John of Salisbury was born in at Old Sarum in about 1110. Little is know about his family circumstances, but the evidence available suggests that he came from a poor family. In 1136 he went to Paris where he studied under Peter Abelard, Gilbert de la Porrée and Adam of Balsham. (1) He described Abelard as "a clear and wonderful teacher" whose every word he drank "with consuming avidity". During this period he read widely. "I shall never regret the time thus spent". (2)
Abelard, who had been forcibly castrated because of his sexual relationship with Héloïse d'Argenteuil, was a teacher in the Paris Cathedral School. A student of Greek philosophy he was condemned by the Church authorities for a book on the Holy Trinity. "He considered that the Three Persons are three distinct substances, and that only usage stands in the way of our saying that there are Three Gods." On 16th July 1141, Pope Innocent II decided to take action and issued a bull excommunicating Abelard and his followers and imposing perpetual silence on him, (3)
In 1147 John of Salisbury became secretary and advisor to Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He spent much of this time traveling to and from the papal court, and was apparently working for Pope Eugene III by March 1148. Salisbury wrote many letters during this period and in 1159 he commented: "We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours." (4)
Peter Coffey has pointed out: "John of Salisbury was one of the most cultured scholars of his day. Notwithstanding the engrossing cares of his diplomatic career, his great learning and indefatigable industry enabled him to carry on an extensive and lifelong correspondence on literary, educational, and ecclesiastical topics with the leading scholars of Europe. His collected letters (over 300 in number), no less than his other works, form an invaluable source of the history of thought and activity in the twelfth century. His fine taste and superior training made him the most elegant Latin writer of his time. He is equally distinguished as an historian and as a philosopher: he was the first medieval writer to emphasize the importance of historical studies in philosophy and in all other branches of learning." (5)
According to his biographer, David Luscombe, "although John complained on more than one occasion that his duties were inimical to study and that his only free time was that required for eating and sleeping, he managed in at least some of these years to write a great deal." By 1159 John completed Policraticus (The Statesman). According to David Luscombe: "The Policraticus seems to be at once a work of political theory, a manual of government, a mirror of princes, a moralizing critique of life at court; and also an encyclopaedia of letters and learning, a storehouse of exempla and historiae, and a didactic philosophical and ethical treatise. It recommends to lax, epicurean courtiers a wide programme of education in letters, philosophy, and law." (6)
In the book John of Salisbury speculates on the nature of political power: "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." (7) He went on to argue: "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." (8)
Metalogicon (Defence of the Verbal & Logical Arts) was written to defend the study of all the seven liberal arts. John of Salisbury offers general exhortation to his readers to "reverence the words of the great authors… these words possess a certain majesty or prestige from the great names of antiquity with whom they are associated… they are very effective when used for proof or refutation" (9) He also expressed praise for William of Conches who had developed an interest in Islamic philosophy, physical science, cosmology and psychology. (10)
John discussed the early philosophers and praised the early work of Aristotle and Plato and seemed to favour the moderate skepticism of Cicero, which rejected dogmatic claims to certainty. (11) He was however, critical of Epicurus: "There thus developed two branches of philosophy, natural and moral, which are also called ethics and physics. But, through lack of scientific skill in argumentative reasoning, many absurdities were concluded. Thus Epicurus would have the world originate from atoms and a void, and would dispense with God as its author; whereas the Stoics asserted that matter is coeternal with God, and held that all sins are equally grave. (12)
However, John of Salisbury pointed out that although he admired the work of the early Greek and Roman philosophers he "has not hesitated on occasions to prefer the opinions of the moderns to those of the ancients, and that he hopes that posterity will come to celebrate their glory, for many of his contemporaries have admirable qualities of mind and expression." (13)
When Theobald of Bec died in 1162, Henry chose Thomas Becket as his next Archbishop of Canterbury. The decision angered many leading churchmen. They pointed out that Becket had never been a priest, and had a reputation as a cruel military commander when he fought against the French king Louis VII. It was claimed that "who can count the number of persons he (Becket) did to death, the number whom he deprived of all their possessions... he destroyed cities and towns, put manors to the torch without thought of pity." (14)
Becket was also very materialistic (he loved expensive food, wine and clothes). His critics also feared that as Becket was a close friend of Henry II, he would not be an independent leader of the church. At first Becket refused the post: "I know your plans for the Church, you will assert claims which I, if I were archbishop, must needs oppose." Henry insisted and he was ordained priest on 2nd June, 1162, and consecrated bishop the next day. (15)
Salisbury briefly worked as Becket's secretary but because of his writings concerning the rule of kings, Henry II forced him into exile. Sailsbury travelled to Montpellier in July 1162 to collect Becket's pallium and wrote a life of Anselm of Canterbury in support of the case for his canonization which may have been hoped for at the Council of Tours in May 1163. (16)
Herbert of Bosham claims that after being appointed as archbishop, Thomas Becket began to show a concern for the poor. Every morning thirteen poor people were brought to his home. After washing their feet Becket served them a meal. He also gave each one of them four silver pennies. John of Salisbury believed that Becket sent food and clothing to the homes of the sick, and that he doubled Theobald's expenditure on the poor. (17)
