Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

The Now-Blessed Theologian Behind the Perjorative 'Dunce.' (John Duns Scotus)

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

The Now-Blessed Theologian Behind the Perjorative 'Dunce.' (John Duns Scotus)

Article excerpt

As of March 20, the man behind the word dunce is now officially a "blessed" of the church. For many years, the philosopher/theologian John Duns Scotus has been unofficially regarded as blessed by various devotees.

Bom in Scotland about 1266 at a place called Duns, he died unexpectedly in Cologne in 1308. (He's buried near the famous cathedral there.) He was thus a contemporary of Thomas Aquinas and Dante.

As a youth, he joined the Franciscan Order. He studied and taught at Oxford and was ordained a priest there in 1291. He died in his early 40s, but his copious writings exerted wide intellectual influence for centuries through his followers, known as Scotists.

Although he was accused of heresy at the time and was contradicting Aquinas, he was the first major theologian to defend the idea of the Immaculate Conception of Christ's mother.

Also against Aquinas, Scotus held that natural law is based on God's will and is therefore changeable, that the incarnation would have occurred even if Adam had not sinned, and that love is the essence of heavenly bliss - not vision.

His subtlety in defending his viewpoints earned him the title "Doctor Subtilis." Later philosophers regarded his subtlety and that of his disciples as "hairsplitting" and in England by 1577 had turned the phrase "a Dunsman" into a "dunce."

Alexander Pope expanded the word in his 1728 mock-epic poem, "The Dunciad." With or without a "cap," the word is still quite alive and appears in the modern novel A Confederacy of Dunces.

Intriguingly, the father of American pragmatism, Charles Sanders Peirce, esteemed Scotus as the greatest speculative mind of the Middle Ages, indeed, as "one of the profoundest metaphysicians that ever lived. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.