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Dear visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.

John Scotus Eriugena

Ninth-century Irish teacher, theologian, philosopher, and poet,

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Eriugena, JOHN SCOTUS, an Irish teacher, theologian, philosopher, and poet, who lived in the ninth century.

NAME.—Eriugena’s contemporaries invariably refer to him as Joannes Scottus or Joannes Scottigena. In the MSS. of the tenth and subsequent centuries the forms Eriugena, Ierugena, and Erigena occur. Of these, the oldest and most acceptable, philologically, is Eriugena, which, as it was perhaps sometimes written Eriygena, was changed into Erigena. It means “a native of Ireland“. The form Ierugena is evidently an attempt to connect the first part of the name with the Greek word lepbs, and means “a native of the Island of Saints”; the combination Joannes Scotus Erigena cannot be traced beyond the sixteenth century.

BIRTHPLACE.—At one time the birthplace of Eriugena was a matter of dispute. Eriuven in Wales and Ayre in Scotland claimed the honor, and each found advocates. Nowadays, however, the claim of Ireland to be considered the birthplace of John is universally admitted. All the evidence points that way, and leads us to conclude that when his contemporaries tauntingly referred to his having come to France from Ireland they meant not only that he was educated in the Isle of Saints but also that Ireland was his birthplace. Whatever doubt there may have been about the meaning of Scotus, there can be none as to the signification of the surname Eriugena.

LIFE.—What is known of the life of Eriugena is very soon told. About 847 he appeared in France at the court of Charles the Bald, was received with special favor by that prince, appointed head of the palace school, which seems to have had some kind of permanent location at Paris, and was commissioned by his royal patron to translate the works of Pseudo-Dionysius into Latin. This translation brought him into prominence in the world of letters and was the occasion of his entering into the theological controversies of the day, especially into those concerning predestination and the Eucharist. His knowledge of Greek is evident from his translations, and is also proved by the poems which he wrote. It is doubtful, on the other hand, whether he possessed the knowledge of Hebrew and other Oriental languages which is sometimes ascribed to him. In any case there is no evidence of his having travelled extensively in Greece and Asia Minor. After leaving Ireland he spent the rest of his days in France, probably at Paris and Laon. There was, as we know from the MSS., an important colony of Irish scholars at the latter place. The tradition that after the death of Charles the Bald he went to England at the invitation of Alfred the Great, that he taught a school at Malmesbury, and was there put to death by his pupils, has no support in contemporary documents and may well have arisen from some confusion of names on the part of later historians. It is probable that he died in France, but the date is unknown. From the evidence available it is impossible to determine whether he was a cleric or a layman, although it is difficult to deny that the general conditions of the time make it more than probable that he was a cleric and perhaps a monk.

WRITINGS.—1. Translations of the works of Pseudo-Dionysius: “De Coelesti Hierarchiae”; “De Ecclesiasticae Hierarchiae” “De Divinis Nominibus”; “De Mysticae Theologiae”; “Epistolae”; translations of the “Ambigua” of St. Maximus.—2. Commentaries: “Homilia in prologum S. Evangelii sec. Joannem”, and a commentary on the Gospel of St. John, of which a few fragments only have come down to us; commentaries on the “Celestial Hierarchy” and the “Ecclesiastical Hierarchy” of Pseudo-Dionysius; glosses on the work of Martianus Capella (still in MS.), and on the theological opuscula of Boethius (Rand ed., Munich, 1906), with which is connected a brief “Life” of Boethius (Pieper ed., “Consolatio Philos.”, Leipzig, 1871).—3. Theological works: “Liber de Praedestinatione”, and very probably a work on the Eucharist, though it is certain that the tract “De Corpore et Sanguine Domini”, at one time believed to be Eriugena’s, is the work of Paschasius Radbertus.—4. Philosophical works: “De Divisione Naturae”, his principal work, and a treatise, “De Egressu et Regressu Animae ad Deum”, of which we possess only a few fragments.—5. Poems: These are written partly in Latin and partly in Greek. Many of them are dedicated to Charles the Bald. The most complete edition of Eriugena’s works is that of Dr. Floss, which is printed as Vol. CXXII of Migne’s P.L. A new edition embodying the results of recent discoveries of manuscripts is often spoken of, and will doubtless be forthcoming before long.

