The Confederacy of Dunces


“When a true genius appears in this world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”  Jonathon Swift – Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting


And finally.  This is the last part of the ‘word-association’ series…

According to my detailed research, the word ‘dunce’ derives from the satirical name given to followers of the Blessed Duns Scotus by followers of Aquinas and also by humanists (no, not those humanists) and other reformers.

Both Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Blessed John Duns Scotus,  great figures of the Golden Age of  scholasticism, were concerned with demonstrating the proofs of faith without recourse to dogma or divine revelation.  They, and their followers, disagreed on many points of theology and of the philosophical demonstration of the truth of the Faith. What they both did, however, was to painstakingly demonstrate that through logical reasoning it is possible to show the necessity of the Divine Creator, the Incarnation, the existence of the human soul and all that flows from this.

Since Duns Scotus’ work was criticised, especially by later scholars, as imbued with sophistry and ‘hairsplitting’, his followers, known also as Scotists, were denounced as ‘dunces’ – so that the names for the followers of the great ‘Subtle Doctor’ became synonymous with those who were incapable of scholarship or learning.

And the dunce’s cap (the conical cap of the priest, witch or the wizard) is still used as a symbol of humiliation. In actual fact, in one call-centre I heard about, it was still being used to punish the lowest-seller of the week …. such is the culture we live in, sadly.

Oh well. Swift also said:

” We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.”

There is nothing new under the sun, however: witness how Alexander Pope, that glorious Catholic poet, took revenge on dullness, and on his enemies, through the publication of…The Dunciad.

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2 Responses to The Confederacy of Dunces

  1. Pingback: Your Such A “Dunce” |

  2. Pingback: Happy Dunce Day | Meadowsweet

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