Instead of wearing expensive clothes, Becket now wore a simple monastic habit. As a penance (punishment for previous sins) he slept on a cold stone floor, wore a tight-fitting hairshirt that was infested with fleas and was scourged (whipped) daily by his monks. As a contemporary wrote: "Clad in a hair-shirt of the roughest kind which reached to his knees and swarmed with vermin, he punished his flesh with the sparest diet, and his main drink was water... He often exposed his naked back to the lash." (18)
John Gillingham has argued that Becket had responded to the criticism his appointment had received: "In the eyes of respectable churchmen Becket... he did not deserve to be archbishop. He was too wordly and too much the King's friend. Wounded in his self-esteem Becket set out to prove, to an astonished world, that he was the best of all possible archbishops. Right from the start he went out of his way to oppose the King who, chiefly out of friendship, had made him an archbishop." (19)
In January, 1163, after a long spell in France, Henry II arrived back in England. Henry was told that, while he had been away, there had been a dramatic increase in serious crime. The king's officials claimed that over a hundred murderers had escaped their proper punishment because they had claimed their right to be tried in church courts. Those that had sought the privilege of a trial in a Church court were not exclusively clergymen. Any man who had been trained by the church could choose to be tried by a church court. Even clerks who had been taught to read and write by the Church but had not gone on to become priests had a right to a Church court trial. This was to an offender's advantage, as church courts could not impose punishments that involved violence such as execution or mutilation. There were several examples of clergy found guilty of murder or robbery who only received "spiritual" punishments, such as suspension from office or banishment from the altar. (20)
The king decided that clergymen found guilty of serious crimes should be handed over to his courts. At first, the Archbishop agreed with Henry on this issue and in January 1164, Henry published the Clarendon Constitution. After talking to other church leaders Becket changed his mind. Henry was furious when Becket began to assert that the church should retain control of punishing its own clergy. The king believed that Becket had betrayed him and was determined to obtain revenge. (21)
In 1164, the Archbishop of Canterbury was involved in a dispute over land. Henry ordered Becket to appear before his courts. When Becket refused, the king confiscated his property. Henry also claimed that Becket had stolen £300 from government funds when he had been Chancellor. Becket denied the charge but, so that the matter could be settled quickly, he offered to repay the money. Henry refused to accept Becket's offer and insisted that the Archbishop should stand trial. When Henry mentioned other charges, including treason, Becket decided to run away to France. (22)
Becket joined John of Salisbury in Rheims: The two men were very close friends: "John of Salisbury, a small and delicate man, warm, lively and playful, a joker with an eye to the ridiculous, the confident member of a learned elite, so sure of his scholarship that he could quote, to amuse his circle, classical authors and other embroideries of his own invention, was everything that Thomas Becket was not." (23)
However, the quarrel between Becket and the king put a strain upon their friendship: John would not abandon his cause but he disagreed with the way Becket was dealing with the situation. Becket now moved to Pontigny Abbey. According to Edward Grim, at least three times a day, his chaplain, was compelled by Becket, to "scourge him on the bare back until the blood flowed". Grim added that with these punishments he "killed all carnal desires". (24)
Under the protection of Henry's old enemy. King Louis VII, Becket organised a propaganda campaign against the monarchy. As Becket was supported by Pope Alexander III, Henry feared that he would be excommunicated (expelled from the Christian Church). Alexander sent a letter to Henry urging him to make peace with Becket and suggesting that he restored him as Archbishop of Canterbury. (25)
John of Salisbury was also involved in negotiations with Henry II and Louis VII. The three men met at Angers in April 1166. In a letter to Becket he complained that he wasted money and lost two horses on the journey and that it obtained nothing of value. (26) Talks continued and on 7th January 1169, Becket and Henry met at Montmirail but they failed to reach an agreement. Alexander, finally ran out of patience and ordered Becket to agree a deal with Henry. (27) On 22nd July, 1170, Becket and Henry met at Fréteval and it was agreed that the archbishop should return to Canterbury and receive back all the possessions of his see. (28)
John Salisbury returned with Becket later that year. (29) On his arrival, Becket excommunicated (expelled from the Christian Church) Roger de Pont L'Évêque, the Archbishop of York, and other leading churchmen who had supported the king while he was away. Henry, who was in Normandy at the time, was furious when he heard the news and supposedly shouted out: "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" Four of Henry's knights, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, Reginald Fitz Urse, and Richard Ie Bret, who heard Henry's angry outburst decided to travel to England to see Becket. (30)
When the knights arrived at Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December 1170, they demanded that Becket pardon the men he had excommunicated. Edward Grim later reported: "The wicked knight (William de Tracy), fearing that the Archbishop would be rescued by the people in the nave... wounded this lamb who was sacrificed to God... cutting off the top of the head... Then he received a second blow on his head from Reginald Fitz Urse but he stood firm. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows... Then the third knight (Richard Ie Bret) inflicted a terrible wound as he lay, by which the sword was broken against the pavement... the blood white with the brain and the brain red with blood, dyed the surface of the church. The fourth knight (Hugh de Morville) prevented any from interfering so the others might freely murder the Archbishop." (31)
John of Salisbury, who had taken refuge behind the altar, during the murder, wrote a short biography of Thomas Becket in about 1173. (32) In 1176 he was appointed as Bishop of Chartres. A post he held until his death on 25th October 1180. (33)
We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.
