Rethinking Things

I spent the first 12 years of my education in a private, religious school (a term that might very well be redundant). As a result, a substantial portion of the history curriculum was devoted to events and people who altered the evolution of Western religion. One of these figures was John Wycliffe, whose lyrical designation as the “The Morning Star of the Reformation” has had the effect of perhaps forever lodging his name in my brain. He acquired this designation by being among the first prominent theologians to argue against pervasive papal power and for the increased empowerment of the laity. In line with this, he is also credited for the first full translation of the Bible into English. My benevolent religious educators did not, however, inform me that Wycliffe made the first arguments for the common ownership of property—communism, in other words. No, that inconvenient truth was first made manifest to me just a few day ago as I was reading Anthony Kenny’s A Brief History of Western Philosophy.

According to Dr. Kenny, Wycliffe’s conclusion was drawn from two main theses. The first was that since a man can only justly own property if he can use it justly, no sinful man can justly own property because all the actions of a sinner are unjust. The second can be elucidated by Wycliffe himself in On Civil Dominion:

All the goods of God should be common. This is proved thus. Every man should be in a state of grace, and if he is in a state of grace, he is lord of the world and all it contains. So every man should be lord of the universe. But this is not consistent with there being many men, unless they ought to have everything in common. Therefore all things should be in common.

Given that the rise of capitalism has been viewed as part and parcel to the rise of Protestantism by Max Weber and others, it’s interesting to discover a communal root from which the individualized growth stems. One wonders if Wycliffe might be more aptly relabelled “The Morningstar of the Revolution.”