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Johannes Scotus Erigena

Born: 815 AD
Died: 877 AD
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Philosopher

Nationality: Ireland
Executive summary: De Divisione Naturae

Medieval philosopher and theologian; his real name was Johannes Scotus (Scottus) or John the Scot. The combination Johannes Scotus Erigena has not been traced earlier than James Ussher and Gale; even Gale uses it only in the heading of the version of St. Maximus. The date of Erigena's birth is very uncertain, and there is no evidence to show definitely where he was born. The name Scotus, which has often been taken to imply Scottish origin, really favors the theory that he was an Irishman according to the then usage of Scotus or Scotigena. Prudentius, Bishop of Troyes, definitely states that he was of Irish extraction. The pseudonym commonly read Erigena, used by himself in the titles of his versions of Dionysius the Areopagite, is Ierugena (in later manuscripts, Erugena and Eriugena), formed apparently on the analogy of Graiugena ("Greek-born"), which he applies to St. Maximus. There seems no reason to doubt that Eriugena is connected with Erin, the name for Ireland. On the other hand, William of Malmesbury prefers to read Heruligena, which would make Scotus a Pannonian, while Bale says he was born at St. David's, Thomas Dempster connects him with Ayr, and Gale with Eriuven in Hereford. Some early writers thought there were two persons, John Scotus and John Erigena.

Of Erigena's early life nothing is known. Bale quotes the story that he travelled in Greece, Italy and Gaul, and studied not only Greek, but also Arabic and Chaldaean. Since, however, Bale describes him as "ex patricio genitore natus", it is a reasonable inference (so R. L. Poole) that Bale confused him with one John, the son of Patricius, a Spaniard, who tells much the same story of his own travels. The knowledge of Greek displayed in Erigena's works is not such as to compel us to conclude that he had actually visited Greece. That he had a competent acquaintance with Greek is manifest from his translations of Dionysius the Areopagite and of Maximus, from the manner in which he refers to Aristotle, and from his evident familiarity with Neoplatonist writers and the fathers of the early church. Roger Bacon, in his severe criticism on the ignorance of Greek displayed by the most eminent scholastic writers, expressly exempts Erigena, and ascribes to him a knowledge of Aristotle in the original.

Among other legends which have at various times been attached to Erigena are that he was invited to France by Charlemagne, and that he was one of the founders of the University of Paris. The only portion of Erigena's life as to which we possess accurate information was that spent at the court of Charles the Bald. Charles invited him to France soon after his accession to the throne, probably in the year 843, and placed him at the head of the court school (schola palatina). The reputation of this school seems to have increased greatly under Erigena's leadership, and the philosopher himself was treated with indulgence by the king. William of Malmesbury's amusing story illustrates both the character of Scotus and the position he occupied at the French court. The king having asked, "Quid distat inter sottum et Scottum?" Erigena replied, "Mensa tantum."

The first of the works known to have been written by Erigena during this period was a treatise on the eucharist, which has not come down to us (by some it has been identified with a treatise by Ratramnus, De corpore et sanguine Domini). 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 Berengar is said to have been compelled to burn publicly Erigena's treatise. So far as we can learn, however, Erigena's orthodoxy was not at the time suspected, and a few years later he was selected by Hincmar, archbishop of Reims, to defend the doctrine of liberty of will against the extreme predestinarianism of the monk Gottschalk (Gotteschalchus). The treatise De divina praedestinatione, composed on this occasion, has been preserved, and from its general tenor one cannot be surprised that the author's orthodoxy was at once and vehemently suspected. Erigena argues the question entirely on speculative grounds, and starts with the bold affirmation that philosophy and religion are fundamentally one and the same -- "Conficitur inde veram esse philosophiam veram religionem, conversimque veram religionem esse veram philosophiam." Even more significant is his handling of authority and reason, to which we shall presently refer. 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 ("Scots porridge") and commentum diaboli ("an invention of the devil ").

