Saul is most widely known for his writings on the nature of individualism, citizenship and the public good; the failures of manager-led societies; the confusion between leadership and managerialism; military strategy, in particular irregular warfare; the role of freedom of speech and culture; and his critique of contemporary economic arguments. His work is known for being thought-provoking and ahead of its time, leading him to be declared a "prophet" by the New York Times and to be included in Utne Reader's list of the world's 100 leading thinkers and visionaries. He is also considered Canada's leading public intellectual having written six books pertaining to the nature of contemporary Canada. Overall, his 14 works have been translated into 27 languages in over 30 countries.
Saul is the son of Colonel William Saul, a first-generation soldier, and a British war bride whose family had a long tradition of military service. His life, from the beginning, took place in a national context. Born in Ottawa, and christened in Calgary, he spent his infancy in Alberta, much of his childhood in Manitoba but graduated high school in Oakville, Ontario. At a young age he became fluent in both national languages, French and English. By the time he started university at McGill University, Montreal, his father was working in Paris and Brussels as a military adviser to the Canadian ambassador to NATO.
After completing his undergraduate Saul was accepted into the foreign service and appeared destined for a life of diligent diplomacy, however the sudden death of his father in 1968 changed his course of action and Saul chose to attend King's College London where he wrote his thesis on the modernization of France under Charles de Gaulle, and earned his Ph.D in 1972. His doctoral thesis, "The Evolution of Civil-Military Relations in France after the Algerian War," led him to France for research where he began writing his first novel Mort d'un général. This book was the romanticised version of his thesis on DeGaulle's Chief of staff, General Charles Ailleret. In France, he supported himself by running the French subsidiary of a British investment company.
After helping to set up the national oil company Petro-Canada in 1976, as Assistant to its first Chair, Maurice F. Strong, he published his first novel The Birds of Prey in 1977. Strong later characterized Saul as "an invaluable, though unconventional, member of my personal staff."
Through the late 1970s into the 1980s, he travelled extensively and regularly spent time with guerrilla armies, spending a great deal of time in North Africa and South East Asia. Out of this time came his novels, The Field Trilogy. It was during those extended periods in Northwest Africa and Southeast Asia where he witnessed fellow writers there suffering government suppression of freedom of expression, which caused him to become interested in the work of PEN International. Between the years of 1990 and 1992, Saul acted as the President of the Canadian centre of PEN International and in 2009 he was elected president of PEN and re-elected for a second and last term in 2012, remaining International President until October 2015.
The Birds of Prey was a political novel based in Gaullist France. He then published The Field Trilogy, which deals with the crisis of modern power and its clash with the individual. It includes Baraka or The Lives, Fortunes and Sacred Honor of Anthony Smith, The Next Best Thing, and The Paradise Eater, which won the Premio Letterario Internazionale in Italy.
De si bons Américains is a picaresque novel in which he observes the lives of America's nouveaux riches. A vastly reworked and expanded version was published in 2012 as Dark Diversions, Saul's first novel in over fifteen years.
Saul's non-fiction output began with the trilogy made up of the bestseller Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West published in 1992, the polemic philosophical dictionary The Doubter's Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense (1994), and the book that grew out of his 1995 Massey Lectures, The Unconscious Civilization (1995). The last won the 1996 Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction Literature.
These books deal with themes such as the dictatorship of reason unbalanced by other human qualities, how it can be used for any ends especially in a directionless state that rewards the pursuit of power for power's sake. He argues that this leads to deformations of thought such as ideology promoted as truth; the rational but anti-democratic structures of corporatism, by which he means the worship of small groups; and the use of language and expertise to mask a practical understanding of the harm caused by this, and what else our society might do. He argues that the rise of individualism with no regard for the role of society has not created greater individual autonomy and self-determination, as was once hoped, but isolation and alienation. He calls for a pursuit of a more humanist ideal in which reason is balanced with other human mental capacities such as common sense, ethics, intuition, creativity, and memory, for the sake of the common good, and he discusses the importance of unfettered language and practical democracy: these human attributes are elaborated upon in his 2001 book On Equilibrium.
