Johannes Scotus Erigena

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2281

Article abstract: Erigena provided the first Latin translations of and commentaries on the works of the great Greek fathers of the early Christian church. His sometimes controversial Neoplatonic works were a synthesis of medieval theology and philosophy.

Early Life

Johannes Scotus Erigena was born in Ireland— hence the designation “Scotus,” or “Scot,” which in the ninth century meant “Irishman,” and the possible construing of “Erigena” as “Ireland-born.” His place of birth and his education in an Irish monastery account for a great deal of his importance for Western philosophy because in Erigena’s day, the Irish monasteries were one of the last remaining places in Western Europe where Greek was taught.

Little is known about Erigena’s early life, except for where he received his schooling, and that is merely inferred. Like most great writers of the Middle Ages, however, he is at the center of many legends. The story that he traveled in Greece, Italy, and Gaul in his early years is probably based on a confusion of Erigena with a Spaniard with a similar name. Stories that he was invited to France by Charlemagne and that he helped found the University of Paris cannot be substantiated.

However, although the connection with Charlemagne cannot be proved, it is known that Erigena served in the court of emperor Charles the Bald. Prudentius, Bishop of Troyes, left that court in 847 and later recalled spending time there with Erigena, placing Erigena’s service somewhere between 843 (the accession of Charles) and 847. Erigena’s position was headmaster of the court school. He must have enjoyed some degree of eminence in the court, if an anecdote told by William of Malmsbury is true. According to William, Erigena was seated at dinner opposite Charles when the king riddled, “What is the distance between a Scot and a sot?” Erigena replied, “That of a table.” Delivering such a quip to an emperor implies a great deal of security and familiarity.

Life’s Work

The continuity of Western thought, both across time (from the Neoplatonists to the modern idealists, as scholar Henry Bett put it) and across European space (from Greece to the British Isles) owes much to Erigena’s synthesis of the minds of the ancient Greeks and the essentially Germanic mind of Carolingian Europe. Erigena’s leanings were Neoplatonic, particularly influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius. Although his first published work, a treatise on the Eucharist, no longer exists, commentaries suggest that in this work Erigena argued that the Eucharist was only symbolically the body of Christ (though it must be kept in mind that to a Neoplatonist “symbolic” reality was higher, more real, than the merely material). Though this teaching was declared heretical a few years later, ecclesial authorities do not seem to have associated it with Erigena, for the Bishop of Riems requested him to respond to a treatise on predestination by the Saxon monk Gottschalk.

Erigena’s heterodoxy, apparently not readily evident in his lost work on the Eucharist, was unmistakable in his Treatise on Divine Predestination. Gottschalk’s fatalistic predestinarianism was ably refuted by Erigena but in a scurrilous, name-calling fashion and by asserting that philosophy and religion were identical. Erigena’s treatise was condemned by the Synod of Valence in 855, which, in language as strong as Erigena’s, called it pultes Scotorum, or “Scot’s gruel.”

Erigena’s next work, a translation of Pseudo-Dionysius, was commissioned by the emperor Charles. It must have been completed by the late 850’s, for Pope Nicholas I (installed in 858) wrote to Charles the Bald in 860, rebuking Charles and Erigena for publishing the translation without his papal approval. Nicholas also mentioned previous works, which he cited in the letter, apparently questioning their orthodoxy. He demanded that Erigena come to Rome or that he be banished from the court of Charles the Bald. Neither appears to have occurred.

Erigena’s translation of the Ambigua (seventh century; ambiguities) of Maximus the Confessor probably belongs to the same period as his translations of the works of Pseudo-Dionysius and is related in content. Maximus’s work is a set of commentaries on the most obscure passages in Pseudo-Dionysius and Gregory Nazianzen. Maximus greatly influenced the thought of Erigena, particularly in the area that corresponds to modern-day psychology. Maximus refuted the heresy known as monothelitism, the notion that Christ had two natures, divine and human, but only one will. Though the controversy was no longer an issue in Erigena’s day, it had implications for the medieval view of the nature of personality. By demonstrating that the monothelites confused personality with the single will, Erigena paved the way for later discussion of individual consciousness.

Erigena’s greatest work, both in bulk and in significance, is On the Division of Nature. The work, which presupposes and builds on his translations and his work on predestination, is most likely a work of the late 860’s. Written in five books and a quarter of a million words, On the Division of Nature takes the form of a dialogue between master and disciple. Erigena’s scheme of dividing nature is fourfold: God as source of all (book 1), primal causes that mediate God and nature (book 2), creation itself (book 3), and the return of all to God (books 4 and 5). This is the essence of Erigena’s philosophy.

