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John Scotus Eriugena

JOHN SCOTUS ERIUGENA

Theologian, translator, known variously as John the Scot, Erigena, and Scottigena; b. Ireland, c. 810; d. probably in England, c. 877. Arriving between 845 and 847 at the palace school of Charles the Bald, at Quierzy near Laon, he taught grammar and dialectics. Earliest factual information concerns his involvement in the controversy concerning predestination that began in 849 and continued with varying degrees of intensity until 860. In 851 Pardulus of Laon urged hincmar of reims to consult John about the question; at that date John must have attained a certain eminence as a theologian. In his De predestinatione (Patrologia Latina 122: 355440), completed in 851, he insisted that there is but one predestination to good and that no one is compelled by God's foreknowledge to do evil. Through free will, a gift of God, man may sin, but he is not predestined to do so, since evil is not a physical reality. If one knows the simple rules of dialectics, he would know that a twofold predestination is a rational impossibility. Attacked by prudentius of troyes and florus of lyons, this work was condemned at the councils of Valencia (855) and Langres (859). John's work as teacher of the liberal arts is reflected principally in the Annotationes in Marcianum Capellam, ed. C. E. Lutz (Cambridge, Mass.1939), completed about 859860.

Translations. A new phase in his life and thought began when Eriugena was commissioned by Charles around 860 to make a new translation of the works of pseudo-dionysius (Patrologia Latina 122:10291194; Dionysiaca, 2 v. Bruges 19371950). Equipped, most probably, with a rudimentary knowledge of Greek learned in Ireland, he perfected his knowledge in France. In 827 the Byzantine Emperor Michael Balbus sent a copy of Dionysius's works to Louis the Pious, who immediately commissioned Hilduin, Abbot of Saint-Denis, to translate them into Latin. The imperfection of this translation, or transliteration, prompted Charles to ask Eriugena to prepare a better translation. This influential translation, completed between 860 and 862, consisted of four works (De divinis nominibus, Theologia mystica, De hierarchia caelestia, and De hierarchia ecclesiastica ) and ten letters together with two prefaces. Charles then commissioned Eriugena to translate the commentaries (Ambigua ) of maximus the confessor (Patrologia Latina 122:11931222). This translation, composed between 862 and 864, consisted of a preface, two poems, and 67 chapters, of which only the first five and beginning of the sixth have been printed. He translated also Sermo de imagine (περ κατασκευ[symbol omitted]ς νερώπου) of Gregory of Nyssa and Sermo de fide (γκυρατός) of Epiphanius about 865. This contact with Greek sources provided Eriugena with a new appreciation of dialectics and Platonic thought "longeque a modernis sensibus remotum."

Later Works. The result was a new period of personal, creative writing: commentaries on the Gospel of St. John (Patrologia Latina 122:283348), Pseudo-Dionysius [Patrologia Latina 122:125284; H. F. Dondaine, Archives d'histoire doctrinale et litéraire du moyen-âge 18 (19501951) 245302], and De divisione naturae (Patrologia Latina 122:4411022). This last, sometimes called Perifiseon, or περ φύσεως μερισμοί, is his most important original work. Composed between 862 and 866, it was dedicated to Wulfad, later archbishop of Bourges. Written in the form of a dialogue between a master, designated by N (Nutritor ), and a disciple, A (Alumnus ), it drew heavily from Greek and Latin Platonic sources, notably Pseudo-Dionysius, St. augustine, Maximus, and origen. It is divided into five books. Book one deals with God, His unknowability, and man's language in speaking about Him; book two deals with various divisions of being, created and uncreated; book three considers creatures as theophanies of God; book four is concerned mainly with man, his creation, life in Paradise, and the Fall; book five is devoted to the return of all things to God through Christ.

De divisione naturae apparently was used by amal ric of bÈne and david of dinant to interpret Aristotle in the 13th century. The work was condemned at the Council of Paris in 1210; and, on Jan. 23, 1225, Honorius III ordered all copies to be burned publicly, under pain of excommunication and suspicion of heresy. When Eriugena's works were first printed at Oxford in 1681, the De divisione naturae was placed on the index of forbidden books because of the pantheistic implication of its expressions.

