Friday, May 7, 2010

Duns John Scotus: Last of the Schoolmen.

"He lived on: these weeds and waters these walls are what He haunted who of all men most sways my spirit to peace. Of realty the rarest-veined unravaveller; a not Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece: Who fired France for Mary without spot."
Dun Scotus's Oxford, G.M. Hopkins

Time for the blog to focus on one of the greatest of Celtic thinkers, Duns John Scotus. He certainly has the greatest of names and it's hard to imagine any name ever topping this one. It rivals Babe Ruth for baseball, and Michael Jordan in basketball. Duns John Scotus (circa 1265-1308) was one of the most important figures of the medieval world. Little is known about his early life, and scholars speculate he was born in either Scotland, Ireland or France. We know Scotus was born a Celt, but we just don't know where. He became a Franciscan monk in 1290, and then went to St. Andrews Priory in Northampton, England in 1291. Later, he studied at Oxford from 1298 to 1231. In 1302, Scotus began lectures on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, some of the most famous collections of sayings and writings of the day. These lectures and commentary would lead Scotus into great prominence and demand as a teacher, but more on that in a minute.

Scotus is an important thinker, the last great philosopher High Middle Ages. Only St. Bonaventure, another Franciscan, could be said to have been a more important figure. Scotus was the champion of Franciscan Augustianism. His great gift was to be able to blend many different traditions together, including Aristotle, Church doctrine, and the Church Fathers. For these considerable abilities, Scotus rightly received the title "Subtle Doctor" of the Church. Scotus had a first rate mind, and was a great systematizer. A contemporary of Scotus', Rodulphus, noted that there was nothing his mind could not fathom, clarify or unravel. Scotus was often compared to another great figure in philosophy, Socrates, who often asked difficult and probing questions. Scotus tried to arrange the doctrines of the Church into something like our modern encylopedia. This helps to explain why the Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard were so popular. Scotus, sounding very modern for his time, was convinced that truth would shine most brightly as a result of critical investigation. Even a school of thought-Scotism-was named after him and his method.  The Sentences were a textbook of sorts, a collection of sayings and truth claims, containing what was thought to be the best and brightest of the day. The problem was that much in culture and the intellectual life had changed since the sentences were first compiled. Doctrines and traditions needed to be updated and revised. The Commentary met these questions and challanges headon. Scotus's knowledge was considerable, and he tried to reconcile new learning with the old, and in some cases updated what seemed antiquated.  Scotus was not afraid to criticize positions he felt were wrong. It was this tendency which have caused some to remark that Scotus's mind was more critical instead of creative, and that his main focus was to disturb faith and controversy. Again like Socrates, Scotus was an irritant of sorts.

Scotus's ideas strike me  as a collection of both ancient and modern teachings. He denied the existence of God could be proved by reason alone, and took a more Thomistic approach, concluding it was only revelation (Scripture) and Church which could lead one to God. Scotus also had some disagreements regarding the doctrine of God. For Aquinas, the controlling element was Mind. Scotus argued God's will that was primary. God is good because He wills it so, and the will of God also determines the salvation of men and women. I think that what Scotus is getting at here, is that God's great attribute is "action" and involvement in this world, and was most visibly demonstrated in the incarnation. The thinking, mind centered theology, both of Aristotle and Aquinas, smacks too much of the Gods of the philosophers. And here, in a curious way, we are led back to a point made centuries earlier by Pelagius in The Christian Life, that the essense of the Christian life is in loving others, one's neighbors, and in doing good deeds. Action over contemplation. 

Scotus also parted ways on some of the more "traditional doctrines" of the church. He has a novel idea about sin. He felt sin was not something infinite as it concerned finite beings. He also denied it was something which was passed down to the human race by procreation. Good Franciscan that he was, sin was the result of the will. Nor did Scotus believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation. Throughout Scotus's writings there is a modern temper, a critical spirit which is not afraid to question and tackle long held beliefs. Students of his day, must have been excited and felt new worlds were opening before them. The themes of Scotus's writings and his life, leave one with the impression that he was an uneasy medievalist who also had touches of modernism in his blood. Perhaps that is why so many discover Scotus as someone whose writings and ideas still speak to us today.

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