Philosophy and Politics in the Thought of John Wyclif

By Lowe, Ben | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2004 | Go to article overview

Philosophy and Politics in the Thought of John Wyclif


Lowe, Ben, The Catholic Historical Review


Philosophy and Politics in the Thought of John Wyclif. By Stephen E. Lahey. [Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought (Fourth Series).] (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2003. Pp. x, 241. $60.00.)

In this highly technical work, which justifies its frequent repetition of ideas, Lahey has attempted to demonstrate that Wyclif's works on civil and ecclesiastical dominion are connected and founded in his realist epistemology. Traditionally, scholars have tended to follow K. B. McFarlane's influential 1952 work (John Wycliffe and the Beginnings of English Nonconformity) and accepted that Wyclif's theology was conditioned by his politics and that it was not very consistent or original.

This book provides a compelling case against that interpretation. Through meticulously close readings of De Civili Dominio, De Dominio Divino, Tractatus de Universalibus, and De Officio Regis, among others, the author makes his case, point by point. He begins with an overview of previous historiography, nicely summarizing the bulk of scholarship up to this moment. This is followed by a helpful discussion of Wyclif's influences, including Augustine (who first argued systematically against clerical property), Aquinas (who distinguished between nurturing dominium and servitude), and Giles of Rome (who first suggested that dominium as political power was only possible through divine grace, which was first articulated in England by Wyclif's contemporary, Richard Fitzralph). Lahey believes that this role of God-given Grace suffuses all of Wyclif's theories on dominium, and that the idea is founded in his realism. The "universal" ideal of God's possession is manifested as a less-perfect "particular" when given or "lent" to a human agent, although it is never fully relinquished by the divine. This act of grace is contingent, however, on proper use of the delegated dominium, either asproprietas (ownership) or iurisdictio (jurisdiction). Any abuses simply demonstrate an absence of grace, and God's giving/lending thenceforth sets the standard for all earthly delegation of dominium.

Wyclif held that dominium-which entails possession-is necessary in the world but inferior to the prelapsarian state when property was to be shared by humans. …

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