Eriugena, John Scottus

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ERIUGENA, JOHN SCOTTUS (fl. 847877), was a Christian theologian and philosopher. Eriugena was born in Ireland in the first quarter of the ninth century, and there he received his early education (which probably included some Greek). He appeared around 847 in France at the itinerant court of Charles the Bald. Later, in Laon, he found himself in the company of a number of Irish scholars who were distinguished for their knowledge of Greek, the most important of whom was Martin Scottus. Although a teacher, Eriugena may not have been a cleric. He was invited by Archbishop Hincmar of Reims and Pardulus of Laon to refute the predestinarian errors of the theologian Gottschalk of Orbais. In so doing, he produced his first work, On Predestination, which did not meet with the approval of Hincmar and Pardulus and which was condemned by the councils of Valence (855) and Langres (859). Nevertheless, he was invited sometime before 859 by Charles the Bald to attempt a new translation of the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite. This work, Translation of the Works of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, he completed in the years 860 to 862. Subsequently, he translated into Latin Matters of Question and Questions to Thalassios of Maximos the Confessor (862864), On the Making of Man of Gregory of Nyssa, and possibly some other Greek theological texts. The effect on him of such an immersion in Greek theology was profound and abiding. From then on his compositions, despite his dependence on and reverence for Augustine of Hippo, show a strong Neoplatonic influence. Apart from his writings little more is known of Eriugena, and one loses track of him altogether around 877. There remain, however, a number of well-known legends about him.

From 859 to 860 Eriugena composed a commentary on Martianus Capella's On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury. This was followed by the translations mentioned above. From 864 to 866 Eriugena wrote his great original work, Periphyseon, also known as De divisione naturae (The division of nature). This was followed between 865 and 870 by Expositiones, or Commentary on the Celestial Hierarchy of Dionysius the Areopagite, and by a homily and a commentary on the Gospel of John. Finally, he composed some verses of only moderate poetical quality. Other works are also attributed to him. The body of his works is to be found in the edition of H. J. Floss in J.-P. Migne's Patrologia Latina (vol. 122).

The theology of Eriugena may be seen most clearly in his Periphyseon, a work of some quarter of a million words divided into five books. Nature, or all existing things, is divided or distinguished into four parts: that which creates but is not created (God as source, book 1); that which is created and creates (the Word and the primordial causes, book 2); that which is created but does not create (the created universe, book 3); and that which does not create and is not created (God as end, books 4 and 5). The work therefore takes the Neoplatonic approach of the progression from and regression of all things to the Father. The primary division of nature, however, is into being and nonbeing, both of which can be considered in five different modes: according to the perceptibility of the object; according to its order or place on the descending and ascending scale between the creator and the creature; according to its actualization (as against mere possibility); according to its perceptibility by intellect or sense; and according to its realization as the image of God.

God does not come within any of the categories of nature. He cannot be seen, although the divine nature does appear to angels and has appeared and will appear to human beings in theophanies, or appearances. One cannot know what God is, only that he is. More is known about him through negative rather than affirmative theology: One can more truly say what God is not than what he is. The primordial causes, also called divine ideas or volitions, remain invisible in the Word. In these are established the unchangeable "reasons" of all things to be made. The biblical Book of Genesis gives the account of how creatures, and especially human beings, were made. One can say that all things always were, are, and always will be because they always had being in God's wisdom through the primordial causes: "We should not understand God and the creature as two things removed from one another, but as one and the same thing. For the creature subsists in God, and God is created in the creature in a wonderful and ineffable way, making Himself manifest, invisible making Himself visible."

The divine nature, however, is above being and is different from what it creates within itself: In this way pantheism is avoided. The return of all things to God is best seen in the human creature, who, being body, living, sensible, rational, and intellectual, is a harmony of all things. Originally, humankind was simple, spiritual, celestial, and individual. The division into male and female was caused by sin; it was something added to true human nature. Humanity will return by stages to become intellect (here Eriugena follows Gregory of Nyssa); the body will resolve into its physical elements; the human person in the resurrection shall recover the body from these elements; the body will be changed into spirit; that spirit will return to the primordial causes. Finally, all nature and its causes will be moved toward God; there will be nothing but God alone.

The influence of Eriugena has been important and continuous in philosophy and theology. Remigius and Heiric of Auxerre and Pope Sylvester II were his early followers. Those of a mystical disposition made great use of him: the school of Saint Victor, Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler, Jan van Ruusbroec, Nicholas of Cusa, and Giordano Bruno. His reputation, however, suffered from the enthusiasm of Berengar of Tours, Gilbert of Poitiers, Almaric of Bena, and David of Dinant, all of whose espousal of his doctrine led to its condemnation by the councils of Vercelli (1050) and Rome (1059) and in a bull of Honorius III (1225). His ideas, nevertheless, have persisted, especially among German philosophers, and a reawakening of interest in him and his thought has begun.


Brennan, Mary. A Bibliography of Publications in the Field of Eriugenian Studies, 18001975. Estratto degli Studi Medievali, third series, vol. 18, no. 1. Spoleto, 1977.

Cappuyns, Maieul. Jean Scot Érigène (1933). Reprint, Brussels, 1969. By far the best book on Eriugena's life, works, and thought.

Contreni, John J. The Cathedral School of Laon from 850 to 930: Its Manuscripts and Masters. Munich, 1978. Gives the context of Eriugena's life.

O'Meara, John J. Eriugena. Cork, 1969. A brief introduction.

O'Meara, John J., and Ludwig Bieler, eds. The Mind of Eriugena. Dublin, 1973. Papers of a colloquium held in Dublin (1970) by the Society for the Promotion of Eriugenian Studies. Subsequent papers from Laon (1975) and Freiburg im Breisgau (1979) were published, respectively, in Jean Scot Érigène et l'histoire de la philosophie, edited by René Roques (Paris, 1977), and Eriugena: Studien zu seinen Quellen, edited by Werner Beierwaltes (Heidelberg, 1980).

Sheldon-Williams, I. P., ed. Iohannis Scotti Eriugenae Periphyseon. 3 vols. to date. Dublin, 19681981. Two more volumes of this modern edition of the Periphyseon, which includes an English translation, are projected.

John J. O'meara (1987)