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History of Philosophy
John Scotus Erigena
by Turner, William (S.T.D.)

Life. John Scotus Erigena, or Ierugena, was born between the years 800 and 815. Ireland was probably the place of his birth. [1] About the middle of the ninth century he appeared at the court of Charles the Bald, by whom he was placed at the head of the palace school. He was ordered by his royal patron to translate the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius and of Maximus Confessor. He is said to have gone to Oxford at the invitation of Alfred the Great, and to have founded a school at Malmesbury, where, according to a tradition by no means reliable, he was put to death by his scholars. These biographical data are, with the exception of his relations with Charles and with the palace school, matters of great uncertainty. There are many reasons for supposing that Erigena was a layman, although Stöckl believes that he was probably a priest.
[1] The name Ierugena (hierou gesou) indicates this, as is explained by Dr. Floss in the introduction to his edition of Erigena's works. cf. Migne, Patr. Lat., Vol. CXXII, Prooem., pp. 19 ff. cf. also Baeumker in Jahrbuch für Philosophie send Spekulative Theologie, Bd. VII, p. 346; Ed. VIII, p. 222. Dr. Baeumker holds that the original form of the name was Eriugena.
Sources. Erigena composed, besides the translations of Pseudo-Dionysius and Maximus Confessor, a comprehensive philosophical work, De Divisione Naturae, and a treatise, De Egressu et Regressu Animae ad Deum, of which only a fragment has come down to us. To the predestination controversy which was waged in the ninth century between Gottschalk, Ratramnus, and Servatus Lupus, on the one hand, and Hincmar, Florus, and Remi, archbishop of Rheims, on the other, Erigena contributed a treatise, De Praedestinatione, which seems to have given offense to both parties. In the other great controversy of the ninth and the following centuries, the dispute concerning the doctrine of transubstantiation, in which Ratramnus and Berengar were opposed by Paschasius Radbertus and Lanfranc, Erigena also took an active part. The work, however, De Corpore et Sanguine Domini, which has been ascribed to him, is undoubtedly to be assigned to some other writer of the ninth century, very probably to Ratramnus. [2]
[2] Cf. Migne, Patr. Lat., Vol. CXXII, cal. 103.
Of considerable importance in determining the philosophical views of Erigena are his Expositiones, -- commentaries on the works of Pseudo-Dionysius, -- and the commentary on Martianus Capella, fragments of which were published by Hauréau. [3] The commentary on the gospel of St. John and the Homilia in Prolegomenon Evangelii sec. Joannem are Erigena's contributions to scriptural exegesis.
[3] Cf. Hauréau, Hist. de la phil. scot., p. 152, n.
The works of Erigena as published by Dr. Floss are reprinted in Migne's Patrologia Latina, Vol. CXXII. The De Divisione Naturae was first published by Gale (Oxford, 1681). A recent addition to our secondary sources is Alice Gardner's John the Scot (London, 1900).


General Idea of Erigena's Philosophy. In its general outlines the philosophy of Erigena is Dionysian, that is to say Neo-Platonic. Erigena carries the union of philosophy and theology to the point of identifying the two sciences. In his work De Praedestinatione he quotes St. Augustine as saying:
Non aliam esse philosophiam, id est sapientiae studium, et aliam 
religionem, cum ii quorum doctrinam non approbamus nec sacramenta 
nobiscum communicant. [4] 
[4] De Vera Relig., Cap. V.
But while Augustine evidently means merely that the speculative aspect of religion is as important as the practical, Erigena understands him to mean that philosophy and religion are one and the same; for he continues:
Quid est aliud de philosophia tractare nisi verae religionis, qua summa 
et principalis omnium rerum causa, Deus, et humiliter colitur et 
rationabiliter investigatur, regulas exponere? Conficitur inde veram 
esse philosophiam veram religionem, conversimque veram religionem esse 
veram philosophiam. [5]
[5] Migne, Patr. Lat., Vol. CXXII, col. 557.
We have here the characteristic trait of Scholasticism, though in an exaggerated form, -- the attempt, namely, to find a rational basis for the union of reason and revelation. Later on the great masters of Scholasticism, while recognizing the union of reason and revelation, will allot to philosophy a sphere of its own, maintaining that faith and science are distinct though perfectly accordant with each other. Thus, St. Thomas would not subscribe to Erigena's methodological principle that the Scripture and the Fathers are sources of proof in philosophy.

