Modern students of medieval philosophy usually see Aquinas’s reconciliation of Aristotelian and Christian doctrine as the high point of medieval philosophy. However, to many of Aquinas’s contemporaries, the idea of making good Aristotle seemed dangerous. Just a few years after his death we see what’s known now as the Condemnation of 1277, something which reoriented faith toward a strong emphasis on God’s omnipotence.
Jean Dunn Scotus taught at the University of Paris during the early years of the 14th century; his theories on the act of creation and establishment of moral law would go on to be greatly influential. This is the man who is tightly connected to the condemnation.
In 1277 the Bishop of Paris published a list of 219 theological and philosophical thesis. Anyone who taught or even listened to these theses was to be excommunicated; the condemnation did not list anyone by name and today it is difficult for scholars to determine who was teaching the condemned theses. Part of the struggle likely relates to the rivalry between the Arts and Theology masters as by this time, the animosity between the two departments was hefty with the theology masters accusing the arts mastering of teaching bunk theology under the guise of arts.
Some scholars insist that Aquinas was a target on the condemned list. After all, some of the things on the list were eerily like Aquinas’s work. The problem is, however, that Aquinas belonged to the theology faculty as well, so if true, then the problem ran deep. What is clear, however, is that according to some theologians, the teachings of Aristotle had been assimilated too enthusiastically.
One interpretation of the condemnation was that it was an attempt to reassert the prerogatives of revealed theology against the encroachment of philosophy. Much of the condemned ideas deal with the natural world, after all. Professor Williams relates just three of the ideas: (1) that there is no more excellent way of life than the philosophical way; (2) that the highest good someone is capable of is the intellectual virtues; (3) that the philosophers alone are the wise men of this world. Needless to say, it is easy to see how reining in philosophy appeared to be on the agenda.
One method in this war against Reason was the notion of God’s absolute power. God can act beyond nature and hence beyond philosophy since philosophy can only know nature. Again, though, how much these condemnations changed the nature of teaching at Paris is unknown; faculty has always been rebellious, remember. What is known, though, is that after 1277 we do see a renewed emphasis on God’s divine omnipotence. Such cannot be an accident.
We see as much in the works of Scotus (nicknamed so since he originally hailed from Scotland). Though a respected thinker, his followers would not be able to systematize his thought quite as well as he did and as one thing led to another, his followers—Dunzemen—eventually became the base word for what we know now as dunces. Funny.
Scotus was master of theology in Paris from 1304-07. So, he is one generation removed from Aquinas who died in 1274. Writing in the aftermath of the Condemnation of 1277, Scotus’s ideas, whether they were inspired by the condemnation, were certainly the sort of ideas approved of by the theologians. Scotus, after all, believed that God’s power extended to everything that did not result in an outright contradiction (such as a round square or a married bachelor, etc.).
In itself, Scotus’s view is not striking since Aquinas had believed in much the same. What is noticeable, though, is Scotus’s’ “reckless abandon” of the application. For example, Scotus holds that God’s act of creation is almost arbitrary; if God is free to do anything that is possible, why is it that God decides to create one thing rather than another thing? If there is an explanation for why God creates one thing in Lou of another thing, then it follows that God wouldn’t be able to create any other way and such is a contradiction of his all-seeing power. To preserve God’s power, then, we simply must acknowledge that God’s creation is arbitrary.
It is not only God’s act of creation that is arbitrary but also his conception of moral law. Of the moral laws that even God cannot change, those things which make a circle a circle instead of a rectangular circle, form the foundation of natural law. These laws are self-evident, meaning, we know that they are true simply by thinking about the concepts involved. Any moral truths other than these foundational ones, then, are entirely up to God’s will.
Scotus describes God’s will in his discussion of Exodus, specifically when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai. Though there is no consensus on what each tablet covered, the typically accepted idea was that the first tablet covered our obligations to God while the second tablet covered our obligations to people. As Scotus divided the commandments up, the first tablet consists of the first three commandments while the other seven are covered by the second tablet. To Scotus, the commandments of the first tablets are part of the natural law in the strict sense since they have to do with God himself and the way in which he must be treated (meaning, not even God can make it so that we ought to hate God). Everything else in the ten commandments belongs to the natural law only in a weaker sense and so subject to God’s absolute power; everything which he didn’t specify is something that he simply found no reason to specify. Period.
Scotus makes this point about God’s will by writing
“If you ask why the divine will is determined by one of a pair of contradictories rather than to the other, I must reply that ‘it is the mark of the untutored to look for causes and proof for everything; there is no cause why the will wills something, just as there is no cause why heat heats except that heat is heat. There is no prior cause.’”
Scotus’s theory of human freedom has a similar structure. For us too it is the will rather than the intellect that has the final say in what we do. Because Scotus was a Franciscan, it was typical for them to characterize the will and give it an independence from the intellect. In this sense, Scotus fit in well with another philosophical movement begun in the aftermath of the condemnation, namely, anti-Aristotelian thinkers who attacked the notion of the will as understood by Aristotle’s followers since it was seen to give too much credence for sinners to sin out or ignorance instead of choice.
The central feature, then, of Scotus’s thinking is the denial of Will as intellectual appetite. That is, the will as merely a capacity for rational desire; Aquinas had thought, remember, that the will was intellectual appetite. Scotus identifies two conceptions of the will. One is the Affection for Advantage and the other is the Affection for Justice. Both ideas are curbed from Anselm’s own ideas while he was reading Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil.
The key movement which Scotus does with these conceptions is that he identifies the Affection for Advantage with the intellectual appetite. For Aquinas, intellectual appetite is the same thing as will whereas, for Scotus, intellectual appetite is merely only part of what the will is and only one component of the will. But, if humanity is to be free, the human Will needs more than merely an intellectual appetite, it needs his Affection for Justice. This secondary affection is what allows the will to be free.
To understand this, however, we must understand the differences between Aquinas and Scotus on two further points. (1) on the relationship between morality and happiness; for Aquinas, the norms of morality are defined in relation to human happiness. It is only through identifying the state of human happiness in which we define our ethics. So, when Scotus rejects this theory, he is saying that there is something fundamentally wrong with a theory built on human happiness. For Scotus, human morality is not tied to human flourishing but God’s will. The fact that God creates human beings with a kind of nature does not require God to command or forbid the actions that he commanded or forbid. The actions he commands are not necessary for our happiness and are not incompatible with our happiness. If the will was aimed solely at happiness, after all, then we would not be able to choose in accordance with moral law as the moral law itself is not tempered with any consideration for human happiness. Scotus, then, regulates concerns for human happiness to the affections for the advantageous and assigns whatever is left to the affection for justice.
Now we can understand the affection for justice. It has two roles: 1. The affection for justice is what makes the will free by giving the will the ability to choose in a way that isn’t simply determined by the intellect’s judgment about what is good. So, the affection for justice means that I can choose without an eye for happiness (as Williams puts it). We can choose something in a way that is not determined by our intellect. By choosing wrongly, it does not mean our intellect has gone wrong but one’s will has gone wrong. 2. The affection for justice allows us to choose what is in accordance with morality. The human will mirror that of the divine will. We, like God, create values which lie apart from them having a claim on him; our will, though, comes with limitations from God, such as human nature. In this sense, Scotus’s argument is close to that of the existentialist argument. Meaning, we have boundaries and make value judgments but are otherwise free to act within those boundaries and within our value-judgments.
The name for Scotus’s philosophy? Volunteerism. He wasn’t the first and he wasn’t the last, but he was hugely influential. His works would ultimately contribute to the Protestant reformers of the 16th century. A powerful legacy.