John Scottus Eriugena Essay - Critical Essays

John Scottus Eriugena


John Scottus Eriugena c. 810-c. 877

(Full name Johannes Scottus Eriugena; also known as John the Scot and Erigena) Irish theologian, translator, and philosopher.

Considered by many scholars one of the most original Western thinkers between Boethius in the fifth century and Anselm in the eleventh, and deemed by Bertrand Russell “the most astonishing person of the ninth century,” Eriugena is credited with the spread of Neoplatonism in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, largely through his translation of the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. His masterwork is the Periphyseon, also known by its Latin name, De Divisione Naturae (c. 864-66; On the Division of Nature). Through the use of dialectic reasoning, the Periphyseon, attempts to merge Neoplatonism and orthodox Christianity. Inspired by the doctrine of Augustine, the work influenced many Catholic philosophers, mystical theologians, and pantheists. In it, Eriugena exalts direct experience and reason over dogma and explains that true reason points to what God is not, rather than to what God is. Following Eriugena's death, centuries elapsed before such original and independent theological scholarship commenced again.

Biographical Information

The theologian's full name was not established until the seventeenth century; Iohannes, or John, was his only given name. Scottus (often spelled Scotus) denotes that he was born in Scottia, on old name for Ireland, which was once part of Scotland. Eriugena (often spelled Erigena) was a name created by John himself while translating Pseudo-Dionysius and means “born in Erin,” another name for Ireland. Not much is known about Eriugena's life until about 847, when he accepted a position from Charles II (Charles the Bald), King of the West Franks, as head of his court school in Paris. In addition to teaching grammar, Eriugena joined in vigorous theological debates. Charles encouraged him to set in writing his position concerning predestination, which resulted in De Praedestinatione (c. 851; On Predestination). As Eriugena was well versed in Greek, a rare skill at the time, Charles also commissioned him in 860 to translate into Latin the complete works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, as well as the commentary on Pseudo-Dionysius written by St. Maximus the Confessor. In addition, Eriugena translated St. Gregory of Nyssa's De Imagine) (originally De Hominis Opificio; On the Image of Man) between 862 and 864. Decidedly independent in his thinking, which was often contrary to that of many important Church leaders of his time, Eriugena was never punished for his controversial views, apparently due to the patronage of King Charles. Nothing definite is known of Eriugena after the death of the King in 877, and that date is thus often considered the year of his death as well, though there is no direct evidence to support this thesis.

Major Works

De Praedestinatione, Eriugena's first major work, completely rejected the accepted theory of double predestination and was condemned by two church councils in 855 and 859. Eriugena was denounced as a heretic for, among other things, promoting the idea that reason was at least the equal of revelation. Annotationes in Marcianum (859-60) consists of notes and commentary on Martianus Cappella's Marriage of Mercury and Philology. The famous Eastern works of Pseudo-Dionysius had never been adequately translated from the Greek before Eriugena accepted the assignment. At the time, Psuedo-Dionysius was erroneously believed to be the celebrated Athenian convert of St. Paul—thus, Eriugena believed that it was well within theological realm to make translations of Pseudo-Dionysius's work, accepting them as legitimate works of the church. Eriugena's best-known work, the Periphyseon, consists of five books structured as dialogues between a master and his pupil. In it he describes “four species” of nature: 1) Nature that creates and is not created, meaning God; 2) Nature that is created and creates, a world of primordial causes and types of things; 3) Nature that is created and does not create, the sensible world of space and time; and 4) Nature that neither creates nor is created, meaning God as the end of all things (the Omega), to which all things return.

Critical Reception

Such scholars as Michael Haren note that Eriugena's Greek sources were Christian and that his Neoplatonism derived from Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, and Gregory of Nyssa. Many scholars have also focused on explaining various aspects of his philosophy. For example, Deirdre Carabine discusses Eriugena's view of creation, noting: “The paradox of creation is that the original darkness of God, which is no thing, becomes light, becomes some thing. God's fullness above being is the ‘nothing’ that is the negation of something, but through its becoming, it becomes the negation of the negation: the divine nature becomes ‘other’ than itself: God becomes not-God through the process of ex-stasis, literally, God's going out from God.” Dermot Moran looks at Eriugena's influence on other philosophers, albeit indirect, while Peter Makin credits Eriugena's translation of Pseudo-Dionysius for exerting “an unparalleled influence on Western Christianity.” Makin further comments that, along with Augustine's writings, “it probably did more than any other work to effect the change in Christianity whose result was that ‘Dante's god has nothing to do with the Jehovah of the Old Testament.’” John J. Contreni and Pádraig P. Ó Néill write that Eriugena is “arguably the most studied of all early medieval intellectual figures during the last twenty-five years or so.” They state that if the Periphyseon were the sole work he had written, “his reputation on that achievement alone would be solidly established.” Makin examines his influence on Ezra Pound as well as the reasons Pound seized upon Eriugena as a vital figure in his own view of history. Avital Wohlman summarizes why De Praedestinatione was condemned: “Given that God is eternal, we cannot say that he foresees or predetermines. Beyond that, to think that God foresees sin and punishment is silly: evil does not exist, being a pure absence, so one cannot know it. To think that God has prepared hell from the beginning of time for human beings is a pitiful anthropomorphism. God is the Good above all goods and the source of all good. The only punishment is immanent to sin itself, confining sinners in the prison of their own conscience.”

