Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Duns Scotus and the Natural Moral Law

JOHN DUNS SCOTUS is, perhaps, the Franciscan counterpart to the Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas, though he has to contend with the redoubtable St. Bonaventure for that title. Relative to St. Thomas Aquinas, the common doctor of the Church, Duns Scotus (1265(6)-1308) certainly suffers from less exposure or popularity, especially in the area with which we are concerned, his moral teachings. A clear understanding of his philosophical teachings were somewhat hampered by the uncertainty regarding the authorship of some of the work that was attributed to him, for example, the Theoremata, a work that shows nominalistic leanings not completely compatible with work that he was known to have authored, in particular, his two great commentaries on the sentences and the Opus Oxoniense. This, of course, caused quite a lot of confusion as various efforts were made to reconcile the quite contrary teachings between the questioned Theoremata and his other known works. His moral theology, which stresses the primacy of the will over the intellect, opened the door to voluntarism which, it its extreme form--for example in Ockham--is deeply problematic. For this reason, Scotus has often (and wrongly) tagged a voluntarist in ethics, where, in its extreme form, God can virtually will any act right merely by willing it, there being no other quality of the good other than the fact that God has willed it. Conceivably, then, God could even will men to hate him, and it would be considered good because God willed it. Though Scotus was not a voluntarist in the sense that Ockham was, there is no doubt that will predominates over reason in his moral teachings, and this colors his view of the natural law.

Other works of Scotus that are considered authentic include the Reportata Parisiensia, the Questiones Quodlibetales, the Collationes, and the De primo principio.

Scotus was, in any event, not a dunce, but rather a formidable thinker, and he earned his laurels as a Catholic theologian by his theological reflections and thinking on Mary's Immaculate Conception. His deep reflections and his incisive thinking removed the theological objections to Mary's Immaculate Conception in a manner that even St. Thomas was unable to do. He is therefore also frequently referred to as the Doctor Marianus, the Marian Doctor.

Duns Scotus, the Doctor Subtilis

Known also as the subtle doctor, the Doctor Subtilis, Scotus was born in Maxton, county of Roxburgh, in Scotland. The name Duns came from his family name which is derived from Duns, Berwick County, Scotland, the traditional family home, and Scotus, his country of origin. (An etymological tradition holds that the word "Dunce" came from "Duns," courtesy of the detractors of his teaching who called anyone who held foolish or unintelligible positions to be another "Duns.") Scotus studied at Oxford and Paris, eventually lecturing at the University of Paris. He joined the Franciscan Order in 1278, took the habit of the Friars Minor in 1280, and was ordained a priest in 1291. For reasons not altogether clear, he was transferred from Paris to Cologne, where he taught for the last year of his life.

Scotus is the founder of the school of thought called Scotism, a competitor to Thomism, and scholars debate the extent of the rift between the two thinkers. As Copleston summarized the state of affairs in his day:

Various general interpretations of Scotus's philosophy have been given, ranging from the interpretation of Scotus as a revolutionary, as a direct precursor of Ockham and of Luther, to the attempt to soften down the sharp differences between Scotism and Thomism and to interpret Scotus as a continuator of the work of St. Thomas. The first interpretation . . . can be dismissed, in its extreme form at least, as extravagant and insufficiently grounded, while on the other hand it is impossible to deny that Scotism does differ from Thomism. But is Scotus to be regarded as a continuator of the Franciscan tradition who at the same time adopted a great deal from Aristotle and from non-Franciscan mediaeval predecessors, or is to be regarded as a thinker who carried on the Aristotelian tradition of St. Thomas but at the same time corrected St. Thomas in the light of what he himself considered to be the truth, or is he simply to be regarded as an independent thinker who at the same time depended, as all philosophers must, on preceding thinkers in regard to the problems raised and discussed? The question is not an easy one to answer . . . but it would seem that there is truth in each of the foregoing suggestions.

Copleston, 481. Some differences are apparent. Scotus, in line with the Augustinian/Franciscan tradition emphasizes the superiority of the will over the intellect, rather than, as is typical for the Thomistic tradition, the intellect over the will. A characteristic of his moral teaching is to emphasize freedom even over love, and love over knowledge. One of the distinct features of his moral theology was his view that the first principle of moral action, that is, the "supreme practical principle is that God should be loved above all things." Copleston, 482. As mentioned above, inkeeping with the Augustinian/Franciscan school, Scotus emphasizes God's will as the source of moral obligation, although he does not espouse an extreme voluntarism such as Ockham. Nevertheless, "it can hardly be denied that the elements of voluntarism in his philosophy helped to prepare the way for the authoritarianism of Ockham." Copleston, 485. Some of these voluntaristic tenets influence Scotus's view that the natural law precepts could be divided into primary and secondary precepts (the primary dealing with the relationship between God and man; the secondary precepts involving the relationship between man and man). In Scotus's view, the secondary precepts were not part of the natural law in the strict sense and therefore could be dispensed with by God in a particular case (e.g., in the command to Abraham). Copleston, 485. His moral philosophy is much less reliant upon Aristotle than St. Thomas, and there is a notable departure from Aristotle in the area of virtues ethics or the role of happiness. But we are anticipating our topic.

