which is promptest in devotion and obedience to the laws? To quote the words of the Emperor, "it is indeed a saying worthy of the majesty of royalty that the prince acknowledges himself bound by the Laws." [Justinian, Codex I.14.4] For the authority of the prince depends upon the authority of justice and law; and truly it is a greater thing than imperial power for the prince to place his government under the laws, so as to deem himself entitled to do nought which is at variance with the equity of justice.

Princes should not deem that it detracts from their princely dignity to believe that the enactments of their own justice are not to be preferred to the justice of God, whose justice is an everlasting justice, and His law is equity. Now equity, as the learned jurists define it, is a certain fitness of things which compares all things rationally, and seeks to apply like rules of right and wrong to like cases, being impartially disposed toward all persons, and allotting to each that which belongs to him. Of this equity the interpreter is the law, to which the will and intention of equity and justice are known. Therefore Crisippus asserted that the power of the law extends over all things, both divine and human, and that it accordingly presides over all goods and ills, and is the ruler and guide of material things as well as of human beings. To which Papinian, a man most learned in the law, and Demosthenes, the great orator, seem to assent, subjecting all men to its obedience because all law is, as it were, a discovery, and a gift from God, a precept of wise men, the corrector of excesses of the will, the bond which knits together the fabric of the state, and the banisher of crime; [Digest I.3.1-2] and it is therefore fitting that all men should live according to it who lead their lives in a corporate political body. All are accordingly bound by the necessity of keeping the law, unless perchance there is any who can be thought to have been given the license of wrong-doing. However, it is said that the prince is absolved from the obligations of the law; but this is not true in the sense that it is lawful for him to do unjust acts, but only in the sense that his character should be such as to cause him to practice equity not through fear of the penalties of the law but through love of justice; and should also be such as to cause him from the same motive to promote the advantage of the commonwealth, and in all things to prefer the good of others before his own private will. Who, indeed, in respect of public matters can properly speak of the will of the prince at all, since therein he may not lawfully have any will of his own apart from that which the law or equity enjoins, or the calculation of the common interest requires? For in these matters his will is to have the force of a judgment; and most properly that which pleases him therein has the force of law, because his decision may not be at variance with the intention of equity. "From thy countenance," says the Lord, "let my judgment go forth, let shine eyes look upon equity"; [Psalm 17:2] for the uncorrupted judge is one whose decision, from assiduous contemplation of equity, is the very likeness thereof. The prince accordingly is the minister of the common interest and the bond-servant of equity, and he bears the public person in the sense that he punishes the wrongs and injuries of all, and all crimes, with even-handed equity. His rod and staff also, administered with wise moderation, restore irregularities and false departures to the straight path of equity, so that deservedly may the Spirit congratulate the power of the prince with the words, "Thy rod and thy staff, they have comforted me." [Psalm 23:4] His shield, too, is strong, but it is a shield for the protection of the weak, and one which wards off powerfully the darts of the wicked from the innocent. Those who derive the greatest advantage from his performance of the duties of his office are those who can do least for themselves, and his power is chiefly exercised against those who desire to do harm. Therefore not without reason he bears a sword, wherewith he sheds blood blamelessly, without becoming thereby a man of blood, and frequently puts men to death without incurring the name or guilt of homicide. For if we believe the great Augustine, David was called a man of blood not because of his wars, but because of Uria. And Samuel is nowhere described as a man of blood or a homicide, although he slew Agag, the fat king of Amalech. Truly the sword of princely power is as the sword of a dove, which contends without gall, smites without wrath, and when it fights, yet conceives no bitterness at all. For as the law pursues guilt without any hatred of persons, so the prince most justly punishes offenders from no motive of wrath but at the behest, and in accordance with the decision, of the passionless law. For although we see that the prince has lictors of his own, we must yet think of him as in reality himself the sole or chief lictor, to whom is granted by the law the privilege of striking by a subordinate hand. If we adopt the Opinion of the Stoics, who diligently trace down the reason for particular words, "lictor" means "legis ictor," or "hammer of the law," because the duty of his office is to strike those who the law adjudges shall be struck. Wherefore anciently, when the sword hung over the head of the convicted criminal, the command was wont to be given to the officials by whose hand the judge punishes evil-doers, "Execute the sentence of the law," or "Obey the law," to the end that the misery of the victim might be mitigated by the calm reasonableness of the words.