Principal Works

De Praedestinatione [On Predestination] (philosophy) c. 851

Annotationes in Marcianum (commentary) 859-60

Versio Operum sancti Dionysii Areopagitae [translator] (philosophy) 860-864

De Imagine [translator] (philosophy) 862-64

Periphyseon: De Divisione Naturae [On the Division of Nature] (philosophy) c. 864-66

Commentarius in Evangelium Iohannis [Commentary on John] (commentary) c. 875

Periphyseon: On the Division of Nature [translated by Myra L. Uhlfelder] 1976

Periphyseon: The Division of Nature [translated by I. P. Sheldon-Williams; revised by John J. O'Meara] 1987

The Voice of the Eagle: The Heart of Celtic Christianity: John Scotus Eriugena's Homily on the Prologue to the Gospel of St. John [translated by Christopher Bamford] 1990

Treatise on Divine Predestination [translated by Mary Brennan] 1998


Alice Gardner (essay date 1900)

SOURCE: Gardner, Alice. “Scotus as Optimist” and “Scotus as Subjective Idealist.” In Studies in John the Scot (Erigena): A Philosopher of the Dark Ages, pp. 97-132. London: Henry Frowde, 1900.

[In the following essays, Gardner discusses the roots of Eriugena's optimism and examines his views on existence, thought, and knowledge.]

But yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill.


It has already been sufficiently pointed out that the principal ecclesiastical controversies with which the name of Scotus is associated were none of his own seeking, nor were they concerned with problems which he had set...

(The entire section is 8569 words.)

W. G. Hanson (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: Hanson, W. G. “John Scotus Erigena.” In The Early Monastic Schools of Ireland: Their Missionaries, Saints, and Scholars, pp. 111-26. Cambridge, England: W. Heffer & Sons Limited, 1927.

[In the following essay, Hanson provides an overview of Eriugena's work, reputation, and influence.]

It is the dictum of Mr. W. B. Yeats that “Ireland has produced but two men of religious genius: Johannes Scotus Erigena, who lived a long time ago, and Bishop Berkeley, who kept his Plato by his Bible; and Ireland has forgotten both.”1

If by “religious genius” Mr. Yeats means speculative genius, I would agree; but religion owes more...

(The entire section is 4345 words.)

I. P. Sheldon-Williams (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Sheldon-Williams, I. P. “Introduction to Books I-III.” In Periphyseon (De Diuisione Naturae), by Iohannis Scotti Erivgenae, edited by I. P. Sheldon-Williams, pp. 1-34. Dublin: The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1968.

[In the following excerpt, Sheldon-Williams offers an overview of Eriugena's life and describes four stages of development regarding the work that became De Diuisione Naturae.]


Little is known of the life of the author of the Periphyseon, and no fresh biographical information has come to light since the publication of Dom Maïeul Cappuyns's exhaustive study in 1933.1 Only a few...

(The entire section is 4879 words.)

Peter Makin (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Makin, Peter. “Ezra Pound and Scotus Eriugena.” Comparative Literature Studies 10 (1973): 60-83.

[In the following essay, Makin explains how Ezra Pound made use of Eriugena's concepts in his own work.]

“That Irishman” (“Scotus ille”), as some of his contemporaries knew him,1 was born at some time in the early ninth century.2 He left Ireland before the year 847, when he was to be found at the royal court of Charles the Bald, successor on the throne of France to Louis the Debonair. From the epithets applied to him (“scholasticus et eruditus”) it has been supposed that he taught at the Palace School.

He is...

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Donald F. Duclow (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Duclow, Donald F. “Nature as Speech and Book in John Scotus Eriugena.” Mediaevalia: A Journal of Mediaeval Studies 3 (1977): 131-40.

[In the following essay, Duclow examines Eriugena's use of the book as metaphor in his attempt to describe nature and divine creativity.]

In “The Book as Symbol,”1 E. R. Curtius outlines the history of book symbolism with emphasis on the Latin Middle Ages. His remarks on “the book of nature”2 are especially suggestive, because this metaphor witnesses to the astonishing depth and scope of book symbolism: the world itself comes to be seen as a book. This essay will explore this metaphor in the work...

(The entire section is 3389 words.)

Dominic J. O'Meara (essay date November 1981)

SOURCE: O'Meara, Dominic J. “The Concept of Natura in John Scottus Eriugena (De divisione naturae Book I).” Vivarium 19, no. 2 (November 1981): 126-45.

