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John Scottus Eriugena

Life and Works

First, the man's name. Everyone agrees on the 'John', but the rest of his name is spelled in various ways. 'Scottus' frequently appears as 'Scotus', and 'Eriugena' if often found as 'Erigena'. 'Eriugena' has the accent on the 'u', while 'Erigena' has the accent on the 'i'.

'Scottus' means "the Scot" or "the Scotsman", and indeed you sometimes see our man referred to as "John the Scot". It was not a family name. According to one of his recent editors, the spelling 'Scottus' has the authority of the early manuscripts until perhaps the eleventh century. (I. P. Sheldon-Williams, ed., Iohannis Scotti Eriugenae Periphyseon (De Divisione Naturae) Liber Primus, p. 1 n. 4. See ibid., pp. 1-5 in general for a brief account of Eriugena's life. My remarks on the man's name are taken from that account.) Occasionally one finds him called 'Scottigena'(= roughly, "Scots born") in the manuscripts.

Our author is not to be confused with another John Scotus, who lived much later. This other one is John Duns Scotus, in the late-thirteenth and very early-fourteenth centuries. His name is always spelled 'Scotus'.

The term 'Eriugena' was apparently made up by John himself while he was translating Pseudo-Denis. Sheldon-Williams suggests that he fashioned the term after the word 'Graiugena', which occurs in Vergil, rather than directly from Gaelic 'Eriu' ( = Ireland). In any case, the earliest and best manuscripts spell it 'Eriugena', not 'Erigena'. It was not commonly used for our man until the seventeenth century (and then it was the form 'Erigena' that was favored). However you spell it, the word means "born in Ireland, or Erin", or "the Irishman". So when you put it all together, what we have is "John the Scot, the Irishman". This will sound perhaps less odd if we recall that in the ninth century, Ireland was considered part of "Scotland". In fact, it was called "Scotia Major".

From about 845, Erigena lived at the court of the West Frankish king Charles II the Bald, near Laon (now in France), first as a teacher of grammar and dialectics. He participated in theological disputes over the Eucharist and predestination and set forth his position on the latter in De predestinatione (851; "On Predestination"), a work condemned by church authorities. Erigena's translations of the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Epiphanius, commissioned by Charles, made those Greek patristic writings accessible to Western thinkers.

Erigena's familiarity with dialectics and with the ideas of his theological predecessors was reflected in his principal work, De divisione naturae (862-866; "On the Division of Nature"), an attempt to reconcile the Neoplatonist doctrine of emanation with the Christian tenet of creation. The work classifies nature into (1) that which creates and is not created; (2) that which creates and is created; (3) that which does not create and is created; and (4) that which does not create and is not created. The first and the fourth are God as beginning and end; the second and third are the dual mode of existence of created beings (the intelligible and the sensible). The return of all creatures to God begins with release from sin, physical death, and entry into the life hereafter. Man, for Erigena, is a microcosm of the universe because he has senses to perceive the world, reason to examine the intelligible natures and causes of things, and intellect to contemplate God. Through sin man's animal nature has predominated, but through redemption man becomes reunited with God.

Eriugena knew Greek. For some reason, Greek never quite died out among the Irish monks. Eriugena knew it well enough to be thoroughly influenced by Greek thought, and to translate the works of Pseudo-Dionysius and some others. Eriugena worked at the court of Charles the Bald in France. We are now dealing with the late Carolingian period.

I must tell you the story of how Eriugena died. I do not guarantee the truth of this story. In fact, you can find exactly the same story told about other people. But, like all good gossip, it deserves to be repeated, and ought to be true, whether it is or not. Here it is: It seems that Eriugena's doctrine was so completely outrageous (you may come to agree with this soon) that one day his students simply couldn't take it any more. So they arose in a mass and stabbed him to death with their quill pens.

Here is a list of Eriugena's writings. The list is not complete (he wrote a lot), and some items on the list are of dubious authenticity.

Translations of Pseudo-Dionysius

Translation of part of Maximus the Confessor's commentaries on Pseudo-Dionysius. (These are extant in part.)

Translation of Gregory of Nyssa's De hominis opificio. Commentary on Pseudo-Dionysius' Celestial Hierarchy. Commentary on St. John's Gospel. (Incomplete.) Sermon on the Prologue to St. John's Gospel. Fragments of another commentary on St. John's Gospel. On the Going Forth and the Return of the Soul to God. (Fragment.) Annotationes in Martianum - that is, notes on Martianus Cappella's "Marriage of Mercury and Philology" Commentaries on Boethius' Theological Tractates. (These are of very doubtful authenticity. There is also a commentary on the Consolation sometimes attributed to him, but it is now thought not to be his.) Letters and verses. On the Division of Nature ( = Periphyseon). His main work. On Predestination.

