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Johannes Scotus Erigena is often regarded as the first of the real medievals. Boethius and Saint Augustine, from several centuries earlier, are his only substantial predecessors. Erigena was familiar with Boethius, about whose life he wrote, and he introduced classical Neoplatonism into the formative years of the medieval period through his translations from Pseudo-Dionysius. He was also familiar with the fathers of both the Latin Church and the Greek Church. Yet, more than the fact that he is the first major writer to appear in several centuries, his importance to the Middle Ages lies in his production of one of the first complete metaphysical schemes, his On the Division of Nature. The Middle Ages became noted for its systematic, speculative, and constructive effort, and the tone for such effort is set here in Erigena’s major work.
His Platonistic tendencies are immediately evident in the use he makes in his writing of the dialogue form. Master and disciple question and answer each other, although the form is more that of alternating brief essays than that of Plato’s more dramatic rapid reply. Of course, Plato also tends to adopt a more sustained form of speech in his later dialogues, and it is perhaps primarily from the Neoplatonists that Erigena learned his writing style. Another similarity to Neoplatonism (in contrast to Plato) can be seen in the cosmic perspective that Erigena adopts. Plato’s metaphysics is more fragmentary; the Neoplatonists tend naturally to deal with problems in the total setting of a cosmic scheme. Erigena outlines such a scheme in book of On the Division of Nature.
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Erigena’s disciple asks why God created humans as one of the family of animals instead of in the form of some higher celestial creature? Humans need their terrestrial bodies and can perceive only with the aid of perceptions received from without. With angels it is not so; no such limitations bind them, and yet humans are supposed to have been made in God’s image. Humanity’s sin and fall from grace cannot account for this animal nature because even if humans had not sinned they would still be animals. It is not by sin but by nature that humans are animals. The human position is even stranger considering that in a future life, a human may be transmuted into a celestial form of being.
To answer his disciple’s question, the master resorts to the divine will, saying that why God willed this is beyond inquiry because the causes of the divine will cannot be known. Why God willed it is beyond all understanding.
However, one can say that the whole of created nature, both visible and invisible, is present in humans, and this is a valuable position. What is naturally present in the celestial essences subsists essentially in humans. We can say rationally, therefore, that God wished to place humans in the genus of animals because he wished to create every creature in humans, and for this to be possible, humans had to share in all nature, not only in celestial nature. No irrationality is implied, for everything from God can be understood and anything not from God cannot be understood because it simply is not. Things exist outside the knower, and they are what produces knowledge of them in humans. The ideas of things and the things themselves are of different natures. In addition, things must be granted to be of a more excellent nature than the ideas of them.
That which understands is better than that which is understood, and taking it one step further, the idea of intelligible things is older than the intelligible things themselves. The human mind derives its knowledge from things, but the things themselves were originally formed from intelligible ideas (existing in God’s mind). Although the human mind is born inexpert and unwise, nevertheless it is able to find in itself its God, its expertness, and its discipline. As in God, so in humanity, there is a kind of trinity: mind, learning, and art. However, only the divine mind possesses the true idea of the human mind because the human mind cannot of itself comprehend itself. To define humanity truly we must say: Humanity is an intellectual idea formed eternally in the divine mind.
What results is a Platonic doctrine of recollection, now transferred to the divine mind. What humans essentially are, all the knowledge they can possess, is eternally contained as idea in the divine mind. To know, then, is to come to full consciousness, to recall this set of ideas eternally formed. Self-consciousness means increased knowledge of the divine nature. A true knowledge of all things is implanted in human nature, although its presence is concealed until by divine light, the soul is turned to God. What else is there, then, except ideas? Accordingly, the very idea by which humans know themselves may be considered their substance. Yet, how could it be that humans are not always and naturally seen as this divine idea? Because (as philosopher Baruch Spinoza was to say later) all things in nature may be viewed through two perspectives: Either as creatures in the word of God in which all things have been made or as individuals considered in themselves without reference to their divine origin.
