Category: Persons

Johannes Scottus Eriugena

With Eriugena (c. 800–877 A.D. ) western Christianity for the first time forms a comprehensive worldview, based on Byzantine platonism and characterized by its intensity, originality and profundity. By appropriating mainly the philosophical boldness and consistency of Gregory of Nyssa, and the neoplatonism of the Corpus Areopagiticum, Eriugena gave to the western mystical philosophy a source of powerful and constant inspiration.

1. Life and work

Johannes Scottus Eriugena (c. 800–877 A.D.), one of the most important philosophers and absolutely unique in the West of his time, drew inspiration from the *Cappadocian Fathers, especially Gregory of Nyssa, and also from Maximus Confessor, *Origen, and, above all, from * Dionysius the Areopagite, whose works he translated creatively, whence they became a foundation of western thinking (a previous translation, by Hildouin, had proved completely fruitless). He chose his name himself in order to state his origin (genus of Eriu / Erin, i.e. Ireland.)

In times when knowledge of Greek was almost absent, an ignorance already decreasing during the reign of Charlemagne, Eriugena was a great Hellenist, even explicitly recognizing the superiority of the Greek language for its vividness and clarity (e.g. «in graeco significantius scribitur [...] hoc est manifestius et expressius », O’Meara, p. 52).It is characteristic that he gave a Greek title to his main work, the treatise Peri Physeon.

It is accepted today without any dispute that Eriugena did not have a direct contact with Neoplatonic sources; he appropriated whatever Neoplatonic elements exist in his works and formed his most important inspirations mainly by studying the Greek Fathers. He also studied Augustine, Ambrose and Boethius. Eriugena did not just transfer ideas from Byzantium to the West, he is an original thinker, transforming his starting points, discovering in the works that he studies dimensions previously unseen even within the culture of their origin.

Eriugena wrote a Commentary on Dionysius’ treatise On Celestial Hierarchy, he translated the treatise On the Making of Man (known in the West by the title “On [man as godly] Image) of Gregory of Nyssa, he translated Maximus’ Questions “For Thalassios”, he translated and commented Maximus’ Questions “For Ioannes” — "authors who even today," as Moran observes, "it is to be regretted, are scarcely known among philosophers...» (Moran, p. xii.)

Eriugena started to be studied intensely in the 12th century, but almost immediately he was condemned for pantheism — in 1225 by Pope Onorius III, then again in 1585, by Pope Gregory XIII. In 1681, when a manuscript of his treatise Peri Physeon was discovered in Oxford, it was immediately included in the papal list of Prohibited Books. He is known and used by Meister Eckhart and Nicolaus Cusanus.

He wrote also a Commentary on the Gospel of John, a speech for the preface of the same Gospel, poems, often about current affairs, some written originally in Greek.

2. Philosophical ideas

After his treatise On the Divine Predestination (De Divina Praedestinatione) Eriugena already in life was accused for pelagianism, as his censors understood the emphasis he placed not on the consequences of the Fall but on human freedom. According to his central argument man was created rational: unfree thinking is a contradiction in terms. Even more important in Eriugena’s argument is his placing reasoning above the authority of tradition, a conscious position he renews even explicitly in Peri Physeon.

In his most important work, the treatise–dialogue Peri Physeon (or Peri Physeos Merismou [De Divisione Naturae / On the Division of Nature], as he initially named it), which presupposes the translation of the Corpus Areopagiticum, Eriugena introduces a distinctive cosmology inspired by Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus, Dionysius, and also Origen, stressing the fundamental unity of everything.

Eriugena divides the whole of nature / reality into four kinds, his criterion being their causal reference, 1) into God, who creates and is uncreated, 2) the ideas, which create and are created, 3) the creatures, which are created but they do not create, 4) to nothing, which is not created and does not create.

This theory of ‘everything’ under the concept of ‘nature’ seems to lead to pantheistic monism, which, however, is undermined by the ‘shadowy’ meaning of Being, when what appears under certain conditions as Being, under different conditions is understood as pure nothing. Compared with the divine Being, the Being of creatures is nothing. Compared with the stillness of pure Being, as Plato was already saying, becoming brings creatures to nothing. Compared with actual substances, the potential existence is considered as nothing. Compared with the deified man, the man imprisoned in sin is deprived of Being.

Divinity is not qualified by created properties, Aristotle’s categories cannot describe it. According to Being as Being of the Deity, creatures lack Being. Or vice versa, according to Being as Being of the creatures, Deity lacks Being. Eriugena prefers the second description, in agreement with the apophatism of Dionysius. Yet again he kept, just like Dionysius and Gregory of Nyssa, identifying the Being of creatures with the divine Being: «ipse (Deus) essentia omnium est» (Peri Physeon IV 759a).

The Ideas (rationes, reasons) constituting the creatures divide the timeless simple Idea of the world. Creation ex nihilo signifies by ‘nothing’ the very transcendental incomprehensible divine Being, wherefrom and in which the world is created. Infinity characterizes the world as much as the deity, and concerns the nature of the world and also the infinite knowledge that intelligent beings acquire. The world will return to its original cosmological Idea following a course of spiritualization, ending in the absolute unity of the deified man with the divine nature.

Sharing this Platonic knowledge with Gregory of Nyssa, Eriugena understands matter as spiritual, and he shows the original human nature beyond the properties of the division of sexes which have their cause in the Fall. Man is separated from the ontological class of the animals by being the Image of the Creator, therefore detached from a reality subjected to the senses he allows his intelligence to gain perfection, being illuminated by the infinity of the divine Word. In the divine revelation man will be One with his origin in the completeness of deification.

Author: George Valsamis
  • O'Meara, J, Eriugena. Oxford, 1988.
  • Moran, D, The Philosophy of John Scottus Eriugena: A Study of Idealism in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, 1989.
  • Copleston, Fr, A History of Philosophy 2. New York, 1993.
  • Carabine, D, John Scottus Eriugena. Oxfrod, 2000.
  • Beierwaltes, W, Eriugena. Studien zu seinen Quellen . Heidelberg, 1980.
  • Madec, G. Iohannis Scotti de divina praedestinatione. Turnhout, 1978.
  • Jeauneau, E. Iohannis Scotti seu Eriugenae Periphyseon. Turnhout, 1996-2003.
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