The fact that Eriugena wrote a sermon on the Prologue to St. John's Gospel suggests that he was at least a deacon in the Church hierarchy. There is some evidence that he was never ordained a priest.

It was John's On Predestination that first earned him the reputation of being a heretic. The work was written in 851 against the position of the theologian Gottschalk of Orbais. John's view was condemned by the (regional, not ecumenical) Councils of Valence (855) and Langres (859). His On the Division of Nature was condemned in the early thirteenth century. (See the letter to Bartholomew, bishop of Paris, in Chartularium universitatis Parisiensis, I, pp. 106-107, dated 23 January, 1225.) The canon lawyer Hostiensis gave the following reasons for the condemnation (ibid., n. 1):

In this book, which was condemned by the masters at Paris, many heresies are contained. Let it suffice to touch on three by way of example. The first and greatest is that all things are God . . . .The second is that the "primordial causes", which are called "ideas", that is, a form or exemplar, create and are created . . . . The third is that, after the consummation of the age [that is, the end of the world] , there will be a uniting of the sexes, that is, there will be no distinction of sex.

We shall have to see whether there are any grounds for these charges.

Bibliographical Note

For a bibliography on Eriugena, see Copleston, History of Philosophy, vol. 2. In the paperback version, it may be found in Part 1, p. 300. Eriugena's On the Division of Nature has been translated in part (with summaries of the rest) in John the Scot: Periphyseon, On the Division of Nature, Myra L. Uhlfelder, ed. and tr., summaries by Jean A. Potter, ("The Library of Liberal Arts"; Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976).


Eriugena is sometimes cited as the great mediaeval rationalist, the one mediaeval thinker who was able to resist the stifling domination of dogma and superstition and exalt the freedom of pure reason over blind faith. Let's see if there is any truth in that.

Eriugena does sometimes say that philosophy is the only way to salvation. And he cites Augustine as his authority on this point. (Doesn't that already strike you as odd: citing authority to justify reason?) But it is clear that he is simply identifying true philosophy with true religion in this passage, so that he is not glorifying the one at the expense of the other.

He says that no authority (that is, Scripture or the writings of the Fathers) should frighten you away from the use of reason. But then he goes on to say that this is because true reason can never conflict with legitimate authority.

Eriugena seems to be saying that reason is autonomous and doesn't need the support of external authority. This does seem to give a much higher evaluation to the power of unaided reason than was common in the early Middle Ages, when it was frequently thought that the reason the pagans went astray was that they did not have access to the authority of revelation to guide their naturally weak and errant reason.

Putting all these passages together, it seems that Eriugena is not exalting reason at the expense of authority. He maintains a kind of concordism between the two. Justin Martyr held that philosophy was a kind of revelation to the Greeks, just as the prophets were a revelation to the Jews, and that both prepared the way for Christianity. Recall also Romans 1, where the "invisible things of God" can be seen from "the things that are made" - that is, from creation. Eriugena is operating in this kind of context. Reason and revelation parallel one another closely, so that there is no question of playing the one off against the other.

Eriugena says that everything in material creation is a kind of sign of something spiritual - a sign that can presumably be read by reason alone.

He says that there are in fact two "theophanies" - two appearances of the divine, two ways of finding out about God: Scripture and the world of nature. (Here is where talk of the "Book of Nature" is appropriate. Indeed, I suspect it began in views like this.) The Word, he says, "has two feet".

Now let us turn to some other points of doctrine. Eriugena sometimes says things about creation that can only properly be said of God. Hence, he often sounds like a pantheist, and there is some justification for the first of the three charges of heresy listed by Hostiensis in the passage quoted above. See, for instance, Hyman and Walsh, p. 139, "there is nothing outside himself". Again, Hyman and Walsh, p. 140, "Divine nature . . . is made in all things."

Eriugena is strongly influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius and by Gregory of Nyssa. See, for example, Hyman and Walsh, pp. 141-145, on the divine names and the three-fold way of talking about God (the positive, the negative, and the way of eminence). This is straight out of Pseudo-Dionysius.

Among the traditional liberal arts, Eriugena had a special interest in "dialectic". Its role is to divide (note the word), to discriminate the nature of things, and so to organize. Hence, when we turn to the De divisione naturae On the Division of Nature, again note the word), what we have is a dialectical work, a work concerned with Nature as the first principle, and then all its divisions and subdivisions, and then how they all fit together again. In the structure of this work, there is a kind of analysis and then a synthesis, patterned quite consciously after the neo-Platonic ecstasy and return, a kind of story of the One and the Many.

The first division of Nature is into what is and what is not. Now we will later see that Eriugena goes on to give five kinds of Nothing - that is, of "what is not". But first he gives us another division, one that cuts across this first one. See Hyman and Walsh, p. 135. This second division is fourfold:

God as source Yes No
Primordial Causes Yes Yes
Creatures No Yes
God as Goal No No

Eriugena's Fourfold Division of Nature

Now some remarks about this division. First of all, clearly there are no other possibilities; all the combinations have been exhausted.

