[4.6] John of Salisbury on Body Politic

John of Salisbury (1115/20–1180 AD) was one of the first medieval authors who wrote about political philosophy. In his work Policraticus, he presents a famous analogy, where posits the commonwealth as a “body which is animated.” He compares the structure of the commonwealth with that of the human body:

  • he paired different groups of people (organs of body politic) with the organs of the human body, where each organ has a function to perform for the good of the whole organism
  • his theory was not intended to “justify hierarchy and division within society […]. Rather, the body politic found in the Policraticus is the expression of a principle of cooperative harmony.”

John’s model of body politic is pictured in the following OntoUML diagram:

John of Salisbury on body politic

HumanA human has a human body, guided by the soul. The body is composed of organs; each of them has functions.
BodyPolitic“John’s naturalistic conception of cooperative association informs the famous organic analogy that he proposes and develops in the Policraticus. Ascribing his insight to a letter of instruction (John’s creation) purportedly by Plutarch to Emperor Trajan, John commences with the simple observation that the commonwealth may be likened to a ‘body which is animated’ [body politic] […]. The different offices of political society are represented as analogous to the distinct parts of the human anatomy.”
Prince“Because the political creature is an essentially secular entity, the body politic is ruled by the prince, who ‘occupies the place of the head‘ (PC: 69)”is exclusive part of BodyPolitic; OrganOfBodyPolitic
Clerics“Like all bodies, the commonwealth is guided by a soul, which John assigns to ‘those who direct the practice of religion’ (PC: 67). Yet, just as the eternal human soul is not coextensive with the mortal physical organism within which it resides, the clerical soul of the polity is not, strictly speaking, a member of the commonwealth”guides BodyPolitic
Senate“The senate, composed of the prince’s counselors, functions as the commonwealth’s heart.” is exclusive part of BodyPolitic; OrganOfBodyPolitic
“The senses correspond to the royal judges and local agents who exercise jurisdiction in the king’s name.”is exclusive part of BodyPolitic; OrganOfBodyPolitic
“The financial officers constitute the body’s stomach and intestinesis exclusive part of BodyPolitic; OrganOfBodyPolitic
“the tax-collector and the soldier represent the two handsis exclusive part of BodyPolitic; OrganOfBodyPolitic
“Finally, John compares the feet to the artisans and peasants ‘who erect, sustain and move forward the mass of the whole body'”is exclusive part of BodyPolitic; OrganOfBodyPolitic
Group of people with a specific function in the republic.
Function“Each part [organ] of the organism, according to the Policraticus, has its own definite function, fixed by its location within the overall scheme of the body. None of the members may be excluded or removed without serious damage to the whole.”characterizes OrganOf
PersonA human person, member of the body politic.is part of OrganOf
BodyPolitic and Clerics
Cooperation“the body politic found in the Policraticus is the expression of a principle of cooperative harmony through which otherwise disparate individuals and interests are reconciled and bound together. John adopts a ‘physiological’ approach to the political organism, according to which all of the organs cooperate reciprocally in order to achieve a common purpose.”mediates between instances of OrganOf


  • All citations from: Bollermann, Karen and Nederman, Cary, “John of Salisbury”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

First published: 16/07/2020

[3.10] Ibn Khaldun on Phases of the Civilisations

Ibn Khaldun (1332 – 1406 AD) in the first book “Introduction” (Al-Muqaddimah) for the work “Book of Lessons, Record of Beginnings and Events in the History of the Arabs and the Berbers and Their Powerful Contemporaries” (Kitāb al-ʻIbar wa-Dīwān al-Mubtadaʼ wa-l-Khabar fī Taʼrīkh al-ʻArab wa-l-Barbar wa-Man ʻĀṣarahum min Dhawī ash-Shaʼn al-Akbā) elaborated a universal theory of the lifecycle of civilizations, according to which all civilizations evolve through five stages from a simple and forceful beginning to an optimal point, and decline.