In On the Division of Nature, Erigena anticipates a controversy that would lead, two hundred years later, to the “great schism” between Eastern and Western Christianity. The pupil in the dialogue discusses the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed, an early expression of Christian doctrine. The Latin word filioque means “and the son” and represents a statement about the Trinity, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Though that formulation exists in the writings of the early Greek fathers, some Eastern writers began to object to the phrase “and the son.” In Erigena’s dialogue, it is the disciple who raises the question: Does the Holy Spirit proceed from the son after the son is begotten, and is it from the essence or the substance? The master resolves this question by resorting to Erigena’s translations of works by Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus, and Nazianzen, demonstrating the extent to which Erigena’s great work is a synthesis of his earlier writings. The question of the relationship among the members of the Trinity points to the central theme of the work, represented by the word “divisions” in the title. “Divisions” in nature refer to the Neoplatonic doctrine of Plotinus that the “Many,” the multiplex created things in the universe, are fallen forms and need to return to the “One,” which is God. That pattern of individuation and return is clear in the five books of On the Division of Nature.

The dialogue form, though common in philosophy since the Greek philosopher Plato, allows for a great deal of creativity on Erigena’s part in On the Division of Nature. Erigena’s style contributes a great deal to the effectiveness of his writings, and it is clear from the Latin verse that survives that writing was for him more than a mechanism for transmitting ideas. The character of the student in Erigena’s great dialogue is fully developed, rather than the mindless foil for the master one usually finds in such colloquies. Also unlike the character of Socrates in Plato’s dialogues, the master in Erigena’s work does not so much correct the errors of the pupil as restate more clearly the insights the pupil has discovered.

Concerning the later life of Erigena, confusion reigns, with legend merging into fact. A dedicatory poem he wrote for a church founded in Compiègne in 877 has been used as evidence that Erigena was still in France at that time. However, later that year, his patron Charles the Bald died, and Alfred the Great defeated the Danes the following year, both circumstances lending credence to the report by William of Malmsbury that Erigena came to England at Alfred’s invitation at this time. William writes that Erigena taught at the abbey of Malmsbury, which would account for William’s familiarity with Erigena, and scholar Bett noted that the abbey of Malmsbury was founded by an Irish monk and maintained an Irish tradition, circumstances that would have made Erigena welcome. What makes this very plausible tradition suspect is the end of the story, in which William asserts that Erigena’s students stabbed him to death with their pens. However, this bizarre element is the only implausible item in the story.


Erigena’s most marked influence on later writers was among mystics, particularly the Victorine school, although he also strongly influenced the heretical sects of the thirteenth century, particularly the Albigensians and Cathari. The Scholastic philosophers of the later Middle Ages never quote Erigena, but that is to be expected, as his works were under a papal ban. However, nineteenth century scholars demonstrated a direct line from Erigena to the late medieval Schoolmen. For example, when they quote the doctrinally “safe” Avicebron (Ibn-Gebirol), who was virtually a commentator on Erigena, they are in reality quoting Erigena. Saint Thomas Aquinas’s refutations of the heretics Amalric of Bena and David of Dinant (both early thirteenth century) appear to be treatments of Erigenism.

There is also some reason to believe that Erigena’s thought was influential in the nominalist controversy of the tenth century. The question among philosophers was whether or not abstract qualities such as “whiteness” had any real existence. In a tenth century chronicle, several minor philosophers are listed as partaking in the controversy and identified as followers of “John the Sophist.” Because sophism, or arguing a case for the purpose of winning rather than arriving at the truth, was one of the charges against John the Scot in his papal condemnation, it has been conjectured that this otherwise unknown “John the Sophist” was in fact Erigena. For this reason and because some of his arguments anticipate the nominalist position in the controversy (that “whiteness” is only a word and not a real quality), Erigena has been called “the first nominalist.”

Paradoxically, however, he has also been called “the first realist,” which is the opposite position. This seeming contradiction can be reconciled when we realize that Erigena, like most of his contemporaries, was first and foremost a Neoplatonist. That is, the highest reality for him is the ideal, a world beyond the merely physical one known through the senses, wherein abstract concepts and transcendental beings (such as God and the angels) have their being. In this context, to say that “whiteness” is “real” does not necessarily mean that its reality is accessible to our senses in the same way that an individual white thing is. Erigena’s statements on the subject would have been found in both camps of the controversy, the realist and the nominalist.

In the early Renaissance, two distinct and influential intellectual movements were demonstrably influenced by Erigena, in both cases through a single writer. The Christian humanism of northern Europe felt Erigena’s doctrine through Nicholas of Cusa, who refers to him as “Scotigena,” and German mysticism felt it through the writings of Meister Eckhart. There is no doubt that Erigena’s thought continues to influence philosophy in that most subtle and least detectable way—by becoming basic presuppositions of which one is often no longer conscious.

Additional Reading

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.

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