God, Man, and Tyrants

John of Salisbury and the Bestselling Book of the Twelfth Century
By Dave Kopel

[Liberty magazine, May 2004, pp. 37-38, 52.]

Who said “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God”? Pat yourself on the back if you answered “Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.” They proposed placing the motto on the Great Seal of the United States. Pat yourself even harder if you knew that the phrase was created by John Bradshaw (1602–1659), the lawyer who served as President of the Parliamentary Commission which sentenced British King Charles I to death. But who thought up the idea?

The idea is implicit in much of the Old Testament, which is full of righteous Hebrews overthrowing tyrants. And certainly the history of Republican Rome and classical Greece has many similar stories. But in the first millennium of Western Christianity, Christians fell under the sway of the law of the Roman Empire, which emphasized absolute obedience to government, and claimed that the government was above the law. Cicero, who lived in the last days of the Republic, was the last great writer to articulate the right of revolution.

The man who restored the right to Western political thought was an English bishop named John of Salisbury. In 1159, he wrote Policraticus (“Statesman’s Book”), which became the best-seller of the century. Although Policraticus is mostly forgotten today, it is one of the few books which truly changed the world.

For the rest of this article and the text of Policraticus go to http://www.constitution.org/salisbury/policrat.htm . Some formatting is still needed on the book, and how soon that will get done depends on funding, so if you would like to see the work completed follow the instructions below to send a donation.


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