Eriugena, Johannes Scottus

views updated May 14 2018


(b. Ireland, early ninth century;

d. England [?], c. 875), natural philosophy, theology. For the original article on Eriugena see DSB, vol. 4.

New editions (including the Periphyseon) and a considerable amount of new scholarly literature since the publication of the original DSB article have contributed to a better understanding of Eriugena’s work.

John the Scot (“Irishman”) or Eriugena (“of Irish birth”) was a scholar at the court of Charles the Bald in Laon, France, around 845–875. John got his reputation as a master in the liberal arts, which was the main subject in the curriculum of the palace school. He was the first to write a commentary on Martianus Capella’s handbook De nuptiis. Asked to intervene in a debate on predestination, he composed a controversial treatise, De praedestinatione, in which he attributed the misunderstanding of the Christian doctrine of predestination to insufficient training in the liberal arts. He also acquired a knowledge of Greek that was exceptional in the West at that time. At the request of the emperor, he made a Latin translation of the works of Dionysius the Areopagite, which was followed later by translations of Maximus Confessor and Gregory of Nyssa. Through those translations he came deeply influenced by the Neoplatonic interpretation of the Christian doctrine, toward which he was already inclined because of his previous acquaintance with Platonism through the Latin theological tradition, in particular Augustine. After the completion of the Dionysius translation he started working on his own theo-philosophical synthesis, the Periphyseon, which was finished by 866. The commentary and homily on Saint John date probably from the last period of his life.

Metaphysical Views . The Periphyseon is an attempt to explain the “division” of the universe (Nature) into a manifold of species from the most general to the most particular, and to reduce its manifold divisions to unity. 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 dialectics. They correspond to the very movements of reality: the procession of multiplicity from the One and its return into the One; in Christian terms, creation and redemption. Following the dialectical method of dividing a genus into species by differences, John presents a division that can be applied to the whole universe. The most fundamental difference in Nature is that between “creating” and “being created.” Through applying this distinction he defines 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, diametrically opposite to the first, stands for the sensible world, comprehending the numerous 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. The fourth nature must be understood again as God: not, however, as the creative cause from which all things proceed, but as the ultimate Good toward which all things return. In this division, the divine nature is that which comes first and last. God, however, 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. 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 in its manifold species as God’s creation of himself. In this sense creation is God’s revelation and the whole world must be understood as a theophany, that is, an “appearing of God.”

In the last part of the work Eriugena explains how all creatures return to the One by the same stages through which the division had previously started into multiplicity. At the “end,” all things will return to their primordial causes and the human beings, blessed and damned alike, will return to the perfection of one and the same asexual human nature. Yet they will be individually distinguished by the different access each shall be granted to God’s self-revelation. Those who led a virtuous 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 which incited their desires.

Eriugena stands apart from any of his contemporaries in his daring speculations on creation and redemption, showing a great confidence in the harmony of reason and revelation. Yet he exercised only a limited indirect influence in the Middle Ages, where he was mostly appreciated as a translator and glossator of Dionysius. The Periphyseon was condemned as heresy in 1225 and copies of it were burned. From a philosophical viewpoint, Eriugena’s greatest accomplishment is his understanding of creation as the self-creation of God. This doctrine attracted the admiration of idealist philosophers such as Friedrich von Schelling and G. W. F. Hegel, which led to his rediscovery in the twentieth century.

Duhem’s Interpretation . In the history of science, Eriugena is often quoted because he is considered to defend a mixed geo-heliocentric system, wherein Earth remains in the center of the cosmos, but the Sun functions as center around which the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter orbit. Eriugena owes this fame in the history of astronomy to the historian Pierre Duhem, who recognized in the cosmological section of Periphyseon III (3257–3277 ed. Jeauneau) a prefiguration of the system that was later developed by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe as an alternative to Nicholas Copernicus’s heliocentricism. Some passages in the annotations on Martianus, too, seem to support this innovative astronomical view. A careful analysis of all texts (Eastwood, 2001) makes the claim of Duhem implausible. Eriugena is original in his cosmological speculations, but not as an astronomer. He attempts to integrate the often disparate information on the planetary movements he found in his late antique sources (Pliny and Martianus) and likes to use the metaphors of circles and orbits in his speculation.



