Archive Civic Polity Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Simon Kennedy

John of Salisbury on ‘The Prince’

John of Salisbury (c. 1120–1180), Bishop of Chartres and Christian humanist, writes in his Policraticus about the difference between a prince and a tyrant. His description of ‘the prince’ is as follows. Note well John’s emphasis of the divine origin of the prince’s authority, but with that the responsibility that rests on his shoulders:

Therefore, according to the general definition, the prince is the public power and a certain image on earth of the divine majesty. Beyond doubt the greatest part of the divine virtue is revealed to belong to the prince, in so far as at his nod men bow their heads and generally offer their necks to the axe in sacrifice, and by divine impulse everyone fears him who is fear itself. I do not believe that this could have happened unless it happened at the divine command. For all power is from the Lord God, and is with him always, and is His forever. Whatever the prince can do, therefore, is from God, so that power does not depart from God, but it is used as a substitute for His hand, making all things learn His justice and mercy. ‘Whoever therefore resists power, resists what is ordained by God’, in whose power is the conferral of authority and at whose will it may be removed from them or limited.1

John then quotes Justinian:

‘Because the authority of the prince is determined by the authority of right, and truly submission to the laws of princes is greater than the imperial title’, so it is the case that the prince ought to imagine himself permitted to do nothing with is inconsistent with the equity of justice.

  1. Policraticus, Cambridge University Press, trans. Cary J. Nederman, pp.28–29

By Simon Kennedy

Simon is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland. He resides in Geelong, Victoria with his wife and four children.