Season 5 - Episode 515
Why does John Duns Scotus still resonate, more than 700 years after his death? Tom Ward, associate professor of philosophy at Baylor, was captivated by Duns Scotus as a student. Today, he translates his work through a prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities grant and is writing an introductory book on Duns Scotus more broadly. In this Baylor Connections, Ward explains how Duns Scotus’ work enables us to consider God, faith and the “first principle” still today.
Derek Smith:Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and today we are talking with Tom Ward, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Baylor. Dr. Ward's research interests include the history of philosophy, philosophy of religion, and metaphysics. Ward is the author of two books and a third, Ordered by Love: An Introduction to Duns Scotus, is due out this year. In January, Dr. Ward was awarded a prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities grant, to prepare a scholarly translation of De Primo Principio by John Duns Scotus, translating it from Latin to English. He came to Baylor in 2017 after serving on the faculty of Loyola Marymount University. He's with us today here on the program. Dr. Ward, it's great to have you on here. Thank you so much for joining us.
Tom Ward:Well, thanks for having me. It's great to be here.
Derek Smith:Great to visit with you and to dive into a work that some of our listeners may be familiar with, others not, and to talk more about your research here. First off, I mentioned the NEH honor. Congratulations on that. What did that mean to you to have this opportunity to do that and have it funded?
Tom Ward:Well, relief. I had gotten myself into quite a big project with this translation and commentary and I set myself a deadline for the end of summer, so was really in need of funding to actually make that happen. So relief, first and foremost, but also just gratitude that the NEH would sponsor a project on what is admittedly somewhat obscure topic and a topic that really touches on the Christian faith in a really serious way. So to have that sort of research sponsored by the NEH just felt like good fortune and I was really grateful.
Derek Smith:Absolutely. We're going to dive into, over the next 20 minutes or so, you mentioned it's somewhat obscure, but it's got a message that resonates. We're going to talk about why that is as we visit with Tom Ward. Let's just start off with some of the basics. John Duns Scotus. Who was he? He lived about 700 years ago. Who was he and where might we have found him? What might we have found him doing?
Tom Ward:Well, early in his life you probably would've found him in Scotland. And the reason I say probably is because there is still some controversy about whether the Scotus in his name means that he was from Scotland or Ireland. There's a small minority of scholars throughout the ages that have made the case that he is from Ireland, but the best sources seem to indicate that he was indeed from Scotland, probably went to Oxford University at a very young age, say 13 or 14 years old, was recognized early on as a very talented young man. So spent many years at Oxford studying and then teaching and was transferred to Paris, right around 1300. And Paris, the University of Paris at the time was the most prestigious university in Europe. So it's where the best of the best would go to study and the best of the best professors would go to teach. So he had a prominent position there, was forced to leave for a couple of years due to some political controversy he got into supporting the Pope against the efforts of the King of France to depose the Pope. Was eventually able to come back to Paris, but then somewhat suddenly, and mysteriously to scholars at the very height of his career was transferred to Cologne in Germany, which at the time was a relatively, well, a backwater, an academic backwater compared to what Scotus was enjoying at Paris. And no one really knows why he was transferred there. So he was and died shortly after maybe was there two years or so. So ended his life in Cologne, spent most of his career at Paris and Oxford, but born probably in Scotland.
Derek Smith:So he was an academic. When we think about what topics ideas we associate with him, certainly talk about a faith aspect. What are some of the different strands of what interested him to study and to ponder?
Tom Ward:Yeah, so probably the most important thing to know about Scotus relative to what animated his thought is that he was a Franciscan friar. The Franciscan movement starts with St. Francis of the CC in the early 13th century and the Franciscan movement spread rapidly across Europe. They came to England in the 1220s. Scotus, himself, was born in the 1260s. So within 40 or 50 years, the Franciscans had spread all throughout the British Isles. And what they would do is move into a town and set up a house of studies, which became a place for formation of young Franciscans, but then also a sort of center for mission and Evangelism. So probably Scotus came into contact with the Franciscans in Scotland, probably at their house of studies in Dumfries. There's even some indication that he might have had an uncle who was a Franciscan who might have inspired his vocation to take on that Franciscan life. It was out of that Franciscan context in Scotland that he was moved or invited to go to Oxford, where the Franciscans had a very active house of studies. And so he would have received a lot of his intellectual and faith formation from within that Franciscan context. One of the things speaking theologically that was really distinctive about the Franciscan intellectuals in the 13th century is a kind of special focus on the individual person of Jesus Christ in his humanity. So we associate say a Christmas cress, the baby Jesus in the manger with St. Francis, because it was Francis who introduced that sort of spiritual emphasis on welcoming the Christ child into European Christian culture. So what we find in Scotus' theology is great attention to the person of Jesus Christ, but also from a more philosophical angle, we find a great attention to particular things, individual things still as a philosopher, he does the big abstract stuff, but there's also this great emphasis on the concrete and the individual and Scotus' philosophy, which probably comes out of that spiritual or theological emphasis on Jesus Christ in his individuality as a human being.