This sword, then, the prince receives from the hand of the Church, although she herself has no sword of blood at all. Nevertheless she has this sword, but she uses it by the hand of the prince, upon whom she confers the power of bodily coercion, retaining to herself authority over spiritual things in the person of the pontiffs. The prince is, then, as it were, a minister of the priestly power, and one who exercises that side of the sacred offices which seems unworthy of the hands of the priesthood. For every office existing under, and concerned with the execution of, the sacred laws is really a religious office, but that is inferior which consists in punishing crimes, and which therefore seems to be typified in the person of the hangman. Wherefore Constantine, most faithful emperor of the Romans, when he had convoked the council of priests at Nicaea, neither dared to take the chief place for himself nor even to sit among the presbyters, but chose the hindmost seat. Moreover, the decrees which he heard approved by them he reverenced as if he had seen them emanate from the judgment-seat of the divine majesty. Even the rolls of petitions containing accusations against priests which they brought to him in a steady stream he took and placed in his bosom without opening them. And after recalling them to charity and harmony, he said that it was not permissible for him, as a man, and one who was subject to the judgment of priests, to examine cases touching gods, who cannot be judged save by God alone. And the petitions which he had received he put into the fire without even looking at them, fearing to give publicity to accusations and censures against the fathers, and thereby incur the curse of Cham, the undutiful son, who did not hide his father's shame. Wherefore he said, as is narrated in the writings of Nicholas the Roman pontiff, "Verily if with mine own eyes I had seen a priest of God, or any of those who wear the monastic garb, sinning, I would spread my cloak and hide him, that he might not be seen of any." Also Theodosius, the great emperor, for a merited fault, though not so grave a one, was suspended by the priest of Milan from the exercise of his regal powers and from the insignia of his imperial office, and patiently and solemnly he performed the penance for homicide which was laid upon him. Again, according to the testimony of the teacher of the gentiles, greater is he who blesses man than he who is blessed; [Hebrews 7:7] and so he in whose hands is the authority to confer a dignity excels in honor and the privileges of honor him upon whom the dignity itself is conferred. Further, by the reasoning of the law it is his right to refuse who has the power to grant, and he who can lawfully bestow can lawfully take away. [Digest I.17.3] Did not Samuel pass sentence of deposition against Saul by reason of his disobedience, and supersede him on the pinnacle of kingly rule with the lowly son of Ysai? [Jesse] But if one who has been appointed prince has performed duly and faithfully the ministry which he has undertaken, as great honor and reverence are to be shown to him as the head excels in honor all the members of the body. Now he performs his ministry faithfully when he is mindful of his true status, and remembers that he bears the person of the universitas of those subject to him; and when he is fully conscious that he owes his life not to himself and his own private ends, but to others, and allots it to them accordingly, with duly ordered charity and affection. Therefore he owes the whole of himself to God, most of himself to his country, much to his relatives and friends, very little to foreigners, but still somewhat. He has duties to the very wise and the very foolish, to little children and to the aged. Supervision over these classes of persons is common to all in authority, both those who have care over spiritual things and those who exercise temporal jurisdiction. Wherefore Melchisedech, the earliest whom the Scripture introduces as both king and priest (to say nought at present concerning the mystery wherein he prefigures Christ, who was born in heaven without a mother and on earth without a father); of him, I say, we read that he had neither father nor mother, not because he was in fact without either, but because in the eyes of reason the kingly power and the priestly power are not born of flesh and blood, Since in bestowing either, regard for ancestry ought not to prevail over merits and virtues, but only the wholesome wishes of faithful subjects should prevail; and when anyone has ascended to the supreme exercise of either power, he ought wholly to forget the affections of flesh and blood, and do only that which is demanded by the safety and welfare of his subjects. And so let him be both father and husband to his subjects, or, if he has known some affection more tender still, let him employ that; let him desire to be loved rather than feared, and show himself to them as such a man that they will out of devotion prefer his life to their own, and regard his preservation and safety as a kind of public life; and then all things will prosper well for him, and a small bodyguard will, in case of need, prevail by their loyalty against innumerable adversaries. For love is strong as death; and the wedge [a military formation] which is held together by strands of love is not easily broken.
When the Dorians were about to fight against the Athenians they consulted the oracles regarding the outcome of the battle. The reply was that they would be victorious if they did not kill the king of the Athenians. When they went to war their soldiers were therefore enjoined above all else to care for the safety of the king. At that time the king of the Athenians was Codrus, who, learning of the response of the god and the precautions of the enemy, laid aside his royal garb and entered the camp of the enemy bearing faggots on his back. Men tried to bar his way and a disturbance arose in the course of which he was killed by a soldier whom he had struck with his pruninghook. When the king's body was recognized, the Dorians returned home without fighting a battle. Thus the Athenians were delivered from the war by the valor of their leader, who offered himself up to death for the safety of his country. Likewise Ligurgus in his reign established decrees which confirmed the people in obedience to their princes, and the princes in just principles of government; he abolished the use of gold and silver, which are the material of all wickedness, he gave to the senate guardianship over the laws and to the people the power of recruiting the senate; he decreed that virgins should be given in marriage without a dowry to the end that men might make choice of wives and not of money; he desired the greatest honor to be bestowed upon old men in proportion to their age; and verily nowhere else on earth does old age enjoy a more honored station. Then, in order to give perpetuity to his laws, he bound the city by an oath to change nothing of his laws until he should return again. He thereupon set out for Crete and lived there in perpetual exile; and when he died, he ordered his bones to be thrown into the sea for fear that if they should be taken back to Lacedaemon, they might regard themselves as absolved from the obligation of their oath in the matter of changing the laws.
These examples I employ the more willingly because I find that the Apostle Paul also used them in preaching to the Athenians. That excellent preacher sought to win entrance for Jesus Christ and Him crucified into their minds by showing from the example of many gentiles that deliverance had come through the ignominy of a cross. And he argued that this was not wont to happen save by the blood of just men and of those who bear the magistracy of a people. Carrying forward this line of thought, there could be found none sufficient to deliver all nations, to wit both Jews and gentiles, save One to whom all nations were given for His inheritance, and all the earth foreordained to be His possession. But this, he asserted, could be none other than the Son of the all-powerful Father, since none except God holds sway over all nations and all lands. While he preached in this manner the ignominy of the cross to the end that the folly of the gentiles might gradually be removed, he little by little bore upward the word of faith and the tongue of his preaching till it rose to the word of God, and God's wisdom, and finally to the very throne of the divine majesty, and then, lest the virtue of the gospel, because it has revealed itself under the infirmity of the flesh, might be held cheap by the obstinacy of the Jews and the folly of the gentiles, he explained to them the works of the Crucified One, which were further confirmed by the testimony of fame; since it was agreed among all that they could be done by none save God. But since fame frequently speaks untruth on opposite sides, fame itself was confirmed by the fact that His disciples were doing marvellous works; for at the shadow of a disciple those who were sick of any infirmity were healed. Why should I continue? The subtlety of Aristotle, the refinements of Crisippus, the snares of all the philosophers He confuted by rising from the dead. How the Decii, Roman generals, devoted themselves to death for their armies, is a celebrated tale. Julius Caesar also said, "A general who does not labor to be dear to his soldiers' hearts does not know how to furnish them with weapons; does not know that a general's humaneness to his troops takes the place of a host against the enemy." He never said to his soldiers, "Go thither," but always "Follow me"; he said this because toil which is shared by the leader always seems to the soldier to be less hard. We have also his authority for the opinion that bodily pleasure is to be avoided; for he said that if in war men's bodies are wounded with swords, in peace they are no less wounded with pleasures. He had perceived, conqueror of nations as he was, that pleasure cannot in any way be so easily conquered as by avoiding it, since he himself who had subdued many nations had been snared in the toils of Venus by a shameless woman.

