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A Duty to Kill: John of Salisbury's Theory of Tyrannicide


This article examines the doctrine of tyrannicide in John of Salisbury's mid-twelfth century political treatise, the Policraticus, in light of recent scholarly skepticism that John never meant to advocate a theoretical defense of slaying the tyrant. It is argued that John's conception of tyrannicide in fact possesses a philosophical foundation derived from his idea of the state as a political organism in which all the members cooperate actively in the realization of the common utility and justice. When the ruler of this body politic behaves tyrannically, failing to perform his characteristic responsibilities, the other limbs and organs are bound by their duty to the public welfare and God to correct and, ultimately, to slay the tyrant. John illustrates this position by reference to the many historical and scriptural instances of tyrants who have legitimately been killed. Thus, John not only proposes a theory of tyrannicide, but also roots it in a strong positive obligation to raise the sword against tyrannical rulers in the name of public benefit and justice.

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Amnon Linder , “John of Salisbury's Policraticus in Thirteenth Century England: The Evidence of Ms Cambridge Corpus Christi College 469,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 40 (1977): 276–82

Cary J. Nederman and J. Brückmann , “Aristotelianism in John of Salisbury's Policraticus,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 21 (041983): 224–27.

Paul Edward Dutton , “Illustre civitatis et populi exemplum: Plato's Timaeus and the Transmission from Calcidius to the End of the Twelfth Century of a Tripartite Scheme of Society,” Mediaeval Studies 45 (1983): 108–12

Cary J. Nederman , “Aristotelian Ethics and John of Salisbury's Letters,” Viator 18 (1987): 162–66.

Martin , “John of Salisbury's Manuscripts of Frontinus and GelliusJournal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 40 (1977): 126

Helene Wieruszowski , “Roger II of Sicily, Rex-Tyrannus, in Twelfth-Century Political Thought,” Speculum 38 (011963): 6870

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The Review of Politics
  • ISSN: 0034-6705
  • EISSN: 1748-6858
  • URL: /core/journals/review-of-politics
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