Jean Scot: Commentaire sur l’Évangile de Jean. Sources Chrétiennes 180. Edited by Édouard Jeauneau. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1972.

Iohannis Scoti Eriugenae Expositiones in Ierarchiam coelestem. Corpus Christianorum: Continuatio Mediaevalis, vol. 21. Edited by Jeanne Barbet. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1975.

Iohannis Scotti De divina praedestinatione liber. Edited by Goulven Madec. Corpus Christianorum: Series Latina, vol. 50. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1978.

Maximi Confessoris Quaestiones ad Thalassium una cum latina interpretatione Iohannis Scotti Eriugenae. Edited by Carl Laga and Carlos Steel. Corpus Christianorum: Series Graeca, vol. 7 and 22. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols/Leuven University Press, 1980–1990.

Periphyseon. The Division of Nature. Translated by Inglis Sheldon-Williams and John J. O’Meara. Montreal: Bellarmin, 1987.

Maximi Confessoris Ambigua ad Iohannem iuxta Iohannis Scotti Eriugenae latinam interpretationem. Corpus Christianorum: Series Graeca, vol. 18. Edited by Édouard Jeauneau. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols/Leuven University Press, 1988.

Iohannis Scotti seu Eriugenae Periphyseon. Corpus Christianorum: Continuatio Mediaevalis, vol. 164–165. Edited by Édouard Jeauneau. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1996–2003.

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


Beierwaltes, Werner. Eriugena. Grundzüge seines Denkens. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Vittorio Klostermann, 1994.

Brennan, Mary. A Guide to Eriugenian Studies. A Survey of Publications 1930–1987. Fribourg, Switzerland: Editions Universitaires, 1989.

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

Eastwood, Bruce Stansfield. “Johannes Scottus Eriugena, SunCentred Planets and Carolingian Astronomy.” Journal of the History of Astronomy 32 (2001): 281–324.

Jeauneau, Édouard. Études érigéniennes, Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1987.

McEvoy, James, and Michael Dunne, eds. History and Eschatology in John Scottus Eriugena and His Time. Proceedings of the Society for the Promotion of Eriugenian Studies, 2002. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2002. Contains an exhaustive bibliography for 1996–2000.

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

———. “John Scottus Eriugena.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. October 17, 2004. Available from

Van Riel, Gerd, Carlos Steel, and James McEvoy, eds. Iohannes Scottus Eriugena. The Bible and Hermeneutics. Proceedings of the Society for the Promotion of Eriugenian Studies, 1995. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 1996. Contains an exhaustive bibliography for 1987–1995.

Carlos Steel

Eriugena, Johannes Scottus

views updated Jun 11 2018

Eriugena, Johannes Scottus

(b. Ireland, first quarter ninth century; d. England [?], last quarter ninth century)


Nothing is known of Eriugena’s life before 847, by which time he had already left Ireland and had been living for some years in France. By 851 the reputation for learning he had acquired was sufficient for his being asked to give his views on the dispute that had arisen over the interpretation of Augustine’s teaching on predestined grace (Ebo of Grenoble, Liber de tribus epistolis, XXXIX; Migne, Patrologia, CXXII, 1052A). In his reply, De praedestinatione, he revealed a critical understanding of the relevant texts of Augustine and adopted his precept that the seven liberal arts should be applied to the solution of theological problems. He also gave early evidence of a knowledge of Greek that was to become exceptional, if not unique, in ninth-century Europe.