The identification of philosophy with theology by Erigena is not to be understood as an advocacy of rationalism. It is true that Erigena maintains the priority of reason with respect to authority, as when he says, "Omnis auctoritas quae vera ratione non approbatur infirma esse videtur." [6] But this is a principle common to all the Scholastics. Far from being a rationalist Erigena is more inclined to take sides with the mystics, -- to belittle all reason unless in so far as reason is illumined from on high. Instead of rationalizing theology, he would theosophize philosophy. [7]
[6] De Divisione Naturae, Lib. I, Cap. 71.

[7] Cf. Cath. Univ. Bull., July, 1897 (Vol. III, pp. 338 ff.).
Erigena assigns to philosophy a fourfold task: to divide, to define, to demonstrate, and to analyze (resolutiva). [8] This may be described as Erigena's definition of the applicability of dialectic to philosophy and theology, -- a notion which, like that of the union of faith and science, is destined to develop in the subsequent growth of Scholastic philosophy.
[8] De Praedestinatione, Cap. 1.
General Metaphysical Doctrines. The treatise De Divisione Naturae begins with the definition of nature. Nature is "quidquid vel animo percipi potest vel animi intentionem superat." Nature is therefore synonymous with being. The first great division of nature is into things which are and things which are not. Now, there are five ways in which a thing may be said not to be: [9]
[9] De Div. Nat., Lib. I, Capp. 3 ff.
1. A thing is not in the sense that it cannot be known. "Quae per excellentiam suae naturae omnem sensum, intellectum rationemque fugiunt, jure videri non esse." In this sense God and the essences of things are non-existent.

2. A thing is not, relatively to something else, in the sense that, being what it is, it is not that which is higher. "Inferioris affirmatio superioris est negatio: inferioris negatio est superioris affirmatio." Thus, a plant is not, because it is not an animal, and in like manner every being is relatively not-being.

3. A thing is not when it is in mere potency. "Quae vero adhuc in naturae sinibus continentur nec in formata materia apparent . . . dicimus non esse.' Erigena adduces the example of the human race potentially constituted by God in the first man.

4. A thing is not in refrrence to the intellect, when it is enveloped, as it were, in material conditions. "Quae locorum spatiis temporumque notibus variantur, colliguntur, solvuntur, vere dicuntur non esse."

5. Finally, there is a mode of not-being which is peculiar to man. Man's being is the imaged beauty and holiness of God. When, by sin, he loses this dignity, destroying the image of God which is in him, man ceases to exist: he is not.

Leaving this fivefold enumeration of the modes of not-being, we come to the celebrated division of nature into (1) Natura quae creat et non creatur; (2) Natura quae creatur et creat; (3) Natura quae creatur et non creat; and (4) Natura quae nec creatur nec creat.

1. Natura quae creat et non creatur is God, the origin, principle, and source of all things. True to the tenets of the Dionysian philosophy, Erigena denies that God can know Himself. God is incomprehensible to Himself as He is to us. For, to know Himself, He should place Himself in one of the categories of thought, and that is impossible.

In discussing the possibility of our knowing God, Erigena dwells on the twofold theory of theological predication. There is the affirmative theory, which says that substance, goodness, and so forth may be affirmed of God; and there is the negative theory, which maintains that all these predicates should be denied. The truth, according to Erigena, is that these predicates may be affirmed of the Supreme Being if they are taken in a metaphorical sense; in their proper, or literal, meaning they must be denied, because God is more than substance, more than goodness. Thus, though in speech we affirm these and other predicates, in thought we deny them: "in pronunciatione est forma kataphatikê, in intellectu autem apophatikê." [10] It is remarkable how much the first and most daring of the schoolmen is willing to concede to agnosticism.
[10] De Div. Nat., Lib. I, Cap. 17.
What is said of predicates of God in general is true also of the term Creator. God and the action by which He made things are one. When, therefore, we say that God is Creator, we mean, according to Erigena, that He is more than Creator, that He is in all things as their sole substance.
Cum ergo audimus Deum omnia facere nil aliud debemus intelligere quam 
Deum in omnibus esse, hoc est, essentiam omnium subsistere. Ipse enim 
solus per se vere est, et omne quod vere in his quae sunt dicitur esse 
ipse solus est. [11]  
[11] Op. cit., Cap. 72.
This pantheism is professed over and over again, as, for example, "Deus namque omnium essentia est, quia solus vere est," [12] and the oft-quoted formula of Pseudo-Dionysius, "Esse omnium est superesse Divinitatis." It is true that Engena sometimes speaks of God as separate from creatures: "Ipse Deus in se ipso ultra omnem creaturam nullo intellectu comprehenditur"; and again, "Deus non est totum creaturae, neque creatura pars Dei." [13] Nevertheless, we cannot, without accusing Erigena of self-contradiction, attach any philosophical value to these expressions; they are merely the incidental use of common modes of speech. For Erigena certainly maintained that the being of creatures is the being of God, and that by creation God becomes His creatures. This consideration leads to the next division.
[12] Op. cit., Cap. 3.

[13] Op. cit., I, 3, 7, and II, 1.
2. Natura quae creatur et creat. By this our philosopher understands God as containing in the Word (Logos) the primordial causes, or types, of things, formed before all creation.

Pater, i.e., omnium principium, in Verbo suo, Unigenito videlicit 
Filio, omnium rerum rationes quas faciendas esse voluit priusquam res 
fierent praeformavit. [14] 
[14] Op. cit., II, 2.
There is no hierarchy among these types as there was among the Platonic Ideas; still, Erigena, following Pseudo-Dionysius, enumerates ten first primordial causes.

These types are in God. Consequently, they are intelligent, understanding themselves and understanding the things of which they are types. They are indeed made, but made from all eternity; for they are coeternal with God. Of this coeternity, however, Erigena is not altogether certain. The primordial causes proceeded from the Father by a process which is figuratively described as a flowing. [15]
[15] Cf. op. cit., III, 4.
We must be careful not to conclude too hastily, as has sometimes been done, that Erigena identified the primordial causes -- the world of Ideas -- with the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. The Son is begotten from all eternity. From all eternity, too, the primordial causes were made; they are in the Son, of the same substance as the Father, yet, as the defenders of Erigena have conclusively shown, they are not the Son. [16]
[16] Schlueter and Görres hold opposite views on this question of interpretation (cf. Migne, Patr. Lat., Vol. CXXII, col. 63).
Here, as well as in his treatment of the first division of nature, Erigena's pantheism is apparent. He maintains that by the emanation, or flowing, of the ideas from God, the divine nature creates itself. "Creatur enim a seipsa in primordialibus causis ac per hoc seipsam creat." [17] He goes on, however, to explain that the creation in this case consists in a showing forth (theophania) of the divine nature.
[17] De Div. Nat., III, 23.
3. Natura quae creatur et non creat means the world of phenomena, things subject to change and to the conditions of time and space: "quae in generatione temporibusque et locis cognoscuntur, hoc est in primordialium causarum effectibus extremis." [18] Individual things -- creatures, as we call them -- are derived from God; they participate in the divine nature, for all derivation is participation. Now, the order of derivation is from the Father to the primordial causes, and from these to concrete individual existences. In the Word, which is the locus of the primordial causes, all things are in a condition of comparative undifferentiation; but when they issue forth from the Word to become the complex world of concrete things, they suffer separation, differentiation, and multiplicity. Our philosopher illustrates his thought by referring to the radii of a circle: at the center all the radii are united, but as they proceed towards the circumference they become distinct and separate. [19] The separation of the primordial causes is the work of the Holy Spirit, -- of the Spirit who in the beginning moved over the face of the waters. [20]
[18] Op. cit., I, 1, and IV, 1.

