Scotus (Erigena), John
Scotus (Erigena), John, a very notable philosopher of the Carloylngian period, who reanimated in his own person the long-slighted speculations of the Neo-Platonists, and communicated the impulse which, after two centuries, eventuated in the earnest and brilliant labors of the schoolmen. The age in which Scotus Erigena lived is so distant; it is so obscure and confused, or, at least, presents so little to attract interest in modern times; his works are so unfamiliar and so rare, that his name is little regarded, and his career is seldom deemed worthy of consideration. Indeed, so slight is the general acquaintance with himself and his productions that he is at times confounded with the much later philosopher of somewhat similar name, Duns Scotus (q.v.). Yet John Scotus Erigena was a very remarkable phenomenon for the age in which he appeared. He bisects the long interval between Boethius and William of Champeaux, and is the sole luminary — obscured and soon swallowed up by the gloom which irradiates the darkness of speculation in Western Christendom — during those centuries. There may be little of permanent value in his doctrines; there may have been scarcely any direct influence exercised by them on his own age and on the ages that ensued; there may be a very imperfect appreciation of the philosophy which he revived, remodelled, and transmitted; there may be little profundity when he is compared with his eminent predecessors and his more illustrious successors; but there was great intellectual boldness in his career. There were vigor and originality in his profession and exposition of the elder and almost forgotten doctrines in a dull and declining day. A profound impression was communicated by him to his own and to subsequent times, though it was conveyed by devious and unnoted channels, and through long and strangely disguised modes of transmission. A full and penetrating appreciation of this lonely and memorable dreamer in relation to the creeds, the thoughts, the interests, and the fortunes of his times might throw unexpected light on the history of philosophy and of theology, and even upon the confused struggles — social, political, and intellectual — of the 9th and 10th centuries, the dreariest because the least comprehended period of Christian history.
I. Life. — The origin, and the place and date of birth of John Scotus Erigena are all involved in obscurity and are wholly uncertain. According to one account, he was born on the western borders of England and was of royal Saxon blood. According to another tradition, he came from the western highlands of Scotland, and from the monastic establishments of St. Columba. The generally received opinion, however, is that he was Irish, and acquired his learning in the religious houses of Ireland, which then preserved a higher culture and education than were to be found elsewhere in Western Europe outside of the Saracenic schools in Spain. We may safely acquiesce in M. Guizot's positive declaration that he was of Irish extraction and of Irish training; but this is a conviction, not an established fact. There is conjecture in the conclusion, as well as in M. Guizot's other assumption, that he was called Scorns from his race, and Erigena from his country. Scotus, in the 9th century, meant distinctly an Irishman. Erigena was its Greek equivalent, and may have been adopted by John of Ireland as an Hellenic affectation in consequence of his Greek studies, Greek tastes, and translations from the Greek. It may have been assumed in order to distinguish him from the multitude of other Irish Johns, or Scotch Johns; it may have been conferred in the same spirit in which Alcuin bestowed classical or Scripture names upon Charlemagne and his studious contemporaries. These are only conjectures. Certain knowledge have we none on this subject, or on the place of his birth, or the time of his birth. He is supposed to have been born between 810 and 815; and no grave error will be committed by provisionally accepting the earlier as the correct date. Current rumors in his own day and generation represented him as having acquired his singular and varied knowledge, like the elder Greek sages, by travels in Greece, Asia, Egypt, Italy, and France. Such traditions are unquestionable delusions; but that he did travel extensively is rendered probable by a citation from his works, adduced by M. Guizot, which seems to make distinct reference to such wanderings. The peculiar direction of his studies, the character of his learning, the scheme of his philosophy, his addiction to the Greek and to the Neo-Platonic speculations, might all suggest personal acquaintance with the Greeks and the countries of the Greeks. It has scarcely been noticed that the Pythagorean sect, or, at any rate, the Pythagorean doctrine, in connection with its Neo-Platonic developments, continued to maintain itself, even beyond the 9th century, in Constantinople and in other parts of the Byzantine empire. This is clearly established by the declarations of Anna Comnena; but it escaped the regard of M. Guizot while he was awkwardly endeavoring to trace the dissemination of Neo-Platonic influences from the 5th to the 9th century. Wherever Scotus may have strayed, wherever he