Eriugena specifically attributed to an inadequate understanding of Greek and the liberal arts the failure of his contemporaries to understand Augustine’s teaching (De praedestinatione, XVIII; Patrologia CXXII, 403C10–D1) and made these two disciplines the principal subjects in the curriculum of the palace school at Laon, over which he presided with the assistance of his fellow countryman Martin. Here he restored to the arts their ancient classical function of propaedeutic to philosophy and theology. He taught them through the medium of a book that had been forgotten since the end of the ancient world, the De nuptiis of Martianus Capella, and used another forgotten work, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, for more advanced studies. To these texts he and his colleagues appended commentaries that, although not certainly extant in complete form today, established the matter and method of teaching in schools throughout Europe from the ninth to the twelfth centuries. Eriugena and his colleagues at Laon thus founded the educational system of the later Middle Ages and perpetuated the Carolingian renaissance.

The fame of the Greek scholarship at Laon was such that Charles the Bald commissioned Eriugena to translate into Latin the treatises of the pseudo-Dionysius and the First Ambigua of Maximus the Confessor. These labors, to which he added for his own purposes translations of the Quaestiones ad Thalassium of Maximus and the De hominis opificio of Gregory of Nyssa, occupied the years between 860 and 864. They brought Eriugena, already inclined toward Platonism by his reading of Augustine, into direct contact with the fully developed post-Plotinian Neoplatonism which had been absorbed by the Greek Fathers but until then had been a closed book for the Latin West. The immediate consequence of this contact was the composition, between 864 and 866, of Eriugena’s greatest work, the Periphyseon or De divisione naturae, in which the Western and Eastern forms of Neoplatonism are synthesized within a Christian context. In his subsequent writings—the Expositiones super Ierarchiam caelestem, his commentary on St. John’s Gospel (of which only three fragments survive), and his homily on St. John’s Prologue—he enunciates the theories of the Periphyseon with greater conviction and expresses them in more precise language, but nowhere does he change or abandon them.

These last works were written between 866 and 870, after which nothing further is known of Eriugena; his end is as obscure as his beginning.


I.Original Works. Eriugena’s principal works, edited by H. J. Floss, are collected in volume CXXII of J.P. Migne’s Patrologiae cursus completus; Series latina, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1865); but, as will be seen from the following list, the collection is far from complete. It also includes two spurious works, Expositiones super ecclesiasticam s. Dionysii and Expositiones seu Glossae in mysticam Theologiam s. Dionysii.

De praedestinatione is in Patrologia..., 355A-440A. “Iohannis Scotti annotationes in Marcianum,” in Annotationes in Marcianum, Cora E. Lutz, ed. (Cambridge, Mass., 1939), is an edition of an anonymous commentary on the De nuptiis preserved in Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS lat. 12960, one of a group of commentaries that contain Eriugena material and are probably derived from Eriugena’s own lost commentary.

H. Silvestre, ed., “Le commentaire inédit de Jean Scot Érigène au métre ix du livre iii du De consolatione philosophiae de Boéce,” in Revue d’histoire ecclésiastique, 47 (1952), 44–122, is an edition of an anonymous commentary preserved in Brussels, Bibliotheque Royale, MS 10066– 10067. Silvestre today is less certain that Eriugena is the author, although it is certainly based on his teaching.

Translation of the pseudo-Dionysian works are in Patrologia..., 1023–1194.

The translation of the First Ambigua of Maximus the Confessor is in Patrologia..., 1193–1222 and 1023A–1024B (introduction and chs. 1–4, sec. 3 only, together with a fragment from a later part printed under the title Liber de egressu et regressu animae). The full text is preserved in Paris, MS Mazarine 561, from which one folio has become detached and is now fol. 9 of MS Vat. Reg. lat. 596; Paris, MS Arsenal 237, a contemporary copy of Mazarine MS that lacks the last three folios; and Cambridge, MS Trinity College 0.9, 5, a transcription of the Mazarine MS by Mabillon. Preparatory work for an edition by the late Raymond Flambard based on the two Paris MSS is preserved in Paris, Archives Nationales, AB xxviii100.

“Scolia Maximi,” an unpublished translation of the Quaestiones ad Thalassium of Maximus, is preserved in MSS Monte Cassino 333 and Troyes, Bibliotheque Municipale 1234.