DOCTRINES.—Although the errors into which Eriugena fell both in theology and in philosophy were many and serious, there can be no doubt that he himself abhorred heresy, was disposed to treat the heretic with no small degree of harshness (as is evident from his strictures on Gotteschalk), and all through his life believed himself an unswervingly loyal son of the Church. Taking for granted the authenticity of the works ascribed to Dionysius the Areopagite, he considered that the doctrines he discovered in them were not only philosophically true, but also theologically acceptable, since they carried with them the authority of the distinguished Athenian convert of St. Paul. He did not for a moment suspect that in those writings he had to deal with a loosely articulated system of thought in which Christian teachings were mingled with the tenets of a subtle but profoundly anti-Christian pantheism. To this remark should be added another in order that we may fully understand Eriugena’s attitude towards orthodoxy. He was accused by his contemporaries of leaning too much towards the Greeks. And, in fact, the Greek Fathers were his favorite authors, especially Gregory the Theologian, and Basil the Great. Of the Latins he prized Augustine most highly. The influence of these on the temperament of the venturesome Celt was towards freedom and not towards restraint in theological speculation. This freedom he reconciled with his respect for the teaching authority of the Church as he understood it. However, in the actual exercise of the freedom of speculation which he allowed himself, he fell into many errors which are incompatible with orthodox Christianity.

The “De Proedestinatione” seems to have been written after the translation of the works of Pseudo-Dionysius. Nevertheless there is in it only one allusion to the authority of the Greek Fathers and very little of the obtrusion of Greek words and phrases which so abound in the later works. It deals with the problem raised by Gotteschalk regarding the doctrine of predestination, and, more specifically, undertakes to prove that predestination is single, not double—in other words, that there is no predestination to sin and punishment but only to grace and eternal happiness. The authority of Augustine is used very extensively. In the philosophical setting of the problem, however, namely, the discussion of the true nature of evil—Eriugena appears to go back farther than St. Augustine and to hold the radical neo-Platonic view that evil is non-existent. He is thus compelled to go even farther than St. Augustine in rejecting the doctrine of a double predestination. That he exceeded the bounds of orthodoxy is the contention of Prudentius of Troyes and Florus of Lyons who answered the “Liber de Praedestinatione” in works full of bitter personal attacks on Eriugena. Their views prevailed in the Councils of Valencia (855) and Langres (859), in which Eriugena’s doctrine was condemned.

While the “De Corpore et Sanguine Domini” is not Eriugena’s, though ascribed to him, there can be no doubt that in some work, now lost, on that subject he maintained doctrines at variance with the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation. From the fragment which has come down to us of his commentary on St. John we infer that he held the Eucharist to be merely a type or figure. At least he insists on the spiritual, to the exclusion, apparently, of the physical, “eating of the Flesh of the Son of Man“.

In the “De Divisione Naturoe”, his most important and systematic work, Eriugena treats in the form of a dialogue the principal problems of philosophy and theology. The meaning of the title is evident from the opening sentences in which he outlines the plan of the work. “Nature“, he says, “is divided into four species”: (I) “Nature which creates and is not created”—this is God, the Source and Principle of all things; (2) “Nature which is created and creates”—this is the world of primordial causes or (Platonic) ideas; (3) “Nature which is created and does not create”—this is the world of phenomena, the world of contingent, sense-perceived things; (4) “Nature which neither creates nor is created”—this is God, the Term to which all things are returning.

(I) “Nature“, then, is synonymous with reality, and also with God. For, whatever reality the world of ideas and the world of phenomena possess, is, in the truest and most literal sense, the reality of God Himself. “The being of all things is the over-being of God” (esse omnium est superesse Divinitatis) is a saying which he never tires of quoting from the works of Pseudo-Dionysius. So supremely perfect is the essence of the Divinity that God is incomprehensible not only to us but also to Himself. For if He knew Himself in any adequate sense He should place Himself in some category of thought, which would be to limit Himself. God is above all categories. When, therefore, we speak about Him we are safer in using the negative (apophatike) than the positive (kataphatike) mode of predication. That is, we are safer in predicating what He is not than in venturing to predicate what He is. If we have recourse to positive predication, we must use the prefix hyper and say God is hypersubstantia, i.e. more-than-substance, etc. Similarly, when we say that God is the “Creator” of all things we should understand that predicate in a sense altogether distinct from the meaning which we attach to the predicate “maker” or “producer” when applied to finite agents or causes. The “creation” of the world is in reality a theophania, or showing forth of the Essence of God in the things created. Just as He reveals Himself to the mind and the soul in higher intellectual and spiritual truth, so He reveals Himself to the senses in the created world around us. Creation is, therefore, a process of unfolding of the Divine Nature, and if we retain the word Creator in the sense of “one who makes things out of nothing”, we must understand that God “makes” the world out of His own Essence, which, because of its incomprehensibility, may be said to be “nothing”.