But why do I thus resort to begging instances from the history of the gentiles, although they are at hand in countless numbers, seeing that men can be moved to deeds more directly by laws than by examples? That you may not, then, be of opinion that the prince is wholly absolved from the laws, hear the law which is enjoined upon princes by the Great King who is terrible over all the earth and who takes away the breath of princes: [Deuteronomy 17:14ff] "When thou art come," He says, "into the land which the Lord thy God shall give to thee, and shalt possess it and shalt dwell therein and shalt say, 'I will set over me a king such as all the nations that are round about me have over them'; thou shalt appoint him king over thee whom the Lord thy God shall choose from the number of thy brethren. Thou mayst not set over thee for thy king a man of another nation, who is not thy brother. And when he is made thy king, he shall not multiply the number of his horses, nor lead back the people into Egypt, made proud by the number of his horsemen; for the Lord hath enjoined upon thee that no more shalt thou return by that way. He shall not have many wives to turn away his heart, nor a great weight of silver and gold. And it shall be when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom that he shall write him a copy of this law of the Deuteronomy in a book, taken from the copy which is in the hands of the priests of the tribe of Levi, and he shall keep it with him and read therein all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God and to keep His words and the rites of His worship which are prescribed in the law. And his heart shall not be lifted up in pride above his brethren, nor incline to the right hand nor to the left, to the end that his reign and his son's reign may be long over Israel." Need I ask whether one whom this law binds is restrained by no law? Surely this law is divine and cannot be broken with impunity. Every word thereof is a thunderclap in the ears of princes if they would be wise. I say nought concerning election, and the form thereof which is prescribed for the creation of a prince; rather attend with me for a little to the rule or formula of living which is enjoined upon him.
When there has been appointed, it is written, a man who professes himself a brother of the whole people in the practice of religion and in affection and charity, he shall not multiply unto himself horses, by the number whereof he may become a burden unto his subjects. For to multiply horses is to collect, from vainglory or some other error, more than need requires. Now "much" and "little," if we follow the prince of the Peripatetics, signify diminution or excess of the legitimate quantity of specific kinds of things. Will it then be lawful to multiply dogs, or rapacious birds, or fierce beasts, or any other monsters of nature, when even the number of horses, which are a military necessity - and serve all the useful purposes of life, is thus strictly limited in advance to a lawful quantity ? Concerning actors and mimes, buffoons and harlots, panders and other like human monsters, which the prince ought rather to exterminate entirely than to foster, there needed no mention to be made in the law; which indeed not only excludes all such abominations from the court of the prince, but totally banishes them from among the people of God. Under the name of horses is to be understood all things needful for the use of a household, and all its necessary equipment; of which a legitimate quantity is that which necessity or utility reasonably requires, understanding, however, that the useful is identified with the honorable, and that the refined comfort of living is limited to honorable things. For philosophers have long ago agreed that no opinion is more pernicious than the opinion of those who distinguish the useful from the honorable; and that the truest and most useful view is that the honorable and the useful are convertible terms. [Cicero, De Officiis iii.3.11] Plato, as is told in the histories of the gentiles, when he saw Dionisius the tyrant of Sicily surrounded by his bodyguards, asked him, "What harm have you done that you should need to have so many guards ?" This in no wise behooves a prince who by the faithful performance of his duties so wins for himself the affection of all that for his sake every subject will expose his own head to imminent dangers in the same manner that by the promptings of nature the members of the body are wont to expose themselves for the protection of the head. And skin for skin, and all that a man has, he will put forward for the protection of his life.

