The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. The Beginnings of English Philosophy

§ 3. Johannes Scotus Erigena

To Erigena, may be traced both medieval mysticism and the scholastic method. He seems to have been born in Ireland about 810, and to have proceeded to France some thirty years later. Charles the Bald appointed him to the schola palatina at Paris. He appears to have had no further connection with Ireland or with England, and to have died in France about 87 It was probably owing to the protection of the king that he escaped the graver results which usually followed a suspicion of heresy. His works were officially condemned by papal authority in 1050 and 1255. Erigena was the predecessor of scholasticism but not himself one of the schoolmen. His anticipation of them consists not only in his dialectical method, but, also, in his recognition of the authority of the Bible and of the fathers of the church as final. But this recognition is guarded by the assertion that it is impossible for true authority and true reason really to conflict; and he deals quite freely with the letter of a doctrine, while he interprets its spirit in his own way. On the development of mystical thought, he exercised an even greater influence. The fundamental conceptions and final outcome of his great work, De Divisione Naturae, are essentially mystical in tone; and, by his translation of the pseudo-Dionysian writings, he made accessible the storehouse from which medieval mystics derived many of their ideas. These writings are first heard of distinctly in the early part of the sixth century; even in that uncritical age they were not received without question; but they soon gained general acceptance as the geniune work of Dionysius the Areopagite who “clave unto” St. Paul after the address on Mars’ hill and who was supposed to have become bishop of Athens. The work attributed to him contains an interpretation of Christian doctrine by means of Neoplatonic ideas. It exercised a strong influence upon Erigena himself and upon subsequent medieval thought; and this influence was powerfully reinforced long afterwards by the study of Plato and the Neoplatonists at the time of the revival of learning.

Erigena’s work opens with a division of the whole of reality into four classes—that which creates and is not created, that which is both created and creates, that which is created but does not create and that which neither creates nor is created. The last class is not mere non-existence. In general, it may be said to signify the potential as distinguished from the actual; in ultimate analysis, it is the goal or end towards which all things strive that in it they may find rest. It is, therefore, God, as final cause, just as the first class in the division—the uncreate creator—is God, as efficient cause. God is thus at once the beginning and end of all things, from which they proceed and to which they return. From the uncreate creator proceed the prototypes or ideas which contain the immutable reasons or grounds of all that is to be made. The world of ideas is created and yet eternal, and from it follows the creation of individual things. Their primordial causes are contained in the divine Logos (or Son of God), and from these, by the power of the divine Love (or Holy Spirit), is produced the realm of created things that cannot themselves create. God created the world out of nothing, that is to say, out of His ineffable divine nature, which is incomprehensible to men and angels. And the process is eternal: in God, vision does not precede operation. Nor can anything subsist outside God:

  • the creature subsists in God, and God is created in the creature in a wonderful and ineffable manner, manifesting himself, the invisible making himself visible, and the incomprehensible comprehensible, and the hidden plain, and the unknown known.
  • Thus, while God, as creator and as final cause, transcends all things, He is also in all things. He is their beginning, middle and end. And His essence is incomprehensible; nay, “God Himself knows not what He is, for He is not a ‘what.’” Hence, all expressions used of God are symbolical only. Strictly speaking, we cannot even ascribe essence to Him: He is super-essential; nor goodness: He is beyond good ([char]).

    Erigena was more influenced by Plato than by Aristotle. His acquaintance with the latter’s works was restricted to certain of the logical treatises. The greater part of the Aristotelian writings became known to the schoolmen at a later date and mainly by means of Latin translations of a Syriac version. The new Aristotelian influence began to make itself distinctly felt about three centuries after Erigena’s time. Alexander of Hales is said to have been the first schoolman who knew the whole philosophy of Aristotle and used it in the service of Christian theology. The metaphysical and physical writings of Aristotle were at first viewed with suspicion by the church, but afterwards definitely adopted, and his authority in philosophy became an article of scholastic orthodoxy. The great systems of the thirteenth century—especially the most lasting monument of scholastic thought, the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas—are founded on his teaching.