Erigena's next work was a Latin translation of Dionysius the Areopagite undertaken at the request of Charles the Bald. This also has been preserved, and fragments of a commentary by Erigena on Dionysius have been discovered in manuscript form. A translation of the Areopagite's pantheistical writings was not likely to alter the opinion already formed as to Erigena'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 Erigena to Rome, or at least to dismiss him from his court. There is no evidence, however, that this order was attended to.

The latter part of his life is involved in total obscurity. The story that in 882 he was invited to Oxford by King Alfred the Great, that he labored there for many years, became abbot at Malmesbury, and was stabbed to death by his pupils with their "styles", is apparently without any satisfactory foundation, and doubtless refers to some other Jobannes. Erigena in all probability never left France, and Hauréau has advanced some reasons for fixing the date of his death about 877.

Erigena is the most interesting figure among the medieval writers. The freedom of his speculation, and the boldness with which he works out his logical or dialectical system of the universe, altogether prevent us from classing him along with the scholastics properly so called. He marks, indeed, a stage of transition from the older Platonizing philosophy to the later and more rigid scholasticism. In no sense whatever can it be affirmed that with Erigena philosophy is in the service of theology. The above-quoted assertion as to the substantial identity between philosophy and religion is indeed repeated almost totidem verbis by many of the later scholastic writers, but its significance altogether depends upon the selection of one or other term of the identity as fundamental or primary. Now there is no possibility of mistaking Erigena's position: to him philosophy or reason is first, is primitive; authority or religion is secondary, derived. "Auctoritas siquidem ex vera ratione processit, ratio vero nequaquam ex auctoritate. Omnis enim auctoritas, quae vera ratione non approbatur, infirma videtur esse. Vera autem ratio, quum virtutibus suis rata atque immutabilis munitur, nullius auctoritatis adstipulatione roborari indiget" (De divisione naturae, i. 71). F. D. Maurice, the only historian of note who declines to ascribe a rationalizing tendency to Erigena, obscures the question by the manner in which he states it. He asks his readers, after weighing the evidence advanced, to determine "whether he [Erigena] used his philosophy to explain away his theology, or to bring out what he conceived to be the fullest meaning of it." These alternatives seem to be wrongly put. "Explaining away theology" is something wholly foreign to the philosophy of that age; and even if we accept the alternative that Erigena endeavors speculatively to bring out the full meaning of theology, we are by no means driven to the conclusion that he was primarily or principally a theologian. He does not start with the datum of theology as the completed body of truth, requiring only elucidation and interpretation; his fundamental thought is that of the universe, nature, God, as the ultimate unity which works itself out into the rational system of the world. Man and all that concerns man are but parts of this system, and are to be explained by reference to it; for explanation or understanding of a thing is determination of its place in the universal or all. Religion or revelation is one element or factor in the divine process, a stage or phase of the ultimate rational life. The highest faculty of man, reason, intellectus, intellectualis visio, is that which is not content with the individual or partial, but grasps the whole and thereby comprehends the parts. In this highest effort of reason, which is indeed God thinking in man, thought and being are at one, the opposition of being and thought is overcome. When Erigena starts with such propositions, it is clearly impossible to understand his position and work if we insist on regarding him as a scholastic, accepting the dogmas of the church as ultimate data, and endeavoring only to present them in due order and defend them by argument.

Erigenas great work, De divisione naturae, which was condemned by a council at Sens, by Honorius III (1225), who described it as "swarming with worms of heretical perversity", and by Pope Gregory XIII in 1585, is arranged in five books. The form of exposition is that of dialogue; the method of reasoning is the syllogistic. The leading thoughts are the following. Natura is the name for the universal, the totality of all things, containing in itself being and non-being. It is the unity of which all special phenomena are manifestations. But of this nature there are four distinct classes: (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 neither is created nor creates. The first is God as the ground or origin of all things, the last is God as the final end or goal of all things, that into which the world of created things ultimately returns. The second and third together compose the created universe, which is the manifestation of God, God in processu, Theophania. Thus we distinguish in the divine system beginning, middle and end; but these three are in essence one -- the difference is only the consequence of our finite comprehension. We are compelled to envisage this eternal process under the form of time, to apply temporal distinctions to that which is extra- or supra-temporal. The universe of created things, as we have seen, is twofold: first, that which is created and creates -- the primordial ideas, archetypes, immutable relations, divine acts of will, according to which individual things are formed; second, that which is created and does not create, the world of individuals, the effects of the primordial causes, without which the causes have no true being. Created things have no individual or self-independent existence; they are only in God; and each thing is a manifestation of the divine, theophania, divina apparitio.

