Published Humanitas Volume XXIX, Nos. 1 and 2, 2016
The University of Chicago
John of Salisbury’s eclectic compendium of moral philosophy, personal reflection, court satire, and exegesis, the Policraticus, is a staple text in the history of European political thought. Completed in 1159, it is the first treatise of political theory since antiquity and a work praised for its balance, reasonableness, classicism, and moderation. John, after all, defends liberty and a commonwealth based on the rule of law, even justifying the assassination of a lawless ruler. And John’s style is crisp and playful, with none of the turgidity so often associated with scholastic theologians.
Contemporary scholars have repeatedly exalted John as a learned humanist. For instance, Cary Nederman, John’s foremost biographer, calls him “the quintessential figure of twelfth-century humanism,” whose professed loyalties to “the moderate skepticism of the New Academy” “restrained him from any form of fanaticism.” Likewise, Christopher Brooke, one of John’s editors, notes that those who read John find it…