Classics and Religious Studies


Date of this Version



Published in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Jan., 1997), pp. 1-20 Published by University of Pennsylvania Press. Copyright 1997 by Journal of the History of Ideas, Inc. Used by permission.


In the study of medieval political philosophy the tendency has been to pay attention to thinkers who appear to have contributed to the birth of the modem. While the value in coming to understand how modem political thought developed is undeniable, this tendency is accompanied by an implicit, perhaps unintentional, devaluation of the study of that which did not contribute as obviously to modernity. In the history of the idea of the natural right scholars have distinguished between the objective and the subjective right, characterizing the subjective right as what lies at the heart of the classically modem and liberal. One could get the impression that the good political philosophers, having hit upon the subjective right, dispensed with talk of the old-fashioned objective right just as people abandoned gaslight when Edison's light bulb went on the market. But this is not what happened; not only did objective rights discourse continue into the modem period, but it was not necessarily the idiom solely of religious and political conservatives.
Some late medieval philosophers, notably Marsilius of Padua, even came up with progressive and unorthodox political visions while adhering to the objective right. I will show that at least one late medieval political theory founded on the objective right, that of John Wyclif, can be argued to be as innovative in several important aspects as that of any of the better-known fourteenth-century advocates of the subjective right. To do that, I will divide this paper into three parts. In the first, I will explain the difference between objective and subjective theories of the right, making note of what we can reasonably expect from a fourteenth-century political theory in the way of toleration and briefly introducing John Wyclifs life and works. In the second I will recount Wyclifs view of ius, or the right, as it appears in his political writings, and in the third I will explain how this concept has a bearing on elements in his political thought that are recognizably unorthodox and even tolerant to modem, liberal eyes. Having shown how Wyclif's objective right plays out in his innovative and reformative political scheme, I hope to have helped to dispel the dogma that the only early rights theories worth studying are those that evolved into ones we use.

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