Ordered by Love: An Introduction to John Duns Scotus
By Thomas M. Ward.
Angelico Press, 2022.
Paperback, 174 pages, $17.95.

Reviewed by David Weinberger.

The philosophical thought of the high Middle Ages, also known as “Scholasticism,” often seems impenetrable to those not schooled in its technical jargon. However, in his new book Ordered by Love: An Introduction to John Duns Scotus, philosopher and professor Dr. Thomas Ward has written a very readable introduction to Scholasticism by way of examining one of its preeminent thinkers. Not only does Ward succeed in demonstrating both the power of Scotus’s thought and its place within the Scholastic tradition, but he does so in a way friendly to the general reader. 

The book begins by examining Scotus’s argument for the existence of God. In essence, the argument hinges on the nature of existence. Specifically, it holds that if something can possibly exist, then a first principle of existence, or God, must exist. Although the argument is abstract, Ward does as well as one can in making it easy, and even uses J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings as a helpful analogy. Imagine tables and chairs, he says:

Think of all the things in the real world as though they made up one big fantasy world, like Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Attend just to their natures, and in doing so, you will see that there is nothing about their natures which demands that they exist, just as in considering the nature of Grishnakh [a character of Tolkein’s] we find nothing about him that demands he exists. So if there really are tables and chairs and so on, these exist because something else has caused them to exist. 

Moreover, no matter how many causes may precede the existence of these things, none of them will exist unless there is a first cause of existence at the end of the chain. 

From here, Ward shows how Scotus uses further lines of philosophical reasoning to establish both that this first cause of existence is the “first final cause,” or the purpose for which all things come into existence, as well as the “first cause in perfection,” or the unqualified perfection in which all existing things participate. 

Aside from presenting Scotus’s formidable demonstrations for the existence of God, Ward also introduces the reader to important scholastic principles neglected today. For example, ever since Plato and Aristotle it was believed that to adequately understand something required knowing four distinct explanations or “causes.” First is the “efficient cause,” which is what makes or brings something into being. For example, the painter is the efficient cause of the painting. Next is the “material cause,” which is the underlying “stuff” a thing is made of. The material cause of the painting is the canvas and the paint that constitute it (in fact, material cause is more subtle than this, but that need not detain us here). Third is the “formal cause,” or the essence or “whatness” of a thing. The essence of the painting is whatever is painted, say the Mona Lisa. Last is the “final cause,” or the purpose or goal of a thing. The goal of the painting is to provide aesthetic enjoyment. This doctrine is known as the “four causes,” and as Ward shows, Scotus masterfully integrated and built upon it in his own work. Nevertheless, this doctrine remains largely unknown today. 

We have inherited a truncated notion of “causality” due to the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. The rise of modern science (appropriately) limited its methods to “material” and “efficient” causality while ignoring “formal” and “final” causality. Because this method has been so successful in making discoveries and advances in the material world, the narrowed scientific understanding of “causality” increasingly came to define the term in general over time. Thus, when we hear the word “cause” today we tend to think of it solely in terms of whatever it is that makes or brings something into being—that is, in terms of “efficient” cause. Indeed, so foreign are the concepts of “formal” and “final” cause that they often strike us as odd, if not downright silly. Yet their neglect has led to many confusions and misconceptions.

While Ward does not go into that in the book, he nevertheless shows the importance of the traditional understanding of causality in various ways, including when he explores Scotus’s view of the human person, free will, and the virtuous life. Simply put, without the wider understanding of causality, one simply cannot have a proper grasp of what a human being is, or what it means to act freely for ends that fulfill us. For example, Scotus teaches that to know how to act and order our desires (to live virtuously) first requires knowing what human nature is. But asking what human nature is concerns the “formal” (not “efficient”) causal order. Moreover, once we know the nature of a human being (the “formal cause”), we can know what is good for us based on discovering the ends—or “final cause”—built into our nature. Thus to understand what a human being is and what constitutes a virtuous life entails accepting the traditional and more robust understanding of “causality.” Only then will we be able to see, as Scotus does, that living virtuously does not constrain or limit our nature, but expands and enriches it. This is because, writes Ward, “[S]elf-discipline and self-denial are essentially positive, not negative: they aim at making us fully human.”

And encouraging us to be fully human is one of the central projects of Scotus’s work, as described in “Ordered by Love.” The book not only makes a worthy contribution to anyone interested in understanding Medieval philosophy and the thought of Duns Scotus, but to everybody seeking to deepen their appreciation of human existence and its place in ultimate reality. 

David Weinberger is a freelance writer and book reviewer on topics related to philosophy, culture, history, and economics. Follow him on Twitter @DWeinberger03. 

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