Eriugena argued on behalf of something like a pantheistic definition of nature. He translated and made commentaries upon the work of Pseudo-Dionysius, and was one of the few European philosophers of his day that knew Greek, having studied in Athens. Famously, he is said to have been stabbed to death by his students at Malmesbury with their pens.
The form "Eriugena" of his byname is used by John Scotus to describe himself 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." 'Scotti" was the name that the Romans called the Irish. The spelling 'Scottus' has the authority of the early manuscripts until perhaps the 11th century. Occasionally he is also named 'Scottigena' ("Irish-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. 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. 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, and some scholars think it may refer to some other Johannes. He probably never left France, and the date of his death is generally given as 877. 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 Saint Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, and the Cappadocian Fathers, and is clearly Neoplatonist. He revived the transcendentalist standpoint of Neoplatonism with its "graded hierarchy" approach. By going back to Plato, he revived the nominalist-realist debate.
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 condemned. As a part of his penance, Berengarius is said to have been compelled to burn publicly Eriugena's treatise. 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.
Eriugena argues the question of predestination entirely on speculative grounds, and starts with the bold affirmation that philosophy and religion are fundamentally one and the same. Even more significant is his handling of authority and reason. Eriugena offered a skilled proof that there can be predestination only to the good, for all folk are summoned to be saints. 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. Eriugena was a believer in apocatastasis or universal reconciliation, which maintains that the universe will eventually be restored under God's dominion (see also Christian Universalism).
At some point in the centuries before Eriugena a legend had developed that Saint Denis, the first Bishop of Paris and patron saint of the important Abbey of Saint-Denis, was the same person as both the Dionysius the Areopagite mentioned in Acts 17.34, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a figure whose writings were not yet being circulated in the West in the ninth century (it was not until the sixteenth century, except by Abelard, that it was realised that these two figures were not connected; Pseudo-Dionysius is now thought most likely to be a sixth-century Syriac author). Accordingly, 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.
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.
Eriugena's next work was a Latin translation of Dionysius the Areopagite undertaken at the request of Charles the Bald. This also has been preserved, and fragments of a commentary by Eriugena on Dionysius have been discovered in manuscript.A translation of the Areopagite's writings was not likely to alter the opinion already formed as to Eriugena's orthodoxy. Pope Nicholas I was offended that the work had not been submitted for approval before being given to the world, and ordered Charles to send Eriugena to Rome, or at least to dismiss him from his court. There is no evidence, however, that this order was carried out.
At the request of the Byzantine emperor Michael III (ca. 858), Eriugena undertook some translation into Latin of the works of Pseudo-Dionysius and added his own commentary.
With this translation, he was the first since Saint Augustine to introduce the ideas of Neoplatonism from the Greek into the Western European intellectual tradition, where they were to have a strong influence on Christian theology.
Eriugena's great work, 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; the second is the world of Platonic ideas or forms, and the third is a more pantheistic world, or a pandeistic one, depending on the interference of God.
Thus we distinguish in the divine system beginning, middle and end. 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." It is presented, like Alcuin's book, as a dialogue between Master and Pupil. Eriugena anticipates Thomas Aquinas, who said that one cannot know and believe a thing at the same time. Eriugena explains that reason is necessary to understand and interpret revelation. "Authority is the source of knowledge, but the reason of mankind is the norm by which all authority is judged."
Eriugena's work is distinguished by the freedom of his speculation, and the boldness with which he works out his logical or dialectical system of the universe. He marks, indeed, a stage of transition from the older Platonizing philosophy to the later scholasticism. For him philosophy is not in the service of theology. The above-quoted assertion as to the substantial identity between philosophy and religion is repeated almost word for word by many of the later scholastic writers, but its significance depends upon the selection of one or other term of the identity as fundamental or primary. For Eriugena, philosophy or reason is first, primitive; authority or religion is secondary, derived.
His influence was greater with mystics than with logicians, but he was responsible for a revival of philosophical thought which had remained largely dormant in western Europe after the death of Boethius.