may have been educated, nothing is heard of him till he appears at the court of Charles the Bald of France. Whether an exile from his own country, or a pilgrim in search of knowledge or of sustenance, or invited by the king to aid in promoting liberal pursuits, he was cordially welcomed by the monarch, who made a zealous effort in a distracted time to renew the plans of his grandfather Charlemagne for the advancement of learning. Erigena went to Paris, and was placed at the head of the School of the Palace. There is no agreement of opinion in regard to the date of this migration. It is variously assigned to the years 840, 843, 847, 850, and 870. It could not well have been before 843, when Charles ascended the throne. It could not have been later than 850, when the controversy in regard to Gottschalk was raging. Scotus Erigena would be between thirty and forty, probably, at the time. We have little information in regard to his personal appearance. He was small in stature and slender in frame; but the physical deficiencies which would invite only contempt in that muscular age were compensated by the brilliancy of his mind, the amiability of his temperament, and the quickness of his wit in social intercourse. The French king became warmly attached to him, and made him his constant companion and intimate friend. Charles was himself devoted to letters. He invited teachers from other countries, and is said to have attracted many Greeks to his schools. Employment was found for Erigena beyond the Cathedra Palatina. He was requested by the king to translate a treatise On the Celestial Hierarchy, falsely ascribed to Dionysius the Areopagite, who was just as erroneously identified with St,. Denys, the supposed apostle of Christianity at Paris. The works of the alleged Areopagite had been sent in 824, by the Greek emperor Michael the Stutterer, as a present to the Frank emperor Louis le Debonnaire. They were held in high regard in France — not the less high because they were Greek and unintelligible. John Scotus complied with the king's request and translated the book into Latin, adhering, however, so closely to the words of his foreign text as to indicate that the knowledge which he had of the Greek, as of the Hebrew and Arabic, was neither elegant nor profound. His reputation, or his position in the king's favor, drew the regards of Hinemar, archbishop of Rheims, who was involved in the controversy respecting predestination between Ra-banns Maurus, of Mentz, and Gottschalk. The archbishop requested John to refute the polemic of Gott-schalk. This task was executed with zeal, but it laid him open to the charge of heresy and provoked fresh logomachy. His polemic was denounced by Prudentius of Troyes and Florus of Lyons, who invited the censures of the Church on nineteen propositions corresponding to the nineteen chapters of the essay De Praedestinatione. We shall not enter into the nice distinctions of the different species of predestination, which lead, by so many slightly divergent routes, to heresy. The controversialists, like "the infernal peers,"
"Reason'd high Of providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate; Fix'd fate, free-will, foreknowledge absolute; And found no end, in wandering mazes lost."
The master of the Palatine School added to his version of The Celestial Hierarchy translations of the other works credited to Dionysius the Areopagite. At some subsequent time he completed his own system of philosophy under the title De Divisione Naturae, or, rather, with the Greek designation Περὶ φυσικῆς μερισμοῦ. The controversial tracts of John had raised up antagonists and enemies; his philosophical tenets occasioned perplexity and alarm. Pope Nicholas, in 867, complained to Charles the Bald that works of doubtful tendency — the versions of Dionysius Areopagita — had been promulgated by John Scotus without having been first submitted to the approval of the apostolic see. He required the king, therefore, to send Scotus to Rome to explain and justify his procedure, or, at least, to dismiss him from the superintendence of the Palatine School.
The king's action is unknown: silentium tegit altum. That he did anything is improbable; but Scotus Erigena drops almost entirely out of view after 867. He is sometimes said to have withdrawn into seclusion in France. He is otherwise said to have returned to England after the death of Charles, and to have been placed by king Alfred at the head of his new school at Oxford, whence he was driven by the commotions of the students. According to Matthew of Westminster and Roger de Hoveden, he was intrusted with the school at the monastery of Meldun, where, having enraged his pupils by his severity, he was murdered by them with their styles (stilettos). This last story has, however, been transferred to the philosopher from another and somewhat later Joannes Scotus, who taught at Athelney. John Erigena seems to have ended his days in France, and to have died before 876. A letter written in that year to Charles the Bald by Anastasius Bibliothecarius speaks of him as if he were dead. He passed away like a bright meteor flashing through the midnight darkness, visible only in a brief transit, undiscoverable in its earlier and in its later course.