De imagine, edited by M. Cappuyns as “Le De imagine de Grégoire de Nysse traduit par Jean Scot Érigéne,” in Recherches de théologie ancienne et médiévale, 32 (1965), 205–262, is an edition of Eriugena’s translation of the De hominis opificio from the unique MS Bamberg Staatsbibliothek Patr. 78.

Periphyseon (De divisione naturae) is in Patrologia..., 439–1022. Of the new edition in preparation under the auspices of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, the first volume has been published as vol. VII of the series Scriptores latini Hiberniae: I.P. Sheldon-Williams and Ludwig Bieler, eds., Iohannis Scotti Eriugenae Periphyseon (De divisione naturae) liber primus (Dublin, 1968).

Expositiones super Ierarchiam caelestem can be found in Patrologia..., 125–265 and in H. F. Dondaine, “Les Expositiones super Ierarchiam caelestem de Jean Scot Erigene,” in Archives d’histoire doctrinale et litteraire du moyen âge, 18 (1951), 245–302—Eriugena’s commentary on the Celestial Hierarchy of the pseudo-Dionysius, chs. 1, 2. 7–14 in Patrologia..., the rest in Dondaine.

The Commentary on St. John’s Gospel is in Patrologia..., 297A-348B; three fragments are preserved in MS Laon 81.

The homily on the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel, was edited by Edouard Jeauneau as Jean Scot, Homelie sur le Prologue de Jean, Sources chretiennes no. 151 (Paris, 1969) and is also in Patrologia..., 283B-296D.

His poems were edited by L. Traube, in Monumenta Germaniae historica, Poetae latini aeui Caroli, III (Berlin 1896), 518–556; an incomplete collection is in Patrologia..., 1221C–1240C.

II. Secondary Literature. The most important and recent monographs on Eriugena are H. Bett, Johannes Scotus Erigena: A Study in Mediaeval Philosophy (Cambridge, 1925; repr. New York, 1964); M. Cappuyns, Jean Scot Erigene, sa vie, son oeuvre, sa pensee (Louvain-Paris, 1933; repr. Brussels, 1965), still the best work on Eriugena; and M. Dal Pra, Scoto Eriugena, 2nd ed. (Milan, 1951). John J. O’Meara, Eriugena (Cork, 1969), is of exceptional importance and resumes the findings of more recent research, to which it makes its own valuable contribution. Extensive bibliographies are given in Cappuyns, op. cit., pp. xi-xvii; I. P. Sheldon-Williams, “A Bibliography of the Works of Johannes Scottus Eriugena,” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 10, no. 2 (1960), 223–224; and in Jeauneau’s translation of the “Homily,” pp. 171–198.

I. P. Sheldon-Williams

John Scotus Erigena

views updated May 21 2018

John Scotus Erigena

The Irish philosopher and theologian John Scotus Erigena (ca. 810-ca. 877) wrote "On the Division of Nature," one of the major philosophical works of the Middle Ages.

Ireland was one of the most important cultural areas of the early Middle Ages. Irish learning, which stimulated much of the intellectual development of England and the European continent in the 7th and 8th centuries, gave to John Scotus Erigena a philosophical turn of mind as well as the linguistic ability to read the earlier sources of philosophy and Christian thought in their original languages.

Erigena, or Eriugena (meaning Irish-born), was one of several men of letters from Ireland and England to find a home on the Continent. Between 845 and 847 Erigena went to the court of Charles the Bald, king of the West Franks, who resided most frequently at the royal villa of Quierzysur-Oise near Laon. Erigena soon became the leading man of learning in northern France.

During the early period of Erigena's life in northern France, he took part in two controversies. One concerned the mystery of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, namely, how the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. The other controversy was over the doctrine of predestination, namely, the degree to which God's eternal decision is responsible for the ultimate salvation or damnation of the individual.

