John Scotus Eriugena

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John Scotus Eriugena
Johannes Scottus Eriugena.jpg
Eriugena as depicted in Honorius Augustodunensis' Clavis physicae (12th century)
Bornc. 815
Diedc. 877 (age c. 62)
Other namesJohannes Scottus Eriugena, Johannes Scotus Erigena, Johannes Scottigena
Era Medieval philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Neoplatonism
Augustinianism [1]
Main interests
Free will, logic, metaphysics
Notable ideas
Four divisions of nature [2]

John Scotus Eriugena or Johannes Scotus Erigena [lower-alpha 1] (c.815 – c. 877) was an Irish theologian, neoplatonist philosopher, and poet. He succeeded Alcuin of York (735–804) as head of the Palace School at Aachen.


He wrote a number of works, but is best known today for having written The Division of Nature, which has been called the "final achievement" of ancient philosophy, a work which "synthesizes the philosophical accomplishments of fifteen centuries." [3] He also translated and made commentaries upon the work of Pseudo-Dionysius, and was one of the few Western European philosophers of his day that knew Greek, having studied in Byzantine Athens. A tradition, largely considered spurious, says he was stabbed to death by his students at Malmesbury with their pens.


According to Jorge Luis Borges, John's double byname may be construed as meaning "Irish Irish". [4] The form "Eriugena" is used by John Scotus to describe himself in one manuscript. [5] It means 'Ireland (Ériu)-born'. 'Scottus' in the Middle Ages was the Latin term for "Irish or Gaelic", so his name translates as "John, the Irish-born Gael". 'Scotti" was the name that the Romans called the Irish. [6] The spelling 'Scottus' has the authority of the early manuscripts until perhaps the 11th century. Occasionally he is also named 'Scottigena' ("Irish-born") in the manuscripts.

He is not to be confused with the later philosopher John Duns Scotus.


Johannes Scotus Eriugena was an Irishman, educated in Ireland. He moved to France (about 845) and took over the Palace School at the invitation of Carolingian King Charles the Bald. He succeeded Alcuin of York (735–804) as head of the Palace School. [7] The reputation of this school, part of the Carolingian Renaissance, seems to have increased greatly under Eriugena's leadership, and the philosopher himself was treated with indulgence by the king. [8] Whereas Alcuin was a schoolmaster rather than a philosopher, Eriugena was a noted Greek scholar, a skill which, though rare at that time in Western Europe, was used in the learning tradition of Early and Medieval Ireland, as evidenced by the use of Greek script in medieval Irish manuscripts. [7] He remained in France for at least thirty years, and it was almost certainly during this period that he wrote his various works.

The latter part of his life is unclear. There is a story that in 882 he was invited to Oxford by Alfred the Great, laboured there for many years, became abbot at Malmesbury, and was stabbed to death by his pupils with their styli . [8] Whether this is to be taken literally or figuratively is not clear, [9] and some scholars think it may refer to some other Johannes. [10] William Turner says the tradition has no support in contemporary documents and may well have arisen from some confusion of names on the part of later historians. [11]

He probably never left France, and the date of his death is generally given as 877. [12] From the evidence available, it is impossible to determine whether he was a cleric or a layman; the general conditions of the time make it likely that he was a cleric and perhaps a monk. [11]


His work is largely based upon Augustine of Hippo, Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, and the Cappadocian Fathers, and is clearly Neoplatonist. He revived the transcendentalist standpoint of Neoplatonism with its "graded hierarchy" approach. By going back to Plato, he revived the nominalistrealist debate. [13] The Greek Fathers were his favourite authors, especially Gregory the Theologian, and Basil the Great. Of the Latins he prized Augustine most highly. The influence of these was towards freedom and not towards restraint in theological speculation. This freedom he reconciled with his respect for the teaching authority of the Church as he understood it. [11]

The first of the works known to have been written by Eriugena during this period was a treatise on the Eucharist, which has not survived. In it he seems to have advanced the doctrine that the Eucharist was merely symbolical or commemorative, an opinion for which Berengar of Tours was at a later date censured and condemned. As a part of his penance, Berengarius is said to have been compelled to burn publicly Eriugena's treatise. So far as we can learn, however, Eriugena was considered orthodox and a few years later was selected by Hincmar, archbishop of Reims, to defend the doctrine of liberty of will against the extreme predestinarianism of the monk Gottschalk (Gotteschalchus). [8] Many in the Church opposed Gottschalk's position because it denied the inherent value of good works. The treatise De divina praedestinatione composed for this occasion has been preserved, and it was probably from its content that Eriugena's orthodoxy became suspect. [7]

