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Significant Scots
John Bassol


BASSOL, JOHN, a distinguished disciple of the famous Duns Scotus, is stated by Mackenzie to have been born in the reign of Alexander III. He studied under Duns at Oxford, and with him, in 1304, removed to Paris, where he resided some time in the University, and, in 1313, entered the order of the Minorities. After this he was sent by the general of his order to Rheims, where he applied himself to the study of medicine, and taught philosophy for seven or eight years. In 1322, he removed to Mechlin in Brabant, and after teaching theology in that city for five and twenty years, died in 1347.

Bassol’s only work was one entitled, "Commentaria Sou Lecturae in Quatuor Libros Sententiarum," to which were attached some miscellaneous papers on Philosophy and Medicine. The book was published in folio at Paris, in 1517. Bassol was known by the title, Doctor Ordinatissimus, or the most Methodical Doctor, on account of the clear and accurate method in which he lectured and composed. The fashion of giving such titles to the great masters of the schools was then in its prime. Thus, Duns Scotus himself was styled Doctor Subtilis, or the Subtle Doctor. St Francis of Assis was called the Seraphic Doctor; Alexander Hales the Irrefragable Doctor; Thomas Aquinas the Angelical Doctor; Hendricus Bonicollius the Solemn Doctor; Richard Middleton the Solid Doctor; Francis Mayron the Acute Doctor; Durandus a S. Portiano the most Resolute Doctor; Thomas Bredwardin the Profound Doctor; Joannes Ruysbrokius the Divine Doctor, and so forth; the title being in every case founded upon some extravagant conception of the merit of the particular individual, adopted by his contemporaries and disciples. In this extraordinary class of literati, John Bassol, as implied by his soubriquet, shines conspicuous for order and method; yet we are told that his works contain most of the faults which are generally laid to the charge of the schoolmen. The chief of these is an irrational devotion to the philosophy of Aristotle, as expounded by Thomas Aquinas. In the early ages of modern philosophy, this most splendid exertion of the human mind was believed to be irreconcileable to the Christian doctrines; and at the very time when the Angelical Doctor wrote his commentary, it stood prohibited by a decree of Pope Gregory IX. The illustrious Thomas not only restored Aristotle to favour, but inspired his followers with an admiration of his precepts, which, as already mentioned, was not rational. Not less was their admiration of the "angelical" commentator, to whom it was long the fashion among them to offer an incense little short of blasphemy. A commentator upon an original work of Thomas Aquinas, endeavours, in a prefatory discourse, to prove, in so many chapters, that he wrote his books not without the special infusion of the spirit of God Almighty; that, in writing them, he received many things by revelation; and, that Christ had given anticipatory testimony to his writings. By way of bringing the works of St Thomas into direct comparison with the Holy Scriptures, the same writer remarks, "that, as in the first General Councils of the church, it was common to have the Bible unfolded upon the Altar, so, in the last General Council (that of Trent), St Thomas’ ‘Sum.’ was placed beside the Bible, as an inferior rule of Christian doctrine." Peter Labbé, a learned Jesuit, with scarcely less daring flattery, styles St Thomas an angel, and says that, as he learned many things from the angels, so he taught the angels some things; that St Thomas had said what St Paul was not permitted to utter; and that he speaks of God as if he had seen him, and of Christ as if he had been his voice. One might almost suppose that these learned gentlemen, disregarding the sentiment afterwards embodied by Gray, that flattery soothes not the cold ear of death, endeavoured by their praises to make interest with the "angelical" shade, not doubting that he was able to obtain for them a larger share of paradise than they could otherwise hope for. In the words of the author of the Reflections on Learning, "the sainted Thomas, if capable of hearing these inordinate flatteries, must have blushed to receive them."

Bassol was also characterized, in common with all the rest of the schoolmen, by a ridiculous nicety in starting questions and objections. Overlooking the great moral aim of what they were expounding, he and his fellows lost themselves in minute and subtle inquiries after physical exactness, started at every straw which lay upon their path, and measured the powers of the mind by grains and scruples. It must be acknowledged, in favour of this singular class of men, that they improved natural reason to a great height, and that much of what is most admired in modern philosophy is only borrowed from them. At the same time, their curiosity in raising and prosecuting frivolous objections to the Christian system is to be regretted as the source of much scepticism and irreligion. To many of their arguments, ridicule only is due; and it would perhaps be impossible for the gravest to restrain a smile at the illustrissimo mentioned by Cardan, one of whose arguments was declared to be enough to puzzle all posterity, and who himself wept in his old age, because he had become unable to understand his own books.

The works of Bassol have been long forgotten, like those of his brethren but it is not too much to say regarding this great man of a former day, that the same powers of mind which he spent upon the endless intricacies of the school philosophy, would certainly, in another age and sphere, have tended to the permanent advantage of his fellow creatures. He was so much admired by his illustrious preceptor, that that great man used to say, "If only Joannes Bassiolis be present, I have a sufficient auditory."


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