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Significant Scots
John De Duns


DUNS, JOHN DE, (SCOTUS,) that is, "John of Dunse, Scotsman," an eminent philosopher, was born in the latter part of the thirteenth century.

The thirteenth and part of the fourteenth centuries are distinguished, in the history of philosophy, as the scholastic age, in which Aristoteline logic and metaphysics were employed, to an absurd and even impious degree, in demonstrating and illustrating the truths of the Holy Scriptures. Among the many scholars of Europe, who, during this period, perverted their talents in the exposition of preposterous degrees and the defence of a false system of philosophy, JOHN DE DUNSE, called the Subtle Doctor, was perhaps the most celebrated. So famous indeed was he held for his genius and learning, that England and Ireland have contended with Scotland for the honour of his birth. His name, however, seems to indicate his nativity beyond all reasonable dispute. Though convenience has induced general modern writers to adopt the term Scotus as his principal cognomen, it is evidently a signification of his native country alone; for Erigena, and other eminent natives of Scotland in early times, are all alike distinguished by it in their learned titles; these titles be it observed, having been conferred in foreign seminaries of learning. John de Dunse points as clearly as possible to the town of that name in Berwickshire, where, at this day, a spot is pointed out as the place of his birth, and a branch of his family possessed, till the beginning of the last century, a small piece of ground, called in old writings, "Duns’s Half of Grueldykes." Those who claim him as a native of England set forward the village of Dunstane in Northumberland as the place of his birth; but while the word Dunse * is exactly his name, Dunstane is not so, and therefore, without other proof, we must hold the English locality as a mere dream. The Irish claimants again say, that, as Scotia was the ancient name of Ireland, Scotus must have been an Irishman. But it happens that Scotland and Ireland bore their present names from a period long antecedent to the birth of John de Dunse; and all over Europe, Hibernus and Scotus were distinguishing titles of Irishmen and Scotsmen. Independent, too, of the name, there are other testimonies concerning the native place of Scotus. In the earliest authentic record of him, preserved in his life by Wading, (an Irishman and advocate for Ireland), the following passage occurs, which represents him as a boy conducted by two friars to Dumfries, a town in a county almost adjoining that in which Dunse is situate:— "Some infer that the acute genius of Scotus was inborn. Father Ildephonsus Birzenus (in Appar. §. 2.) from Ferchius (Vita Scoti, c. 20.) and the latter from Gilbert Brown (Hist. Eccles.) relate, ‘that Scotus, occupied on a farm, and, though the son of a rich man, employed in keeping sheep, according to the custom of his country, that youth may not become vicious from idleness, was met by two Franciscan friars, begging as usual for their monastery. Being favourably received by his father’s hospitality, they begun to instruct the boy by the repetition of the Lord’s prayer, as they found him ignorant of the principles of piety; and he was so apt a scholar as to repeat it at once. The friars, surprised at such docility, which they regarded as a prodigy, prevailed on the father, though the mother warmly and loudly opposed, to permit them to lead the boy to Dumfries, where he was soon after shorn as a novice, and presented to our holy father, St Francis; and some say that he then assumed the profession of a friar.’ Such are the words of Birzenus." Another passage from the same authority is still more conclusive regarding the country of Scotus:— "Nor must a wonderful circumstance be omitted, which, with Birzenus, we transcribe from Ferchius (c. 5.), that we may obtain the greater credit. Hence it appears, that the Holy Virgin granted to Dunse innocence of life, modesty of manners, complete faith, continence, piety, and wisdom. That Paul might not be elated by great revelations, he suffered the blows of Satan; that the subtle doctor might not be inflated by the gifts of the mother of Christ, he was forced to suffer the tribulation of captivity, by a fierce enemy. Gold is tried by the furnace, and a just man by temptation. Edward I., king of England, called, from the length of his legs, Long Shanks, had cruelly invaded Scotland, leaving no monument of ancient majesty that he did not seize or destroy, leading to death, or to jail, the most noble and learned men of the country. Among them were twelve friars; and that he might experience the dreadful slaughter and bitter captivity of his country, John of Dunse suffered a miserable servitude; thus imitating the apostle in the graces of God, and the chains he endured."

