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Blessed Duns Scotus


Father Charles Balic, O.F.M: “The whole of Scotus’s theology is dominated by the notion of love. The characteristic note of this love is its absolute freedom. As love becomes more perfect and intense, freedom becomes more noble and integral both in God and in man”



The small Berwickshire town of Duns is not widely known for many things – I’m not saying that because I’m from Galashiels and inter-town rivalry is strong in the Borders. I’m saying it because Duns is a quaint little town off the beaten track. However, it punches above its weight when it comes to notable sons and daughters. The town produced former Scottish footballer and now pundit, Pat Nevin. Abraham Robertson, mathematician, James Gray, close friend of Robert Burns and himself a noted poet. It also boasts several rally drivers and a one-time governor of colonial New York. However, most famous amongst them is John Duns Scotus.


Born in the mid 13th century, by the time he was in his early teens he had moved with his uncle to Dumfries where he received the religious habit. He was ordained in Northampton in 1291. From there he went to Oxford, then Paris from 1302 – a time which included an expulsion, his time there ended in the latter part of 1307 when he travelled to Cologne. It was said that his departure from Paris was unexpected and happened whilst relaxing and talking with students. He was approached by the Franciscan Minister General on the banks of the Seine and left immediately, taking little or no belongings with him. Just as unexpected was his death just over a year later in Cologne where his mortal remains are today, in the Church of the Friars Minor, a short distance from the impressive cathedral, a building he would never have seen completed. His tomb bears the famous inscription, often used to describe the well-travelled Franciscan.

Scotia me genuit. Anglia me susceipt. Gallia me docuit. Colonia me tenet.

Scotland brought me forth. England sustained me.

France taught me. Cologne holds me.


The genius of Scotus is mixed. A man who was undoubtably a great thinker, his abilities have gone largely unnoticed as he came in the wake of Thomas Aquinas. Why was that? In the case of Aquinas, his teaching tenure was lengthy, Scotus only taught for 10 years, and experienced no broad development of thought. Instead, records show he tinkered with corrections on a small scale, re-working some arguments but making no systematic break through. Ultimately, that lack of systematic work in his studies hamper a proper understanding of his thought, whilst St Thomas was scrupulous in the systematic formation of his works – and the result is clear for all to see in the durability of the work of Aquinas.

Whilst there is a lack in the collective works of Scotus, some of his thought stands out. Take for example the radical doctrine he proposed of the Univocity of Being. Scotus rejected the position of the neo-Augustinians under Henry of Ghent, who defended the doctrine of Divine Illumination – which says our empirical-rational knowledge is based on the illumination of God – a position which raises questions about human knowledge and its autonomy. Aquinas added clarifications but held to the key aspects of the doctrine. It was Scotus who radicalised the whole study of metaphysics when he posited his work. He said that it was not God but Being that was the proper object of human knowledge. His argument was that as humans it is impossible to consider being something, without first conceiving that something as having existed or existing. The position of Scotus denied any distinction between essence and existence and so followed the original position of Aristotle, being qua being, diverging from the work of Aquinas who had argued that in all finite beings, the essence of a thing is distinctive from its existence.


The realism of Scotus and the view he held on hylomorphism gives rise to a term closely associated with him. Haecceity or ‘the thisness’ however, is only one part of his work in this area - Scotus spoke of matter that exists with no form at all. He described prime matter as the matter which underpins all change. It was also the view of the eponymous thinker that amongst the vast number of created substances – not all of them are to be thought of as composites of form and matter – what does that mean? For Scotus it meant that spiritual substances do exist.


However, it is the idea of individuation in the work of Scotus that introduces haecceity. The thisness of an entity describes the ultimate unity of an individual, it is never the same and so completely contrary to a common nature that is also present in individuals. Our friendly thinker uses this as a basis which allows him to hold the position whereby he could say that only individuals exist, a point around which he structures his understanding of reality. Whilst the thisness is an intermediate distinction between a real and conceptual distinction, the conclusion of his thinking leads to the position which would allow a Scotian philosopher to say that the human soul exists in a state separate from the body and able to know, through intuition, the spiritual.


In his theological musings, Scotus is widely associated with the school of voluntarism, a position which is seen most clearly if we compare him to Aquinas. The former's approach meant that he often applies to God and His creatures, terms with the same meaning whilst St Thomas considered such a move ridiculous, instead employing analogical predication so that the words used to describe God would have different meaning to those used for creatures. Such a move for Scotus meant he often encountered difficulties when trying to counter the work of Aquinas with his theory of univocity. In some ways it reflects the systematic development of Aquinas and the rather messier dossier of work left by Scotus – the distinctions that St Thomas used were clear and precise whilst Scotus was often left falling over himself trying to explain that the same word used for different things could suitably explain his position. The confusion ultimately caused extensive difficulties to subsequent Scotian thinkers.

Natural theology provided fertile ground for the mind of Blessed John and his work De primo principio lays out a metaphysical argument for the existence of God. The work is widely seen as an exemplary piece of work in the particular field of theological thinking. His argumentation is typically complex with layers of arguments running throughout the work. His starting point considers a distinction between what are essentially ordered causes and accidental ordered causes. One of the parts of the accidental series still requires to be caused. An accidental cause is something which has no causal effects, the thing will still be something without the accident.


