Marianne Moore: Poetry

August 7, 2011

“To a Snail,” “New York,” and Duns Scotus

Filed under: Poem Sources — by moore123 @ 11:57 am
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John Duns Scotus (c. 1266-8 November 1308), Scottish Franciscan theologian, was known as the Subtle Doctor for the intricacy of his theological arguments.

John Duns Scotus

Whether in tribute to his methods or simply to their characterizations found in her reading, Moore quotes twice from a work that discusses his writings, first in “To a Snail” (lines 10-11­) and later in “New York (lines 15-16).” The notes in Observations (1924) provide references to the quotations in “To a Snail;” no text of “New York” gives any reference to Scotus or her source.

The work Moore had in hand was Henry Osborn Taylor, The Mediaeval Mind: A History of the Development of Thought and Emotion in the Middle Ages, Vol. 2 New York: Macmillan, 1911. Here is the text from which the quotations are drawn {bold face added):

The constructive processes of his genius appear to issue out of the action of its critical energies. Duns was the most penetrating critic produced by scholasticism. Whatever he considered from the systems of other men he subjected to tests that were apt to leave the argument in tatters. No logical inconsequence escaped him. And when every point had been examined with respect to its rational consistency, this dialectic genius was inclined to bring the matter to the bar of psychological experience. On the other hand he was a churchman, holding that even as Scripture and dogma were above question, so were the decrees of the Church, God’s sanctioned earthly Civitas.

Having thus tested whatever was presented by human reason, and accepting what was declared by Scripture or the Church, Duns proceeds to build out his doctrine as the case may call for. No man ever drove either constructive logic or the subtilties of critical distinctions closer to the limits of human comprehension or human patience than Duns Scotus. And here lies the trouble with him. The endless ramification and refinement of his dialectic, his devious processes of conclusion, make his work a reductio ad absurdum of scholastic ways of reasoning. Logically, eristically, the argumentation is inerrant. It never wanders aimlessly, but winding and circling, at last it reaches a conclusion from some point unforeseen. Would you run a course with this master of the syllogism? If you enter his lists, you are lost. The right way to attack him, is to stand without, and laugh. That is what was done afterwards, when whoever cared for such reasonings was called a Dunce, after the name of this most subtle of mediaeval metaphysicians. . . . (pp. 513-514)

Is theology, then, properly a science? Duns will not deny it; but thinks it may more properly be called a sapientia, since according to its nature, it is rather a knowledge of principles than a method of conclusions. It consists in knowledge of God directly revealed. Therefore its principles are not those of the human sciences: for example, it does not accept its principles from metaphysics, although that science treats of much that is contained in theology. Nor are the sciences—we can hardly say the other sciences —-subordinated to it; since their province is natural knowledge obtained through natural means. Theology, if it be a science, is one apart from the rest. The knowledge which makes its substance is never its end, but always means to its end; which is to say, that it is practical and not speculative. By virtue of its primacy as well as character, theology pertains to the Will, and works itself out in practice: practical alike are its principles and conclusions. Apparently, with Duns, theology is a science only in this respect, that its substance, which is most rational, may be logically treated with a view to a complete and consistent understanding of it. (p. 516)

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