Eriugena argues the question of predestination entirely on speculative grounds, and starts with the bold affirmation that philosophy and religion are fundamentally one and the same. Even more significant is his handling of authority and reason. Eriugena offered a skilled proof that there can be predestination only to the good, for all folk are summoned to be saints. [7] The work was warmly assailed by Drepanius Florus, canon of Lyons, and Prudentius, and was condemned by two councils: that of Valence in 855, and that of Langres in 859. By the former council his arguments were described as Pultes Scotorum ("Irish porridge") and commentum diaboli ("an invention of the devil"). [8]

Eriugena is believed to have been a believer in apocatastasis or universal reconciliation, [14] which maintains that the universe will eventually be restored under God's dominion (see also Christian Universalism). [15]

Translation of Pseudo-Dionysius

At some point in the centuries before Eriugena a legend had developed that Saint Denis, the first Bishop of Paris and patron saint of the important Abbey of Saint-Denis, was the same person as both the Dionysius the Areopagite mentioned in Acts 17.34, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a figure whose writings were not yet being circulated in the West in the ninth century. Accordingly, in the 820s ambassadors from the Byzantine emperor to the court of Louis the Pious donated Louis a Greek manuscript of the Dionysian corpus, which was immediately given to the Abbey of Saint Denis in the care of Abbot Hilduin. Hilduin proceeded to direct a translation of the Dionysian corpus from Greek into Latin, based on this single manuscript. [16]

Soon after, probably by the middle of the ninth century, Eriugena made a second Latin translation of the Dionysian corpus, and much later wrote a commentary on "The Celestial Hierarchy". This constitutes the first major Latin reception of the Areopagite. It is unclear why Eriugena made a new translation so soon after Hilduin's. It has often been suggested that Hilduin's translation was deficient; though this is a possibility, it was a serviceable translation. Another possibility is that Eriugena's creative energies and his inclination toward Greek theological subjects motivated him to make a new translation. [17]

Eriugena's next work was a Latin translation of Dionysius the Areopagite undertaken at the request of Charles the Bald. A translation of the Areopagite's writings was not likely to alter the opinion already formed as to Eriugena's orthodoxy. Pope Nicholas I was offended that the work had not been submitted for approval before being given to the world, and ordered Charles to send Eriugena to Rome, or at least to dismiss him from his court. There is no evidence, however, that this order was carried out. [8]

At the request of the Byzantine emperor Michael III (c. 858), Eriugena undertook some translation into Latin of the works of Pseudo-Dionysius and added his own commentary. [ citation needed ] With this translation, he was the first since Augustine to introduce the ideas of Neoplatonism from the Greek into the Western European intellectual tradition, where they were to have a strong influence on Christian theology. [ citation needed ]

He also translated Gregory of Nyssa's De hominis opificio and Maximus Confessor's Ambigua ad Iohannem. [18]


Eriugena's great work, De divisione naturae (On the Division of Nature) or Periphyseon, is arranged in five books. The form of exposition is that of dialogue; the method of reasoning is the syllogism. [8] Nature (Natura in Latin or physis in Greek) is the name of the most comprehensive of all unities, that which contains within itself the most primary division of all things, that which is (being) and that which is not (nonbeing). [18]

The Latin title refers to these four divisions of nature: (1) that which creates and is not created; (2) that which is created and creates; (3) that which is created and does not create; (4) that which is neither created nor creates. The first is God as the ground or origin of all things; the second, Platonic ideas or forms; the third, phenomena, the material world; and the last is God as the final end or goal of all things, and that into which the world of created things ultimately returns. [8]

The "creation" of the world is in reality a theophania, or showing forth of the Essence of God in the things created. Just as He reveals Himself to the mind and the soul in higher intellectual and spiritual truth, so He reveals Himself to the senses in the created world around us. Creation is, therefore, a process of unfolding of the Divine Nature.

The Division of Nature has been called the final achievement of ancient philosophy, a work which "synthesizes the philosophical accomplishments of fifteen centuries." It is presented, like Alcuin's book, as a dialogue between Master and Pupil. Eriugena anticipates Thomas Aquinas, who said that one cannot know and believe a thing at the same time. Eriugena explains that reason is necessary to understand and interpret revelation. "Authority is the source of knowledge, but the reason of mankind is the norm by which all authority is judged." [19]

It was condemned by a council at Sens by Honorius III (1225), for appearing to promote the identity of God and creation, and by Gregory XIII in 1585. [11] According to Max Bernhard Weinstein, Eriugena argued on behalf of something like a panentheistic definition of nature, [20] although Eriugena himself denied that he was a pantheist. [21] He maintained that for one to return to God, he must first go forth from Him. [22]