Reason and Revelation. Eriugena was always motivated by a profound passion for truth. "There is no death worse than ignorance of truth," he wrote, "and no pit deeper than promulgation of what is really false." Human reason, in its present state, is clouded as a result of original sin, but it is still capable of attaining truths from the contemplation of creatures seen. The infallible source of truth is divine revelation unfolded in the Scriptures. Both rational and revealed truths are theophanies, for they are both manifestations of God. Consequently Eriugena was convinced that there can be no conflict between ratio vera and divine revelation. Since God embodied a hidden truth in the words of Sacred Scripture, it is prudent for reason to begin with the word of God: "Ratiocinationis exordium ex divinis eloquiis assumendum esse aestimo." Eriugena used several analogies to press this point: Scripture is a banquet tempting reason to eat, a holy sepulcher into which Peter (symbolizing faith) entered before John (symbolizing reason) to seek the Lord. Therefore reason should begin by accepting God's revelation and pursue its task under the inspiration of grace.

Following tradition, Eriugena recognized four senses of Scripture: literal, spiritual, historical, and allegorical. Of these Eriugena preferred the spiritual and allegorical, insisting that works (agere ) and knowledge (scire ) must culminate in theology. Although the Scriptures are divinely inspired and many earlier writers have interpreted them, the excellence of reason must not be underestimated. Priority of nature is of greater dignity than priority of time. Since the Fathers interpreting Scripture are prior in time and reason is prior by nature, reason has the greater dignity. Eriugena recognized a hierarchy of guides in the attainment of truth: Scripture, reason, and the authority of the Fathers. In seeking ultimate truth reason exercises an activity that the Greeks called "philosophizing." For Eriugena, as for St. augustine before him, true philosophy does not differ from true religion. "What is philosophy but an expounding of the rules of religion whereby man humbly adores and rationally seeks God, the highest cause and source of everything." Thus in De predestinatione Eriugena could identify true philosophy and true religion; in his Annotationes in Martianum Capellam he said, "No one enters heaven except through philosophy."

For Eriugena, the disciple of Pseudo-Dionysius and Maximus, the formal structure of philosophy is dialectical, consisting of division, definition, demonstration, and resolution. The formal, logical structure perceived in thought is also found in physical reality. Thus the division of concepts corresponds to the division of natures.

Division of Natures. In De divisione naturae Eriugena presented a number of divisions according to which being may be classified, the most important of which is his division of natures into four types or stages: (1) nature that creates and is not created ("natura creans et non creata"), (2) nature that is created and also creates ("natura creata et creans"), (3) nature that is created and does not create ("natura creata et non creans"), (4) nature that is not created and does not create ("natura non creata et non creans").

Nature that creates and is not created is God Himself. Since being is whatever can be grasped by sense and intellect, God must be said to transcend all being (supra ens, supra bonum ). As far as knowledge is concerned, He is more properly nonbeing, nothing. He is, in fact, the nothingness from which all things are made (Gn 1.2), since apart from Him there is nothing from which anything can be made. None of the categories of being can be predicated of God, who is ineffable and incomprehensible, even to Himself. Although unknowable and ineffable, God expresses himself through theophanies, which are divine ideas, revelation, and creation. Following Pseudo-Dionysius, Eriugena distinguished three theologies, or approaches to knowledge of God: affirmative, negative, and transcendent. Affirmative theology is limited to the positive statements that can be said of God, such as that He is one substance (οσία) and three Persons ([symbol omitted]ποστάσεις). Negative theology consists of all the negations that must be said of God, such as incorporeal, ineffable, and incomprehensible. Transcendent theology is marked by the use of such transcendent terms as super-substantial, superessential, and superdesirable. According to the Scriptures, the Father generated the Son and "Catholic faith obliges one to profess that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, or from the Father through the Son." Since the exact Trinitarian formula is difficult to determine, according to Eriugena, it is better not to venture any rash conjecture. For him, God reveals Himself as the Father of all when He creates everything in the Word and distributes His graces through the Holy Spirit.

