John Scottus Eriugena

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John Scottus Eriugena was a ninth-century Irish writer in Latin on theology and philosophy known for his rare ability in that era of the West to translate Greek patristic writings into Latin, as well as for a philosophy of nature that has had influence on current environmental philosophy. His translation works included texts by St. Dionysius the Areopagite and St. Maximus the Confessor. His masterpiece, the Periphyseon, attempted a synthesis between Latin and Greek Fathers on issues of cosmology and soteriology. Long labeled a heretic and pantheist or proto-Scholastic by Roman Catholic scholars, and kept out of the community of patristic writers by 20th-century scholars of the Orthodox diaspora, more recent studies have recognized his alleged heresy and eccentricity in the West as a reflection of his likely early Irish monastic educational background combined with his involvement with the Greek Fathers. His approach recently has been called one of "energeia entis," a focus on the "energy of being," an experiential sense of noetic life rooted in Orthodoxy, rather than the later Roman Catholic Scholastic "analogia entis," or emphasis on Creation as a conceptualizable analogy to the divine. His definition of Nature as a mystery incorporating "that which is" and "that which is not" highlights what has been described as his iconographic view of Creation, in a theophanic cosmology paralleling Orthodox teachings on the uncreated energies of God. For such recent Orthodox scholarly reflections on Eriugena, see the sources listed under "further reading" at the end of this article.

Although much of his work was done in Carolingian school and court environments, he likely received his Greek education in Irish monastic contexts, and according to later accounts (viewed skeptically by many modern historians but difficult either to prove or disprove) he became abbot of a monastic community at Malmesbury in his last years, after being summoned to Anglo-Saxon England by King Alfred the Great to help with the establishment of Oxford University. William of Malmesbury wrote of how Eriugena was stabbed to death by the pens of disgruntled students, although this also has been interpreted as use of a symbolic trope derived from the life of an early martyr, St. Cassias of Imola, killed by apostates. Such a purported end could resonate with Eriugena's position as perhaps the last prominent Orthodox writer on theology in the West, given later Roman Catholic Church strictures on his work as heretical and accusations against him in his own time alleging that he was Semi-Pelagian or worse. His early cosmopolitan milieu of ascetic monasticism combined with scholarly scriptoria around the Irish Sea, expressing parallels and connections with the Byzantine East and especially the desert fathers, was by Willliam of Malmesbury's era seemingly an ancient lost world amid the expansion of Norman religious establishments in the British Isles.

Eriugena's Periphyseon today is considered by some both the last great Orthodox writing of the medieval West and also the last great work of ancient philosophy in Latin, and as a potential non-modern Christian bridge between the contemporary West and Orthodox intellectual life. His persona lingers on in perhaps the best joke to survive from the Latin Early Middle Ages.


The spelling "Eriugena" is perhaps the most suitable surname form as he himself uses it in one manuscript. It means 'Ireland (Ériu)-born'. 'Scottus' in the Middle Ages was the Latin term for "Irish or Gaelic", so his name translates as "John, the Irish-born Gael." The spelling 'Scottus' has the authority of the early manuscripts until perhaps the 11th century. Occasionally he is also named 'Scottigena' ("Scot-born") in the manuscripts. He is not to be confused with the later philosopher John Duns Scotus.


Johannes Scotus Eriugena was an Irishman, educated in Ireland. He moved to France (about 845) and took over the Palatine Academy at the invitation of Carolingian King Charles the Bald. He succeeded Alcuin of York (735–804) as head of the Palace School.[1] The reputation of this school, part of the Carolingian Renaissance, seems to have increased greatly under Eriugena's leadership, and the philosopher himself was treated with indulgence by the king. Whereas Alcuin was a schoolmaster rather than a philosopher, Eriugena was a noted Greek scholar, a skill which, though rare at that time in Western Europe, was used in the learning tradition of Early and Medieval Ireland, as evidenced by the use of Greek script in medieval Irish manuscripts.[1] He remained in France for at least thirty years, and it was almost certainly during this period that he wrote his various works.

