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 on John Scotus Erigena

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 Biography Sources

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