Johannes Scotus Erigena

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Erigena, Johannes Scotus


(also, Ierugena). Born about 810; died about 877. Medieval philosopher.

Born in Ireland, Johannes Scotus went to France and in the early 840’s attached himself to the court of Charles the Bald, where he was esteemed for his extraordinary erudition. The king’s patronage allowed him to lead the secluded life of a scholar and to remain independent from ecclesiastical demands.

Erigena stood apart from the intellectual trends in the West at that time. He found it impossible to treat the barbarian theologizing of the Western European clergy seriously, and although he respected Augustine his philosophy was alien to him. His true spiritual ground lay in the world of Greek thought: his philosophical creed was the Christianized Platonism and Neoplatonism of the Greek writers Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Maximus the Confessor. (Johannes Scotus was the first to translate the works of the last two into Latin; he also prepared commentaries on them.)

Erigena insisted strongly on the primacy of reason over the authority of religious tradition. He drew no distinction between idealistic speculation and Christian revelation, between philosophy and faith. In his most important work, On the Division of Nature, he extends the pantheistic tendency to the extent that god and the world are joined within the one concept of the existing, or natura, which in its dialectical self-motion passes through four stages: (1) nature that creates and is not created, that is, god as the primordial cause of all things; (2) nature that is created and creates, that is, the Platonic world of ideas within the divine mind; (3) nature that is created and does not create, that is, the world of individual things; and (4) nature that neither creates nor is created, that is, again god but at this point as the end of all things when god will absorb them back into himself at the conclusion of the cosmic process.

Erigena’s understanding of god (radically different from Augustine’s) followed Pseudo-Dionysius’ belief that god was not a person analogous to a human being but a being present in all things and yet transcendent, which cannot be comprehended objectively even by god himself: “God does not know what he is, since he isn’t a ‘what’” (On the Division of Nature 11, 28). Erigena’s doctrine is a consistent idealistic monism: all things come from god and return to god. He rejects the essential reality of evil; for him evil exists only as “nothing,” as its own self-negation. His mystical teachings, whose aim is man’s enlightenment and deification, were in the tradition of Maximus the Confessor and anticipated the German mystic Meister Eckhart. He accepted Plato’s teachings regarding the primacy of the universal over the individual and was one of the founders and most radical representatives of medieval realism. On the whole his grandiose intellectual system was foreign to his epoch, and he did not have any real followers; only in the 13th century were his pantheistic ideas seized upon by heretical thinkers and, at the same time, condemned by the church (for example, at the Paris Council in 1210).

Seen within a general historical framework, Erigena’s philosophical system lies on the line extending from Plato and Ploti-nus through Proclus, Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, and Nicholas of Cusa to German idealism in the late 18th and early 19th century.

In his verse, written in Latin but interspersed with an unusual number of Greek words, Erigena expressed his passionate longing for Greek spirituality and his love for a lonely, self-contained play of the mind.


In Russian translation:
In Antologiia mirovoi filosofii, vol. 1, part 2. Moscow, 1969. Pages 787— 94.
Pamiatniki srednevekovoi latinskoi literatury IV—IX vekov.Moscow, 1970. Pages 358–60.


Brilliantov, A. Vliianie vostochnogo bogosloviia na zapadnoe v proiz-vedeniiakh Ioanna Skota Erigeny.St. Petersburg, 1898.
Isloriia filosofii, vol. 1. Moscow, 1940. (See index of names.)
Dörries, H. Zur Geschichte der Mystik Erigena und des Neoplatonismus. Tubingen, 1925.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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