Nature that is created and also creates is the theophany of divine ideas existing in the Word. These ideas are eternal because they are created in the Word and, in a certain sense, are coeternal with God; but precisely because they are created and come from God, they are not fully coeternal. Here Eriugena's dialectics faltered. As he interpreted divine ideas, they were a fulfillment and completion of God Himself. They are the first theophanies of creation, needing only to be divided into lower genera, species, and individuals. This division is properly the work of the Holy Spirit. The image of the Trinity, therefore, is manifested not only in the Scriptures, but also in things, e.g., essence, power, and activity.

Nature that is created and does not create is the world of immaterial and material creatures made from the nothingness that is God. For Eriugena, God is made (factus est ) in His creatures and these constitute three vast regions: purely immaterial substances (angels), composite substances of spirit and matter (man), and purely material substances (world). Being in all His creatures, God is, in a sense, their essence, even though creatures are not divine. While Eriugena's language is often pantheistic, he insists on the absolute transcendence of God beyond all being (supra ens ). Created nature constitutes a hierarchy, and angels within that hierarchy also constitute a hierarchy of essences. The nature of each angel is determined by its position in the hierarchy. Each angel receives intellectual illumination from above and diffuses it below. Man, the lowest intellectual creature, receives intellectual illumination from angels and God. Before Adam's fall, man, although corporeal, was not divided into male and female; nor was reproduction achieved through inter-course. Original sin, according to Eriugena, divided man sexually and individually. In his fall, man carried all lower creatures with him to disorder, to further division, and to fatal dissension. Creatures had their true and perfect being in the mind of God, in divine ideas. In the mind of God, man had perfect knowledge of all things. After the fall of Adam, man can gather knowledge only gradually and with great difficulty from the divided, fragmented, and fleeting impressions of sense. From sensory impressions of the world man must form the unity of images and ideas whereby God can once more be known. Objects of sense also existed originally as ideas in the mind of God and as such their existence was perfect. But after the fall, they too became further divided into a conglomeration of intelligible qualities. Now they are only imperfect theophanies revealing something of God.

Nature that is not created and does not create is the return of all things to God. The return begins at the moment sensible things reach their ultimate division, for even divided qualities unite to form a corporeal substance. Man's final division comes with death, when his soul departs and his body disintegrates. The return of all things to God is possible only through Christ's redemptive act and redeeming grace. The return of man to God does not take place instantaneously, but gradually. Death must be followed by the final resurrection when the body returns to the soul, becoming spiritual and sexless. Then body and soul will return to their ideal state in the mind of God. The whole terrestrial sphere will be brought back to Paradise in the mind of God. In the end there will be only God. This does not mean the annihilation of all things, but the restoration of all things to "real being" in the divine nothingness. All men will become pure spirits. The blessed will have an "intellectual vision" in the darkness of the Godhead. The wicked will be punished by being deprived of knowledge; they will suffer the worst punishment possibleignorance of the truth.

See Also: scholasticism; philosophy, history of; dialectics in the middle ages; pantheism.

Bibliography: É. h. gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (New York 1955) 113128. m. cappuyns, Jean Scot Érigène, sa vie, son oeuvre, sa pensée (Louvain 1933). m. dal pra, Scoto Eriugena e il neoplatonismo medievale (2d ed. Milan 1951); Enciclopedia filosofica 4:473478. f. vernet, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al. 15 v. (Paris 190350) 5.1:401434. l. scheffczyk, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, 5:108283. w. n. pittenger, "The Christian Philosophy of John Scotus Erigena," Journal of Religion 24 (1944). h. f. dondaine, "Saint Thomas et Scot Érigène," Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques 35 (1951) 3133. k. g. moore, "Johannes Scotus Erigena on Imagination," Journal of Psychology 23 (1947) 169178. j. j. o'meara, Eriugena (Oxford 1988). d. moran, The Philosophy of John Scottus Eriugena: A Study of Idealism in the Middle Ages (Cambridge 1989). d. carabine, John Scottus Eriugena (New York 2000).

[l. e. lynch]

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