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Humans have one substance understood both through its creation in intellectual causes and by its generation in effects. Accordingly, one and the same thing is spoken of as double because it is twice observed. What difficulties does this theory present? In order to know the human essence properly, God’s nature must first be understood, for here is the true focus of knowledge. Yet Erigena holds to the traditional assertion: It is in no way granted to the human mind to know what the essence of God is, although humans may know “that it is.” The result is that, although humans were first rendered intelligible by understanding their essence as an idea in the divine mind, because of this, the knowledge of humanity is subjected to all of the traditional difficulties surrounding the knowledge of God.
God is entirely uncircumscribed and is to be understood through no thing because God is infinite. What about humans? Erigena denies that the human mind is anything and affirms only that it is. If the human mind were circumscribable, it could not express the image of its creator wholly, which means that because the human mind is so much like the divine, it also cannot be grasped directly. The same problems that surround the divine nature now surround the human mind’s understanding of its own essence because this cannot be grasped except as part of the divine mind. Amazingly enough, even infinity is transferred to the human mind: Just as the divine essence is infinite, human determination is also not limited by any certain end. It is understood only to be, but what it is is never understood. Infinity, once God’s unique possession, humans now come to share, and they immediately become subject to its rational difficulties.
An Idea in the Divine Mind
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Aristotle rejected infinity as an attribute of divine perfection because of its inaccessibility to rational comprehension. Transcendentalists applied unlimitedness to God in spite of the difficulties for knowledge. Erigena, by defining the essence of humanity as a divine idea, subjects the understanding of human nature to the same insurmountable difficulties because God’s mind must be understood before humanity’s essence can be found. In God, however, there is no ignorance, except the divine darkness that exceeds all understanding. Because humans subsist more truly an in idea than in themselves, they must be understood in and through an idea, and this is located in God, who is himself not fully knowable. Yet this cannot be avoided, for when a thing is known better, it must be judged to exist more truly. Humans, then, exist more truly as an idea in the divine mind than they do in themselves, which means that God’s understanding (and darkness) is involved in the knowledge of the true existence of all things, humans included.
For example, geometrical figures do not exist in themselves, but only in the theoretical structure of the discipline in which they are the figures. Humans do not exist in themselves truly but exist in the divine plan of which they are a part. If, therefore, geometrical bodies subsist only in their rational ideas, what is there so astonishing about the fact that natural bodies should subsist in that nature (God) in which there is the idea of them? Reality is never ultimately located in the natural world; it is in the divine mind. Intelligible things are actually prior to sensible things in the mind that understands them. The thing understood, furthermore, is preceded by the understanding soul that perceives it. Finally, the divine nature is prior to the human soul because it provides the locus for both the soul’s self-understanding and its ultimate existence.
Why should it be so difficult for humans to learn these facts about their nature and their understanding? If humans had not sinned, the reply comes, they certainly would not have fallen into so profound an ignorance. In the fall, human nature perished entirely in all people, except in the Redeemer of the world, in whom alone it remained incorruptible. He alone was joined in a unity of substance to the word of God, in whom all the elect by grace are made sons of God and participants of the divine substance. Before sin, each creature had implanted in it a full knowledge of both itself and its creator, so that if human nature had not sinned, it would assuredly be omniscient. Sin alone separates humanity from God and human from divine nature. First, Erigena made humans infinite by linking their self-understanding with God’s understanding. Then he showed that humans are omniscient by nature, losing this quality only through the bondage of sin.
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According to Erigena, human nature retained this perfect knowledge, of itself, of its creator, and of all things (present before sin), but this perfect knowledge is held in possibility alone. In the highest humans, this knowledge becomes actual again. All things are known in and are created by the word of God; thus, the created wisdom of humanity knew all things before they were made. In fact, everything in the human understanding proceeds from and through the idea of the creative wisdom. All things subsist in the divine understanding causally and in the human understanding effectually. In knowledge and in dignity, but not in time and place, the creation of humanity precedes those things that were created with it and by it. Yet, in the end, no created intellect can know what a thing is because the essence of everything is involved in the problem of divine ignorance.