The latter part of his life is unclear. There is a story that in 882 he was invited to Oxford by Alfred the Great, laboured there for many years, became abbot at Malmesbury, and was stabbed to death by his pupils with their styli. Whether this is to be taken literally or figuratively is not clear,[2] and some scholars think it may refer to some other Johannes.[3] The date of his death is generally given as 877.[4] From the evidence available, it is impossible to determine whether he was a cleric or a layman; the general conditions of the time make it likely that he was a cleric and perhaps a monk.


His work is largely based upon Blessed Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, and the Cappadocian Fathers. While labeled Neoplatonist by some modern scholars, allowing for his cosmpolitan sources his writings can be placed in the context of patristic incarnational yet apophatic Christian works. The first of the works known to have been written by Eriugena during this period was a treatise on the Eucharist, which has not survived. In it he seems to have advanced the doctrine that the Eucharist was merely symbolical or commemorative, an opinion for which Berengar of Tours was at a later date censured and forced to burn Eriugena's treatise, yet this all may relate to an emphasis on the Eucharist as a mystery rather than a sacramental object, related to Eriugena's Greek sources. So far as we can learn, however, Eriugena was considered orthodox and a few years later was selected by Hincmar, archbishop of Reims, to defend the doctrine of liberty of will against the extreme predestinarianism of the monk Gottschalk (Gotteschalchus). Many in the Church opposed Gottschalk's position because it denied the inherent value of good works. The treatise De divina praedestinatione composed for this occasion has been preserved, and it was probably from its content that Eriugena's orthodoxy became suspect because of his emphasis on synergy rather than predestinarianism in soteriology.[1]The work was warmly assailed by Drepanius Florus, canon of Lyons, and Prudentius, and was condemned by two councils: that of Valence in 855, and that of Langres in 859. By the former council his arguments were described as Pultes Scotorum ("Irish porridge") and commentum diaboli ("an invention of the devil"). Eriugena believed that all people and all beings, including animals, reflect attributes of God, towards whom all are capable of progressing and to which all things ultimately must return, echoing St. Gregory of Nyssa. But Eriugena despite the speculative nature of his style did seem to reflect the Orthodox position that some would be condemned to suffering in the same divine energies of love after death that would be a blessing to others, depending on how they had lived their lives.

Translation of Dionysian corpus

In the 820s ambassadors from the Byzantine emperor to the court of Louis the Pious donated Louis a Greek manuscript of the Dionysian corpus, which was immediately given to the Abbey of Saint Denis in the care of Abbot Hilduin. Hilduin proceeded to direct a translation of the Dionysian corpus from Greek into Latin, based on this single manuscript.[5] Soon after, probably by the middle of the ninth century, Eriugena made a second Latin translation of the Dionysian corpus, and much later wrote a commentary on "The Celestial Hierarchy". This constitutes the first major Latin reception of the Areopagite. It is unclear why Eriugena made a new translation so soon after Hilduin's. It has often been suggested that Hilduin's translation was deficient; though this is a possibility, it was a serviceable translation. Another possibility is that Eriugena's creative energies and his inclination toward Greek theological subjects motivated him to make a new translation.[5]


Eriugena's great work, the Periphyseon or De divisione naturae (Περί φύσεων), which was condemned by a council at Sens by Honorius III (1225), who described it as "swarming with worms of heretical perversity," and by Gregory XIII in 1585, is arranged in five books. The form of exposition is that of dialogue; the method of reasoning is the syllogism. Nature (Natura in Latin or physis in Greek) is the name of the most comprehensive of all unities, that which contains within itself the most primary division of all things, that which is (being) and that which is not (nonbeing). The Latin title refers to these four divisions of nature: (1) that which creates and is not created; (2) that which is created and creates; (3) that which is created and does not create; (4) that which is neither created nor creates. The first is God as the ground or origin of all things, the last is God as the final end or goal of all things, that into which the world of created things ultimately returns. The second and third together compose the created universe, which is the manifestation of God, God in process, Theophania. Thus we distinguish in the divine system beginning, middle and end; but these three are in essence one; the difference is only the consequence of our finite comprehension. We are compelled to envisage this eternal process under the form of time, to apply temporal distinctions to that which is extra- or supra-temporal. It is in turn through our experience that the incomprehensible divine is able to frame an understanding of itself. The Division of Nature has been called the final achievement of ancient philosophy, a work which "synthesizes the philosophical accomplishments of fifteen centuries."