Erigena's contribution to the eucharistic controversy has been lost. However, his work on predestination, written in 851 in order to refute the teaching of the monk Gottschalk of Orbais, survives. Gottschalk maintained that God predestined souls to heaven or hell. Using the Neoplatonic idea that evil is only the absence of good and as such has no real being, Erigena interpreted evil actions and the concept of hell in such a way as to dissolve most of the elements of the original discussion. Hell was only metaphorical; the light of God that prevailed in the afterlife would please those whose spiritual eyes were healthy and cause pain to those whose eyes were diseased through a corrupt life. Erigena's views were condemned in 855 at the Synod of Valence and described as "Irish porridge."

In 859 Erigena, responding to a request of Charles the Bald, began the translation of several Greek works whose study became formative for the development of his thought. Having made a commentary on the writings of Martianus Capella, Erigena began to translate the works of Pseudo-Dionysius (in 859-862), Maximus the Confessor (in 862-864), and Gregory of Nyssa (in 864-865). In connection with these translations, Erigena wrote commentaries on the Gospel of John and on the works of Pseudo-Dionysius.

The Neoplatonic doctrine expressed in the Dionysian works influenced the structure and substance of Erigena's major work, which he wrote during the years 862-866, namely, On the Division of Nature. Divided into five books, this work outlines the creation of all things from God, concentrating initially on God (the nature that creates but is not itself created), the Divine Intelligences (natures that are created and create), man and the creatures of the world (natures that are created and do not create), and finally on the return of all creation to God, who stands thus at the end of time and creation as the nature that is uncreated and does not create.

This work expresses the Neoplatonic tendency to conceive creation in terms of an involuntary emanation or overflowing of the divine essence down through the various hierarchies of heaven and the world. Because of this doctrine of emanation and the concept of a universal return to God, Erigena's work tended toward pantheism and was read in this light in later centuries.

The events at the end of Erigena's life are not known with certainty. Some evidence suggests that he returned to England or Ireland about 870, and the date for his death is generally placed about 877.

Further Reading

Erigena's life and thought are discussed in Henry Bett, Johannes Scotus Erigena: A Study in Mediaeval Philosophy (1925), and John J. O'Meara, Eriugena (1969). A brief treatment of the contents of Erigena's most famous work is in Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 2 (1950).

Additional Sources

O'Meara, John Joseph, Eriugena, Oxford England: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. □

Eriugena/Erigena, John Scotus

views updated May 29 2018

Eriugena/Erigena, John Scotus (c.810–c.877). Neoplatonic philosopher. He was an Irishman who became head of the palace school at Laon, but little else is known about his life. His importance lies mainly in his knowledge of Gk. and his work as translator and interpreter of Dionysius the Areopagite, Maximus the Confessor, and Gregory of Nyssa. His influence was muted by his condemnation in the 13th cent., and the inherent difficulty of his thought. His own treatise, Periphyseon (On the Division of Nature), represents the first important influence of Neoplatonism on the W. since Boethius.

John Scotus Erigena

views updated May 18 2018

John Scotus Erigena

c. 810-c. 877

Irish theologian and philosopher who in his De divisione naturae (862-66) put forth the theory that Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter all orbit the Sun—an extraordinarily daring notion in his time. Erigena, who taught at the court of French king Charles II (the Bald) near Laon, also wrote a major work, De predestinatione (851), on questions of predestination, salvation, and free will. De divisione, the most important of his writings, marked an early attempt to reconcile non-religious views on Earth's origins (in this case, the Neoplatonist theory of emanationism) with Christian creationism. His work gained great influence, but in 1225 Pope Honorius II condemned it due to its tone of pantheism, or the idea that God and the natural laws of the universe constitute a single entity.

Erigena, John Scotus

views updated May 23 2018

Erigena, John Scotus

Erigena, John Scotus, Irish philosopher, theologian, and translator; b. Ireland, c.810; d. probably in England, c.877. He went to Gaul about 845, where he was a teacher of grammar and dialectic in Charles the Bald’s palace school. His De divisione naturae or Perifiseon(c.866) contains references to music.


M. Cappuyns, Jean Scot Erigene (Louvain, 1933); E. Waltner, Organicum melos:Zur Musikanschauung der lohannes Scottus (Munich, 1977).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire