Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On John of Salisbury
"We Witness a Worrying Separation Between Reason ... and Liberty"
H.H. Benedict XVI
December 16, 2009
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today we will meet the figure of John of Salisbury, who belonged to one
of the most important philosophical and theological schools of the
Middle Ages, that of the cathedral of Chartres, in France. John, too,
like the theologians about whom I've spoken over the past weeks, helps
us to understand how faith, in harmony with the just aspirations of
reason, pushes thought toward revealed truth, in which the true good of
man is found.
John was born in England, in Salisbury, between the year 1100 and 1120.
Reading his works, and above all, his rich epistles, we discover the
most important events of his life. For 12 years, between 1136 and 1148,
he dedicated himself to study, availing of the most qualified schools of
the epoch, where he heard lectures from famous teachers.
He headed to Paris and then to Chartres, the environment that
particularly marked his formation and from which he assimilated his
great cultural openness, his interest for speculative problems, and his
appreciation of literature. As often happened in that time, the most
brilliant students were picked by prelates and sovereigns, to be their
closest collaborators. This also happened to John of Salisbury, who was
presented by a great friend of his, Bernard of Claraval, to Archbishop
Theobald of Canterbury -- the primary see of England -- who happily took
him in among his clergy.
For 11 years, from 1150 to 1161, John was the secretary and chaplain of
the elderly archbishop. With tireless zeal, despite continuing his
studies, he carried out an intense regimen of diplomatic activities,
traveling 10 times to Italy with the specific objective of nourishing
the relationship of the kingdom of England and the Church there with the
Among other things, during those years, the Pope was Adrian IV, an
Englishman who was a close friend of John of Salisbury. In the years
following the 1159 death of Adrian IV, a situation of serious tension
was created in England between the Church and the kingdom. The king,
Henry II, aimed to wield authority over the internal life of the Church,
limiting its liberty. This endeavor brought about a reaction from John
of Salisbury, and above all, valiant resistance from Theobald's
successor in the episcopal see of Canterbury, St. Thomas Becket. St.
Thomas went to exile in France because of this. John of Salisbury
accompanied him and remained at his service, always working for
reconciliation. In 1170, when both John and Thomas Becket had returned
to England, Thomas was attacked and killed in the cathedral. He died as
a martyr and was immediately venerated as such by the people.
John continued faithfully serving the successor of Thomas as well, until
he was elected bishop of Chartres, where he stayed from 1176 to 1180,
the year of his death.
I would like to point out two of John of Salisbury's works, which are
considered his masterpieces and which are elegantly named with the Greek
titles of "Metalogicon" (In Defense of Logic) and "Policraticus" (The
Man of Government).
In the first work -- and not lacking that fine irony that characterizes
many men of culture -- he rejects the position of those who had a
reductionist concept of culture, considering it empty eloquence and
useless words. John instead praises culture, authentic philosophy, that
is, the encounter between clear thought and communication, efficient
speech. He writes, "As in fact eloquence that is not enlightened by
faith is not only rash but also blind, so wisdom that does not engage in
the use of the word not only is weak, but in a certain way, is
truncated: Although perhaps wisdom without words could be of benefit to
the individual conscience, rarely and little does it benefit society" (Metalogicon
1,1 PL 199,327).
This is a very relevant teaching. Today, what John defines as
"eloquence," that is, the possibility of communicating with instruments
ever more elaborate and widespread, has enormously increased. For all
that, there is an even more urgent need to communicate messages gifted
with "wisdom," that is, messages inspired in truth, goodness and beauty.
This is a great responsibility that particularly involves those who work
in the multiform and complex realm of culture, communication and the
media. And this is a realm in which the Gospel can be announced with
In "Metalogicon," John takes up the problems of logic, which were
something of great interest in his time, and he proposes a fundamental
question: What can human reason come to know? Up to what point can it
respond to this aspiration that is in every person, that of seeking the
truth? John of Salisbury takes a moderate position, based in the
teaching of certain treatises of Aristotle and Cicero. According to him,
ordinarily human reason can reach knowledge that is not indisputable,
but probable and contestable. Human knowledge -- this is his conclusion
-- is imperfect, because it is subject to finitude, to the limits of
man. Nevertheless, it increases and becomes perfected thanks to
experience and the elaboration of correct and concrete reasoning,
capable of establishing relationships between concepts and reality;
thanks to discussion, to confrontation, and to knowledge that is
enriched from one generation to another. Only in God is there a perfect
knowledge, which is communicated to man, at least partially, by means of
revelation welcomed in faith. Thus the knowledge of faith opens the
potentialities of reason and brings it to advance with humility in
knowledge of the mysteries of God.
The believer and the theologian, who go deeper into the treasure of the
faith, are opened as well to a practical knowledge that guides daily
activity, that is, moral law and the exercise of virtue.