Humans’ rational processes are so great, in fact, that their understanding would naturally be equal with that of the angels—if they had not sinned. Humans and angels are by nature so alike that they reciprocally understand each other. In fact, any two human understandings can essentially become one because they can both apprehend ideas, and human essence and understanding are not two things but one. Humans are essentially their understanding. This is incorporeal and, ultimately, is to be seen as an idea in the divine mind. Humans’ one true and supreme essence is the understanding made specific in the contemplation of truth. This is an antecedent to French philosopher René Descartes’s definition of humanity as a “thinking substance.” This final identification makes humans in their real nature so much like God and thus involves the understanding of humanity in the difficulties of comprehending God. Humans are their knowledge; humans are their ideas, whose locus is in the divine mind.
God created by separating light from darkness; were there no dark element, all would be angelic nature and understanding. As it is, darkness precipitated humans into ignorance as a penalty for their pride, and people could neither foresee their fall nor their misery. Were it not for the unshapeliness of darkness, all creatures would cling immutably to their creator, and humans would not need to struggle for understanding. As it is, humans must first see God, the presence of the idea of humanity in the divine mind, in order to understand their own nature. However, this requires overcoming the ignorance of sin and grasping the divine nature—surely a job for an angel, unless humans are first restored by divine grace.
A speculative system of such scope and daring as Erigena presented is quite difficult for the modern mind to grasp for many reasons. Such pure speculation is no longer prevalent, and speculation of such vigor is quite unexpected as the first philosophy of consequence since Saint Augustine, who wrote nearly four centuries earlier. Here Erigena easily ranges between God and humanity, comprehending in his theory the whole of creation with the greatest of ease. Modern caution has restrained us from such far-ranging flights of philosophical reasoning. Erigena’s thoughts were considered unorthodox by his own church, but they exerted a powerful influence (particularly in Platonic circles) in the following centuries and stand as a monument to independent and original speculative construction.
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Bett, Henry. Johannes Scotus Erigena: a Study in Mediaeval Philosophy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1925. Reprint. New York: Russell and Russell, 1964. Although dated, this work, the first complete study of Johannes Scotus Erigena in English, is still a valuable introduction to this complex thinker. Bett tirelessly traces Erigena’s sources in earlier writers and his influence on later ones. The author marshals considerable evidence to debunk some legends about John the Scot as well as to corroborate others.
Gibson, Margaret T., and Nelson, Janet L., eds. Charles the Bald: Court and Kingdom. Rev. ed. Aldershot, England: Variorum Editions, 1990. This collection of essays provides valuable background on the court in which Erigena served as schoolmaster. All of the essays have some bearing on Erigena, but the most direct is John Marenbon’s “John Scottus and Carolingian Theology.”
Jeauneau, Edouard, and Paul Edward Dutton. The Autograph of Eriugena. Turnholti: Typographi Brepols Editores Pontificii, 1996. A good source of textual criticism.
McGinn, Bernard, and Otten, Willemien, eds. Eriugena East and West. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994. This collection of essays is the proceedings of a scholarly conference on Erigena sponsored by Notre Dame University in 1991. McGinn’s introduction to the volume is a helpful starting place for the beginning student of Erigena and a good tool for determining which of the other articles in the book will be most helpful.
O’Meara, J. J. Eriugena. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. A comprehensive study of Erigena’s philosophy, this volume is for the advanced student. O’Meara places Erigena’s thought in the context of the Neoplatonic philosophy of his era, but this book presupposes some basic knowledge of medieval philosophy.
O’Meara, J. J., and Bieler, L. The Mind of Eriugena. Dublin: Irish University Press, 1973. This collection of essays is the proceedings of a colloquium on Erigena in Dublin in 1970. Although not all of the articles are in English (nine are in French, and one in German), this book contains some important essays in English, including A. H. Armstrong’s study of Erigena’s Greek sources and R. Russell’s essay on Augustinian sources.
Otten, Willemien. The Anthropology of Johannes Scottus Eriugena. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1991. Though narrower in scope than other studies mentioned here, this book presents the implications about human nature in Erigena’s philosophy, especially in his discussions on monothelitism and the Trinity.