He expanded on these themes as they relate to Canada and its history and culture in Reflections of a Siamese Twin (1998). In this book, he coined the idea of Canada being a "soft" country, meaning not that the nation is weak, but that it has a flexible and complex identity, as opposed to the unyielding or monolithic identities of other states.
He argues that Canada's complex national identity is made up of the "triangular reality" of three nations that compose it: First Peoples, francophones, and anglophones. He emphasizes the willingness of these Canadian nations to compromise with one another, as opposed to resorting to open confrontations. In the same vein, he criticizes both those in the Quebec separatist Montreal School for emphasizing the conflicts in Canadian history and the Orange Order and the Clear Grits traditionally seeking clear definitions of Canadian-ness and loyalty.
Saul's next book, On Equilibrium (2001), is effectively a fourth, concluding volume to his philosophical quartet. He identifies six qualities as common to all people: common sense, ethics, imagination, intuition, memory, and reason. He describes how these inner forces can be used to balance each other, and what happens when they are unbalanced, for example in the case of a "Dictatorship of Reason".
In an article written for Harper's magazine's March 2004 issue, titled The Collapse of Globalism and the Rebirth of Nationalism, he argued that the globalist ideology was under attack by counter-movements. Saul rethought and developed this argument in The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World (2005). Far from being an inevitable force, Saul argued that globalization is already breaking up into contradictory pieces and that citizens are reasserting their national interests in both positive and destructive ways. Following the economic collapse he had predicted, The Collapse of Globalism was re-issued in 2009 with a new epilogue that addressed the current crisis.
A Fair Country (2008) is Saul's second major work on Canada. It is organized into four subsections."A Métis Civilization"
This section picks up on the argument that Saul makes in Reflections of a Siamese Twin
about the 'triangular reality of Canada'. Drawing on the work of scholars like Harold Innis and Gerald Friesen, Saul argues that contemporary Canada has been deeply influenced and shaped by Aboriginal ideas and the experience of both Francophone and Anglophone immigrants over the 250 years, from 1600 on, during which Aboriginals were either the dominant force in Canada, or equal partners. He argues that Aboriginals are making a rapid “comeback”, and that their fundamental influence needs to be recognized in order for non-Aboriginal Canadians to understand themselves.
"Peace, Fairness, and Good Government"
In this section Saul argues that instead of the phrase "peace, order, and good government", which appears in and has become a touchstone of the 1867 Canadian Constitution, the phrase that dominated previous Canadian documents was "peace, welfare
, and good government". Saul suggests that the ensuing emphasis on "order" has not truly represented Canadian origins.
This sections echoes Saul's more general critiques of technocratic and bureaucratic regimes. He also suggests that while current Canadian elites reflect a "disturbing mediocrity" this was not always the case.
"An Intentional Civilization"
Saul uses the final section of the book to argue for a return to an understanding of Canada as a unique response to particular historical circumstances.
Saul's contribution to Penguin Canada's Extraordinary Canadians series, of which he serves as general editor, is a double biography of Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin. In it, he argues that Canada did not begin in 1867, but that in fact its foundations were laid by LaFontaine and Baldwin much earlier. The two leaders of Lower and Upper Canada, respectively, worked together after the 1841 Union to lead a reformist movement for responsible government run by elected citizens instead of a colonial governor. But it was during the "Great Ministry" of 1848—51 that the two politicians implemented laws that Saul argues created a more equitable country. They revamped judicial institutions, created a public education system, made bilingualism official, designed a network of public roads, began a public postal system, and reformed municipal governance. Faced with opposition, and even violence, Saul contends that the two men united behind a set of principles and programs that formed modern Canada.