Eriugena's discussion of "primordial causes" in the non-linear book suggests they are a part of a theophanic spectrum of in effect energies from God, influenced in his articulation by both the writings of Blessed Augustine of Hippo and St. Maximus the Confessor. He describes these causes as created and yet admits too that viewed from divine or mortal perspectives they could be considered as uncreated or created respectively. He arguably sought to synthesize aspects of Greek and Latin patristics in this regard, before the doctrine of uncreated energies and hesychasm had been fully developed in the Orthodox Church by later Greek writers, notably St. Simeon the New Theologian and St. Gregory Palamas. Thus his lengthy and non-linear discussions also have been viewed as heretical by later standards, although the problems in recent studies are considered more in terms of ambiguity than heterodoxy, especially in light of his emphasis on apophasis. In the latter view, his emphasis on theophany is a key parallel to the Orthodox dogma of uncreated energies.

Likewise his description of Nature at one point as in a sense including God can be take in the overall context of his writings and Greek sources as an expression of St. Maximus' statement that the Logos and the logoi are one, an effort to indicate the presence of the divine energies in Creation theophanic ally and transfiguratively. Elsewhere he clearly articulated an apophatic sense of the unknowability of God as Divine Essence wholly distinct from Creation. St. Maximus' description of the logoi as also energies in his Ambigua can indicate how both writers were seeking to articulate a mystery of a continuum between transfigurative and formative energies of God, and identities created by and in Christ, from a Christocentric theandric standpoint.


Eriugena's work is distinguished by his defense of the liberal arts as part of his articulation of a Creation infused by theophany, parallel to St. Maximus the Confessor's articulation of Creation as consisting of the logoi of the Logos, in which the trivium and quadrivium could be interpreted noetically as a participation in divine harmony, akin to hesychasm. Eriugena's influence in the West was greater with mystics than with logicians, and was felt by later philosophers and writers, including German idealists and notably Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a theoretician of Romanticism as a resistance to Western. Rationalism and burgeoning industrialism. After Scottus Eriugena had been lost and forgotten for many centuries, he was again discovered at Oxford in 1681. In twentieth- and twentieth-century environmental philosophy, Eriugena's writings on nature have been cited and also highlighted as a potential bridge between Orthodoxy and modern ecological concerns.


William of Malmesbury's humorous anecdote illustrates both the character of Eriugena and the position he occupied at the French court. The king having asked, Quid distat inter sottum et Scottum? (What separates a sot [drunkard] from an Irishman?), Eriugena replied, Tabula tantum (Only a table).[6] William of Malmesbury is not considered a reliable source on John Scotus Erigena by modern scholars. For example, his reports that Erigena is buried at Malmesbury is doubted by scholars who say that William confused John Erigena with a different monk named John. William’s report on the manner of Erigena’s death, killed by the pens of his students, also appears to be a legend. “It seems certain that this is due to confusion with another John and that the manner of John’s death is borrowed from the Acts of St. Cassian of Imola. Feast: (at Malmesbury), 28 January.”[7][8][9][10] But see the beginning of this article for an interpretation of William's account as having metaphoric meaning, whether factually based or not.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Freemantle, Anne, ed. (1954–1955), "John Scotus Erigena", The Age of Belief, The Mentor Philosophers, Houghton Mifflin Company, pp. 72–87
  2. Caribine, Deirdre, Great Medieval Thinkers, John Scottus Eriugena, Oxford University Press, p. 14.
  3. Cappuyns, M (1933), Jean Scot Érigène, sa vie, son oeuvre, sa pensée, Louvain, Belgium; Mont César, pp. 252–53. Figuratively, present day professors might recognize the irony in dying from the results of their students' pens.
  4. The nineteenth-century French historian, Haureau advanced some reasons for fixing this date
  5. 5.0 5.1 Paul Rorem, 'The Early Latin Dionysius: Eriugena and Hugh of St Victor’, "Modern Theology" 24:4, (2008), p. 602.
  6. William of Malmesbury. "Book 5". Gesta pontificum Anglorum.Quoted in Helen Waddell, The Wandering Scholars (Garden City: Doubleday, 1955), p. 56.
  7. ‘John the Sage, mentioned in R.P.S. (11th century) as resting at Malmesbury with Maedub and Aldhelm. He should probably be identified with the John whose tomb William of Malmesbury described and whose epitaph he transcribed. He believed that this was John Scottus Eriugena, the Irish philosopher of the 9th century, and that he was killed by the pens of his students after settling at Malmesbury. It seems certain that this is due to confusion with another John and that the manner of John’s death is borrowed from the Acts of St. Cassian of Imola. Feast: (at Malmesbury), 28 January .’ “John the Sage” The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. David Hugh Farmer. Oxford University Press 2003. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Oxford. 12 February 2010
  9. ”Today (28 January) we commemorate St John ‘the Wise’ of Malmesbury (8th century). Or do we? There do seem to be several confusions and misattributions in this story, which was a good research exercise rather than particularly enlightening. Two sources were useful, Farmer and the Victoria County History: ‘At this time, about 870, according to the tradition recorded by William of Malmesbury, (fn. 59) John Scottus Eriugena, the philosopher, at the instigation of King Alfred took up his residence at the abbey as a fugitive from the Continent; after some years he was murdered by his pupils. He was buried first in St. Laurence’s Church, but the body preternatural portents. The terms of the epitaph as given by William imply that the dead scholar was regarded as a martyr; and it seems clear that he bases the story on an old tradition and a tomb bearing an epitaph of a ‘John the Wise’ who is termed saint and martyr. (fn. 60) This John, however, almost certainly cannot have been the famous philosopher; he may possibly have been John the Old Saxon whose unfortunate régime at Athelney (Som.) nearly ended in murder. (fn. 61) John the Old Saxon escaped from Athelney, but when and how he died we do not know; it is possible that he is to be identified with the John the Wise of Malmesbury.’” From: ‘House of Benedictine monks: Abbey of Malmesbury’, A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 3 (1956), pp. 210-231. URL:
  10. [William wrote] ‘that John quitted Francia because of the charge of erroneous doctrine brought against him. He came to King Alfred, by whom he was welcomed and established as a teacher at Malmesbury, but after some years he was assailed by the boys, was later translated to the left of the high altar of the abbey church, chiefly as the result of whom he taught, with their styles, and so died. It is permissible to hold that William has handed down a genuine tradition of his monastery, though it would be extreme to accept all the details of what happened more than two centuries before his birth as strictly historical (see an examination of the whole question in Poole, app. ii.).’ Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 51 Scotus by Reginald Lane-Poole.


For Further Reading

  • Alfred Kentigern Siewers, Strange Beauty: Ecocritical Approaches to Early Medieval Landscape , The New Middle Ages series (New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
  • Alfred Kentigern Siewers, The Green Otherworlds of Early Medieval Literature. Chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Environmental Literature, ed. Louise Westling (Cambridge, 2013).
  • Alfred Kentigern Siewers, "Eriugena, the Irish Otherworld, and Early Medieval Nature," in Eriugena and Creation, ed. W. Otten and M. Allen (Brepols, 2014).
  • Alfred Kentigern Siewers, “Eriugena’s Irish Backgrounds," in Bill Companion to Eriugena, ed .Stephen Lahey and Andrew Guiu (Brill, forthcoming 2019).
  • Alfred Kentigern Siewers, “Orthodoxy and Ecopoetics: The Green World in the Desert Sea.” In Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Nature, and Creation, ed. John Chryssavgis and Bruce V. Foltz. (Fordham University Press, 2013).
  • Alfred Kentigern Siewers, “The Early Irish Sublime as Reflection of Sophia,” in Beauty and the Beautiful in Eastern Christian Culture, ed. Natalia Ermolaev, (Theotokos Press 2012). 212-224.
  • Alfred Kentigern Siewers, “Desert Islands: Europe’s Atlantic Archipelago as Ascetic Landscape.” In Studies in the Medieval Atlantic, ed. Benjamin Hudson, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). 35-64.