After Eriugena another medieval thinker of significance was Berengar of Tours, professor at the monastic school in the French city. Berengar believed that truth is obtained through reason rather than revelation. St. Peter Damian agreed with Tertullian that it is not necessary for people to philosophize because God has spoken for them. Damian was prior of Fonte Avellana and afterward Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia. He died in 1072. Lanfranc (1005–89) was prior of Bec in Normandy. Like Damian he believed mostly in faith, but admitted the importance of reason. St. Anselm was a pupil and successor of St. Peter Damian.
On the whole, one might be surprised that even in the seventeenth century pantheism did not gain a complete victory over theism; for the most original, finest, and most thorough European expositions of it (none of them, of course, will bear comparison with the Upanishads of the Vedas) all came to light at that period, namely through Bruno, Malebranche, Spinoza, and Scotus Erigena. After Scotus Erigena had been lost and forgotten for many centuries, he was again discovered at Oxford and in 1681, thus four years after Spinoza's death, his work first saw the light in print. This seems to prove that the insight of individuals cannot make itself felt so long as the spirit of the age is not ripe to receive it. On the other hand, in our day (1851) pantheism, although presented only in Schelling's eclectic and confused revival thereof, has become the dominant mode of thought of scholars and even of educated people. This is because Kant had preceded it with his overthrow of theistic dogmatism and had cleared the way for it, whereby the spirit of the age was ready for it, just as a ploughed field is ready for the seed.
Leszek Kołakowski, a Polish Marx scholar, has mentioned Eriugena as one of the primary influences on Hegel's, and therefore Marx's, dialectical form. In particular, he called De Divisione Naturae a prototype of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.
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).
William of Malmesbury is not considered a reliable source on John Scotus Eriugena by modern scholars. For example, his reports that Eriugena is buried at Malmesbury is doubted by scholars who say that William confused John Eriugena with a different monk named John. William’s report on the manner of Eriugena’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.”Johannis Scotti Eriugenae Periphyseon: (De divisione naturae), 3 vols, edited by I. P. Sheldon-Williams, (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1968–1981) [the Latin and English text of Books 1–3 of De divisione naturae]
Periphyseon (The Division of Nature), tr. I. P. Sheldon-Williams and JJ O'Meara, (Montreal: Bellarmin, 1987) [The Latin text is published in É. Jeauneau, ed, CCCM 161–165.]
The Voice of the Eagle. The Heart of Celtic Christianity: John Scotus Eriugena's Homily on the Prologue to the Gospel of St. John, translated and introduced by Christopher Bamford, (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne; Edinburgh: Floris, 1990) [reprinted Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne, 2000)] [translation of Homilia in prologum Sancti Evangelii secundum Joannem]
Iohannis Scotti Eriugenae Periphyseon (De divisione naturae), edited by Édouard A. Jeauneau; translated into English by John J. O'Meara and I.P. Sheldon-Williams, (Dublin: School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1995) [the Latin and English text of Book 4 of De divisione naturae]
Glossae divinae historiae: the Biblical glosses of John Scottus Eriugena, edited by John J. Contreni and Pádraig P. Ó Néill, (Firenze: SISMEL Edizioni del Galluzzo, 1997)
Treatise on divine predestination, translated by Mary Brennan, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998) [translation of De divina praedestinatione liber.]
A Thirteenth-Century Textbook of Mystical Theology at the University of Paris: the Mystical Theology of Dionysius the Areopagite in Eriugena's Latin Translation, with the Scholia translated by Anastasius the Librarian, and Excerpts from Eriugena's Periphyseon, translated and introduced by L. Michael Harrington, Dallas medieval texts and translations 4, (Paris; Dudley, MA: Peeters, 2004)
Paul Rorem, Eriugena’s Commentary on the Dionysian Celestial Hierarchy, (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2005). [The Latin text is published in Expositiones in Ierarchiam coelestem Iohannis Scoti Eriugenae, ed J. Barbet, CCCM 31, (1975).]