[19] Op. cit., III, 1.

[20] Op. cit., II, 36.
The derivation of things proceeded in definite order through the highest genera, lower genera, intermediate species, and special species to the individual. Thus did Erigena hypostatize, as it were, the categories and lay down the principle of the most rigorous realism, -- that the categories of Thought and Being exist outside the mind in all their universality.

We may, then, describe the process of the origin of things as an emanation, or flowing, from the first principle of existence. Erigena calls the process a theophania, or showing forth of the divine nature; and it is in this sense that the supreme principle of existence pervades or runs through all nature; for theos is derived from theô (to run). Creation, in the common acceptation of the term, does not apply to the origin of things; yet, since God made all things out of His own substance, and since, in the meaning already described, He is non-existent, He may be said to have made all things ex nihilo. [21]
[21] Op. cit., III, 19.
4. The fourth division of nature is Natura quae nec creatur nec creat. This is God as the end of all things, the goal to which all created beings must return. Everywhere in the universe Erigena finds traces or signs of the final return of creatures to the Creator. The heavenly sphere is constantly returning to the point where it was twenty-four hours previously; in four years the sun completes its course in the celestial circle, returning to the point whence it started; there is a period set for the return of the flowers and leaves and herbs. And so all creatures at the completion of the cosmic cycle will return to the Principle whence they came. This is especially true of man; for the life of man on earth is but a striving after the true, the beautiful, the good, the perfect, from which he came, and to which he must return ere he can find rest. [22] God, who revealed Himself in creation, will retire within Himself in the final apokatastasis, or universal return of creature to Creator.
[22] Op. cit., IV, 26 ff.
Just as creatures emanated from God according to definite order, so shall they return to Him in order, the lower through the higher. As air is changed into light and metal into fire, so shall bodily substance be changed into soul; and, in like manner, whatever is inferior shall rise through higher forms to God. [23] This doctrine of Erigena on the one hand reminds us of the Heraclitean doctrine of the upward and downward way, and on the other hand suggests the Hegelian theory of divine processes.
[23] Op. cit., V, 39.
Problem of Universals. Although the problem of universals was not proposed to the Scholastics of Erigena's day, our philosopher treats incidentally of the existence of the categories, and, placing himself on the side of the extreme realists, affirms the objective reality of the highest genera as well as of the individual. Indeed, he goes farther than the Platonic realists, when, not content with affirming the logical unity of the concept of Being, he attributes to Being objective or ontological unity, affirming that Being is one. [24]
[24] Cf. commentary on Martianus Capella, apud Hauréau, op. cit., I, 172, and De Div. Nat., passim.
Erigena's Psychological Doctrines do not occupy an important place in his system of thought. He divides the cognitive powers of the mind into sensible and supersensible. The sense-faculty is one, the so-called five senses being merely the different organs which the sense employs. [25] The higher, or supersensible, faculties are threefold, imaging the Trinity: the first is intellect (nous), by which the mind contemplates God, the source and author of all things; the second is reason (logos), by which the mind contemplates the primordial causes in the Word; the third is internal sense (dianoia), by which the mind attains a knowledge of the world of phenomena: "circa effectus causarum primordialium, sive visibiles sive invisibiles sint, circumvolvitur." [26] Now, while these three are merely phases of the soul, the first is properly the essential nature of the soul, the second is a power (dunamis), and the third is a kind of energeia, or actuality of the soul. The evolution, or march, of knowledge is twofold: from the higher to the lower, that is, from an intuitive knowledge of God (gnostico intuitu) to a knowledge of primordial causes, and thence to a knowledge of concrete things; and from the lower to the higher, that is from sense-experience to the internal sense which abstracts the specific and generic concepts, and thence through a knowledge of primordial causes to a knowledge of God Himself. The descending march of knowledge corresponds to the origin of things from God; the ascending march corresponds to the return of things to God. Thus, in his theory of knowledge Erigena is inclined to admit Aristotelian as well as Neo-Platonic principles. He is, however, in final analysis a Neo-Platonist, for he teaches that the knowledge which most avails is knowledge of which the origin and starting-point is God Himself. [27]
[25] Op. cit., II, 23.