II. Works. — The principal works of Scotus Erigena — the works which gave him reputation and provoked censure — have been already mentioned, and will have to be noticed again in examining his doctrine. Several other tractates were written by him, or have been assigned to him. We cannot determine the dates or the sequence of his intellectual labors. His translations were probably communicated, in their progress, to the circle of curious inquirers with whom he was associated in the royal court, and might thus become partially known long before their completion. There was no such definite chronology in respect to literary productions in the days of manuscript as has been usual since the introduction of printing. We cannot, therefore, arrange the works of Erigena according to any chronological scheme. He translated all the works of the alleged Areopagite: The Celestial Hierarchy : — The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy : — The Book of the Divine Names: — The Mystical Theology : — and his Ten Letters. Some of these may have been previously rendered into Latin. He translated the Scholia of Maximus on the writings of Dionysius. He composed a tractate On the Eucharist, in which he denied the dogma of the real presence, and anticipated the position of Ralph Cudworth, that the sacrament of the Lord's supper is only a commemoration of his sacrifice: tantum memorla veri corporis et sanguinis ejus. It is not obvious how this opinion is consistent with the realistic or the pantheistic character of the philosophy of Scotus, but its coherence may be detected. Erigena is said to have left behind him a work On the Vision of God, and other disputations, which have been lost. The reveries of Plotinus, and the revery upon reveries of Marcilius Ficinus, might enable us to recompose some image of the theory of the Vision of God if we could imitate the German fashion of reconstructing the unknown out of our inner consciousness. A treatise On the Duties of Man was ascribed to him by the abbot Trithemius, and several other productions have been attributed to him with little reason.
III. Philosophy. — It is not proposed to enter further into the theological positions of Erigena than may be necessary to show their relations to his speculative doctrine and to interpret it, or to be interpreted by it. There is a close correspondence between his theology and his philosophy, as must always be the case when different lines of thought are pursued by the same person with earnestness and sincerity. Moreover, the distinctive character of any philosophical doctrine is easily and briefly determined, notwithstanding variety of manifestations and multiplicity of details, by detecting the fundamental or cardinal principle, which must control those manifestations and details if there be honesty of purpose and consecution of thought. Such a principle may be readily discerned in the tenets of Scotus Edgena and in their developments. The essential unity of the divine nature is his central dogma, whence everything proceeds, and whence arises his heterodoxy in regard to the Trinity. Whether he reached this position by independent reflection, or deduced it from logical postulates, or derived it from Nee-Platonic suggestions, or from all sources unconsciously combined, this seems to be the prolific germ of his whole system. He distinctly acknowledges his obligation to Dionysius; yet the obligation was not one of servile acceptance, but of original development. However the spirit may be disguised under hard dialectical forms and under derivative arguments and phrases, there is a genuine and vigorous originality in John Scotus which is evinced in many ways. The unity of the divine nature is his point of departure. Hence, all things proceed from God; all things subsist in God; all things terminate in God. The procedure of Erigena is this, and it gives the title to his work On the Division of Nature. The generic division of nature is fourfold:
(1) the nature that creates and is not created; (2) the nature that is created and creates; (3) the nature that is created, but does not create; (4) the nature which is neither created nor creates.
