Erigena, John Scotus (c. 810–c. 877)

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(c. 810c. 877)

John the Scot (Irishman) or Erigena (of Irish birth) was active as a scholar in the court of Charles the Bald around 850 to 870. He intervened in the debate on predestination with a controversial treatise. At the request of the emperor, he made a Latin translation of the works of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite (followed later by translations of St. Maximus the Confessor [c. 580662] and Gregory of Nyssa). The direct contact with the Greek theological tradition opened his mind for a more speculative neoplatonic interpretation of the Christian doctrine of creation than what he knew from his Latin authorities. Confronting both hermeneutic traditions with the requirements of "right reason," Erigena composed his own theophilosophical synthesis, Periphyseon.

Periphyseon is an attempt to understand the "division of Nature" and its "unification," thus offering a comprehensive interpretation of the Christian doctrine of creation, sin, and salvation as revealed in Genesis 13. Nature stands for the whole universe, encompassing both God and creation in all its divisions. It is the task of the philosopher to examine both the division of this Nature, that is, its articulation into a manifold of species from the most general to the most particular, and its unification from the utmost manifold to absolute simplicity. In the neoplatonic tradition diairesis (which divides a genus into specific forms) and synopsis (which brings a dispersed plurality under a single form) are not just two logical procedures of dialectic. They correspond to the movements of reality: the procession of multiplicity from the One and its return into the One; in Christian terms, creation and redemption.

At the start, Erigena introduces his famous fourfold division of nature, which will provide the main structure for the entire discussion. By applying the dialectical method of dividing a genus into species by differences, he presents a division that can be applied to the whole Universe, or Nature. The most fundamental difference is that between creating and being created. Applying four possible combinations of these differences one may discover the four fundamental species of Nature:

  1. That which creates and is not created
  2. That which creates and is created
  3. That which is created and does not create
  4. That which neither is created nor creates

The first species of nature is God, the uncaused cause of everything. The third species, which is diametrically opposite to the first, stands for the sensible world, comprehending the many species of animals and plants that come to be in times and places. The second species has attributes of both extremes: it is both created and creative. This is the level of the primordial ideas wherein God has from all eternity created all species (before they are manifested in time and place and individualized in matter). Finally, there is the fourth nature, which must be understood again as God. It is, however, God not as the creative cause from which all things proceed, but as the ultimate Good toward which of all things return.

In this division the divine nature is that which stands first and last. Still, God is not simply a species among many, because he "transcends everything that is or can be" and thus seems to fall outside all system. But one could as well say that God is the whole system in its unfolding and that all four divisions of nature are moments within the circular process whereby the divine nature proceeds from and returns to itself. In fact, the most fundamental distinction, that between creative nature and created nature, must itself be overcome. This is most true on the level of the primordial ideas, wherein the creator expresses in his Word his being as the being of the creatures: therefore, that nature is said to be both creative and created. As Erigena provokingly says, "God is the essence of all things" (essentia omnium ). "It follows that we ought not to understand God and the creature as two things distinct from one another, but as one and the same" (Vol. III, 678C). In fact, this sensible world has no subsistence on its own but exists only through participation in the divine being and the primordial causes.

If the being of the creature is nothing but a participation in the being of its creator, one may also understand the creation of the world as God's creation of himself. "God is everything that truly exists because he himself makes all things and is made in all things." By creating the manifold species God reveals and makes himself known proceeding from his ineffable nature, where he is unknown even to himself. In this sense creation is revelation and the whole world must be understood as a theophany, that is, an "appearing of God." For everything that exists is nothing else but "the apparition of what is not apparent, the comprehension of the incomprehensible, the materialization of the spiritual, the visibility of the invisible" (Vol. III, 633A). When it is said in the Christian creed that God creates "from nothing," it can only mean that God creates all things "out of the nothingness," which he is himself as transcending all beings. Only in his creatures "he begins to be."

In this cosmic process of emanation and return, human nature occupies a central place. Human nature, which comprehends body, vital powers, perception, imagination, reason, and intellect, is the "workshop of all things" (officina omnium ), the intermediary connecting the whole universe, preventing its falling into separate sensible and intelligible realms. Apart from being created, human nature resembles the divine nature in all respects. Thus, as the divine mind, the human soul finds in itself eternal a priori knowledge of all created things. In the divine wisdom, however, things exist as primordial causes or substantial forms, in human knowledge as the effects of those ideal forms.

Through the Fall, however, this connatural knowledge has been lost and the soul has fallen into ignorance of itself and of the content of its ideas. Human nature turned away from the creator, dishonoring its natural dignity and making itself similar to the beasts. This irrational nature does not belong to the image of God. In his original plan God had wanted to create humans similar to angels, not divided into male and female, without needing for their multiplication a sexuality similar to that of irrational beasts. But because God had foreseen from all eternity that humans would abuse their freedom and sin, from the first moment of their temporal existence, and thus fall from the status of equality with the angels to the level of the beasts, he introduced in the creation of the human being the consequences of sin before it occurred. Thus, the sexualized fleshy body (with all what it involves as pain, passion, sickness, and corruption) was created with the original rational nature, an addition required as a remedy and a penance for sin. It will be overcome when, at the resurrection, all shall rise in a perfect, sexless, spiritual body.

A philosopher must not only explain how creatures proceed from God but also how they return "by the same stages through which the division had previously ramified into multiplicity, until it arrives at that One which remains inseparably in itself and from which that division started" (Vol. II, 526A). Erigena makes a clear distinction between the general return to God, which is the common and natural destination of the whole creation (all corporeal things will return, that is, be resolved into their incorporeal causes), and the special return, which is only reserved to rational beings, the angels and the humans. At the end all human beings, blessed and damned alike, will return to the perfection of one and the same human nature. Still, they will be individually distinguished, not by differences in nature, body, or place, but by the different access each shall be granted to God's self-revelation. Those who led a righteous life will be beatified and allowed to see God in differing gradations of his theophanies. The damned, on the contrary, will be refused access to that vision and will be eternally tormented with the "vain dreams" of those things that incited their desires while still living.

Erigena stands apart from any of his contemporaries in his original speculations on creation and redemption, showing a great confidence in the harmony of reason and revelation. Still, he only exercised a limited direct influence in the Middle Ages, where he was mostly appreciated as a translator of Dionysius. Periphyseon was condemned as heretical in 1225 and copies of it were burned. From a philosophical point his greatest accomplishment is his understanding of creation as the self-creation of God. This doctrine attracted the admiration of idealist philosophers such as Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, which led to his rediscovery in the twentieth century.

See also Neoplatonism; Pseudo-Dionysius.


works by erigena

Periphyseon = The Division of Nature. Translated by I. P. Sheldon-Williams. Montreal: Bellarmin, 1987.

Periphyseon. 5 vols. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 19962003.

Treatise on Divine Predestination. Translated by Mary Brennan. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998.

works about erigena

Brennan, Mary. A Guide to Eriugenian Studies: A Survey of Publications 19301987. Fribourg, Switzerland: Editions Universitaires, 1989.

Carabine, Deirdre. John Scottus Eriugena. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

McEvoy, James, and Michael Dunne, eds. History and Eschatology in John Scottus Eriugena and His Time. Louvain, Belgium: Louvain University Press, 2002.

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

Van Riel, Gerd, Carlos Steel, and James McEvoy, eds. Iohannes Scottus Eriugena: The Bible and Hermeneutics. Louvain: Louvain University Press, 1996.

Carlos Steel (2005)

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Erigena, John Scotus (c. 810–c. 877)

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