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John Duns Scotus - Philosopher

In our time the achievements of John Duns Scotus must seem fairly obscure, but he has to have a place among important Scots because in his time he was enormously influential as an intellect and a teacher. That was in the 13th century, when theology was the passion of great minds.

He was born in Roxburghshire, no later than 1266 (the exact date is uncertain), joined the Franciscans and went to Oxford, where he studied to become a master of theology. As a lecturer, he had the magic touch. There are tales that 30,000 students rushed to Oxford to sit at Duns Scotus's feet. Before the age of microphones? The man clearly had charisma. He taught on the Continent, too, at the University of Paris and at Cologne. He
wrote commentaries on the leading theological text of his day, Peter Lobard's Sentences. He wrote about some logical questions posed by the work of the towering Greek philosopher Aristotle. He wrote about anything that seized his hyperactive mind.

Duns Scotus was a controversial thinker, because he would not take anything for granted. The storms he raised seem fairly remote today, but they revolved around his disagreements with the philosophies of two of the dominant intellects of the time, Aristotle and the great St Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas also wrote extensively on Aristotle, constructing for the medieval world his own interpretation of the pagan philosopher's way of thinking. Aquinas's disagreement with Aristotle was mild, but Duns Scotus disagreed a lot more, and with both of them.

His objection to Aquinas was that St Thomas was more interested in speculation than in real life and hard facts. In brief, Scotus said that religious belief depends on faith, that faith is a practical act of the human will, not the product of reasoned argument. Aquinas had also expressed doubts about the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (that the Virgin Mary was conceived without the taint of Adam's original sin), but Duns Scotus came up with a defence of it, one that remains the theological underpinning for this dogma.

The 13th century was a time for very complicated arguments about subtle ideas, and Duns Scotus was top of his class - he was even nicknamed 'doctor subtilis' (the subtle doctor). He was only 43 when he died. It was a short life, absolutely crowded with mental activity !

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