God alone, the uncreated creator of all, has true being. He is the true universal, all-containing and incomprehensible. The lower cannot comprehend the higher, and therefore we must say that the existence of God is above being, above essence; God is above goodness, above wisdom, above truth. No finite predicates can be applied to him; his mode of being cannot be determined by any category. True theology is negative. Nevertheless the world, as the theophania, the revelation of God, enables us so far to understand the divine essence. We recognize his being in the being of all things, his wisdom in their orderly arrangement, his life in their constant motion. Thus God is for us a Trinity -- the Father as substance or being, the Son as wisdom, the Spirit as life. These three are realized in the universe -- the Father as the system of things, the Son as the word (the realm of ideas), the Spirit as the life or moving force which introduces individuality and which ultimately draws back all things into the divine unity. In man, as the noblest of created things, the Trinity is seen most perfectly reflected; intellectus, ratio and sensus make up the threefold thread of his being. Not in man alone, however, but in, all things, God is to be regarded as realizing himself, as becoming incarnate.

The infinite essence of God, which may indeed be described as nihilum (nothing) is that from which all is created, from which all proceeds or emanates. The first procession or emanation, as above indicated, is the realm of ideas in the Platonic sense, the word or wisdom of God. These ideas compose a whole or inseparable unity, but we are able in a dim way to think of them as a system logically arranged. Thus the highest idea is that of goodness; things are, only if they are good; being without well-being is naught. Essence participates in goodness -- that which is good has being, and is therefore to be regarded as a species of good. Life, again, is a species of essence, wisdom a species of life, and so on, always descending from genus to species in a rigorous logical fashion.

The ideas are the eternal causes, which, under the moving influence of the spirit, manifest themselves in their effects, the individual created things. Manifestation, however, is part of the being or essence of the causes, that is to say, if we interpret the expression, God of necessity manifests himself in the world and is not without the world. Further, as the causes are eternal, timeless, so creation is eternal, timeless. The Mosaic account, then, is to be looked upon merely as a mode in which is faintly shadowed forth what is above finite comprehension. It is altogether allegorical, and requires to be interpreted. Paradise and the Fall have no local or temporal being. Man was originally sinless and without distinction of sex. Only after the introduction of sin did man lose his spiritual body, and acquire the animal nature with its distinction of sex. Woman is the impersonation of man's sensuous and fallen nature; on the final return to the divine unity, distinction of sex will vanish, and the spiritual body will be regained.

The most remarkable and at the same time the most obscure portion of the work is that in which the final return to God is handled. Naturally sin is a necessary preliminary to this redemption, and Erigena has the greatest difficulty in accounting for the fact of sin. If God is true being, then sin can have no substantive existence; it cannot be said that God knows of sin, for to God knowing and being are one. In the universe of things, as a universe, there can be no sin; there must be perfect harmony. Sin, in fact, results from the will of the individual who falsely represents something as gpod which is not so. This misdirected will is punished by finding that the objects after which it thirsts are in truth vanity and emptiness. Hell is not to be regarded as having local existence; it is the inner state of the sinful will. As the object of punishment is not the will or the individual himself, but the misdirection of the will, so the result of punishment is the final purification and redemption of all. Even the devils shall be saved. All, however, are not saved at once; the stages of the return to the final unity, corresponding to the stages in the creative process, are numerous, and are passed through slowly. The ultimate goal is deificatio, theosis or resumption into the divine being, when the individual soul is raised to a full knowledge of God, and where knowing and being are one. After all have been restored to the divine unity, there is no further creation. The ultimate unity is that which neither is created nor creates.

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