[In the following essay, O'Meara explains Eriugena's use of the word natura and considers his purpose in describing a fourfold division of it.]

The first book of John Scottus Eriugena's great philosophical dialogue, the De Divisione Naturae, begins as follows:

 As I frequently ponder and … carefully investigate the fact that the first and fundamental division of all things which either can be grasped by the mind or lie beyond its grasp is into...

(The entire section is 9140 words.)

Michael Haren (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Haren, Michael. “From Ancient World to Middle Ages: Adaptation and Transmission.” In Medieval Thought: The Western Intellectual Tradition from Antiquity to the Thirteenth Century, pp. 37-82. Hampshire, England: Macmillan Publishers Ltd, 1985.

[In the following excerpt, Haren provides an overview of Eriugena's background, career, and major writings.]


The Visigothic culture which had produced Isidore of Seville was submerged in the Islamic invasion which swamped the Spanish peninsula—with the exception of the Basque land and the adjoining coastal region—in 711. From then until the Carolingian...

(The entire section is 4805 words.)

Dermot Moran (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Moran, Dermot. “Eriugena's Influence on Later Mediaeval Philosophy.” In The Philosophy of John Scottus Eriugena: A Study of Idealism in the Middle Ages, pp. 269-81. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Moran explores the question of the extent of Eriugena's influence on thinkers of the Middle Ages.]

How influential was Eriugena in the development of philosophy in the High Middle Ages?

It is notoriously difficult to measure the exact influence of one author on another in the mediaeval tradition. The main intention of mediaeval authors was to represent the truth as they saw it, and they frequently...

(The entire section is 5065 words.)

Deirdre Carabine (lecture date 1991)

SOURCE: Carabine, Deirdre. “Eriugena's Use of the Symbolism of Light, Cloud, and Darkness in the Periphyseon.” In Eriugena: East and West: Papers of the Eighth International Colloquium of the Society for the Promotion of Eriugenian Studies: Chicago and Notre Dame: 18-20 October 1991, edited by Bernard McGinn and Willemien Otten, pp. 141-52. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as lecture in 1991, Carabine examines ambiguous aspects of Eriugena's symbolism.]

The diverse ways in which eriugena employs the theme of light have been given scholarly attention in the past.1 It is my...

(The entire section is 4597 words.)

John J. Contreni and Pádraig P. Ó Néill (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Contreni, John J. and Pádraig P. Ó Néill. Introduction to Glossae Divinae Historiae: The Biblical Glosses of John Scottus Eriugena, by John Scottus Eriugena, edited by John J. Contreni and Pádraig P. Ó Néill, pp. 1-85. Firenze, Italy: SISMEL, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Contreni and Ó Néill examine the early writings of Eriugena.]

That so much has been written about John Scottus, arguably the most studied of all early medieval intellectual figures during the last twenty-five years or so, testifies to a deeper and more precise appreciation both of his principal historical context, the Carolingian renewal program, and of his unique position within...

(The entire section is 6982 words.)

Avital Wohlman (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Wohlman, Avital. “Introduction to the English Translation.” In Treatise on Divine Predestination, by John Scottus Eriugena, translated by Mary Brennan, pp. xv-xxix. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Wohlman discusses the controversy over the concept of predestination and explains why Eriugena's De Praedestinatione caused scandal.]

Jean Trouillard has contended that Scottus Eriugena or John the Scot was the only authentic Neoplatonist in whom the Latin world could take pride,1 the only one who knew how to “recover, beyond Saint Augustine, the authentic spirit of Neoplatonism.”2...

(The entire section is 5738 words.)

Deirdre Carabine (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Carabine, Deirdre. “The Structure of Reality.” In John Scottus Eriugena, pp. 29-43. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Carabine discusses Eriugena's use of negative theology as part of his description of the nature of reality.]

Eriugena's overall view of reality, both human and divine, will be familiar to students of Neoplatonism, based as it is on the dual movement of procession and return: every effect remains in its cause, proceeds from it, and returns to it.1 Although I have chosen to discuss Eriugena's ideas within the framework of divisoria and resolutiva (diairetike and...

(The entire section is 8268 words.)

Further Reading


Bieler, Ludwig. “Remarks on Eriugena's Original Latin Prose.” In The Mind of Eriugena: Papers of a Colloquium, Dublin, 14–18 July 1970, edited by John J. O'Meara and Ludwig Bieler, pp. 140–46. Dublin: Irish University Press Ltd., 1973.

Offers an analysis of Eriugena's handling of the Latin language. Originally delivered as a lecture in 1970.

Contreni, John J. “The Biblical Glosses of Haimo of Auxerre and John Scottus Eriugena.” Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies 51, no. 1 (July 1976): 411-34.

Discusses some problematic issues involved in Eriugena's biblical notes.


(The entire section is 463 words.)