Second, in the second row, the phrase 'primordial causes' refers to the divine ideas. They are the ideas in the mind of God. They are just as eternal as God is, and yet Eriugena thinks they are dependent on, and so in a sense inferior to, God himself. Hence, while they are "eternal", they are not, he says, "coeternal" with God. They are not quite on a par with him. The divine ideas are creative. That much is just standard doctrine. You can find that in Augustine. The divine ideas are the patterns after which the world is fashioned, the original exemplars and paradigms of all things, Platonic Forms moved into the mind of God. But because Eriugena thinks they are dependent and therefore at least minimally distinct from God, he says they are "created". Not created in time; the "primordial causes" have always been there. But created nonetheless insofar as they are dependent. This is the basis for the second charge of heresy leveled against Eriugena in the thirteenth century. I suppose it is not too much to suggest that such a doctrine has a built-in tendency toward Arianism.

The first and the fourth rows of the above table do not represent distinct things. God as source is of course the same thing as God as goal. The distinction is only in the way of looking at it, whether you're "coming or going". Once again, there is a kind of reference here to the neo-Platonic ecstasy and return.

Now God, of course, is a kind of Nothing. Recall Pseudo-Dionysius and the neo-Platonists, for whom God was above Being, and so not a being. God, therefore, is one of the things that are not, in the very first division of nature - the one before the above table.

Since God is not a being, he is therefore not intelligible. (Recall the equation of being and intelligibility.) This means not only that we cannot understand him, but also that he cannot understand himself. Creation is a kind of divine effort by God to understand himself, to see himself in a mirror. This is also a doctrine found in some neo-Platonists, for instance in Marius Victorinus.

God does not understand himself. But he is not ignorant of himself, if by that we mean that there is something he doesn't know about himself. He simply doesn't know what he is, since he isn't a "what" at all.

From creatures we can learn (and so can God) that he is, but we can never learn what he is, since there isn't anything to learn about that. In the thirteenth century, Aquinas will pick up on this and make a similar claim, that we can know that God is but not what he is, although it won't be on the basis of the same kind of neo-Platonic metaphysics. (And Aquinas probably didn't get it from Eriugena.)

Eriugena pursues the point further. God is not a genus or a species, or in a genus or species. He is not related to creatures as either their whole or their part, and so on. Notice what Eriugena is doing here. He is systematically denying every reasonable way of interpreting pantheism. The charge of heresy on this point must be very carefully considered. What are we to make of his pantheistic-sounding claims in the light of this passage? Well, it just isn't clear. But, if you think about it, it is clear that it is hard to be a real pantheist and a neo-Platonist at the same time, at least a neo-Platonist of the variety that puts God above being.

Since God is a nothing, we can speak of creation, as a coming forth from God, as being in a sense ex nihilo, "out of nothing", interpreted now as "out of God". This is an interesting passage, providing a curious interpretation of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. The end of the passage sounds pantheistic.

Eriugena does not take the phrase 'ex nihilo' to refer to the absence of any pre-existing matter, as most people do. He doesn't believe in matter even after the creation, so creation ex nihilo could hardly mean that for him. For Eriugena, all reality, including physical reality, is made up entirely of spiritual beings.

Hence Eriugena is led to reinterpret the classical notion of creation ex nihilo. He does sometimes talk of "matter", but it is not clear what he is talking about then. It is not matter in the usual sense.

Now take a look at the Hyman and Walsh passage on pp. 136-138. Here we get the famous five kinds of nothing. This is a very curious passage, and shows the difficulty people had for a long time coming to terms with the notion of negation. You will find evidence of this also in Anselm's Monologion. The five types of nothing for Eriugena are as follows:

(1) Where Being is identified with that which is knowable by sensation or intellect, non-being or "nothing" amounts to whatever is unknowable and cannot be sensed. God is a non-being or a "nothing" in this sense. This is basically a Parmenidean notion of "nothing", going back to the Parmenidean identification of Being and intelligibility. (Parmenides, of course, would not have included knowledge by the senses.)

(2) Where Being is identified with sameness or identity, non-being or "nothing" amounts to difference. If we are affirming being of X when we say that X "is" Y, then we affirm a kind of non-being of X when we say that X "is not" Y. Not being Y counts as a kind of not-being - that is, as a kind of "nothing". This too is Parmenidean in spirit. You will also find talk like this in Plato's Sophist.

Note: To say that X and Y are "the same" or "identical" is to say that they are one. Hence, the identification of Being with sameness or identity, which underlies this second sense of 'nothing', is in effect an identification of Being with the One, and is incompatible with certain kinds of neo-Platonism. It is odd (but not altogether uncharacteristic) to find both these senses of 'nothing' in Eriugena.

