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The now-blessed theologian behind the perjorative 'dunce.' (John Duns Scotus)

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." The latest Encyclopaedia Britannica devotes two full pages to him.

In his theory about the makeup of creation and about our knowledge of individual creatures (this rose as opposed to that rose), Scatus disagreed with Aquinas and accorded each individual thing a distinct and knowable form of "thisness" (haecceitas in Latin).

Aquinas located the so-called principle individuation in a special, hard-to-explain twist in matter, something inherently murkier than the identifying forms that are the proper object of our mind's grasping.

When the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins discovered in Scotus this teaching about a plurality of forms (rose-form and this-rose-form), he was at once "flush with a new stroke of enthusiasm." Here was a philosopher who supported Hopkins' own developing theory of "inscape," the unique personality of every single creature, an especial thisness that stamps its self-revealing stress on our pondering minds.

While serving as a priest at Oxford in 1879, Hopkins wrote a sonnet called Dun Scotus's Oxford. After saluting the "Towery city and branchy between towers," the poet continues with rhapsodic words about our new blessed:

... this air I gather and 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 [reality] the rarestveined unraveller.

Father Joseph Gallagher is a priest of the Baltimore archdiocese.
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Author:Gallagher, Joseph
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 26, 1993
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