Born on June 19, 1947 in Ottawa, he studied at McGill University in Montreal and at the University of London, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1972. After working for Petro-Canada, he turned his attention to writing.
His first works were novels, including The Birds of Prey, Baraka, The Next Best Thing, The Paradise Eater, and De si bons Américains.
He is best known, however, for his philosophical works. These began with a philosophical trilogy made up of the bestseller Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West; the polemic philosophical dictionary The Doubter's Companion; and the book that grew out of his presentation of the Massey Lectures, The Unconscious Civilization. This last won the 1996 Governor-General's Award for Non-Fiction.
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, and the use of language and expertise to mask a practical understanding of the harm this causes and what else our society might do. 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.
He expanded on these themes as they relate to Canada and its history and culture in Reflections of a Siamese Twin. His latest book, On Equilibrium, discusses the six mental skills he had mentioned in his earlier work, and describes how they serve us, how they balance each other, and what happens when they are unbalanced.
John Ralston Saul is married to Adrienne Clarkson, a Canadian broadcaster, who is also Governor General of Canada. Due to his position as her spouse, his publishing of On Equilibrium subsequent to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks raised political controversy due to what some perceived as anti-American themes in its final chapter.