Derek Smith:We are visiting with Tom Ward, associate professor of philosophy at Baylor. Where and when did you first discover, what do you remember about that?
Tom Ward:Well, for all the work that I do on Scotus, I feel a little bad that the first impression wasn't so great.
Derek Smith:Fair enough.
Tom Ward:I was a senior in college and I was writing a senior thesis on another medieval philosopher, a more famous one, Thomas Aquinas. And someone suggested that I should look into Scotus for an alternative perspective on the topic was studying. So I thought, okay, picked up Scotus' book, spent maybe 20 minutes with it and thought, nope, not for me, I don't like it, putting it aside. I got other things to do. That was really my first acquaintance.
Derek Smith:That's funny.
Tom Ward:Just not really understanding it, not liking it and so moving on. It wasn't until my PHD studies that I began to give Scotus a second try. Some of my graduate school advisors were really interested in Scotus and through their lectures and discussions got me interested in Scotus enough that I thought that I would put in the hard work actually reading his texts in order to make some headway. It finally stuck. I wrote a dissertation on Dun Scotus, and most of my scholarly work since then has been focused on Scotus.
Derek Smith:So obviously, maybe he didn't captivate you right away, but what were some of the aspects of him or others that really captivated you towards that? Like you said, that alignment of the theological side, your faith, and to see that there are other ways to live out that mission.
Tom Ward:That's right. Yeah. So one of the most astonishing theological claims that Scotus makes that I think no Christian should feel obligated to believe, but is a claim that really inspires a lot of people who come to understand it, it's this, when we think about the mission of Jesus Christ on Earth, we think, well, he came to show us a good way to live and to die for our sins, make atonement, that sort of thing. And so that's glorious, we're really grateful for all of that, et cetera. Now, obviously Scotus accepts all of that, but he says, while Christ indeed came to do all of those things, that wasn't the main purpose of the incarnation. He posed a sort of thought experiment. Imagine if sin had never entered the world, would God have become incarnate in Jesus Christ? And his answer is yes, because God loves the world so much, he wants that union with it, whether or not there is, so to speak, a sin problem to fix. Now, whatever you make of that as theological truth or pious speculation, what it reveals about Scotus' understanding of God is this intense emphasis on God's love both God's love for himself within the persons of the Trinity and also God's love for the world that he came to save. So that animating idea of God's love permeates so many different aspects of Scotus' thought. Even the very, very technical stuff that we probably don't have time to get into.
Derek Smith:Sure. That's fascinating as we visit with Dr. Tom Ward associate professor of philosophy at Baylor. So your NEH grant is going to enable you to translate to De Primo Principio. Could you take us inside that a little, it sounds like you were doing this before the grant even became a possibility, so take us inside that pursuit for you.
Tom Ward:Yeah. So De Primo Principio is roughly translated into English as on the first principle or a treatise on the first principle. Of course, Scotus identifies this first principle as God. So the book as a whole attempts to give a very rigorous demonstration, that there is a first cause of everything. Then he goes on to try to say that this first cause has the sort of characteristics that we associate with God. So he understands as well as you do that just being a first cause maybe isn't enough to make something God or worthy of love or worship, but he thinks that if we've really tease out the logic, we can show that this first principle really is God. Now the motivation for translating it is that the existing translations are no longer in print and a new Latin edition has come out that really doesn't substantially revise our understanding of the text, but is different enough that it's worth having a new English translation. I've taught this text before to undergraduates and graduate students. It really dawned on me over the years that we just need something that the students can access a little easier. So I was so grateful to my publisher when they agreed, not just to let me do the translation, but to accompany the translation with a commentary meant to assist students and other motivated readers to actually really get the most out of what Scotus has to say. It's a text that I started reading about 15 years ago and have been wrestling with ever since. If I can take 15 years of labor and put that in front of a reader, get them up to speed in a couple of weeks, well, that's a job well done in my opinion. So that's the goal.
Derek Smith:Absolutely. Well, I'll ask you specifically, you talked about you've been wrestling with this for 15 years. There's plenty of fantastic works out there. Any one of which could become a central figure for a scholar or a reader. Why this one for you? Why has this one played such a big role for you over these last 15 years, as you've said?
