His Life (§ 1).
His Philosophy. The Relation of Universals to Particulars (§ 2).
His Epistemology (§ 3).
The Primacy of the Will (§ 4).
Revelation and the Church (§ 5).
Conception of God (§ 6).
Doctrine of Sin (§ 7).
Redemption (§ 8).
The Sacraments (§ 9).
The Importance of Scotus (§10).
His Works (§ 11).
1. His Life. Johannes Duns Scotus (known as Doctor subtilis) was one of the leading scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages; d. at Cologne Nov. 8, 1308. The date of his birth is unknown; the more probable tradition would place it c. 1265, since the other, assigning him an age of only thirty-four years at death, hardly gives time for the production of such an amount of literary work as we have from him. His birthplace is a matter of controversy. The surname Scotus may indicate either Scotland or Ireland. Cavellus and Waddington assert that he was an Irishman. The best view, however, seems to be that which makes Duns an Englishman. At the end of the Oxford manuscript of his work on the "Sentences" of Peter Lombard there is a note asserting in the most positive and detailed way that he was born "in a certain village of Northumberland called Dunstane." He joined the Franciscan order at Newcastle, and became a member of Merton College, Oxford (whose statutes, moreover, allowed the admission of none but those of English birth). Under the direction of William of Ware (or Varron), he laid the foundation of his comprehensive learning. Outside of philosophy, his writings display a wide acquaintance with mathematics and astronomy, no doubt a result of his Oxford training. Here, too, originated his philosophical writings, and probably also the great commentary on the "Sentences," the so-called Opus Oxoniense. On Nov. 18, 1304, at the command of the general of his order, he presented himself in Paris for the degree of bachelor, and soon afterward proceeded to that of doctor. Here originated the Quodlibetica and the so-called Reportata Parisiensia, a smaller commentary on the "Sentences," representing the lectures in dogmatic theology which he delivered in Paris. In 1308 he was transferred to Cologne, where he was received with great honors, and lectured in the Franciscan house there for the few months of life that remained to him. The cause of his death is not known. Some later writers speak of apoplexy; others assert that he was buried alive while unconscious, and give harrowing details which are obviously untrustworthy, as they appeared for the first time two centuries after his death.
2. His Philosophy. The Relation of Universals to Particulars. The philosophy of Scotus was concerned especially with two problems--the relation of universals to particulars, and the theory of knowledge. The position of Scotus is for the most part that of a moderate realism as it was maintained by the Arabs and by Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. To him universals are by no means "fictions of the intellect"; otherwise there would be no objective essential unities in the world, but only numerical differences between individuals. There must be something real outside ourselves corresponding to the terms; the universal exists both in intellectu and in re. Since all existence is traced back to God, it follows that the archetypes of all things that are have been from eternity in the divine mind. This is true also of matter, which may be understood not only as ens aut nihil but also as esse in potentia. What, then, is the relation of the universal to the particular? According to Thomas, matter is the principle of individuation. This Scotus denies, even on Thomas's view of matter as negative. For him individuation is the work of an entitas positiva, and consists in a unity which resists any further division. Now this unity can not have for its basis anything negative, since no negative can be opposed to a positive. The basis is aliquod positivum intrinsecum. The significance of the hæcceitas of an object (that which renders the object capable of being designated as "this"), or, as he elsewhere calls it, unitas signata ut hæc, or individuitas, is that in his view (which here again is opposed to Thomas's) the purpose of nature is realized in the particular. As this purpose is laid down by God, we must, in accordance with the divine ordinance, regard the individual and the particular as a higher form of existence than the universal.