His most recent work, 'The Comeback: How Aboriginals Are Reclaiming Power and Influence' (2014) was a shortlisted nominee for the 2015 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. The “comeback” that Saul identifies in this new book emphasizes the strides that Aboriginal people have made in reversing years of population decline and cultural oppression. As recently as seventy years ago it was widely assumed that “Indians” were disappearing, the victims of disease, starvation and their own ineptitude for modern civilization. Today we know how wrong that idea was. Canada’s Aboriginal population is growing in numbers and its cultural and political self-confidence seems boundless. In Saul’s view, this observation, while obvious to anyone who studies the history, nonetheless needs hammering home. We are far more used to hearing about the dismal lives of Aboriginal people—their family dysfunction, their crime rates, their impoverished communities—than we are to being told they are a success story. Today’s Aboriginal population, for all the problems that afflict it, has overcome incredible disadvantages to achieve what Saul calls “a position of power, influence and civilizational creativity” in Canadian society.
In addition to his selection as the 1995 Massey lecturer, Saul has delivered other notable lectures. He gave the Harold Innis Lecture in 1994. In 2000 he gave the inaugural LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium Lecture. Saul delivered the J.D. Young Memorial Lecture “A New Era Of Irregular Warfare?” at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario on February 4, 2004. He gave the 2005 IDEAS lecture in Brisbane, Australia, the 2007 Captive Mind Lecture in Kraków, Poland, and in 2008 gave the 33rd Sir Winston Scott Memorial Lecture in Barbados. He also delivered the 2009 McGill Law Journal's Annual Lecture at the McGill Faculty of Law in Montreal on February 3, 2009. Saul also spoke at the Sydney Opera House on 26 August 2012 on the subject "It's Broke: How do we fix it?"
Saul is co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, which encourages new Canadians to become active citizens. He is patron and former president of the Canadian Centre of PEN International. He is also founder and honorary chair of French for the Future, which encourages bilingual French-English education, chair of the advisory board for the LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium lecture series, and a patron of Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN — a cutting edge organization tied to people with disabilities). A companion in the Order of Canada (1999), he is also chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France (1996). His 18 honorary degrees range from McGill University and the University of Ottawa to Herzen University in Saint Petersburg, Russia. On October 17, 2014, he received his latest honorary degree from the University of Winnipeg. From 1999 until 2006 when his wife Adrienne Clarkson was Governor General of Canada he was Canada's vice-regal consort, during which he devoted much of his time to issues of freedom of expression, poverty, public education and bilingualism.
Saul was elected as the international president for a three-year term at the PEN Annual Congress in Linz, Austria in October 2009. He was the first Canadian to be elected to that position, one which had previously been occupied by literary heavyweights such as John Galsworthy, Arthur Miller, Heinrich Böll, Mario Vargas Llosa and Homero Aridjis. He campaigned on the need to pay attention to smaller and endangered languages and cultures, arguing that the ultimate removal of freedom of expression was the loss of a language. He put a specific emphasis on endangered indigenous languages. He called for a further decentralization of PEN, which has 144 centres in 102 countries. He argues that literature and freedom of expression are the same thing; that you cannot have one without the other. Saul has testified before the European Parliament Human Rights Commission on the loss of freedom of expression in Tunisia, has spoken before European Council on Refugees in Exile, and has published an essay on writers in exile, which has been translated into several languages.
Saul founded, and currently co-chairs, the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC) with Adrienne Clarkson. The ICC is a national, non-profit charity that helps accelerate new citizens’ integration into Canadian life through original programs, collaborations and unique volunteer opportunities. While its focus is on encouraging new citizens to take their rightful place in Canada, the ICC aims to encourage all citizens – new or not – to embrace active citizenship in their daily life.Italy's Premio Letterario Internazionale, for The Paradise Eater (1990)
Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres de France (1996)
Gordon Montador Award, for The Unconscious Civilization (1996)
Governor General's Literary Award for Non-fiction, for The Unconscious Civilization (1996)
Gordon Montador Award, for Reflections of a Siamese Twin (1998)
Companion of the Order of Canada (1999)
Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal (2002)
Pablo Neruda International Presidential Medal of Honour (2004)
Manhae Literary Prize (2010)
Inaugural Gutenburg Galaxy Award for Literature (2011)
Writers' Union of Canada's Freedom to Read Award (2011)