The Victorian poet and Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was deeply influenced by Scotus, described Scotus's fate thus: "[H]e saw too far, he knew too much; his subtlety overshot his interests; a kind of feud arose between genius and talent, and the ruck of talent in the Schools finding itself, as his age passed by, less and less able to understand him, voted that there was nothing important to understand and so first misquoted and then refuted him." Letters, III, 349. For the deeply sensitive Hopkins, Scotus was the thinker "who of all men most sways my spirits to peace."
Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not
Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;
Who fired France for Mary without spot.
Hopkins, "Duns Scotus's Oxford."

Hopkins found confirmation of his unique doctrine of "inscape" in Scotus's works, though it clearly is not a concept identical with Scotus's philosophical doctrine of haecceitas but is rather much more broadly predicated on Scotus's Christological or Christocentric view of the creation. Hopkins found in Scotus a kindred spirit, particularly in what John Paul II called Scotus's characteristic as a "minstrel" of the Word Incarnate. Undoubtedly, the poetic inclinations of Scotus and his deeply Marian piety also resounded with Hopkins.

The Hopkinsean notion of "inscape" is difficult to grasp, but its essential aspect is that the inner nature of any created object contains a revelation of God which is manifested or communicated by its outer characteristics. Each created nature, then, contains a revelation of God, a "word, expression, news of God." Sermons, 129. So, for example, when Hopkins saw a bluebell in bloom, he came to know "the beauty of the Lord by it." Its inscape, "is strength and grace, like an ash." Journals, 199. The link between Hopkins and Scotus in this area of inscape is made clear in one of the entries in Hopkins's Journals where he states that after having read Scotus "when I took any inscape of the sky or sea I thought of Scotus." Journals, 221. This notion of Scotus was carried over by Hopkins (though undeveloped) in an analogous concept of "inlaw," which might be likened to a practical analogue of the theoretical "inscape," and thus may be a deeply Christological notion of the conscience or the natural moral law as a sort of natural calling of Christ in man into intimacy with him.**

His life is succinctly if nakedly summarized by the epitaph on his sarcophagus in Cologne:
Scotia me genuit.
Anglia me suscepit.
Gallia me docuit.
Colonia me tenet.
In 1993, Scotus was beatified by John Paul II.

Over the next several postings, we will take a cursory view over the moral teachings of this much-maligned and often misunderstood Franciscan genius. We will rely largely on Allan Wolter's text and commentary Duns Scotus: On the Will & Morality, though other texts will also be referenced.††

*Copleston refers to Frederick Copleston, S. J., A History of Philosophy (New York: Image Books, 1985), Volume II ("Augustine to Scotus").
**The cites to Hopkins are taken from Sjaak Zonneveld, "Blessed John Duns Scotus and Recent Papal Pronouncements," Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [Online], Vol. VII – n°3 | 2009.
†Latin for: "Scotland borne me. England raised me. France taught me. Cologne has [or holds] me."
††Allan B. Wolter, O.F.M., Duns Scotus: On the Will & Morality (William A. Frank, trans. and ed.) (Washington, D.C., Catholic University Press, 1997).


  1. Thanks for these interesting posts on Scotus. The Theoremata is authentic; I wasn't sure if you affirmed that or not. It is not nominalist, but has a section in which Scotus denies a long series of propositions from natural theology that he otherwise holds (it reads like an anti-summa contra gentiles). It has been suggested that this section is a reductio ad absurdum based on the denial of Scotus' particular theory of the univocity of being and the transcendentals. Hence it is not actually at odds with his other teachings.

  2. Thanks Lee for your interest in my blog. I did not know about the Theoremata being under current scholarship authentic Scotus. I am a neophyte on things Scotist!

    I know this: For all my Thomism, I love Hopkins, and Hopkins loved Scotus, and Scotus loved God. Unfortunately, there is not as extensive a literature on Scotus as there is on St. Thomas, and it puts non-academics like me at a disadvantage.

  3. Yes, sadly there is not as much, and much if it is heavily technical like Scotus himself. The latest research is generally in expensive journals and horribly expensive books, so one needs a good library nearby. But Wolter did the world a favor by translating so much, so at least there is a lot of actual Scotus to read that is fairly accessible (see Franciscan Institute publications website).

    keep up the good work!

    Oh and for what it's worth, Copleston is actually fairly good on Scotus. a few things are outdated, but by and larege he is quite fair and accurate.