It will be observed that there is a gradual and delusive sliding of meanings in the application of the slippery, and perplexing word "nature," and that the term cannot be strictly applied to that which is not created; therefore neither to the first nor to the fourth genus. It is necessary to note this, as the errors and heresies charged upon Erigena are in part due to the insufficiency and indistinctness of all language — defects which he strenuously asserts himself. Turning to his four divisions, it is obvious that the nature which creates and is not created is the divinity; but the divinity as an abstract conception, a metaphysical entity, the Nee-Platonic Unum or Unitas, not a personal God: that the nature which is created but creates is also a vague abstraction, but must mean the forces, or laws, or ideas regulating all secondary creation — operating, therefore, simply by the impulse and constraint of their Creator: that the nature which is created but does not create is the only one which corresponds with the ordinary conception of the term, and signifies the concrete result of the action of the laws imposed and of the forces communicated by the Supreme Nature — sustained, therefore, by him, and subsisting in him because supported by his laws and by his continuous action; and that the nature which neither creates nor is created is a nonentity, an unknown and indefinable potentiality, possible hut unimaginable — the impalpable and inapprehensible which lies beyond the present sphere of the existent or of the conceivable. This fourth nature might be altogether rejected, but it would make a fatal breach in this rarefied scheme Of philosophy. Erigena justifies and pro-rides for it in his first and most general division of things — -into those which are and those which are not. There is a very marked Erigenism, or Hibernicism, in the second category. It is necessary, however, to the doctrine; for he declares that even God is, in a certain sense, non-existent. He is, and he is not. Absurd and blasphemous as such a proposition appears, it finds a parallel, as M. Caraman points out, in a similar utterance by Fenelon. What is meant is simply, as the context in both cases reveals, that all language is inadequate — all known qualities, perfections, characteristics, terms, im- proper-for the definition of the Divinity; that beyond all utterance, beyond all imagination, is everything appertaining to the Divine Essence. So far as this perfect nature lies without the apprehensible realm of the created and of the uncreated, it is for us non-existent, since ease and scire are one and correlative. There may be extravagance of conception and exaggeration of expression in such a thesis, but it is not necessarily either irreverent or absurd in its import. The fourth nature, then, as it is only in posse, belongs to the Divine Nature, or to the yet unmanifested operations of its reserved will and power.
The tendency of this quadrifid nature is evidently to pantheism, if it is not already pantheistic. The tendency is apparently pressed to its consummation in the development of the scheme, which is controlled in form and in statement by the text of Dionysius and the spirit of Neo- Platonism. Hence flow these tenets: "God, who alone truly exists, is the essence of all things; as Dionysius the Areopagite says, ' God is the beginning, the middle, and the end: the beginning, because all things come from him and participate in his essence; the middle, because all things subsist in him and by him; the end, because all things move towards him to attain repose, the limit of their motion, and the stability of his perfection,'" etc. "Nothing subsists outside of the Divine Nature; it alone properly and truly exists in all things, and nothing properly and truly exists which it is not .... Creation is the procession of God through primordial causes to the invisible and visible effects of such causation .... Matter is only apparent; there is no real substance but the Divine Essence." It is not surprising that Scotus Erigena has been frequently regarded as the precursor of Spinoza, though Brucker distinguishes between the pantheism of the former and the atheism which he erroneously attributes to the latter.
If the language which Scorns employed is received literally; if the phraseology which he borrows from Neo-Platonic sources or from the shaping influences of Neo-Platonic mysticism is alone considered, it is impossible to regard his philosophy as anything else but pantheism. His writings were, of course, accepted literally by his contemporaries so far as they were understood. The hazardous consequences of his doctrine were the more readily apprehended, as certain explicit dogmas were obviously at variance with the teachings of the Church, such as the denial of transubstantiation and the subordination of authority to reason. That such should be the censure of the 9th century is much more pardonable than that metaphysicians of the 19th should rarely see in The Division of Nature anything but crude and unmitigated pantheism. Crude it is not, for it is characterized throughout by acute penetration and vigorous thought. Unmitigated it is not, for there is a cautious asseveration of the restrictions and impotency of the human mind and of language. The Divine Nature, in regard to which he boldly speculates, is declared by him to be unutterable, ineffable, incomprehensible, superessential, supersubstantial, superdivine. In his struggles to grasp the inapprehensible, he invents terms transcending all human appreciation, like a Byzantine emperor devising titles of hypersuperlative dignity. Some palliation may be offered even for the apparent pantheism, which is, perhaps, more in the framework and phraseology of the doctrine — in the inevitable vagueness of the expression — than in the actual contemplation of the author. It must, indeed, be acknowledged that all inaccuracies or imbecilities of language react upon those from whom they proceed, modify all subsequent deductions, and infect the mind of the propounder without his cognizance and contrary to his design. But, while the immediate and derivative consequences of such aberrations should be fully recognised, they should be treated as aberrations, and, therefore, as undesigned. Such tenderness of consideration is merited by Scotus Erige-ha, an earnest thinker, and the first original thinker in philosophy in mediaeval Christendom, when the materials of thought and the materials: Of expression were as yet loose and indeterminate. Examining the De Divisione Naturae with the caution and reservations which such tenderness prescribes, it may be conjectured that, when Erigena speaks of God being all things and of all things being God, he really means little more than is implied in the Scripture phrase:" in whom we live, and move, and have our being ;" that when he speaks of all things proceeding from God, and of all things returning to him, he does not intend to assert the mere evolution of Deity into shifting phenomenal forms, or the reabsorption into his essence of the emanations which have streamed out from his nature, but only that the divine power of creation, in its eternal operation, accompanies all the developments of creation and attends the latest modes of change. Erigena asseverates creation throughout; he does not identify the Divinity with created forms, nor does he deny the separable character of such forms in any of their stages. These views are inconsistent with intentional pantheism. These considerations can, however, only be suggested, not explained or developed.