The next commandment is, "He shall not lead back the people into Egypt, made proud by the number of his horsemen." Truly every precaution must be taken, and great diligence used, by all who are set in high place not to corrupt their inferiors by their example, nor by their abuse of things, nor by following the way of pride and luxury to lead back the people into the darkness of confusion. For it often comes to pass that subjects imitate the vices of their superiors, because the people desire to be like their magistrates, and everyone will eagerly follow the appetites which he observes in another who occupies a distinguished station. There is a celebrated passage of the excellent versifier setting forth the opinion and words of the great Theodosius:

"If thou cost bid and decree that aught is to be commonly observed,
First obey thy decree thyself; then the people will be more observant of that which is just
And not refuse to bear it when they see the author thereof himself
Obey his own command. The world is shaped
To the model of its king, nor are edicts as effective
To influence the feelings of men as is the ruler's way of life.
The fickle people changes ever with its prince."
[Claud. IV. Consul. Hon. 296-302]

But the means of single individuals are of course never so great as the resources of the whole body. The individual draws from his own coffers, the ruling power drains the public chest or exhausts the treasury; and when this finally fails, then he has recourse to the means of private individuals. But private persons must be content with their own. And when this is exhausted, he who but now thirsted after the splendor of the rich and powerful, falls into poverty and disgrace, and blushes at the blackness of his confusion. Therefore by the decree of the Lacedemonians, a frugal use of the public funds was enjoined upon their rulers, although they were permitted to use according to the common laws their own inherited property and what they chanced to obtain by good fortune.


Source: The Statesman’s Book of John of Salisbury. Translated by John Dickinson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927.

Etext file created for a class by Scott Mcletchie [], and used by permission here.

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