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John Duns Scotus, the Subtle Doctor

May 03, 2010
John Duns Scotus, the Subtle Doctor

The man who won the title "subtle doctor" began life as a dunce. He could not comprehend his school work. In desperation, he resorted to prayer and received the gift of understanding, becoming a brilliant scholar.

John Duns Scotus was born in Duns, Scotland around 1265. A virtuous young man, he joined the Franciscans as a teenager and was ordained to the priesthood in 1291. He devoted his life to theology and philosophy, studying and teaching at the great universities of the day.

In those days the Sentences of Peter Lombard and similar works formed the backbone of philosophical and scientific studies. These Sentences arranged doctrinal opinions of the church fathers under categories with objections made to them and comments by other church authorities. These were grist for students, starting points for debate and the basis of many commentaries. John wrote a commentary on Lombard's Sentences. Just what else he wrote is difficult to decide, because others soon wrote works using his famous name.

John was particularly interested in showing that men could know God's existence through reason. His long and difficult arguments have to do with the nature of being. John argued strongly for a first cause. He defined infinity as a positive attribute rather than a negative one (as something without boundaries) and showed that God must be infinite in every good thing.

The philosophy of John was widely accepted for three centuries. "He described the Divine Nature as if he had seen God; the celestial spirits as if he had been an angel; the happiness of the future state as if he had enjoyed them; and the ways of Providence as if he had penetrated into its secrets," wrote an admirer. However, in the sixteenth century, his philosophy was mocked as nonsense. People who put forward silly ideas were called dunces.

However, John's thinking made a comeback. Based on a vision he experienced, he had taught not only the absolute kingship of Christ but Mary's immaculate conception. When the Roman Church needed for arguments to buttress the latter teaching, which it made official doctrine, John rose in importance. A feast of the kingship of Christ was also instituted in 1925 and Pope John Paul II beatified John in 1992.

John died on this day, November 8, 1308. He was only about forty-five years old.


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  2. Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921 - 1996.
  3. Edwards, Paul, editor. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York, Macmillan, 1967.
  4. "John Duns Scotus." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/ entries/duns-scotus/
  5. McKeon, Richard, editor and translator. Selections from Medieval Philosophers, II, Roger Bacon to William of Ockham. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1930.
  6. Minges, Parthenius. "Blessed John Duns Scotus." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Co, 1909.
  7. Runes, Dagobert D. A Treasury of Philosophy. New York: Philosophical Library, 1945; p. 341; 382.
  8. Russell, Bertrand. Wisdom of the West. New York: Fawcett, 1964; p. 188ff.
  9. Saint-Maurice, Béraud d. John Duns Scotus : a teacher for our times. Translated by Columban Duffy. St. Bonaventure, New York: Franciscan Institute, 1955.

Last updated June, 2007.


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