John Scottus Eriugena Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.”