An example is probably helpful - so consider three sheep in a field. The old ewe is the mother of the mother and grandmother of the lamb – Ewe 1 generates Ewe 2 who then generates her own daughter lamb. The lamb that comes from Ewe 2 doesn’t depend on Ewe 1 because Ewe 1 could have fallen foul to predators on the hillside before Ewe 2 is brought to lambing – this is an accidentally ordered series of causes.

The essentially ordered series means that events that happen way after the first are dependent on the first happening. An example for this could be your body in any situation. If you like walking on the beach, then you won’t get going unless your hips rotate to extend your legs allowing your feet to move independently of each other.


These distinctions provide a lens for us to consider the argument of Scotus for the existence of God:

1. An effect cannot produce itself,

2. An effect cannot be produced by nothing at all,

3. A circle of causes is impossible,

4. An effect must be produced by something else,

5. No infinite regress in essentially ordered series of causes,

6. It would not be possible for an accidentally ordered series of causes to exist unless an essentially ordered series exist,

7. Thus, a first agent must exist.


After further defining final causality and a being first in pre-eminence, Scotus' argument culminates in his proof of the so-called triple primacy, a being first in efficient cause (the 7 steps above), final causality and pre-eminence, that has intellect and will and is eternal and of which there can be only one.

These are perhaps not obvious elements we recognise in the practice of the faith, but where Scotus is perhaps most widely recognised is his defence of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. His argument was included in Pius IX’s declaration of the dogma in 1854 which stated that “at the first moment of Her conception, Mary was preserved free from the stain of original sin, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ”. During his time at the end of the 13th and start of the 14th century the argument on the subject was raging with the opinion edging towards a suitably reverential respect for Our Lady whilst struggling to get over the question that the removal of original sin was dependent on the Passion of Our Lord. Many of the great thinkers denied the Immaculate Conception – Thomas Aquinas among them.


However, Scotus took the principle of Anselm of Canterbury, “He could do it, it was appropriate, therefore He did it” and developed the argument that whilst needing redemption, like the rest of humanity, Mary received – through the merits of the crucifixion – the blessing of conception without the stain of original sin. Such an argument does allow for three possibilities, that Mary never bore original sin, that she was marked for an instant or she was purged from sin in an instant. His statement - that whichever of the three was the most excellent should be attributed to Mary – was drowned out by waves of criticism in Paris. However, time eventually lifted the thought of Scotus to be exalted as “a correct expression of the faith of the Apostles” as the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was declared in 1854. Pope St John Paul II described him as the “defender of Mary’s Immaculate Conception” during his beatification in 1993, and so, no matter what the opinions of his more confusing thought – of which there is undoubtedly a lot – Scotus can be recognised as the early formatter of an important dogma of the Church.


Those words of John Paul II were echoed by Benedict XVI in a catechetical audience on Scotus, quoting his predecessor, Pope Benedict said that they “sum up the important contribution that Duns Scotus made to the history of theology”[1] Benedict reminded those listening to him – and us today – that Scotus was prepared to go against the flow of his contemporary Christian thinkers when he spoke of the coming of the Son of God as man even if humanity had not sinned (cf. Reportatio Parisiensis III Sent., d 7, 4). In this thought of Scotus he expressed his position that, in the history of salvation, the Incarnation stands out as “the greatest and most beautiful work” which exists with no strings attached because it is the original idea of God that His creation is united with himself in the Flesh and Person of the Son.

In the same audience, Benedict spoke of an aspect in the work of Scotus which remains pertinent today – Freedom. Scotus considered freedom to be a fundamental quality of the will. This aspect of our subjects thought has provided probably the greatest problem for him in time. With the passage of time this position of Scotus became known as voluntarism, a contrary position to Augustine and Thomas’ suggestion of intellectualism. This thought of voluntarism was not Scotus’, it developed through subsequent thinkers – but our subject did not propose it.


Benedict’s interpretation of Blessed John’s position is that a free act comes from the interaction of intellect and will, a relationship in which will always follows intellect. The conclusion of this thought – and which Pope Benedict pointed to as being of importance to modern society – is the dream in the modern era - for freedom. The modern search for freedom has become separated from truth which goes against Scotus who recognised that the two should be bound together, for freedom reaches its perfection in an open relationship to God, the Truth.


The sad reality is that despite his contribution to the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception, the mark of John Duns Scotus on the Church is not an entirely obvious one, certainly not when compared to figures like St Thomas Aquinas, St Augustine or St Ambrose. His role in the development of Church thought has been overshadowed by the neo-scholastic movement that featured Aquinas, ironically over one of the biggest names from the so-called High Scholastic Period. Modern interpretations have, in this case, done Scotus a disservice, and diminished his contribution. However, this doesn’t change the fact that Scotus is a doctor of the Church. His contribution cannot – and should not – be overlooked. Whilst the mark he leaves is not altogether obvious, it is there, a subtle, light touch that requires proper investigation and understanding. Ultimately, such a discreet mark is perhaps fitting to the one known as The Subtle Doctor.

[1] Benedict XVI, General Audience, 7th July 2010


Fr Robert Taylor starred on the BBC’s Priest School and is was ordained a Priest in the Archdiocese of Edinburgh and St Andrew’s.

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