3. His Epistemology. In his epistemology the generally accepted Aristotelian principles naturally predominate. Knowledge is the product of the joint operation of the soul and some objectum præsens et hoc in specie intelligibili. Though our knowledge presupposes an impression made on the senses, yet the image they receive does not create the conception; the species intelligibilis inherent in the object excites the action of the mind, which appropriates the species by abstraction. In this process of building up a conception the intellect is the "principal cause"; only the "occasion" of its activity is furnished by the external world. The work of the intellect is thus to extract universals from particulars. This is not to be taken as if it were necessary to neglect all concrete sense-perception in order to attain the universal; the general must authenticate itself by the concrete. The view of Scotus is that thought, in the process of constructing terms, perceives in the phenomena of sense the universal which underlies them; and this is in the main the view of the later realists.
4. The Primacy of the Will. The primacy of the will is a dominant thought in all his philosophy. In both Aristotle and Thomas the will is moved by the intellect, which Thomas thus places higher than the will, believing that happiness is to be attained through it and not through the will. This view is strongly combated by Scotus. All knowledge, according to him, is dependent upon the operation of external things, and man is not free in regard to his thought; as distinguished from the will, thought is natural, and subject to "natural necessity." If, then, thought (or the object which determines the thought) caused the act of the will, an affirmative act of the will would be explicable enough, but not the simultaneous possibility of a negative act, since a "natural agent" can produce only one effect. The will, therefore, must be the sole cause of its decisions. If this were not the case, natural actions would not be free, and there would be no room for merit or demerit as applied to the will.
This view postulates the possibility of things happening freely and by chance, which is a fact of experience. Scotus does not deny that the intellect cooperates with the will, or that intellectual notions influence every act of the will. He means only that the actual volition is the work of the free will, the intellect playing merely the part of a causa subserviens. From this proposition he deduces consequences opposed to the Thomist views. Acts of the will are on a higher plane than acts of the intellect. The fact that it is the will which is attacked by the corruption of sin is an additional demonstration of its primacy; and in like manner happiness is enjoyed primarily not by the understanding but by the will. In a word, the purpose of being is realized by the exercise of free, personal will.
5. Revelation and the Church. The theology of Scotus presupposes a revelation, which teaches man the aim to be sought by his will and the means of reaching it. These necessary truths are taught by Scripture, whose credibility is demonstrated at length, and contained in summary in the Apostles' Creed, or in the three ancient creeds, and in addition to these in the authority of the "authentic Father" and the "Roman Church." Since the Church has determined the canon, submission to the authority of Scripture involves submission to the Church, which "approves and authorizes" the Scriptural books. The decision of the Roman Church pronounces a doctrine orthodox or heretical. Even when a doctrine has no other authority or rational foundation, it must be accepted on the single authority of the Church. The way is thus paved for the ecclesiastical positivism of later scholasticism. The whole body of positive and practical truths offered by theology is apprehended by faith.
6. Conception of God. He reaches his conception of God by endeavoring to show, from the standpoints of causality, finality, and eminentia, the necessity of an Ens infinitum, having no external cause or end and no superior. Considering God as the primum efficiens and per se agens, he reaches some useful positive conclusions, proving at length that this primum efficiens must possess intelligence and will. What God wills, he wills only because he wills it. He does not will the good because it is good, but good is good because he wills it. The absolute power of God has theoretically only one limit, that of the logically impossible; in practise it is limited, in accordance with what he actually has willed or wills, to a potentia ordinata. The sum of the relations of God to the world may be designated as love, which embraces the entire creation, present and potential. All creation forms a whole, whose individual parts rank according to their relation to their end of being; and this relation determines the degree of the divine love given to each. As God finds the end of his being in himself, he loves himself first--then men, in so far as they are in immediate relation to this end.
