When one hears about the development of the principles of liberty, the story generally begins with the ancient Greeks who invented philosophy and
democracy, and then moves on to the Romans with their finely balanced republic. After that we enter the Dark Ages, and with the exception of Magna Carta in the 13th century, nothing happens until the Renaissance of the 15th century. At this time the rediscovery of ancient texts acts as a catalyst for the development of humanism and eventually the enlightenment, and the Whig version of history—the gradual and inevitable march of liberty—rolls on into our present day.
While this narrative contains important kernels of truth, its simplicity is misleading. There were vast limitations on what liberty meant in the ancient world’s slave societies. However evocative were the Greek and Roman notions of freedom, they were never directed at women or those bound to perpetual servitude.
All ideas have to start somewhere, and we certainly shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater because the past fails to live up to modern standards. But we also need to understand there was nothing inevitable about ideas of universal liberty, and we should better appreciate the conditions under which they were developed and how they changed societies for the better. In particular, we should focus on one of the earliest expositions of universal liberty by 12th century English theologian, John of Salisbury, who deserves to be better remembered.
John would spend the height of his career as part of the entourage of the famous Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket (also known as Thomas à Becket, or Saint Thomas of Canterbury), the ‘turbulent priest’ later assassinated in his own cathedral by henchmen of King Henry II. This position was the culmination of John’s 12 years studying at the University of Paris, as well as an extended period ensconced in the papal curia. John was in Paris during the University’s early and provocative era, when Peter Abelard turned the medieval world on its head by pointing out how the revered writings of the church fathers often contradicted each other, arguing that one needed to use reason and logic to discern meaning behind God’s revelation. Centuries before the Renaissance, Abelard was using dialectic and the search for truth to challenge orthodoxy and arguments from authority, an approach which earnt him temporary excommunication from the Church.
John emerged in this context as perhaps the first political theorist of the medieval period. What he was doing was so innovative he didn’t even have a model for how to write. For all its wisdom, his points in his magnum opus the Policraticus refuse to flow together in the logical manner we are used to and so has to be deciphered by modern audiences. An idea will be mentioned, abandoned, and then picked up again but from a completely different perspective. He was clearly ploughing virgin intellectual territory and the stop/start nature of his treatise is understandable.
John certainly did not want to be viewed as an innovator. Historians have even alleged that he invented a work of Plutarch, which he frequently cited, so that he could drape his new ideas in the legitimacy of tradition.
John was the first to publish the phrase “dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants”, in acknowledgement of the debt he owed to his predecessors.
The 12th century saw a significant rediscovery of Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy and others, mostly spurred by positive cultural interaction in Spain, Sicily and Constantinople. Western Christians were learning from Muslims and Byzantines at the same time they were fighting the Crusades. Much later Isaac Newton would echo John’s transmission of the phrase, insisting of his scientific discoveries that “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
Perhaps because of his readings of ancient pagan texts, John began to focus on the subject of tyranny. John lived in an era of divine monarchy, when kings were thought to be God’s representatives on Earth and above the judgement of other men. This concept was supported by the Church, which would anoint the king with holy oils and justify his power based on Biblical examples. The Becket controversy shows the Church could act as a catalyst for legitimate opposition to absolutism, but this remained the exception rather than the rule. As John pointed out, however, the Bible is actually quite circumspect on kingship. The book of Samuel relates how the Israelites initially had no kings, and requesting one angered God. For every King David, the Old Testament also has a tyrant such as Rehoboam.
John earned the ire of the contemporary establishment when he declared “it is not only permitted, but equitable and just, to slay tyrants”. When others talked of tyranny they generally described it as little more than a manifestation of evil. John developed a theory of tyranny where the defining feature was an overwhelming desire to control others. Defined in this way, tyranny was not limited to kings. Anyone in a position to exercise power over others could become a tyrant, and John acknowledged this meant tyranny could and did exist within the Church hierarchy.
So why was control such a bad thing? This is where John used his Christian world view to create a universal concept of liberty.
The premise of Christianity is that life is a trial of morality. Every day we make choices for which, Christians believe, we ultimately will be judged at the end of our days. For this reason freedom is a necessity, for only someone who can exercise their free will can make the moral choices required to save their soul. As a religion emerging from the poverty of Palestine, this idea is not bound by class or gender. Every person has a soul and therefore John believed every person must be free. The goal was to obtain virtue which “does not arise in its perfection without liberty, and the loss of liberty demonstrates irrefutably that virtue is not present”.
Freedom in this sense did not mean the libertine ability to do whatever one wished, but the moral ability to choose the right path. One person acting in a completely uninhibited way could infringe on the freedom of others. Law was important, but its restraints had to be based on justice. As John put it:
The will of the ruler is determined by the law of God and does not injure liberty. By contrast, the will of the tyrant is a slave to desires and, opposing law which supports liberty, it ventures to impose the yoke of servitude upon fellow slaves.
This quote shows John trying to justify his call to slay tyrants within his medieval context. Regicide was still unthinkable, but John maintained that once a ruler began acting like a tyrant they ceased to be a legitimate monarch. Even with this approach, John placed significant caveats on tyrant-killing. He insisted that those who had sworn an oath of loyalty to a tyrant, a common scenario in a feudal world, could not break it because that in itself would be a sin. He was hardly Thomas Jefferson fertilising the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants, but he was directing people down this path.
John was one of the early humanists. Like most clergy of his era he thought the material world was fleeting, but unlike some others did not give up hope of improving it. John thought that while reason could never substitute for divine revelation, inquiry was still worthwhile.
To him the search for knowledge made one aware of how little we know, and therefore made one humble before God. He also thought that beyond its theological necessity, a free world would be a happier place:
If each person laboured upon his own improvement and counted the affairs of others as outside his concerns, the circumstances of each and every person would be absolutely optimal, and virtue would flourish and reason would prevail, mutual charity reigning everywhere, so that the flesh would be subjected to the spirit and the spirit would be a servant in full devotion to God.
Freedom also meant free speech. The Policraticus labours on the necessity of truth. Moral progress be made only in a world where people are free to discuss things with others and even to chide them on their shortcomings. This is particularly the case with the government. John invented the concept of the ‘body politic’, where the political community was bound together by mutual interest. In his metaphor the king was the head of the body, his counsel was the heart, his officials the senses, financial officers the stomach and intestines, and so on. Most importantly, the Church was the soul of the body which animated the whole and needed freedom of speech to direct it down the right path.
John spent his last days as Bishop of Chartres, a post given to him by French King Louis VII who was keen to keep alive the memory of Becket as proof of the failings of the English monarchy.
After his death in 1180, John’s ideas of Christian liberty would be further developed by his spiritual and ideological successors. For classical liberal heroes like John Locke the necessity of religious freedom became the driving force behind their hatred of absolutism and government control. Protestant dissenters wanted the liberty to practice their religion, and once Catholics became a persecuted minority in Britain they too would campaign for individual rights.
Over the years notions of liberty have gradually been shed of their religious dimension, which is ultimately a good thing. Constructing concepts of freedom from logic and first principles provided the means to make them truly universal and thus more enduring.
We now see that all over the world, there are people of every race, creed and colour animated by the ideals of universal liberty; in many cases risking their lives in rebellion against oppressive states and using the language of liberty to argue for the deposition of tyrants.
Nevertheless, we should never forget how we got here. We owe part of our liberty to Christianity just as we owe part to the Greeks, part to the Romans and part to the Islamic communities that allowed us to access knowledge that otherwise might have been lost. The importance of Western Civilisation and civilisation more broadly should never be forgotten. We remain dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants.