Johannes Scotus Eriugena (Raoul Vaneigem – Resistance to Christianity Chapter 28: Philosophy against the Church)

Posted on 2013/10/12


Chapter 28: Philosophy Against the Church: Johannes Scotus Eriugena

Around the middle of the Ninth Century, the theories of Pseudo-Dionysius inspired a philosopher of such brilliant intelligence that he seduced Charles the Bald, who was thenceforth resolved to protect this thinker against all obstacles to his freedom of conception.

Born in Ireland or Scotland around 810, Johannes Scotus Eriugena was around 30 years old when Charles the Bald invited him to teach grammar and dialectics at the palatial school of Quierzy, near Laon. The philosopher’s De praedestinatione, written in 851 at the request of Hincmar, the Bishop of Reims (who was then engaged in a polemic with Gottschalk), drew the condemnation of the Council of Valencia in 855, but without prejudicial consequences for its author.

Charles the Bald begged Eriugena to translate the works of Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor and Pseudo-Dionysius from Greek into Latin. Composed between 862 and 866, and written in the form of a dialogue between master and disciple (a dialogue in which the ideas of Amalric of Bena and David of Dinant were reconciled), Eriugena’s De divisione naturae was condemned in 1210 at the Council of Paris, following the Amalrician agitations. Pope Honorius I ordered the burning of all copies of it in 1225. In 1681, the Oxford edition still merited an entry in the [Inquisitorial] Index. Johannes himself died around 877.

In fact, his system excluded theological speculation. According to his De praedestinatione, “the true philosophy is the true religion and the true religion is the true philosophy.”[3]

“‘Universal nature, he tells us, is divided into four categories: the being who is not created and who creates; the being who is created and who creates; the being who is created and does not create; the being who is not created and does not create. The first and last of these categories are related to God; they are only different in our understanding, following which we consider God to be the principle or the final goal of the world.’[4] Such are the main ideas in his system.

“According to Scotus Eriugena, ‘two intellectual methods lead to God: one by the road of negation (αρνηση), which makes a clean sweep of all our representations of the divinity; the other by the road of affirmation (βεβαιϖση), which applies to God all of our intellectual conceptions, with no exceptions, all of our qualities, and even all of our faults. These two methods, far from being mutually exclusive, form a single method that consists in conceiving of God as the being above all essence, all goodness, all wisdom, and all divinity, as the nothingness inaccessible to intelligence, with respect to which negation is truer than affirmation and which remains unknown to itself.’[4]

“The infinite being reveals himself by means of ‘theophanies,’ that is to say, through the series of creatures who emanate from him. These are accessible to intelligence, ‘in the same way that light, to become perceptible to the eye, must scatter itself into the air.’ It is not by virtue of a movement subject to his nature that God created what exists: ‘to be, to think and to act are confounded for him in a single and self-same state. God created all things, which signifies nothing other than: God is in all things. Of him alone can one say that he exists; the world only exists insofar as it participates in the being of God.’[6]

“‘Mankind finds itself among the supreme causes, an intellectual notion eternally conceived by divine thought. Mankind was made in the image of God and was destined to be the mediator between God and his creatures, the place of union of the creatures in a single and self-same unity. If mankind had not sinned, the division of the sexes would not have been produced: mankind would have remained in the primitive unity of its nature. Moreover, the world would not have been separated in him from paradise, that is to say, he would have spiritually inhabited [it] in the unity of his essence; the heavens and the earth would not have been separated in him, because all of his being would have been heavenly and without any corporeal element. Without the fall, he would have enjoyed the plenitude of being and would have reproduced in the manner of the angels.

“‘Nothing of what exists would have fallen into nothingness; the end of the fall of nature is the departure point for its rising.’[7]

“‘Here-below, mankind possesses in itself two elements that compose universal nature, spirit and matter; he reconciles within himself the two opposed extremities of creation. He is the mediator between God and the world, the point at which all creatures, spiritual as well as material, are brought together in a single unity. Human nature lost nothing of its primitive purity through the fact of the fall; it has conserved it completely. It isn’t in this nature that evil is seated, but in the perverse movements of our free will. Like any primary idea, it enjoys an imperishable beauty; evil only resides in the accident, in individual will. The image of God continues to exist in the human soul.’[8]

“It is through human intelligence that the return of the creation to God takes place. Exterior objects, conceived by us, pass into our nature and united with it. They find in it the first causes, in which they return through the effect of our thought, which glimpses the eternal essence in passing phenomena and identifies itself intellectually with God. Thus the visible creatures go back up with us in God. ‘The Word is the principle and the final goal of the world; at the end of time, it recovers the infinite multiplicity of its own being come back to itself in its original unity,’ or to employ the allegorical language that reduces the facts of Christian revelation to the status of symbols and images of this evolution of the divine being: ‘Christ rose into the heavens in an invisible manner in the hearts of those who elevate themselves to him through contemplation.’[9]

“[‘]Physical death is the beginning of the return of mankind to God. On the one side, matter vanishes without leaving any traces; on the other side, all the divisions successively issued from the divine unity and that co-exist in the human soul return, the one to the other. The first stage of this universal unification is the return of mankind to the primitive state of his nature, such as it existed in heaven, without the division of the sexes. Resurrected Christ preceded us to the paradise of human nature unified with itself, in which all creatures are one.’[10] All men indistinctly return to the unity of human nature, because this nature is the communal property of all. But here a triple distinction is established. Those who were elevated during their lives as high as the contemplation the divine being, will be elevated above the unity of their heavenly nature, to the point of deification; those who did not surpass the ordinary level of terrestrial existence will remain in the state of glorified human nature; and those who yielded to the ‘irrational movements of perverse desire’ will fall into eternal torment, without [any] human nature, which formed the foundation of their being, becoming attained in its ideal bliss through their suffering. Individual consciousness alone will be the seat of suffering.

“‘After the annihilation of this world, there will be no malice, no death, no misery. Divine goodness will absorb malice; eternal life will absorb death; and bliss will absorb misery. Evil will end; it will have no reality in itself because God will not know it.’[10] All of Scotus Eriugena’s treatise on predestination is dedicated to the exposition of this same idea. Eternal suffering is absolutely condemned by the logic of his system.”[12]

[3] J. Scotus Erigina, De pradestinatione, I, 1. [Translator: the long passage full of quotations that follows this remark comes from A. Jundt, Histoire du pantheisme populaire au Moyen Age et au XVI siècle, Strasbourg, 1875. See footnote 12, below.]

[4] J. Scotus Erigina, De divisione naturae, II, 1.

[5] Ibid., II, 19.

[6] Ibid., I, 74.

[7] Ibid., V, 7.

[8] Ibid., II, 5.

[9] Ibid., V, 20.

[10] Ibid., V, 7.

[11] Ibid., V, 25.

[12] A. Jundt, Histoire du panthéisme populaire au Moyen Age et au XVI siècle, Strasbourg, 1875, p. 12. [Translator: Jundt’s conclusion seems unjustified. How can one say, “Eternal suffering is absolutely condemned by the logic of his system” when one has just reported that, “those who delivered themselves to the ‘irrational movements of perverse desire’ will fall into eternal torment”?]

Raoul Vaneigem
Posted in: Philosophy