Eriugena's work is distinguished by the freedom of his speculation, and the boldness with which he works out his logical or dialectical system of the universe. He marks, indeed, a stage of transition from the older Platonizing philosophy to the later scholasticism. For him philosophy is not in the service of theology. The above-quoted assertion as to the substantial identity between philosophy and religion is repeated almost word for word by many of the later scholastic writers, but its significance depends upon the selection of one or other term of the identity as fundamental or primary. For Eriugena, philosophy or reason is first, primitive; authority or religion is secondary, derived. [8]

Eriugena's influence was greater with mystics than with logicians, but he was responsible for a revival of philosophical thought which had remained largely dormant in western Europe after the death of Boethius.

On the whole, one might be surprised that even in the seventeenth century pantheism did not gain a complete victory over theism; for the most original, finest, and most thorough European expositions of it (none of them, of course, will bear comparison with the Upanishads of the Vedas ) all came to light at that period, namely through Bruno, Malebranche, Spinoza, and Scotus Erigena. After Scotus Erigena had been lost and forgotten for many centuries, he was again discovered at Oxford and in 1681, thus four years after Spinoza's death, his work first saw the light in print. This seems to prove that the insight of individuals cannot make itself felt so long as the spirit of the age is not ripe to receive it. On the other hand, in our day (1851) pantheism, although presented only in Schelling's eclectic and confused revival thereof, has become the dominant mode of thought of scholars and even of educated people. This is because Kant had preceded it with his overthrow of theistic dogmatism and had cleared the way for it, whereby the spirit of the age was ready for it, just as a ploughed field is ready for the seed.

Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena , Vol. I, "Sketch of a History of the Doctrine of the Ideal and the Real".

Leszek Kołakowski, a Polish Marx scholar, has mentioned Eriugena as one of the primary influences on Hegel's, and therefore Marx's, dialectical form. In particular, he called De Divisione Naturae a prototype of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. [23]


William of Malmesbury's humorous anecdote illustrates both the character of Eriugena and the position he occupied at the French court. The king having asked, Quid distat inter sottum et Scottum? (What separates a sot [drunkard] from an Irishman?), Eriugena replied, Tabula tantum (Only a Table). [24]

William of Malmesbury is not considered a reliable source on John Scotus Eriugena by modern scholars. For example, his reports that Eriugena is buried at Malmesbury is doubted by scholars who say that William confused John Eriugena with a different monk named John. William's report on the manner of Eriugena's death, killed by the pens of his students, also appears to be a legend. "It seems certain that this is due to confusion with another John and that the manner of John's death is borrowed from the Acts of St. Cassian of Imola. Feast: (at Malmesbury), 28 January." [25] [26] [27]


Scotus on the PS5 note Johannes-Scotus-Erigena.jpg
Scotus on the £5 note

He gives his name to the John Scottus School in Dublin. John Scotus also appeared on the Series B £5 note, in use between 1976 and 1992.

Bertrand Russell called him "the most astonishing person of the ninth century". [28] The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy states he "is the most significant Irish intellectual of the early monastic period. He is generally recognized to be both the outstanding philosopher (in terms of originality) of the Carolingian era and of the whole period of Latin philosophy stretching from Boethius to Anselm". [29]