(2) Nature in the second sense, “Nature which creates and is created”, is the world of primordial causes, or ideas, which the Father “created” in the Son, and which in turn” create”, that is determine the generic and specific natures of concrete visible things. These, says Eriugena, were called “prototypes”, theia thelemata, and “ideas”, by the Greeks. Their function is that of exemplar and efficient causes. For since they are, though created, identical with God, and since their locus is the Word of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, they are operative causes and not merely static types. They are coeternal with the Word of God. From this, however, it is not necessary to infer, as some critics have done, that according to Eriugena the primordial causes are identical with the Word. As examples of primordial causes Eriugena enumerates goodness, wisdom, intuition (insight), understanding, virtue, greatness, power, etc. These are united in God, partly separate or scattered in the Word, and fully separate or scattered in the world of phenomena. For there is underlying all Eriugena’s doctrine of the origin of things the image to which he often referred, namely, that of a circle, the radii of which are united at the center. The center is God, the radii at a point near the center are the primordial causes, the radii at the circumference are phenomena.

These phenomena are “Nature” in the third sense, “which is created and does not create”. The stream of reality, setting out from the center, God, passing through the ideas in the Word, passes next through all the genera suprema, media, and infima of logic, then enters the region of number and the realm of space and time, where the ideas become subject to multiplicity, change, imperfection, and decay. In this last stage they are no longer pure ideas but only the appearances of reality, that is phenomena. In the region of number the ideas become angels, pure incorporeal spirits. In the realm of space and time the ideas take on the burden of matter, which is the source of suffering, sickness, and sin. The material world, therefore, of our experience is composed of ideas clothed in matter—here Eriugena attempts a reconciliation of Platonism with Aristotelean notions. Man, too, is composed of idea and matter, soul and body. He is the culmination of the process of things from God, and with him, as we shall see, begins the process of return of all things to God. He is the image of the Trinity in so far as he unites in one soul being, wisdom, and love. In the state of innocence in which he was created, he was perfect in body as well as in soul, independent of bodily needs, and without differentiation of sex. The dependence of man’s mind on the body and the subjection of the body to the world of sense, as well as the distinction of male and female in the human kind, are all the results of original sin. This downward tendency of the soul towards the conditions of animal existence has only one remedy, Divine grace. By means of this heavenly gift man is enabled to rise superior to the needs of the sensuous body, to place the demands of reason above those of bodily appetite, and from reason to ascend through contemplation to ideas, and thence by intuition to God Himself. The three faculties here alluded to as reason, contemplation, and intuition are designated by Eriugena as internal sense (dianoia), ratiocination (logos), and intellect (nous). These are the three degrees of mental perfection which man must attain if he is to free himself from the bondage into which he was cast by sin, and attain that union with God in which salvation consists.

(4) Not only man, however, but everything else in nature is destined to return to God. This universal resurrection of nature is the subject of the last portion of Eriugena’s work, in which he treats of “Nature which neither creates nor is created”. This is God, the final Term, or Goal, of all existence. When Christ became man, He took on Himself body, soul, senses, and intellect, and when, ascending into Heaven, He took these with Him, not only the soul of man but his senses, his body, the animal and the vegetative natures, and even the elements were redeemed, and the final return of all things to God was begun. Nov, as Heraclitus taught, the upward and the downward ways are the same. The return to God proceeds in the inverse order through all the steps which marked the downward course, or process of things from God. The elements become light, light becomes life, life becomes sense, sense becomes reason, reason becomes intellect, intellect becomes ideas in Christ, the Word of God, and through Christ returns to the oneness of God from which all the processes of nature began. This “incorporation” in Christ takes place by means of Divine grace in the Church, of which Christ is the invisible head. The doctrine of the final return of all things to God shows very clearly the influence of Origen. In general, the system of thought just outlined is a combination of neo-Platonic mysticism, emanationism, and pantheism which Eriugena strove in vain to reconcile with Aristotelean empiricism, Christian creationism, and theism. The result is a body of doctrines loosely articulated, in which the mystic and idealistic elements predominate, and in which there is much that is irreconcilable with Catholic dogma.

INFLUENCE.—Eriugena’s influence on the theological thought of his own and immediately subsequent generations was doubtless checked by the condemnations to which his doctrines of predestination and of the Eucharist were subjected in the Councils of Valencia (855), Langres (859), and Vercelli (1050). The general trend of his thought, so far as it was discernible at the time of his translations of Pseudo-Dionysius, was referred to with suspicion in a letter addressed by Pope Nicholas I to Charles the Bald in 859. It was not, however, until the beginning of the thirteenth century that the pantheism of the “De Divisione Naturae” was formally condemned. The Council of Paris (1225) coupled the condemnation of Eriugena’s work with the previous condemnations (1210) of the doctrines of Amalric of Chartres and David of Dinant, and there can be no doubt that the pantheists of that time were using Eriugena’s treatise. While the great Scholastic teachers, Abelard, Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas, and Albert the Great knew nothing, apparently, of Eriugena and his pantheism, certain groups of mystical theologians, even as early as the thirteenth century, were interested in his work and drew their doctrines from it. The Albigenses, too, sought inspiration from him. Later, the Mystics, especially Meister Eckhart, were influenced by him. And in recent times the great transcendental idealists, especially the Germans, recognize in him a kindred spirit and speak of him in the highest terms.


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