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.
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.
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...
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