The absolute and transcendental perfection of the Divine Nature, which was regarded as indwelling in all derivative existence, led Erigena to deny the eternity of punishments. In the same manner maybe explained his anticipation of the doctrine of Leibnitz, that evil is not a positive entity, but only the privation of good. To the same principle may alto be referred his position in regard to predestination, which repudiated predestination to damnation.
Much of the questionable doctrine of Scotus Erlgena sprang from his dialectical procedure. Following Aristotle, but imperfectly understanding him, he regarded division as the highest function of philosophy. Hence came the title-and the treatment of his principal work. Haureau pointed out his identification of the degrees of abstraction with the grades of existence, and Ueberweg charges him with "hypostatizing the Tabula Logics.' There is some truth in these charges, but they must not be pressed too far. It is, however, to this predominance of the dialectical procedure; to the conjunction of reason with authority; to the co-ordination of philosophy and theology; to the formal statement and refutation of objections; and to the array Of scriptural, patristic, and other testimonies in support of his conclusions, that Scotus Erigena owes his title to be considered the precursor of the schoolmen. He also furnishes the prelude to the great controversy between the Realists and Nominalists by his doctrine of ideas and his qualified realism.
IV. Influence. — M. Gnizot conceives that the influence of Scotus Erigena died with him. This is true in respect to his direct and ostensible influence, which was scarcely noticeable even in the maturity of his career. He was outside of his age. Deep night and the obscuration of all philosophical inquiry followed his disappearance from the scene. But he had awakened reflection, though soon diverted into other currents. He had scattered seeds which lay dormant, not dead, in the soil. The impulse communicated by him must have been obscurely transmitted to other times, since pope Honorius III, in 1225 — nearly four hundred years later — deemed it expedient to fulminate a pontifical censure against the Division of Nature. This was during the Albigensian crusades, when the pope ordered diligent search to be made for the work, and the burning of such copies as might be found. To this cause its extreme rarity may be referred.
V. Authorities. — There has been no collected edition of the works of John Scotus Erigena. His several works have been published separately, at different times. The first edition of the De Divisione Naturae was edited by (gale (Oxon. 1681, fol.). It has since been edited by Schluter (Munster, 1838), and by Floss (Paris, 1853), in Migne's Bibliotheca. M. Guizot stated that he had been unable to find the De Divisione Naturae in any of the libraries of Paris. He acknowledges the kindness shown him in searching for it. His inquiries in England had been attended with like disappointment, He remarks that, "many foreign writers who have spoken of this work have not had it before them any more than myself in its entire state. Of this they ought to have made their readers aware," as we now do, ex parte nostra, in regard to the complete texts of Erigena.
Notices, more or less comprehensive and satisfactory, are to be found in Pagi, Crit. ad Annul. Baronii, Ann. 850-51; Brucker, Hist. Crit. Philosophiae, 3, 614-625; Hjort, Johann Scotus Erigena, etc. (Copenhagen, 1823); Staudenmaier, Johannes Scotus Erigena (Frankf. 1834); Saint-Rend Taillandier, Scot Erigene, etc. (Paris, 1843); id. Erigene et la Philos. Schol. (Strasb. 1843); Moller, Job. Scotus Erigena (Mayence, 1844); Caraman, Hist. des Rev. de 1a PhiIosophie, etc. (Paris); Christlieb, Leben u. Lehre des Jail. Scot. Erigena (Gotha, 1860); Hermens, Das Leben des Scotus Erigena (Jena, 1868); Schmid, Der Mysticismus des Mittelalters (ibid. 1824); Ampere, Hist. Litt. de France, tome 3, s.v.; Guizot, Hist. de la Civ. en France, leg. 39. (G. F. H.)