john scottus eriugena

…buried in words & entombed in hard-to-find books, we still look for you Eriugena. Obscure as you are, we find you in all those concealed places. This contemplative circumstance is yours, it’s under your tutelage that we’ve toiled to comprehend you. Legend has it that you were stabbed to death by your students with their pens & although we have no viable proof of this, we prosper little from the knowledge that such a man as yourself would die from these the tools of scholarly labor, knowing that the only way to find you is in the many paragraphs that feature your name written by so many other pens. Eriugena, you are kept alive & breathing by the written word. Eriugena, you are our nutritor (teacher) & we are your alumni (students). Eriugena you are nothing as you are super-essential.


Nathan Coley – “Heaven is a Place Where Nothing Ever Happens.”  2008

John Scottus Erigena (ca. 810–887) was an early medieval Christian philosopher. He worked under Charles the Bald (823-877) as a liberal arts teacher while writing philosophy in the only form he knew: Christian theology. The separation between theology & philosophy was not an issue for him, both were held together as one practice. For him, (philosophical) theology was the only way to heaven. He is known for his rare ability to translate Greek to Latin. This unusual skill shouldn’t obscure the fact that he was Irish. His name: Eriugena, essentially means he who originates from Ireland. His talent to translate Greek to Latin wasn’t only a linguistic skill, it also had to do with the philosophical nexus he helped to bring about from the Greek east (then Byzantium) to the Latin west (western Europe), where he called home. The Viking invasions of Ireland at the time, are what forced him to work in France. He was commissioned by Charles the Bald to translate what was then thought to be the work of Dionysius the Areopagite (unknown birth/death dates: probably 5-6th centuries), now known as Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite, not to be mistaken for St. Paul’s 1st century convert. His Greek to Latin translating extended to works by Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335-394), Maximus the Confessor (ca. 580-662) & others from the east. These Christian works from Byzantium are marked by strong neo-platonic overtones & some might say this thinking was itself influenced by explicit pagan ideals (re: Plotinus (ca. 205-270)). We’ll caution anyone led into imagining Erigena’s thought to have a purely eastern affection, since he made generous use of St Augustine’s (354-430) writings, who was also influenced by neo-platonic ideas, among other Christian leanings.


Joseph Kosuth – “Nothing” 1968

Early on, Eriugena was distinguished by his remarkable ideas, beginning with his involvement & refutation in the 9th century Predestination controversy started by Gottschalk of Orbais (ca. 808-867). This theological imbroglio had Gottschalk whipped, embarrassed & divested of his priestly duties, ending up in a monastery in Hautvillers (northeastern France). Gottshcalk’s position was that God was fully aware of & involved in man’s destiny from birth to death (a common ‘misconception’ even to this day). This position was officially refuted by Eriugena to be the opposite, whereby god is simple & unchanging, he doesn’t, as was presumed, predestine man’s will. Man’s will is his own. This is part of Eriugena’s radical claim to fame, as it centers man as the driver of his own destiny. (This & the nexus of Eastern & Western philosophies, brings Eriugena even closer to the brilliant (neo-platonic) syncretism of Pico della Mirandola (1463-94)). For Eriugena, man already severed his intimate relationship to god after the fall. After the fall, Adam & Eve were sexualized, ashamed of their bodies & fallen from grace. It was then put to man’s own responsibility to re-establish his ties to god, back the word of god & into his ultimate innate reason that was ultimately part of god to begin with. This is the return to god & this movement of the falling away of man’s reason, to be rejuvenated via rationality, logic, wisdom & this is dialectical (note: these are three of Eriugena’s so-called primary causes that reside in man, nature & god). Man is fallen away from wisdom & the return is his desired unification with god using wisdom & knowledge. Evil then, is simply the absence of the good in man. Philosophy (theology) is the way man finds this way back to the divine, this is his return. This exitus & reditus, exit & return, procession & return, runs throughout neo-platonism, thereby exposing the history of the dialectic to originate much earlier than G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), (in fact, suggesting where Hegel found the dialectic’s already established roots). Speculative dialectics are not to be wholly confused with Aristotelian logical dialectics. This differentiation is what we find with Hegel (although it’s further confused by the fact that Hegel wrote extensively on Logic. But, as we know this isn’t a mere re-emergence, or re-instatement of the Aristotelian formal logic (that we are so attached to nowadays) it regarded more as a metaphysical, transcendental logic).


Felix Gonzales-Torres – “Untitled (The End)” 1990

Speculative philosophy is born from the urge to bring it all together, in spite of the corporeal & fallible body. This is high idealism with a penchant for systematizing & unifying disparate parts. Hegel’s philosophy follows this speculative paradigm & is emblematic of this way of thinking. In this universal manner everything tends toward the absolute through the dialectical process that’s ideated through reason’s eventualities. We conceptualize this holistic union & can practice knowledge to become philosophically attuned as we (now with Eriugena) reach for the ecstasy of transcendence that’s nearer to god. According to Dermont Moran, Hegel considered Eriugena to be the father of German Idealism. As Hegel’s great ideology of the absolute tended away from the incidentals of everyday life, so did Erigena’s complex cosmology return us to the ‘super-essential’ realms of god & nature—away from the pleasures & pressures of the flesh.