These Peripatetics accordingly made careful investigations into the nature of all things, so as to determine which I should be avoided as evil, discounted as useless, sought after as good, or preferred as better, and finally which are called "good" or "bad" according to circumstances. There thus developed two branches of philosophy, natural and moral, which are also called ethics and physics. But, through lack of scientific skill in argumentative reasoning, many absurdities were concluded. Thus Epicurus would have the world originate from atoms and a void, and would dispense with God as its author; whereas the Stoics asserted that matter is coeternal with God, and held that all sins are equally grave.
To say that a thing "wholly pertains" to something else, or "does not pertain to it in any way," and that something "is predicated in a universal way" of something else, or "is completely alien to it" amount to the same thing. Nevertheless, while one form of expression is now in frequent use, the other has become practically obsolete, except so far as it may occasionally be admitted through mutual agreement. In Aristotle's day it was perhaps customary to use both of these forms of expression, but now one has replaced the other simply because usage has so decreed.
Faith is, indeed, most necessary in human affairs, as well as in religion Without faith, no contracts could be concluded, nor could any business be transacted. And without faith, where would be the basis for the divine reward of human merit? As it is, that faith which embraces the truths of religion deserves reward. Such faith is, according to the Apostle, "a substantiation of things to be hoped for, a testimonial to things that appear not." Faith is intermediate between opinion and science.
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.
Accurate reading on a wide range of subjects makes the scholar; careful selection of the better makes the saint.
A man is free in proportion to the measure of his virtues, and the extent to which he is free determines what his virtues can accomplish.
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.
An illiterate king is a crowned ass.
John's early schooling, probably in Old Sarum, was provided by a priest who taught him the psalms and also sought unsuccessfully to involve him in sorcery and in crystal-gazing. In 1136 John went to Paris and, in his Metalogicon, he provides valuable sketches of the masters who taught him.
Although John complained on more than one occasion that his duties were inimical to study and that his only free time was that required for eating and sleeping, he managed in at least some of these years to write a great deal.... He presents a radiant picture of Thomas Becket, but he delivers warnings concerning Becket's ambiguous place on the royal scene. By 1159 John also completed the Metalogicon and the Policraticus; both works are dedicated to Becket.
John of Salisbury was born between 1115 and 1120 at Old Sarum near present day Salisbury, England. Little is know about his family circumstances, but they appear not to have been well off, as John bemoaned his relative poverty throughout his life. In 1136, John went to Paris where he studied under, or befriended, many of the greatest minds of his day: Peter Abelard, Gilbert of Poitiers, Adam du Petit Pont, William of Conches, Thierry of Chartres, and others. In 1147, for reasons that are still unclear, John left the schools of Paris. He was probably out of money and needed to find work, but it is also possible that he was fed up with the Parisian schools, or with the persecution endured there by his most influential teachers, Abelard and Gilbert....
Unfortunately for John, he was unable to translate his personal charisma into a successful career as a diplomat and politician. He lacked the most important quality of the truly successful courtier: the ability always to end up on the right side of a dispute. He seems to have been a man of principle who refused compromise, and it is likely that many of the charges he made against others in the Policraticus were taken personally. Even so, he avoided confrontation. Above all, John sought to live the life of authenticity, moderation, and virtue we see defended in his philosophical writings.
John of Salisbury was one of the most cultured scholars of his day. Notwithstanding the engrossing cares of his diplomatic career, his great learning and indefatigable industry enabled him to carry on an extensive and lifelong correspondence on literary, educational, and ecclesiastical topics with the leading scholars of Europe. His collected letters (over 300 in number), no less than his other works, form an invaluable source of the history of thought and activity in the twelfth century. His fine taste and superior training made him the most elegant Latin writer of his time. He is equally distinguished as an historian and as a philosopher: he was the first medieval writer to emphasize the importance of historical studies in philosophy and in all other branches of learning. Naturally of an eclectic turn, he displayed in philosophy a remarkably sound and judicious critical spirit. Familiar with all the phases of contemporary scholastic controversies, he was himself among the first to formulate clearly the solution known as "moderate realism" in answer to the fundamental philosophical problem of the value and significance of universal ideas.