Remorseless reason

Daily Reading for October 30 • John Wyclif, Priest and Prophetic Witness, 1384

A survey of his extant works . . . illustrates two features typical of Wyclif’s writings. First, the analytic rigor with which Wyclif approaches any problem, whether it be the nature of a mental act, a universal, a sacrament, the church, or scripture, is relentless. To readers unaccustomed to fourteenth-century philosophy, including many of the nineteenth-century editors of Wyclif’s Latin works, this seems to be academic nitpicking. To others, particularly philosophers trained in the second half of the twentieth century, Wyclif’s zest for analysis embodies a precision comparable to contemporary philosophical debate.

Second, Wyclif cannot keep himself from digressing. In his philosophical works, his hobby horse is ontology. For example, in his logical treatises, he typically begins by examining a fine point of philosophical logic, and inevitably wanders into talk of universals and particulars. He states his reason for this in De Universalibus: “Beyond all doubt, intellectual and emotional error about universals is the cause of all sin that reigns in the world.” In his later works, it is the failure of prelates, friars, bishops, and popes to live up to their ideals. His treatises on heresy, for example, begin as disquisitions on blasphemy, simony, and apostasy, but quickly turn into indictments of his fellow clergy. In each body of work, his analytic rigor and tendency to return to specific issues suggest a mind determined to resolve error by using remorseless reason.

From John Wyclif by Stephen E. Lahey, in the series Great Medieval Thinkers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

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