7. Doctrine of Sin. The sinlessness of man in Paradise was theoretically only potential, since the will includes the possibility of sinning. The real sinlessness of the first man therefore involves a "superadded gift," the imparted supernatural "habit" of grace, by which alone he was able to subject his lower powers to his higher. Since concupiscence, or the opposition of the flesh to the spirit, belongs to the original nature of man, it can not be the basis of original sin, which is rather to be designated as "the lack of original righteousness." Concupiscence is the natural material of original sin, but only becomes sin when the frenum cohibens is removed. Scotus is thus led into the denial of the physical transmission of original sin. Just as the will can not bring about a metamorphosis of the natural constitution, so an inherited physical constitution can not change the will. The redemption of man from sin stands for Scotus upon quite another basis. In so far as justitia originalis was imparted to Adam and his posterity, it was a justitia debita; and the will of each of his descendants has the same debt. Physical generation comes into question only in that by it we are made children of Adam and placed under the ideal obligation to this justitia. This doctrine strikes at the root of the Augustinian theory of original sin; it replaces the physical transmission of sinful concupiscence by the ideal obligation of every child of Adam to the supernatural righteousness originally imparted to the first man.
8. Redemption. In his treatment of redemption, Scotus denies that the merits of Christ are infinite. Their basis is in the obedience rendered by him, which is the act of his human will; and as that will is finite, so the merits acquired by its act must be finite. The eternal divine predestination embraces in itself, as the means to its accomplishment, the meritorious Passion of Christ. The death of Christ acquires its unique value in virtue of the divine will which has ordained this means and purposed to accept it as sufficient for the redemption of humanity. Here comes in the question made familiar by Anselm whether the precise form of the Passion was necessary to redemption; and this question leads Scotus to a criticism of Anselm's theory. He denies the absolute necessity of satisfaction, which was only necessary so far as God willed it, which he was not bound to do. But even if the necessity of satisfaction is admitted, it does not follow that it must be made by God, since it is not true that a satisfaction exceeding in value that of all creation must have been offered. The Value of the redeeming act is not in the thing offered, but in its acceptance by the divine will. Christ, seeing the sinfulness of the Jews and their perverted devotion to the Law, desired "to recall them from error by his words and deeds." He taught them the truth, and, in the execution of this task, died for righteousness, considering his Passion the most effective means of winning men back to God through love. So far this doctrine of satisfaction follows in the main the type represented by Abelard. How Scotus conceived the objective side of the Atonement is seen in another passage, where he says that God would not forgive sin unless something was offered to him which pleased him more than sin displeased him; and this could only be the obedience of a person whom he loved more than he would have loved humanity had it not sinned. This was Christ, in return for whose obedience and love God showed mercy to the human race. The imparting of the grace of God is thus the result of the merits of Christ. By the word grace in the ordinary sense of gratia creata Scotus understands the divinely-imparted "habit" of love, which inclines the human will to meritorious acts. Grace is "a principle cooperating" with the will. With such cooperation, man would have to be supposed capable of performing meritorious acts ex solis naturalibus, which would be a Pelagian assumption. There must be a supernatural form imprinting its character upon human action, without forcing it and thus taking away all merit; and through this "habit" not only the single act but the whole man becomes acceptable to God.
9. The Sacraments. Like most medieval theologians, Scotus considered the imparting of grace as inseparably attached to the sacraments, which are given to men in virtue of the Passion of Christ as the "most perfect meritorious cause of grace." Apart from the general questions as to the nature of sacraments, the most interesting thing in his treatment is his discussion of the relation between the divine and earthly factors in the sacraments. Since the grace which is imparted to man by a sacrament can only come into being through a creative act, and creation in that sense is impossible to man, it follows that the gift of grace in the sacrament is the result of the direct operation of God, not of priestly action. On their human or external side, the sacraments are symbolic acts, which typify the accompanying divine operation within the soul. But these symbols are sure and operative, since God has promised to accompany their use with the effect which they symbolize. He thus defines a sacrament as "a symbol cognizable by the senses, efficaciously signifying by divine institution the grace of God or the effect of God's gracious operation, ordained for the salvation of man in this life." There can then be no question of an indwelling of supernatural power in the sacraments; they are not in themselves “causes of grace,” but can be so called only because the symbols are secure evidences of the corresponding operations of grace, while God's will is the sole cause of grace, which he creates directly in the soul. This view had already been clearly stated by Bonaventura, and through Scotus it came to dominate the theology of the later Middle Ages.