See also


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  1. Predestination: Biblical and Theological Paths
  2. Moran, Dermot. "John Scottus Eriugena". In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy .
  3. Burch, George. Early Medieval Philosophy, Kings Crown Press. 1951
  4. Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature. New Directions Publishing, 2013. ISBN   9780811218757. P. 104.
  6. Harper, Douglas. "scot". Online Etymology Dictionary .
  7. 1 2 3 4 Freemantle, Anne, ed. (1954–1955), "John Scotus Erigena", The Age of Belief, The Mentor Philosophers, Houghton Mifflin Company, pp.  72–87 .
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Adamson & Mitchell 1911, p. 743.
  9. Caribine, Deirdre, Great Medieval Thinkers, John Scottus Eriugena, Oxford University Press, p. 14.
  10. Cappuyns, M (1933), Jean Scot Érigène, sa vie, son oeuvre, sa pensée, Louvain, BE; Mont César, pp. 252–53. Figuratively, present day professors might recognize the irony in dying from the results of their students' pens.
  11. 1 2 3 4 Turner, William. "John Scotus Eriugena." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 30 June 2019PD-icon.svgThis article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  12. The nineteenth-century French historian, Hauréau advanced some reasons for fixing this date.
  13. Dermot Moran, The Philosophy of John Scottus Eriugena: A Study of Idealism in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 82.
  14. "Apocatastasis". New Advent. Retrieved 18 December 2019.
  15. "Johannes Scotus Erigena", Notable Names Database , retrieved 5 August 2007.
  16. Paul Rorem, 'The Early Latin Dionysius: Eriugena and Hugh of St Victor', "Modern Theology" 24:4, (2008), p. 602.
  17. Paul Rorem, 'The Early Latin Dionysius: Eriugena and Hugh of St Victor', "Modern Theology" 24:4, (2008), p602.
  18. 1 2 Moran, Dermot, "John Scottus Eriugena", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  19. Freemantle, Anne. The Age of Belief, cit., p. 80
  20. Weinstein, Max Bernhard. Welt- und Lebensanschauungen, Hervorgegangen aus Religion, Philosophie und Naturerkenntnis ("World and Life Views, Emerging From Religion, Philosophy and Nature") (1910), page 283-84: "Johannes Scotus Erigena.... in one of his several views, lets everything be emanated from God. ..Every creature is a theophany, a revealing of God. ...Scotus attributes something to God, will, and the creatures are then acts of will. The will is personally thought of as God's emanation (as Christ),."
  21. O'Meara, John J., "Introduction", The Mind of Eriugena, (John J. O'Meara and Ludwig Bieler, eds.), Dublin: Irish University Press 1973.
  22. Freemantle, p. 86.
  23. Kołakowski, L (1976), Main Currents of Marxism, 1.
  24. William of Malmesbury. "Book 5". Gesta pontificum Anglorum.Quoted in Helen Waddell, The Wandering Scholars (Garden City: Doubleday, 1955), p. 56.
  25. 'John the Sage, mentioned in R.P.S. (11th century) as resting at Malmesbury with Maedub and Aldhelm. He should probably be identified with the John whose tomb William of Malmesbury described and whose epitaph he transcribed. He believed that this was John Scotus Eriugena, the Irish philosopher of the 9th century, and that he was killed by the pens of his students after settling at Malmesbury. It seems certain that this is due to confusion with another John and that the manner of John's death is borrowed from the Acts of St. Cassian of Imola. Feast: (at Malmesbury), 28 January.' "John the Sage" The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. David Hugh Farmer. Oxford University Press 2003. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Oxford. 12 February 2010
  26. "Today (28 January) we commemorate St John 'the Wise' of Malmesbury (8th century). Or do we? There do seem to be several confusions and misattributions in this story, which was a good research exercise rather than particularly enlightening. Two sources were useful, Farmer and the Victoria County History: 'At this time, about 870, according to the tradition recorded by William of Malmesbury, (fn. 59) John Scotus Erigena, the philosopher, at the instigation of King Alfred took up his residence at the abbey as a fugitive from the Continent; after some years he was murdered by his pupils. He was buried first in St. Laurence's Church, but the body preternatural portents. The terms of the epitaph as given by William imply that the dead scholar was regarded as a martyr; and it seems clear that he bases the story on an old tradition and a tomb bearing an epitaph of a 'John the Wise' who is termed saint and martyr. (fn. 60) This John, however, almost certainly cannot have been the famous philosopher; he may possibly have been John the Old Saxon whose unfortunate régime at Athelney (Som.) nearly ended in murder. (fn. 61) John the Old Saxon escaped from Athelney, but when and how he died we do not know; it is possible that he is to be identified with the John the Wise of Malmesbury.'" From: 'House of Benedictine monks: Abbey of Malmesbury’, A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 3 (1956), pp. 210-231.
  27. [William wrote] 'that John quitted Francia because of the charge of erroneous doctrine brought against him. He came to King Alfred, by whom he was welcomed and established as a teacher at Malmesbury, but after some years he was assailed by the boys, was later translated to the left of the high altar of the abbey church, chiefly as the result of whom he taught, with their styles, and so died. It never occurred to any one to identify the Old Saxon abbat of Athelney with the Irish teacher of Malmesbury—with the name John as the single point in common—until the late forger, who passed off his work as that of Ingulf, who was abbat of Croyland towards the end of the eleventh century ('Descr. Comp.' in Rer. Angl. Script. post Bedam, p. 870, Frankfurt, 1601); and the confusion has survived the exposure of the fraud. It is permissible to hold that William has handed down a genuine tradition of his monastery, though it would be extreme to accept all the details of what happened more than two centuries before his birth as strictly historical (see an examination of the whole question in Poole, app. ii.).' Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 51 Scotus by Reginald Lane-Poole.
  28. Russell, Bertrand. The History Of Western Philosophy


Further reading