Tom Ward:For me, it's the rigor and the thoroughness of the attempted proof. There are lot of philosophers and theologians over the years who have tried to show that God exists just by using reason alone, but I have never encountered any attempted proof so thorough and careful as Scotus', he sets up all of these background assumptions and tries to show that the background of assumptions are themselves reasonable and having done that, then he tries to show that on the basis of these, we can show that God exists. At every step of the way, you can just stand in awe of this great mind, faithfully doing his best, putting his gifts to use, to try to come up with this great philosophical system. So it just really penetrating the text, finding how careful it is, and then experiencing that awe. If you imagine standing in front of a great painting or a great cathedral and you just marvel at what these artists were able to accomplish, I have that exact same kind of sensation when I study Scotus.
Derek Smith:That's great. Well, with the responsibility of now translating that, and really being a conduit for a new generation of people to approach him and understand him, what's that responsibility like take? If you would take us inside what it's like to translate that and to be faithful to that while modernizing it.
Tom Ward:It's humbling, it really is. You can't translate a text without knowing what it means, but that requires some sort of interpretation. After all my interpretation is just what I think it means. So I'm aware of the fact that at certain points in the Latin text, I might be interpreting more than I'm merely translating and sometimes I'm trying to hold that intention and eventually you have to make a choice, but a good translator is always going to feel a sense of respect for the author being translated, a kind of deference, a desire to be faithful to the author's words as much as possible, even though we live in the reality that translation is always interpretation to some extent. There's the desire to render Scotus' very, very technical Latin in a way that preserves that carefulness, but also is helpful to readers, a kind of generous interpretation that keeps the reader in mind, especially the kind of the target reader, the philosophically or theologically interested person who maybe has some background already, but is not an expert, not a scholar. I'm writing or translating for that person as much as the text allows.
Derek Smith:That's great. You've got the translation and then the book coming out due out later, Ordered by Love: An Introduction to Duns Scotus, how do those compliment one another?
Tom Ward:Yeah, in some ways they're far apart, right? A translation and commentary on a very technical book and then an introductory book on a broad array of topics in Scotus' works. That introductory book is meant to be really for everyone. It's a broader audience even than the translation. Just any intellectually interested person, whether or not you're taking a class in medieval philosophy or philosophy. I want anyone who hears anything about Scotus and gets even a little bit interested to be able to pick up this book, Ordered by Love and really make some headway into understanding Scotus. So they compliment each other in the sense that both are efforts to make Scotus better known outside of my small little guild of fellow Scotus scholars.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Tom Ward, and as we head into the final couple minutes of the program, I want to wrap up your passion for talking about him and teaching about him and philosophy in general, it shines through, but I'm curious, I want to ask you, what do you enjoy most about opening pathways to philosophy or others be it students or readers, or even listeners to this program?
Tom Ward:What I found over the years is that a student who gets really turned on by intellectual questions, maybe they come already interested, but sometimes you just see in the course of a class, students become alive or aware to philosophical questions or theological questions. That intellectual awakening really imbues the student's life with a sense of meaning and drive and purpose. It's so easy to get discouraged or to feel like you're just kind of moving along a conveyor belt of life. But if you get excited about intellectual questions, what that does for you is it gives you this sort of pause button on the narrative of your life, where you're able to, so to speak, step back and observe, criticize, admire, question. And a lot of times students might get into philosophy, come into contact with some existentialist philosophers or some nihilists and develop bad ideas. But I think that the honest inquiry, even if you are entertaining philosophical views that I think maybe are harmful to you, that's that spirit of honest inquiry is itself a way of living a meaningful human life. Because if you're truly inquiring and you start having say doubts about the existence of morality or the existence of God, but you're honestly inquiring, that very pursuit sort of keeps you on the side of the good. If you were truly convinced that life is meaningless or that we can't know anything, well, the thing for you to do would just be to stop thinking, stop doing philosophy. But as long as you're engaged in that intellectual quest, there's a kind of allegiance of minds, even when there is disagreement. I love experiencing students experiencing that realization. There's another side of this too. John Henry Newman gave a series of lectures on the idea of a university in the 19th century. And he uses this extended metaphor to talk about education. He says, "Imagine a mind, a human mind or soul like a garden. And you could just plant the garden with cabbages and potatoes and that's good. Think of those as practical skills. But you can also plant in a garden flowers, beautiful trees, ornamental shrubs, and those are good too. They might not have some immediate practical use, but there is a beauty there, a refinement there." So we should think of education, not only in that very practical sense, but also in this cultivation of the excellence or beauty of the garden that is the human mind. And so if the human soul or if the souls of my students are gardens, I'm a little gardener or one little gardener hopefully among many that they have that are there to assist them to bring the best yield out of the gardens of their minds.
Derek Smith:Well that's great. Well, Dr. Ward, we appreciate that and congrats on the award from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and we'll look forward to Ordered by Love coming out here soon. Thank you so much for your time today.
Tom Ward:Thank you, Derek, it's great being here.
Derek Smith:Dr. Tom Ward, associate professor of philosophy at Baylor, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith, a reminder, you can hear this and other program online at baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.