Ibn Khaldun’s theory of the cyclical development of civilizations is presented in the following OntoUML diagram:

Ibn Khaldun on phases of civilizations
CivilizationCivilization, or the culture centered around life in the cities, is the natural completion of the life begun in the primitive culture. Primitive culture is an incomplete form of culture. It satisfies only man’s immediate needs. Sedentary culture is complete. The conveniences and luxury can develop when large numbers of people live together in dense clusters, where some produce for all and a large amount of surplus labor is freed to produce the luxuries. There is now time and energy for the fulfillment of man’s higher aspirations in the domains of the spirit and the intellect.”
“In the beginning, the first stage is the period af establishment. Group solidarity here is based on ties of family and on religion and is essential for the preservation of the state. The ruler is more a chief than a lord or a king. He himself has to folIow the rules of religion.”is phase of Civilization
“In the second stage, the ruler succeeds in monopolizing power. He becomes an absolute master. This monopoly of [personal] power by the ruler is the natural and necessary end of the rule that began on the basis of natural group solidarity. The ruler can now build a well ordered state. To achieve monopolization of power, he destroys those who share power with him, gets rid of the natural solidarity that supported him in the beginning, and purchases the support of bureaucrats and mercenaries who are loyal to him -their employer- and not to a kinship-solidarity or a religious cause. In addition to the paid army and administrative bureaucracy, a group of learned advisors beromes instrumental in preserving the state according to the rllier’s wbhes. On the matter of the advisory corps, Ibn Khaldun emphasizes that scholars make bad political advisors. Since they are trained to see the universals rather than the particulars, the species rather than the individual specimen, since they grasp social and political phenomena in analogy to others rather than on their own merits and in their own, particular, uniqueness, they are prone to give bad political advice. Good political advice for the ruler comes from ‘ordinary, sound men of average intelligence.”is phase of Civilization
“The third is one of luxury and leisure when the ruler uses his authority to satisfy his personal needs. He reorganizes the finances of the state to increase his own personal income by lowering the tax burden on his subjects: this results in large revenue from small assessments. He then spends lavishly on public works and on the beautification of his cities. There is economic prosperity for everyone, the crafts, fine arts, sciences are encouraged, the new ruling dass and even the upper strata of the middle class become avid patrons for cultural pursuits and projects. The atmosphere is one of leisure and self indulgence, all men enjoy the comforts and pleasuers of the world”is phase of Civilization
“The fourth stage is a stage of contentment, satiation, and complacency, [stagnation]. Luxury and comfort have become a habit. Ruler and ruled are confident that they will last forever. And they may indeed last for quite some time, as the length of this period depends upon the power and the solidity of the achievements of the founders of the state. But during this stage, the state is already, imperceptibly, starting to decline and to disintegrate, and the fifth and last stage of prodigality and waste begins”is phase of Civilization
“it now becomes painful1y evident that the vital forces of solidarity and religion were destroyed in the beginning and that the strong natural loyalty of the kinsmen was replaced with the purchased support of the army and the bureaucracy who are not willing to sacrifice themselves for the ruler. To ensure their continued support and to maintain the luxuries, the ruler has to raise the taxes, with the result that the newly increased tax assessments yield a small and ever-decreasing amount of revenue, because this tax policy discourages economic activity. As the income of the state declines, it ultimately becomes impossible for the ruler to support his new followers. The habits of comfort and luxury have generated physical weakness and vice. The rough and courageous manners of the early primitive life are forgotten. The population has become effeminate. The hopes of the ruled are weakened, public opinion is marked by despair, economic activity, building projects are halted. People refrain from making long-range plans. The birth rate drops. The entire population, physically weak and living in large crowded cities with enviromental problems, becomes subject to diseas and plague. The state begins to disintegrate. From the outlying regions, princes, generals, dissatisfied kinsmen, and foreign conquerors snatch pieces of territory from the control of the state. The state is divided and subdivided into small provinces. Even in the capital, the military and the bureaucrats engage in intrigues to wrest the actural authority form the ruler, leaving him only with the insignia of his office and the name. Finally, an outside invasion by a young, healthy group may put an end to the life of the state, or it may decline further and further until it withers away ‘like a wick dying out in a lamp whose oil is gone.'”is phase of Civilization


First published: 30/04/2020