[Philosophers]


Johannes Scotus Erigena, John the Scot


Irish Theologian and NeoPlatonist Philosopher

c800-c880


Irish theologian and NeoPlatonist philosopher. Translated and made commentaries upon Pseudo- Dionysius. The name Erigena means the same as Scotus, 'born in Ireland'. He is eulogised by Coulton as 'coming out of the darkness like a meteor', and by Russell as 'the most astonishing figure of the early Medieval period'.

Though a singular and enigmatic figure who stood outside the mainstream, it is now widely accepted that John Scotus possessed the finest and most original intellect of the early Middle Ages. He was highly proficient in Greek, quite rare at that time in mainland Europe, and was thus well-placed for translation work. Though born in Ireland he later (c845) moved to France, where he took over the school, the Palatine Academy, at the invitation of King Charles I (Charles the Bald, 823-77). He remained in France for at least 30 years. At the request of the Greek Emperor Michael (in c858) John undertook some translation into Latin of the works of Pseudo- Dionysius and added his own commentary. He was thus the first to introduce the ideas of NeoPlatonism from the Greek into the Western European intellectual tradition, where they were to have a deeply formative influence over Christian theology.

His frank, bold and free-thinking writing remained the subject of controversy for centuries. It was filled with rationalistic opinions and speculations, and was completely devoid of censorship or deference to orthodox theology. His work 'De divina praedestinationae', (On Divine Predestination) was written c851 to support Hincmar (c806-82) in the Predestination debate with Gottschalk (c820-68). Many thought it went too far, and was thus condemned by the Councils of Valence (855) and Langres (859) as 'pultes Scotorum' (Irishman's porridge) and 'the invention of the devil'.

His magnum opus 'De divisione naturae' (On The Division of Nature), composed 865-870, fared better and was very influential. It classified nature into 4 parts:

  1. that which creates but is not created: God
  2. that which creates and is created: the Word or Logos
  3. that which is created but does not create: the sensible world
  4. that which which does not create and nor is created: God as supreme end.

Erigena regarded man as a microcosm of the wider universe, because he has senses and reason to determine causes and mechanisms. He also regarded man's nature to be part divine and part animal. Sin, he contended, was derived from the animal nature and the divine in man was the means by which he would return, through grace, to God. He was convinced of the necessity for rational explanation of the universe and he tried to fuse reason with faith. He therefore attempted to explain the relations between God and the created world in a rational fashion. His ideas - derived largely from NeoPlatonists like Plotinus - came close to pantheism, magic and, curiously, modern rationalism. He even attempted to explain sin as misdirected will, claiming that as being and knowing are the same, so it would follow that some sin must be inherent in God's knowledge. In this sense Erigena is typical of the comparative freedom of speculation and freshness of vision and expression enjoyed by the very early Churchmen. A condition which prevailed before dogma had pushed its roots much deeper into the intellectual fabric of the Church. Yet John's basic position determined the tone of Christian thought for centuries, being developed by all later thinkers, and being far more influential than was ever officially acknowledged.

His work is largely based upon Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Greek Fathers, and is blatantly NeoPlatonist. He revived the transcendentalist standpoint of NeoPlatonism with its 'graded hierarchy' approach. By going back to Plato, he revived the Nominalist-Realist debate, which was eventually to translate into the fundamental struggle between entrenched dogma and scientific rationalism, and which came ultimately to undermine the power and authority of the Church in more recent centuries.

The logical posture of Erigena was condemned in his day for its pantheistic tendencies and thus to accessing God through direct revelatory experience, rather than through the oppressive dogmas of Church orthodoxy. In this sense he certainly foreshadows Bruno, St Teresa, St John of the Cross and all later Christian mystics. In another sense, and more distantly, he foreshadows the rich idealism of Berkeley, the German idealists and the Romantics. And on the 'other branch' of philosophy he is deeply influential in the Secret Traditions, with magicians, mystics and Alchemists of all stripes, coming down to us through the Freemasons, Rosicrucians and Theosophists. It is arguable that he is evident even in the modern world in the romantic ideologies which underpin such movements as Hippies, eco-activism, alternative medicine and so-called New Age thought.

As he failed to submit his work for Papal approval, John went out of favour, and through the Council of Sens in 1225 and by Pope Gregory XIII in 1585, his works were condemned as heretical. In 1681 'De divisione naturae' was placed on the 'Index of Forbidden Books'. Yet his views were curiously rational and with his death serious, creative and original philosophical investigation, which was truly independent of the Church, came to an end for at least seven centuries.

Tradition has it that he finally returned to Britain towards the end of his life to become Abbot of Malmesbury in southern England, and was stabbed to death by his scholars with their pens for 'trying to get them to think'. To what extent this story is entirely apocryphal remains uncertain.

SOURCES:

Chambers Biographical Dictionary, 1996, Edinburgh
Coulton, GG, 1940, Studies in Medieval Thought, Nelson, London
Colliers Encyclopaedia, vol 9, 1983
Encyclopedia Americana, vol 10, 1980
Rogers, Arthur Kenyon, 1960, A Student's History of Philosophy, 3rd Edition, Macmillan, New York
Russell, Bertrand, 1960, A History of Western Philosophy, Allen & Unwin, London

This page compiled by Peter Morrell, Jan 1997.
E-mail:pmorr1sc@stokecoll.ac.uk

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