The dialectic, as it is for our reading of Eriugena, has significance in the the way we view man’s place in the cosmic order, this to be centered & pivotal due to man’s intellectual ability to want to return to god’s goodness via his independent will & his wise reasoning. This, again, is the return & going back to god as extending from the fall. But, it’s also about regarding god as expressed in everything, suggesting god’s immanence, & this immanence eventually led to the conflation of Eriugena’s thought with pantheism. This immanence—or better named: theophany—is manifested in our very desire to quest for ultimate transcendence to god’s order. In other words, this theophany is one way god shows himself through us. Philosophy is a theophany of god. it’s how he appears to us, for Eriugena.

The theophany of god extends outward in a circular motion till we find theology in its outermost expression (or non-expression, as the case may be) taking us into another critical (non) component to Eriugena’s cosmology & that is: nothingness. This way of considering what god is not, is known as Eriugena’s negative theology, his apophatic theology. This is a definition of god in all that he is not. This gives full credit to the notion that god is nothing. This nothingness of god thereby positions god as super-essential, meaning that he’s beyond any nothingness we can conceive of. And this means god had to create all the known universe, earth, nature, mankind, creatures &c. out of nothing, that this nothing is included in all things. Yet, this nothing should never be defined as simply another element co-existing with god & the rest. The nothing is to be looked at as a privation of essence, before being & as non-being. Nothing is an essential lack of that which precedes being & since god is the creator of all as made manifest by his ‘word,’ the nothing includes that with cannot be defined by us & so it’s ultimately un-knowable by definition. Nothing is considered to be non-being. We can’t give Eriugena’s full argument for the nothing in this short space, but we’ll at the very least acknowledge it’s constancy throughout neo-platonism & throughout recent philosophy with its notable (at least for our usage) attention given by Hegel & Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).


Timur Si-Qin – “Legend” 2011

Since we didn’t mention it earlier, all of this talk of nothing, non-being, privation &c. is found in Eriugena’s masterpiece the “Periphyseon,” or “The Division of Nature.” Indeed, this is his very cosmology where he attempts the ominous task of classifying nature as god’s creation, from his creation to nothingness itself. For Hegel, the abstract nothing is given primacy in his work on logic, as much as negation is given prominence in the dialectical movement itself. The basis of abstract thought determination as identified by Hegel is dialectically resolved by the recognition of the mind’s ‘restless’ becoming of thought by means of its very conceptualizing against & with the nothing. Thought becomes thought determination as being itself is confronted with the very nothingness of being. Hegel states in his “Encyclopedia Logic”:

All that really matters here is consciousness about these beginnings: that they are nothing but these empty abstractions, & that each of them is as empty as the other; the drive to find in being or in both [being & nothing] a stable meaning is this very necessity, which leads being & nothing further along & endows them with a true, i.e., concrete meaning. (EL/139-40)

Hegel softly echoes Eriugena’s epistemology as god is understood by man to be super-essential being, a.k.a. nothing, so should man understand his own mind & his own perception as having these qualities dialectically—being & nothing in tandem—becoming universal knowing. In the Periphyseon Eriugena writes, paraphrasing Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite:

Everything understood & sensed is merely the appearance of the non-appearing, the manifestation of the hidden, the affirmation of the denied, the comprehension of the incomprehensible, the expression of the ineffable, the approach of the inaccessible, the understanding of the unintelligible, the body of the incorporeal…” (P/140)

Then even closer to Hegel’s concept of thought apprehension—by means of this dialectical movement of the mind from the emptiness of nothing with being becoming universal meaning—we find Eriugena’s medieval elaboration of man’s mind coming to know itself, the world & god (through reason & negative theology).

…for the human mind both knows itself & does not know itself. It knows that it is, but it does not know what it is. […] It is more praiseworthy for the mind not to know what it is than to know that it is; just as negation is more closely & fittingly related than affirmation to the praise of divine nature, & it is wiser to be ignorant of it than to know it; for ignorance of it is true wisdom since it is known better by not knowing. (P/244)

Just as man can conceive of god by understanding what he is & better, by what he’s not, so can man use this apophatic way to his own mind. Man is a microcosm of the universe, therefore his own mind, his own epistemology characteristically shares in the ontology of his known & unknown world. This way of knowing the mind is not only dialectical, but it’s simultaneously metaphysical.

nothingever mark mumford

Mark Mumford – “Nothing Ever Happened Here.” 2002

Once the moment of metaphysics is brought to the fore, we are drawn from the 8th & 18th centuries to Heidegger’s 20th century involvement with the nothing. In his destabilizing essay “What is Metaphysics?” This assuredly after god & after the absolute, instead we are looking through the nothing as it’s in contrast to being (Dasein) phenomenologically—through the anxious experience of our being. This confrontation is with the very question of what is there as being, or what being is not. This isn’t a negation of being, rather, nothing is repellent to being & is transcendent as it can only be, since we are being & not nothing. It’s almost as if this repellence is what confirms being in the existential anxiety of being. Our being can only confirm itself against nothing to become nothing less than being. Heidegger poetically writes of this:

Being held out into the nothing—as Dasien is—on the ground of concealed anxiety is its surpassing of beings as a whole. It is transcendence.