[26] Op. cit., II, 22.

[27] Cf. op. cit., II, 23.
With regard to self-knowledge, the soul can know its own existence but not its essence. And herein the soul is most like to God, for of God we can know merely that He is, not what He is.[28] The reason adduced in proof of the soul's inability to know itself is interesting. A definition, our philosopher argues, is a place; but the containing is greater than the contained. If, therefore, the soul could define itself, it should be greater than itself, which is manifestly absurd. [29]
[28] Op. cit., II, 27.

[29] Op. cit., I, 43.
Anthropological Doctrines. Man is composed of body and soul: "Homo autem corpus et anima est." [30] The soul is a simple spiritual substance: it is the principle of life. Moreover, the soul creates the body.
[30] Op. cit., IIII 36.
Anima corpus suum ipsa creat non tamen de nihilo sed de aliquo. Anima 
namque incorporales qualitates in unum conglutinante, et quasi quoddam 
subjectum ipsis qualitatibus ex quantitate sumente, et supponente, 
corpus sibi creat? [31]  
[31] Op. cit., II, 24.
The essence of the soul, as we have seen, is intellect. Its essential nature includes will also: "Tota animae natura voluntas est." [32] In fact, will and intellect are indissolubly associated: "Ubi rationabilitas ibi necessario libertas." [33]
[32] De Praed., Cap. 8, note 2.

[33] Ibid., note 5.
In the first man, who was created in a state of happiness and lived a life like to that of the angels, were contained in sola possibilitate all his successors. "Simul ac semel in illo uno homine omnium hominum rationes secundum corpus et animam creatae sunt." [34] This postulate being granted, it was easy for Erigena to explain the transmission of original sin.
[34] De Div. Nat., II, 25.
Historical Position. When we come to form an estimate of Erigena as a philosopher, we must not allow his many brilliant qualities to blind us as to the enormity of his errors. He was, without doubt, the most learned man of his century, he was the first of the representatives of the new learning to attempt a system of constructive thought, and he brought to his task a truly Celtic wealth of imagination and a spiritual force which lifted him above the plane of his contemporaries, -- mere epitomizers and commentators. His philosophy has all the charm which pantheism always possesses for a certain class of minds. It is subtle, vague, and poetic. When we come to examine its contents and method, we find that it is dominated by the spirit of Neo-Platonism. Through the works of Pseudo-Dionysius and of Maximus, Erigena made acquaintance with the teachings of Plotinus and Proclus; and when he came to construct his own system of thought, he reproduced the essential traits of Neo-Platonic philosophy, -- pantheism, the doctrine of intuition, mysticism, and universal redemption.

The work De Divisione Naturae was condemned in 1225. Its heterodoxy is undeniable; yet we cannot doubt the sincerity of Erigena's devotion to the truth of Catholic dogma. He was, as Anastasius the Roman librarian described him, "vir per omnia sanctus." Perhaps his attitude towards dogmatic truth is best described in the words of Gale, who first published the De Divisione Naturae: "Potuit ergo errare; haereticus esse noluit."

Erigena illustrates the many-sidedness of the Scholastic movement. To classify as anti-Scholastic whatever does not agree with the synthetic systems of the great masters of Scholasticism is to break the line of continuous historical development which led through the failures and partial successes of Erigena, Abelard, and other philosophers to the philosophy of the thirteenth century. Scholasticism in its final form is the outcome of the forces of Christian civilization which, in different conditions and in less favorable circumstances, produced the imperfect Scholasticism of the period of beginnings and the period of growth.


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