John Duns Scotus (1265-1308), Doctor Subtilis, the Subtle Doctor, was a Franciscan theologian of the Middle Ages renowned for his defense of the Immaculate Conception and his writings on the soul. He also stands as an intermediary between Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham. Although he sometimes is confused with Johannes Scotus Eriugena because of the similarity of their names, Duns Scotus lived at the end of the 13th century (1265-1308), whereas Scotus Eriugena lived in the 9th century (c. 810-c. 877). There is some debate as to Duns Scotus’s origins, which may have been Irish, Scottish, or northern English. The English claim can be found in Duns Scotus’s several years of service as a professor at Oxford. Part of the confusion stems from Scotus, which meant Irish in the Middle Ages. Some sources claim that Duns refers to a place in either Ireland or Scotland; dun is a Gaelic word for “fort,” and it is a common prefix in place-names. It is perhaps significant in this regard that the Scotist school, of which he was the founder, found its greatest favor among Irish Franciscans. In the library of Saint Francis of Assisi, Duns Scotus is described as de provincia Hibernia, fromthe province of Ireland. Nonetheless, his grave inscription in Cologne says “Scotland bore me . . .” He is believed to have received his doctorate, titled Quastiones Quodlibetales, at the Franciscan college in Paris, and from there he took up a professorship in Cologne prior to his death while still in his 30s.
The Scotist school, or the Later Franciscan school, is a theological and philosophical style that is derived from the Old Franciscan school of Augustinian theology (Platonism) and that combined the writings of Aristotle with those of Plato. Duns Scotus employed Aristotelian thought and Peripatetic ideas to a greater degree than had his predecessors, disagreeing with Saint Thomas Aquinas on some points, for example, the doctrine of necessity and the distinction between form and matter, yet he remained firmly entrenched within the Old Franciscan school.
His first work probably was his commentaries on Aristotle. Some of his other writings include Reportata Parisiensia and De perfectione statuum. The sobriquet Doctor Subtilis comes from his complex and subtly suggestive lines of thinking on subjects such as will, human freedom, universality, metaphysics, and theological language. This is evident in his Opus Oxoniense, his Oxford commentaries on Peter Lombard’s 12th-century Sentences (Quatuor libri Sententiarum), which united the facets of theology from the Blessed Trinity through judgment to heaven and hell, into a unified whole. Duns Scotus’s commentaries, although mainly theological in nature, cover the gamut of metaphysical, grammatical, and scientific thought and serve to display most of his philosophical system. Although Duns Scotus appears to have changed his position from his earlier acceptance of prevailing theology to his later individual insights, this cannot be certain because many of his essays remain incomplete, and he did not produce a Summa. His talent appears to have been criticism more than self-expression, or perhaps more accurately, selfexpression through criticism.
Nonetheless, a philosophical system exists within the work of Duns Scotus. He distinguishes among pure intellectual distinctions, distinctions that are based in reality, and formal distinctions that lie between intellectual and realistic distinctions. This leads to the soul, the intellect, and the will, each with its own faculties and realities, yet which are different aspects of the same existence.
The Blessed Trinity exist of themselves regardless of externalities. It is in its wholeness as three persons in one existence that they create by their unified thoughts and will. Likewise, existence is not the same thing as substance; an accident can exist within substance yet not have substance of its own. Only things that actually exist have being. Prior to being, things have only essence but not existence, yet within the essence is contained the possibility of existence. Only God is perfect enough to exist without the need for material creation. Thus, when God gives existence to essence by his will, he makes it good and real because it comes from God. God’s will is not limited by the laws of nature. Thus, being beyond the laws of nature, God is not bound by time, but he exists outside of it, making him eternal. Yet time itself exists solely dependent upon God’s will, as he gives it existence. We measure time relative to lunar and solar movements put into motion as an expression of his will. From this we can infer God’s infinity from his finite creations.
Ironically, the term dunce, someone who cannot learn, comes from later followers of Duns Scotus who were tied to his sophist teachings and would not accept the rise of humanism. Duns Scotus was elevated to Blessed by Pope John Paul II.
Michael J. Simonton
See also Aquinas, Saint Thomas; Aristotle; Christianity; God as Creator; Scotus, Johannes Eriugena; William of Ockham
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