John of Salisbury writes: "The clemency of God has conceded us his law,
which establishes what is useful for us to know, and indicates how much
is licit to know of God and how much is justifiable to investigate. ...
In this law, in fact, the will of God is made explicit and manifested,
so that each one of us knows what is necessary for him to do" (Metalogicon
4,41, PL 199,944-945).
According to John of Salisbury, there also exists an objective and
immutable truth, whose origin is God, accessible to human reason. This
truth regards practical and social actions. This is a natural law, from
which human laws and political and religious authority should take
inspiration, so that they can promote the common good. This natural law
is characterized by a property that John calls "equity," that is, the
attribution to each person of his rights. From here descend precepts
that are legitimate for all peoples and which in no case can be
abrogated. This is the central thesis in "Policraticus," the treatise on
philosophy and political theology, in which John of Salisbury reflects
on the conditions that enable a political leader to act in a just and
While other discussions taken up in this work are tied to the historical
circumstances in which it was written, the theme of the relationship
between natural law and a positive-juridical ordering, arbitrated by
equity, is still today of great importance. In our times, in fact, above
all in certain countries, we witness a worrying separation between
reason, which has the task of discovering the ethical values linked to
the dignity of the human person, and liberty, which has the
responsibility of welcoming and promoting these values. Perhaps John of
Salisbury would remind us today that only those laws are equitable that
protect the sanctity of human life and reject the legalization of
abortion, euthanasia and limitless genetic experimentation, those laws
that respect the dignity of matrimony between a man and a woman, that
are inspired in a correct secularity of state -- secularity that always
includes the protection of religious liberty -- and that pursue
subsidiarity and solidarity at the national and international level.
If not, what John of Salisbury calls the "tyranny of the sovereign" or,
what we would call "the dictatorship of relativism," ends up taking over
-- a relativism that, as I recalled some years ago, "recognizes nothing
as definitive and that has as its measure only the self and its desires"
(Misa pro eligendo Romano Pontifice, homily, April 19, 2005).
In my most recent encyclical, "Caritas in Veritate," addressing men and
women of good will, who endeavor to ensure that social and political
action is never disconnected from the objective truth about man and his
dignity, I wrote: "Truth, and the love which it reveals, cannot be
produced: they can only be received as a gift. Their ultimate source is
not, and cannot be, mankind, but only God, who is himself Truth and
Love. This principle is extremely important for society and for
development, since neither can be a purely human product; the vocation
to development on the part of individuals and peoples is not based
simply on human choice, but is an intrinsic part of a plan that is prior
to us and constitutes for all of us a duty to be freely accepted" (No.
This plan that is prior to us, this truth of being, we should seek and
welcome, so that justice is born. But we can find it and welcome it only
with a heart, a will and reason purified in the light of God.
[Translation by ZENIT]
[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father greeted the people in
several languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In our catechesis on the Christian culture of the Middle Ages, we now
turn to John of Salisbury, an outstanding philosopher and theologian of
the twelfth century. Born in England, John was educated in Paris and
Chartres. A close associate of Saint Thomas Becket, he was involved in
the crisis between the Church and the Crown under King Henry II, and
died as Bishop of Chartres. In his celebrated work, the Metalogicon,
John teaches that authentic philosophy is by nature communicative: it
bears fruit in a message of wisdom which serves the building up of
society in truth and goodness. While acknowledging the limitations of
human reason, John insists that it can attain to the truth through
dialogue and argumentation. Faith, which grants a share in Godís perfect
knowledge, helps reason to realize its full potential. In another work,
the Policraticus, John defends reasonís capacity to know the objective
truth underlying the universal natural law, and its obligation to embody
that law in all positive legislation. Johnís insights are most timely
today, in light of the threats to human life and dignity posed by
legislation inspired more by the "dictatorship of relativism" than by
the sober use of right reason and concern for the principles of truth
and justice inscribed in the natural law.
I offer a warm welcome to the student groups present today from England,
Ireland and the United States. My cordial greeting also goes to the
pilgrims from Kenya and Nigeria. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims
and visitors present at todayís Audience, I invoke Godís blessings of
joy and peace!
© Copyright 2009 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana
[He added in Italian:]
With great affection, I greet you dear youth, ill people and newlyweds.
In this period of Advent, the Lord tells us in the words of the Prophet
Isaiah, "Turn to me and be saved" (45:22). Dear boys and girls, coming
from so many schools and parishes of Italy, leave space in your heart
for Jesus who comes to give testimony of his joy and peace. Dear sick
people, welcome the Lord in your lives so as to find support and
consolation in the encounter with him. And dear newlyweds, make of the
message of the love of Christmas the rule of life for your families.
[Translation by ZENIT]
at the One they Pierced!
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