John Duns Scotus, scholar, theologian, philosopher, author and logician, died on the 8th of November, 1308.
Blessed John Duns Scotus was a highly influential man who rose to singular glory amongst the great medieval scholastics. To some extent, at least in Catholic circles, he remains glorified today as he was beatified by Pope John Paul II on the 20th of March, 1993. That’s the next best thing to sainthood for a Catholic, but they’re probably struggling to find a spare Mir’cle to pin on him. Scotus was successful as an intellectual in an age in which the sword ruled supreme and undoubtedly, for what it’s worth, he was one of the most important theologians and philosophers of the High Middle Ages. Gerolamo Cardano, the 16th Century Italian Renaissance mathematician and astrologer, included John Duns Scotus on his famous list of ‘The Twelve Greatest Minds’ alongside Archimedes, Euclid, Apollonius, al-Khowârizmi, Archytas, Aristotle, al-Kindi, Richard Swineshead (‘the Calculator’), Galen of Pergamum, Jabir ibn Aflah (aka Heber of Spain) and Marcus Vitruvius Pollio.
Along with Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, and Ockham (of ‘Razor’ fame), John Duns Scotus was one of the four great philosophers of ‘High Scholasticism’. His work was encyclopedic in scope, yet he was known as ‘Doctor Subtilis’ (‘the Subtle Doctor’) by his contemporaries, because of the detailed, subtle distinctions and brilliantly complex nuances of his theological arguments. Rodulphus (aka Ralph Strode), the 14th Century philosopher, wrote of Scotus that; “There was nothing so recondite, nothing so abstruse that his keen mind could not fathom and clarify; nothing so knotty, that he like another Oedupus, could not unravel, nothing so fraught with difficulty or enveloped in darkness that his genius could not expound”.
It is said that Scotus was the founder and leader of the famous ‘Scotist School’ of Scholasticism in Philosophy and Theology, which, until the time of the French Revolution, dominated the Roman Catholic Faculties of Theology in nearly all the major Universities of Europe. However, that is presumptuous, mainly because that label only came into use at the end of the 15th or the beginning of the 16th Century, long after his death. The ‘Scotist School’ can only be said to have existed after his works were collected and published, and mandated as the teaching of the Franciscan order. However, that is to take nothing away from Scotus’ achievements, not least his influence. It was Scotus’ original views on the major philosophical problems, refuting certain Augustinian traditions and reinterpreting those of Aristotle, which led to the later notion of ‘Scotism’.
Catholics and Protestants alike have charged Scotus with sundry errors and heresies, but collectively, not one single proposition of his has been condemned by the Church. On the contrary, his doctrine of the ‘Immaculate Conception’ led to Catholics calling him ‘The Minstrel of the Word Incarnate’. Scotus’ ‘Opus Oxoniense’, one of his principle works and one of the most important documents in Roman Catholic theology, is the source of what Pope Pius IX, in his constitution ‘Ineffabilis Deus’ of the 8th of December, 1854, declared as the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Scotus is also known for his theology on the ‘Absolute Kingship’ of Jesus Christ and, apparently, his philosophic refutation of evolution, long before Robert Chambers and Darwin were born. Scotus also developed a complex argument for the existence of God, which, despite its flaws, is a philosophical tour de force and perhaps the most complicated of any ever written. Somebody once wrote of Scotus that “He described the Divine Nature as if he had seen God” and “the Celestial Spirits as if he had been an Angel”.
Interestingly, the word ‘dunce’ and the ‘dunce’s cap’ given to schoolchildren to wear as public humiliation for stupidity, are derived from the name of John Duns Scotus, but not in any derogatory sense directed at Scotus’ abilities. The usage arose, because the followers of Scotus, called ‘Duns’ or ‘Dunsmen’, obstinately refused to give up Scotus’ Scholastic theories in favour of the then emerging Humanist theories. The word ‘dunce’ began to be used to ridicule the Scholastics and it gradually acquired its modern usage to denote either someone who stubbornly refuses to learn anything new or fools in general.
John Duns Scotus was born John Duns (Ioannes Douns), sometime between the 23rd of December, 1265, and the 17th of March, 1266, near the North Lodge of Duns Castle in Berwickshire. The claim that he was born at Littledean, near Maxton in Roxburghshire, rather than the eponymous town of Duns, has since been shown to have been based on forged documents and the site of his birth is now marked by a cairn, erected by the Franciscans. The addition of ‘Scotus’ was essentially a nickname, used on the Continent to denote the fact that he was a Scot, whatever the Irish might say. John was named after St. John the Evangelist and, prior to leaving for Oxford in 1288, entered the Franciscan Order at Dumfries, as a Friar Minor, and studied briefly at Trinity Church on North Uist. As the history written by John Major (John Mair) in 1521 states, “When [Scotus] was no more than a boy, but had been already grounded in grammar, he was taken by two Scottish Minorite [i.e., Franciscan] Friars to Oxford, for at that time there existed no University in Scotland”.
Scotus continued to study at Merton College, Oxford until June, 1301, during which period, on the 17th of March, 1291, he was ordained to the Priesthood in the Franciscan Order at Saint Andrew’s Priory in Northampton. By 1300, Scotus was lecturing at Oxford, which he continued to do until he moved to teach at the University of Paris, in late 1302. In June 1303, he was expelled from France for taking sides with Pope Boniface VIII in a dispute with King Philip ‘the Fair’ of France. He returned to France in April, 1304, and later that year, on the 18th of November, he was appointed as the Franciscan Regent Master of Theology at Paris, by Gonsalvus of Spain. In early 1305, he was incepted as Master and later, in October, 1307, Scotus transferred to the Franciscan University at Cologne, where he was appointed Lector at the Franciscan Studium.
John Duns Scotus died in Cologne a little over a year later, on the 8th of November, 1308, having written his own epitaph; “Scotia me genuit. Anglia me suscepit. Gallia me docuit. Colonia me tenet” (Scotia brought me forth. England sustained me. France taught me. Cologne holds me), ending any doubt about his birthplace. He is buried in the ‘Minoritenkirche’, the Church of the Franciscans, close to Cologne Cathedral.