Johannes Scotus Eriugena (c. 810-c. 877) means “John the Scot born in Ireland” (“Scots” referred to the Irish in the early medieval period). Scotus Eriugena was one of the Peregrini—traveling Celtic scholars who established monasteries throughout Europe. Little is known of Eriugena’s personal life; it is believed that he received his early training in one of the monastic schools in Ireland, possibly Clonmacnoise, or northern Britain that were established by an Irish monk, Saint Columba, after which some believe him to have studied in Greece. Others believe that he acquired his Greek training in Ireland, as scholars of Greek in the previous century often were assumed on the Continent to be Irish. Although Eriugena preferred the teachings of the Greek theologians, he also respected the Latin works of Saint Augustine of Hippo. He is renowned as a theologian, poet (much of whose work was dedicated to his royal patron), philosopher, and translator of texts. He is considered by many to be the greatest mind of his era.
Eriugena arrived in France by 847, where, by 853, he served at the court of Charles II (the Bald; grandson of Charlemagne), as the translator of theological works. Eriugena served as rector of the University of Paris. He also may have spent time as head of the Irish scholastic community at Laon, France. There is no evidence of his having traveled to the Middle East or having settled in Malmesbury, England, as some sources claim. Among the works of Eriugena, possibly his greatest translation was the work of the early 6th-century mystic Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite from Greek into Latin. This work had a profound effect on European religious thought for some time. Others of his works, however, specifically his backing of the concept of free will and Neoplatonic denial of the existence of evil, earned Eriugena condemnation by church councils in 849 and 857.
Eriugena’s six-volume The Division of Nature (De Divisione Naturae), written between 865 and 870, combined Greek and Latin scholarship to examine how God is revealed to thinking beings in terms of their own capacities to comprehend him through his three personalities. The pantheistic (some might say animistic) views in this book caused it to be prohibited by the Vatican in 1685.
It was in this work that Eriugena took on the concept of time and space as it related to the nature of the divine. Reality is created by and streams out from God, the Primordial Cause, who is the Center, through the Word, in which all things are eternal, through the levels of logic, and into the world of number (where the Word takes the form of angels); at this stage there is only the appearance of reality. It then enters time through Creation and exists in space, where the ideas become divided and subject to corruption and decay; they become material and the source of illness, discontent, and sin. Thus what we material beings see as matter, including ourselves, actually is thought to have originated ultimately from God. It is out of the eternal essence of God that all things are created. We are the ultimate completion of God’s thought process. In our return to him through our redemption by our use of reason, we complete a divine cycle that was interrupted by original sin. It is in our return to God that we achieve timeless immortality with him, for, although God is in time (as it is part of him), he is not bound by it. God is eternal.
Michael J. Simonton
See also Augustine of Hippo, Saint; Eternity; God and Time; God as Creator; Idealism; Immortality, Personal; Materialism; Sin, Original; Time, Sacred
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Power, P. (2001). Timetables of Irish history: An illustrated chronological chart of the history of Ireland from 6000 B.C. to present times. London: Worth Press.
Scot, John the (Johannes Scotus Eriugena). (1976). Periphyseon: On the division of nature (M. L. Uhlfelder, Trans.). Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.
Reese, W. L. (1996). Dictionary of philosophy and religion: Eastern and Western thought. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.