After a scholar establishes his career as the world’s foremost exponent of one medieval philosopher, what happens when they turn to a massive study of that thinker’s rival? This overdue English translation of a 1952 tome from Etienne Gilson allows academics (likely its only audience given this edition’s hefty price and voluminous contents) to learn about Gilson’s reaction to the Franciscan maverick who challenged his expertise in Thomas Aquinas.

Instead of a God operating by “natural reason,” the brash Scots friar John Duns Scotus challenged the calm Italian Dominican. Scotus championed the divine will as paramount over the powers of human intellect. The final Word, as it were, rested on volition. This may seem akin to the canard about calculating the number of angels dancing on pins. Yet as Trent Pomplun explains in his helpful introduction, we can learn from Gilson’s effort. True, this remains a “slow and meandering” text, the “least constructed and conducted” of the Parisian professor’s many works. Compiled in the wake of his wife’s death, pondered while postwar existentialism denied divinity or transcendence, the tension of a debate between divine powers of univocity and analogy reflects Gilson’s struggles with Scotus.

Pomplun avers that this book may chronicle the only time Etienne Gilson can be seen to “struggle with the mind of a master he does not fully understand.” If one of the greatest minds of the past century, when it comes to how European intellectuals thought—in the High Middle Ages or in his own era—cannot elucidate the intricacy of Scotus, where does that leave us?

Gilson opens his preface using the plural “we.” Assuming that this accurately retains the French original translated by James G. Colbert, this daunts a reader perhaps already overwhelmed by the subject ahead. Anyhow, Gilson observes how Scotus lacks the “constant concern with which Thomas Aquinas showers his readers.” John Duns Scotus presents his theses to his hearers bluntly. Within his dense logic, Gilson avers, “we immediately perceive what we do not understand.” Gilson apologizes for bringing Scotus into the philosophical ring to grapple against Aquinas, rather than the overlooked opponent Henry of Ghent, but Gilson hopes he can follow this present study up with another, as he had for Scotus’ Franciscan predecessor Bonaventure.

Six hundred main pages constitute the heart of this matter. As every cleric advancing at the emerging universities at Paris or Oxford had to do, Scotus had to defend his original commentary on the standard proof-text, Peter Lombard’s Book of Sentences, itself a systematic compilation of statements asserting the veracity of passages from scripture. Circa 1300, Scotus’ opus likely benefited from the young priest’s lectures. He delved far deeper than his own masters required.

Scotus tackled the vexing question of separating essence from existence, when getting at the core of the fundamental distinctions human minds credited to the Creator. Even as basic a term as “being” complicates our efforts to make sense of this term via its medieval Latin use. Duns Scotus died prematurely. Unlike Thomas Aquinas with his not one but two massive Summae amassing and assembling theological rationales, the Franciscan never had a chance to build his own response to Thomistic and earlier scholastic thinkers. Given that Thomas himself abandoned the Summa Theologiae after a vision convinced him of the folly behind attempting to explain the ineffable, the lack of time Scotus had to write in a shorter career as a Master of Theology shows.

Hard on himself, Scotus’ ruminating, elided and convoluted approach affirms his appellation as “the Subtle Doctor.” Yet he remains firm. He refuses to bow to theology alone as providing “humans with the knowledge necessary for salvation.” While reason has its utility, revelation scotches its attempt to reach higher. The will dominates ratiocination. Thomas’ Dominican colleagues elevated “natural” theology, that able to be learned by analogy from its earthbound correspondences. Franciscans favored what higher powers revealed, outside of the range of what humans could calculate or comprehend. God stood on his own, in his univocity of a single voice, a cosmic force that did not depend on the limits of human functions for its domination. Any distinction between existence and essence collapses for Scotus. In sum, one cannot conceive of what it is to be something without conceiving that “thing-in-being” as if existing. Existence cannot be nattered about apart from human knowledge of the conception of existence itself.

Etienne Gilson expounds that whereas philosophers seek “to know what is the end of humans in general,” metaphysics for a Christian must illuminate “what his particular end is.” Because Aquinas precedes (he died a quarter-century before the flourishing of Scotus’ productive years) the diligent Scots emigre, both gravitated towards the same aim of figuring out the same divine being. But what they claimed to derive from that aim differed. For those few (the stubborn faction later denounced as “dunces” due to the conical hat their founder favored to funnel wisdom into his brain!) loyal to Scotus, they regarded the majority view of Thomists cautiously.

Gilson concludes that “dialogue continues among their disciples, because what one sees and would like to make the others see, he cannot demonstrate to him but only show.” Speaking of contemporary discussion, surprisingly John Milbank provides forty pages in an afterward. This may throw off those not knowing that the Illuminating Modernity series publishing this title turns its attention to “unjustly overlooked thinkers in the ‘Romantic Thomist’ tradition” of the past century. Their radical reinterpretations took on Heidegger, Brentano and Husserl, incorporating their continental philosophy into their Christian approaches, themselves as full of invention.

Milbank spearheads the theory of Radical Orthodoxy which applies post-modern frameworks within which to place theological tradition. Thus, “propounding a positive affirmation of the Christian truth-claims” as a viable choice within the spectrum of responses to belief, he examines Gilson’s treatment of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. Many theologians blame the aftermath of Scotus’ impact for attenuated losses of the adherence previously bestowed upon “symbolic realism.” This contrasts with a view that the cosmos mysteriously imitates God, “allowing the books of scripture and of nature to illuminate each other.” Very intricate arguments appear.

This condenses advanced explanations by Milbank. His Radical Orthodoxy approach proclaims an “historical verdict” that acclaims Scotus for his advocacy of univocity and clarifies his philosophical claims. Milbank warns against a distorted Scotist “self-bounded” deep structural determination of thought, detached or indifferent to reciprocity and community. Those eager to pursue this material may turn to Daniel Horan’s recently published dissertation on univocity that defends it against recent attacks by a variety of metaphysical, clerical and even political thinkers.

Both Fr. Horan and John Milbank, finding themselves taking up positions at various points that may be at tangents, would agree that attention to this medieval friar, who for a short time sought to keep pace with his prolific predecessor Thomas Aquinas, must be paid. As Etienne Gilson’s considerable effort documents, so for Milbank: the “rationalist critique” and “dissolution of the divine order” that some trace back to Scotus’ pioneering willfulness remain barriers to current denials that, above the earthly realm and beyond the ken of human speculation, mystery hovers.

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