|Life. John Scotus Erigena, or Ierugena, was born between the
years 800 and 815. Ireland was probably the place of his birth.  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.
 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
 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.  The commentary on the
gospel of St. John and the Homilia in Prolegomenon Evangelii sec.
Joannem are Erigena's contributions to scriptural exegesis.
 Cf. Hauréau, Hist. de la phil. scot., p. 152,
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. 
 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
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. 
 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
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."  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
 De Divisione Naturae, Lib. I, Cap. 71.
Erigena assigns to philosophy a fourfold task: to divide, to
define, to demonstrate, and to analyze (resolutiva).  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.
 Cf. Cath. Univ. Bull., July, 1897 (Vol. III, pp. 338
 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: 
 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
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
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."  It is remarkable how much the first and
most daring of the schoolmen is willing to concede to agnosticism.
 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. 
 Op. cit., Cap. 72.
This pantheism is professed over and over again, as, for
example, "Deus namque omnium essentia est, quia solus vere est,"  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."  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
 Op. cit., Cap. 3.
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.
 Op. cit., I, 3, 7, and II, 1.
Pater, i.e., omnium principium, in Verbo suo, Unigenito videlicit
Filio, omnium rerum rationes quas faciendas esse voluit priusquam res
fierent praeformavit. 
 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
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. 
 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. 
 Schlueter and Görres hold opposite views on this question of
interpretation (cf. Migne, Patr. Lat., Vol. CXXII, col.
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."  He goes on, however, to explain that the creation in this
case consists in a showing forth (theophania) of the divine nature.
 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."  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.  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. 
 Op. cit., I, 1, and IV, 1.
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
 Op. cit., III, 1.
 Op. cit., II, 36.
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. 
 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.  God, who revealed Himself in
creation, will retire within Himself in the final apokatastasis,
or universal return of creature to Creator.
 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.  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.
 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. 
 Cf. commentary on Martianus Capella, apud
Hauréau, op. cit., I, 172, and De Div. Nat.,
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.  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."  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. 
 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. 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. 
 Op. cit., II, 22.
 Cf. op. cit., II, 23.
 Op. cit., II, 27.
Anthropological Doctrines. Man is composed of body and soul:
"Homo autem corpus et anima est."  The soul is a simple
spiritual substance: it is the principle of life. Moreover, the soul
creates the body.
 Op. cit., I, 43.
 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? 
 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."  In fact,
will and intellect are indissolubly associated: "Ubi rationabilitas ibi
necessario libertas." 
 De Praed., Cap. 8, note 2.
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."  This postulate being granted, it was easy for Erigena to
explain the transmission of original sin.
 Ibid., note 5.
 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