(3) There is a sense in which future things are not beings - that is, not yet beings. In this sense, being is that which is already settled and fixed, to wit, the present or the past. The idea here seems to be based on Aristotle's De interpretatione, Ch. 9, the famous discussion of future contingents (the "sea battle tomorrow"). The line Eriugena takes here has important implications for the problem of foreknowledge and free will. For Eriugena, there is simply no problem. God doesn't know what we are going to do in advance, so that there is no problem with free will on this account. At the same time, this is no compromise on God's omniscience. There is nothing God does not know - that is, no being or truth. Our future actions don't exist; they are not beings - not yet. On this view, while omniscience is compatible with free will, omniscience does not entail foreknowledge of future events.

(4) In yet another sense, Being is identified with the intelligible, the unchangeable. Hence, non-being or "nothing" is identified with change. Once again, the connection with Parmenides is obvious. (The difference between this and the first kind of "nothing" above seems to be the addition of sensation in the account of that first kind of "nothing".)

(5) In the last sense, sin is thought of as a kind of non-being. Perhaps this comes from identifying being with goodness, so that sin, which falls short of goodness, to that extent falls short of being too. Note that if being is identified with goodness, considerations like those raised under sense (2) above apply here as well.

For Eriugena, man is a microcosm, a kind of miniature of the entire cosmos. Hence the sin of Adam (original sin) is not just his own personal fall, and not even just the Fall of the entire human race. On the contrary, it is an event of cosmic proportions. With the sin of Adam, the entire creation fell. Hence Redemption is not just redemption of the human race, but of all of creation.

The Fall (original sin) is regarded as a kind of dropping away from the ideal man - and of course the Ideal man is the divine idea of "man". See passage (11), according to which the real man is a certain intellectual notion in the divine mind. (Notice, he says it is made there. The divine ideas are created.) And included in that divine idea of man is the idea of all other things too, since man is a microcosm. It follows therefore that the true man contains only what the ideal man contains (since the true man just is the ideal man) - that is, only what is contained in the divine idea or notion of man. In short, only what belongs to the essence or definition of man. Now the definition of man is just 'rational animal', as we all know. But notice: there is no mention of the sexes there. Hence the true man has no sex. The division into sexes is a consequence of the Fall, of original sin. Hence, at the end of the word, when all things are reabsorbed into their primordial causes the division of the sexes will vanish again. This is the basis for the third charge of heresy described by Hostiensis in the passage quoted above.

You see here how we get a kind of identification of several notions at once. Creation is identified with neo-Platonic ecstasy, which is in turn identified with the Fall. Conversely, the neo-Platonic return is identified with Redemption. Pretty neat.

Man started off in the divine image, equal to the heavenly powers (the angels?). But he chose to withdraw (note: the identification of creation with the Fall seems to make creation a matter of our choosing), to "fall" away into the likeness of brute, irrational animals. Man's ruin carries him farther and farther away from true rationality, true life, true humanity, to that which lacks sensation, life and reason - that is, into the corruptible body. (Remember, this does not mean matter; there is no matter here.)

But then we come to the turning point. The Fall can continue no further; there is nothing lower than this. We are not allowed to "fall" into pure nothingness, to be completely annihilated. (Note: Is this yet a sixth sense of 'nothing'?) At the very point at which it would seem that this is about to happen, the very extremity of our Fall, the very nadir of our existence, we in fact begin the Return. Death - that is, the dissolution of the body - is not the last stage of our degeneration; it is the first stage of our return. There are five stages of this return:

(1) First, the body is resolved into the four elements. This is death, the corruption of the body.

(2) Second, there is the general resurrection at the end of the world, where we will each get our body back again. You may think this sounds like a bad thing, a regression, but it isn't. For:

(3) Third, this "glorified", resurrected body is then transformed into spirit.

(4) Spirit then becomes absorbed into the primordial causes. That is, we return to the divine ideas whence we came.

(5) Finally, all of nature and the primordial causes are reabsorbed into God.

Does all of this involve a loss of personal identity or not? It is hard to say, but I suggest not. In particular, the last stage probably should not be read as saying that the primordial causes or divine ideas cease to exist and somehow get lost in the sea of divinity. For remember, the divine ideas are just as eternal as God is, although they are dependent on him and so not co-eternal. Similarly, the business about the air and the light suggests something less than metaphysical loss of identity. Light transforms the air, but it is nonetheless air for all that. The metaphor of light and air is a fairly common one in mystical literature, and it is usually meant to suggest that the kind of transformation or absorption we are talking about is not a literal, ontological loss of identity.

Finally, look once again at Hyman and Walsh, pp. 141-145, for a relatively clear summary and explanation of Pseudo-Dionysius' three-fold theology.

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Last modified: Sun Dec 27, 1998 / Jeremiah Genest