Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Hug a Scotist Today

Today is the feast of one of the greatest minds in Western history, Bl. John Duns Scotus.

JohnDunsScotus - full

Duns Scotus’s Oxford
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Towery city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in, here coped and poisèd powers;

Thou hast a base and brickish skirt there, sours
That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded
Best in; graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural rural keeping—folk, flocks, and flowers.

Yet ah! this air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted 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.


  1. John Farrell5:43 AM

    Greater even than Aquinas?  :)

  2. branemrys9:16 PM

    There's only one way to find out -- intellectual cage match!

  3. Michael Sullivan12:05 AM

    not rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece - Thomas is certainly Italy!

    I don't think Thomas and John are really rivals. Their minds, despite the scholastic trappings, are extremely dissimilar. Scotus was not really good at many of the things at which Aquinas excelled - clarity, concision, organization, encyclopedic scope, etc - but there's a depth and raw power to his thinking which is harder to grasp at first but, after living in it for a while, makes Aquinas seem like all surface. An unfair characterization, of course!

  4. branemrys3:50 PM

    They are also doing very different things -- Thomas Aquinas's works are almost all for students, in one way or another; he's a teacher to the core, and after the commentary on the Sentences (which is introductory in its own way), everything he writes is in some way an introductory text. The combination of this with his sanctity is exactly the reason why it is not surprising that he was the first post-Patristic theologian to be named a Doctor of the Church, and is still in some sense, and likely to be for quite some time, the post-Patristic Doctor of the Church. Scotus is not a teacher in this way, however much he teaches, and what he writes rarely even approaches introductory; he is neck-deep in academic disputes and technicalities, and what makes him saintly is that he had a clear enough head to handle such things well without losing the priorities of faith. (In one way it was a more remarkable accomplishment; we had already known that a through-and-through teacher could be a saint, even if an academic, or that a through-and-through mystic could be a saint, even if an academic. Scotus is one of very few proofs indeed that a through-and-through academic can be a saint.) Common Doctor and Subtle Doctor are exactly the right labels.

  5. Michael Sullivan4:11 PM

    These are very good observations. Yes, as a writer Thomas is first and foremost a teacher, and Scotus is first and foremost a thinker, who seems never to have worried for an instant about how or whether to make his thoughts approachable. There's no better gate of entry into theology than Thomas, and almost no better gate of entry into philosophy either (I'd put Plato first). Scotus never wrote a sentence for beginners.

    In my opinion Bonaventure adds something else, another dimension that you can't get in either Aquinas or Scotus, and so he is necessary too in order to complete the Scholastic trifecta. I don't know how to characterize it briefly; I'm tempted to call it "unction", but I don't like the word. At least I can say this - I could do without all the other scholastics but I can't see doing without Thomas or Duns or Bonaventure.

  6. branemrys5:35 PM

    Very true about Bonaventure, and also about the lack of good terms to describe what he contributes; I think I would be tempted to call it 'poetry', but that makes it sound more trivial than it is, or 'inspiration', which makes it sound more slapdash than it is.

    As I think I've said before, there's a sense with all three that the philosophy and even theology, at least as written, is secondary -- what we really see in the philosophy and theology are the persons themselves; and the Church only needs Thomism, and Scotism, and the like, to the extent that they cultivate people who are at least in little ways new Thomases, &c. The truly great treasure about the three is themselves; their teachings are just where we meet them and start learning how to be like them in traveling the way to God.


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