When delivered from his servitude in England, Scotus studied at Merton college, Oxford, where he soon became distinguished, particularly by the facility and subtilty of his logical disputations. His progress in natural and moral philosophy, and in the different branches of mathematical learning, was rapid; and his skill in scholastic theology was so striking, that he was, in 1301, appointed divinity professor at Oxford. In this situation he soon attracted unbounded popularity. His lectures on the sentences of Peter Lombard drew immense crowds of hearers, and we are assured that there were no fewer than thirty thousand students brought to the university of Oxford, by the fame of the subtle doctor’s eloquence and learning. These lectures have been printed, and fill six folio volumes. In 1304, he was commanded by the general of his order (the Franciscan) to proceed to Paris, to defend the doctrine of the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, which had been impugned by some divines. No fewer than two hundred objections are said to have been brought against that doctrine, which he "heard with great composure, and refuted them with as much ease as Sampson broke the cords of the Philistines." Hugo Cavillus, in his life of Scotus, says that one who was present on this occasion, but who was a stranger to the person, though not to the fame of Scotus, exclaimed in a fervour of admiration at the eloquence displayed, "This is either an angel from heaven, a devil from hell, or John Duns Scotus!" The same anecdote we have seen applied to various other prodigies, but this is perhaps the origin of it. As a reward for his victory in this famous dispute, he was appointed professor and regent in the theological schools of Paris, and acquired the title of the SUBTLE DOCTOR. Nothing, however, could be more barren and useless than the chimerical abstractions and metaphysical refinements which obtained him his title. He opposed Thomas Aquinas on the subject of grace, and established a sect called the Scotists, in contra-distinction to the Tomists, which extended its ramifications throughout every country in Europe. In 1308, he was sent to Cologne, to found a university there, and to defend his favourite doctrine of the immaculate conception, against the disciples of Albert the Great. But he was only a few months there when he was seized with an apoplectic fit, which cut him off on the 8th of November, 1308, in the forty-fourth, or, according to others, in the thirty-fourth year of his age. It is said, that he was buried before he had been actually dead, as was discovered by an after examination of his grave.

The writings which Scotus left behind him were numerous. Various editions of parts of them, particularly of his lectures on the sentences of Peter Lombard, were printed towards the close of the fifteenth century; and in 1639, a complete edition of all his works, with his life, by Wading, et cum Notis et Comm. a P. P. Hibernis Collegii Romani S. Isinort Professoribus appeared at Lyons in twelve volumes folio! These labours, which were at one time handled with reverential awe, are now almost totally neglected.

The fame of John Duns Scotus, during his lifetime, and for many years after his decease, was extraordinary, and goes to prove the extent of his talents, however misapplied and wasted they were on the subtilties of school philosophy and the absurdities of school divinity. From among the testimonials regarding him which Wading has collected in his life, the following, by a learned cardinal, may be given as a specimen: "Among all the scholastic doctors, I must regard John Duns Scotus as a splendid sun, obscuring all the stars of heaven, by the piercing acuteness of his genius; by the subtilty and the depth of the most wide, the most hidden, the most wonderful learning; this most subtile doctor surpasses all others, and, in my opinion, yields to no writer of any age. His productions, the admiration and despair even of the most learned among learned, being of such extreme acuteness, that they exercise, excite, and sharpen even the brightest talents to a more sublime knowledge of divine objects, it is no wonder that the most profound writers join in one voice, ‘that this Scot, beyond all controversy, surpasses not only the contemporary theologians, but even the greatest of ancient or modern times, in the sublimity of his genius and the immensity of his learning.’ This subtile doctor was the founder of the grand and most noble sect of the Scotists, which, solely guided by his doctrine, has so zealously taught, defended, amplified, and diffused it, that, being spread all over the world, it is regarded as the most illustrious of all. From this sect, like heroes from the Trojan horse, many princes of science have proceeded, whose labour in teaching has explained many difficulties, and whose industry in writing has so much adorned and enlarged theological learning, that no further addition can be expected or desired." Here is another specimen of panegyric: "Scotus was so consummate a philosopher, that he could have been the inventor of philosophy, if it had not before existed. His knowledge of all the mysteries of religion was so profound and perfect, that it was rather intuitive certainty than belief. He described the divine nature as if he had seen God; the attributes of celestial spirits, as if he had been an angel; the felicities of a future state as if he had enjoyed them; and the ways of providence as if he had penetrated into all its secrets. He wrote so many books that one man is hardly able to read them, and no one man is able to understand them. He would have written more, if he had composed with less care and accuracy. Such was our immortal Scotus, the most ingenious, acute, and subtile of the Sons of men."**

These extracts may suffice to show the estimation, or rather adoration, in which the subtle doctor was once held; and it was not alone among his own disciples that he was venerated; for Julius Caesar Scaliger acknowledges, that in the perusal of John of Dunse, he acquired any subtilty of discussion which he might possess; and Cardan, one of the earliest philosophers who broke the yoke of Aristotle, classes Scotus among his chosen twelve masters of profound and subtile sciences. In comparing the enthusiastic popularity in which Scotus and his works were once held with the undisturbed oblivion which they now enjoy, the mind adverts to the fleeting nature of all, even the most honorable earthly aggrandizement; and a likeness of name and situation suggests the question, Shall another Scotus, who, in our own day, has excited throughout Europe the liveliest admiration, come, in two or three centuries, to be forgotten like John of Dunse, or only remembered, like him, as a curious illustration of the follies of a dark and ignorant age?

*It is a common story that the term Dunce in Scotland is derived from the name of the philosopher, but in an oblique manner; a stupid student being termed another Dunse, on the same principle as a person of heavy, intellect in general life is sometimes termed a bright man.

** Brukeri Hist. Philos. Tom. Iii. p. 828.


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