Our inquiry concerning the nothing is to bring us face to face with metaphysics itself. (WM/106)

These considerations are metaphysical (briefly think of how this concept relates to religious practice in general) & this nothingness proposition is fundamental in our way of contemplating an idealistic way of knowing. We’ll have to admit that Heidegger’s nothing, Hegel’s nothing & Eriugena’s nothing vary in their subtleties. Heidegger’s nothing is in contrast to a simple negation of something (being) & it’s very close to Hegel’s in that Hegel thought of being as essentially co-defined with the nothing. Oddly, for Hegel at the very basis of an abstraction of being we can barely distinguish it from nothing, yet we have no choice but to choose being from the two, since it’s the only primary abstraction of thought that is manifestly there for us & this is where meaning arises in its becoming—as it becomes self-determined thought, as it knows itself, as it’ll self-consciously know the world & as the world is reflected in this movement back to knowing objectively.

For Erigena, as we’ve alluded to already, nothing is also as complicated as the others, in that it’s non-essential, non-being, & privative. This still continues to define god as super-essential, so that if god is everything & nothing, he’s only that as far as our comprehension can conclude. If we were to then draw our own conclusions about all three views, we’ll have to transcendentalize a point of refuge with these thoughts, into the realm of that which cannot be comprehended. If we have an answer for everything, then we know nothing about our limitations. If we can see our limitations, then we can then imagine our possibilities.

Certainly, Eriugena was radical for his controversial views on predestination. Popular Christian opinion makes constant use of god’s active participation in the lives of men. We rarely (never) hear talk of god as letting man to his own devices. Man thus, in Eriugena’s context has to activate his own free-will to realize god’s theophany as reason toward a higher good. Aside from this, we’ll have to embrace Eriugena’s apophatic, neo-platonic ideas as vital for the basic philosophical issues they help to uncover. Common thought is normally concerned with what is, rather that what is not. If we cut off our ability to conceive of that which is mysterious & unknown, then what possibility is there? Positivist thinking destroys the nothing because thought ‘must always be about something.’ Although both Eriugena & Hegel had the dialectic as teleological & headed into reason, god & the absolute, we can see the break from this in the very conception of having to regard that which isn’t, in order to grasp the basic structure of metaphysical thought that’s so maligned in the scientific way of limiting the world—as Heidegger helps us to see. What are we without metaphysics?—a dry materialism only that proffers tangible facts, thereby cutting its imagination off from the dream of the unknown. That which we cannot know has everything to do with what we know, this is a universal way of opening the movement of thought into itself, throughout the world & into the void of the future.

Aurelio Madrid

ad reinhardt

Ad Reinhardt – “Abstract Painting” 1963

Works Cited / Bibliography

Carabine, Deirdre. John Scottus Eriugena. New York: Oxford U. Press. 2000.

Eriugena, John Scottus. (P) Periphyseon – On the Divison of Nature. Trans. Myra L. Uhlfelder. Indianapolis: Bobs-Merrill Co. Inc. 1976.

Hegel, G.W.F. (EL) The Encyclopedia Logic. Trans. T.F. Geraets, W.A. Suchting, H.S. Harris. Indianapolis: Hackett Pubs. Co. Inc. 1991.

Heidegger, Martin. (WM) Basic Writings, What is Metaphysics? Ed. David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper Perennial – Modern Thought. 2008.

Moran, Dermot. The Philosophy of John Scottus Eriugena. New York: Cambridge U. Press. 1989.

2 thoughts on “john scottus eriugena

  1. Didn’t know that about Greek into Latin…

    Hinduism (The Void), the Daoist texts and the Yin Yang, and even the Egyptians with Nuit have all handled nothingness in their own singular and yet similar ways. Broadly, in this context, one could say that nothing = nothing, nothingness = something.

    Note that if you add quantum uncertainty, it gets delightfully fuzzy and, if you start asking physicists about “nothing” and what happened before the BIg Bang, you get into all other sorts of perplexing areas, as I’m sure you are aware.

    Other than that, I am not very well read in philosophy. Good post, nonetheless, and easier to apprehend than most things I have read on the topic.

    you might find this helpful:

    1. …thanks for dropping by john,

      yes, the subject of nothingness is utterly complex & that’s why I choose to limit the talk to only three philosophers. eriugena holds a special place for me because he represents a way to think about christianity that is increasingly difficult, due to the antagonism between secular philosophy & religious thought. with this said, it’s much easier to remain closed than to open up & call forth ideas from the past that have remained obscure. like pico, eriugena still stands for the free-will of man & for that reason I’ve done this work to know him better.

      thanks for the google copy of the periphyseon. a good english translation of it is very tough to find. I loved that he set it up as a dialogue between teacher & student. I had to be his student for a while & I couldn’t help but feel the real work it takes to do scholarship in a religious context, or otherwise.

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