John Scottus Eriugena

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John Scottus Eriugena

Circa 810–Circa 877
Philosopher and theologian


The First Medieval Latin Philosopher. John Scottus Eriugena stands out as the most original thinker of the ninth century and the first systematic philosopher of the Middle Ages. He was born in reland but moved to France, perhaps because of the turbulence caused by Viking raids. France was still in the midst of the so-called renaissance of Charlemagne, who one generation earlier had welcomed foreign scholars such as Alcuin of York and Theodulf of Orleans. In this favorable climate Eriugena flourished. His keen mind and breadth of knowledge soon earned him a reputation as one of the finest scholars in Europe. He became a friend of Charlemagne’s grandson, King Charles the Bald, and served at his court as a poet, philosopher, theologian, and translator.

Major Works. Eriugena’s philosophical works may be divided into two categories. The first includes those works written prior to 860, which bear the influence of traditional Latin sources, notably the writings of Augustine. Among these earlier works are Eriugena’s Glossae Divinae Historiae (Biblical Glosses, circa 845–850), De Divinae Praedestinatione Liber (Book on Divine Predestination, circa 850–851), and Annotationes in Marcianum (Annotations on Martianus Capella, circa 859–860). The year 860 marks a shift in influence from the Latin Fathers to the Greek Fathers, who were at the time relatively unknown in the West. With his Latin translations of Pseudo-Dionysius and Maximus the Confessor, Eriugena began to assimilate Neoplatonic ideas into his own philosophical system. An emended version of one of his translations served as the standard edition of Pseudo-Dionysius for the next three hundred years. The most important result of the synthesis of Greek and Latin philosophy in his own writings was his Periphyseon (On Nature, circa 864–866), the most comprehensive and subtle work of philosophical speculation composed between the times of Augustine and Aquinas.

Eriugena’s Legacy. As seen in his works on the Bible and on the pagan author Martianus Capella, Eriugena gave reason its rightful place in the interpretation of myth, story, and belief. In his homily on the Prologue of John’s Gospel, Vox Spiritualis Aquilae (The Voice of the Spiritual Eagle, circa 870–872), Eriugena gave John, a symbol of intelligence, primacy over Peter, a symbol of faith. Reason is no mere slave of the passions, he believed, but an autonomous and necessary compliment of humanity. Reason is capable of resolving the ambiguities of difficult texts and discovering the possible meanings of myths and the human mean-ingfulness of religious mystery. Eriugena presented an anthropology in which the human being is no mere passive observer of abstract events. Rather, as the workshop of nature, human creativity allows for the restoration and re-visioning of nature. The major figures of German Idealism later found this vision of man congenial to their thought. In terms of the application of technical philosophical vocabulary, Eriugena made skillful use of Aristotle’s Categories, specifically in regard to language about the world, the human being, and God. Eriugena’s use of reason ranged from comprehensive synthesis to acute analysis, and in this regard he stands unrivaled among the philosophers of his day.

Charges of Heresy. Though Eriugena had a following among his contemporaries and in the century that followed his death, narrow-minded thinkers at Paris in the thirteenth century linked his works to the heretical views of David of Dinant. In 1210 Eriugena’s Periphyseon was burned. Nonetheless, his magnificant rhetorical and poetic achievement, Vox Spiritualis Aquilae, circulated throughout the Middle Ages pseudonymously, with various attributions of authorship to Origen, John Chrysostom, and Robert Grosseteste. Eriugena’s work was read and admired by Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa. His thought was rediscovered by the German Idealists during the first part of the nineteenth century. In the late twentieth century Eriugenian studies were revived considerably, with new editions, comments, studies, and translations.


Werner Beierwaltes, Eriugena (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1994).

Mary Brennan, A Guide to Eriugenian Studies (1930–1987), Vestigia 5 (Freibourg, Switzerland: Editions universitaires / Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1989).

Edouard Jeauneau, Etudes Eriuge’niennes (Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes, 1987).

Dermot Moran, The Philosophy of John Scottus Eriugena: a Study of Idealism in the Middle Ages (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

John J. O’Meara, Eriugena (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).

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John Scottus Eriugena

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