10. The Importance of Scotus. The historical importance of the general teaching of Scotus can scarcely be overestimated. He brought the scholastic method to its highest point. His brilliant dialectic, his acuteness of insight, the earnestness of his criticism, and the carefulness of his demonstration set an example which has seldom been equaled by his followers. In his treatment of authority he gave it a different bearing from that which it had had with the older scholastics; it became a positive ecclesiastical law, from which no deviation could be tolerated, and this legal conception of orthodoxy marked out the line in which the later nominalist theology followed. According to his idea of God, all that is must be referred to the absolutely free will of the Creator; and the task of learning is therefore not the working out of what is rationally necessary but the determination of that which is positively ordained by God. This is particularly true of theology, which, embracing a number of contingent dispositions of God, has to deal with a peculiar range of facts. This explains Scotus's feeling for the particular and the individual, as well as the free skeptical spirit in which he approaches tradition. Characterizing God as Will, and finding the essence of man's nature also in his Will he naturally emphasizes the individual and his freedom in his view of humanity. Thus by his sharp criticism of traditional theories and by his bold creation of new terms and combinations, he set forces at work in the domain of theology which did much to prepare the way for the still more thoroughgoing criticism of the Reformers.
11. His Works. His works are best consulted in the relatively complete edition of his fellow Franciscan Wadding (12 vols., Lyons, 1639), or the new one (26 vols., Paris, 1891-95), which, however, marks no very notable advance over Wadding. The most important is the great commentary on the "Sentences" known as the Opus Oxoniense (vols. viii.-xxi. of the Paris edition); of this the Reportata Parisiensia (vols. xxii.-xxiv.) is an abridgment. Of the remaining works a large part consists of commentaries on various treatises of Aristotle, including the "Physics," "Metaphysics," "Meteorologics," "Refutations," and "Of the Soul." His logical works of which the Grammatica Speculativa is the most important, are also largely based on those of Aristotle and on the Isagoge of Porphyry. Others are entitled Theoremata, Disputationes subtilissimæ, Condusiones metaphysicæ (whose authenticity is questioned by some), and the Quæstiones quodlibetales (vols. xxv.-xxvi.). Of the exegetical and homiletical works mentioned by Wadding, no trace has yet been found.
Bibliography: The best life is in Vol. i. of the edition of the works by Wadding, ut sup. Consult further: J. Müller, Biographisches über Duns Scotus, Cologne, 1881; K. Werner, Johannes Duns Scotus, Strasburg, 1881; DNB, xvi. 216-220. For the philosophy consult: F. C. Baur, Dreieinigkeit und Menschwerdung, Vol. ii. passim, Tübingen, 1842; M. Schneid, Die Körpertehre des Johannes Duns Scotus, Mainz, 1879; K. Werner, Die Scholastik des späteren Mittetalters, Vol. i., Vienna, 1881; A. Ritschl, Rechtfertigung und Versöhnung, i. 73 sqq., Bonn, 1882; W. Kahl, Der Primat des Willens bei Augustinus, Duns Scotus und Descartes, Strasburg, 1886; R. Seeberg, Die Busslehre des Duns Scotus, in Abhandlungen für Alexander von Oettingen, pp. 172 sqq., Munich, 1897; idem, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte, Vol. ii. passim, Leipsic, 1998; idem, Die Theologie des Johannes Duns Scotus, ib. 1900; A. H. Ritter, Geschichte der Philosophie, viii. sqq., Hamburg, 1834-53; and the works on the history of philosophy by F. Ueberweg (i. 452-457, New York, 1874), J. E. Erdmann (Vol. i. passim, ib. 1890), and W. Windelband (pp. 311-344, 384, 394, 420-423, ib. 1893). An excellent list of works on the subject is furnished in J. M. Baldwin, Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, iii. 1, pp. 186-187, New York, 1905. The treatment by A. Ritschl is in Eng. transl., A Critical History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, Edinburgh, 1872.