This book is an introduction to the life and work of the Irish philosopher Johannes Scottus Eriugena (c. 800–870). Like many Irish scholars of his time he emigrated to the Continent where he had the good fortune to become a close friend of the Emperor, Charles the Bald (823–877), serving him as Court Poet and Master of the Palace School somewhere in the vicinity of the modern city of Laon, north-east of Paris. Since the publication of the first full-length biography of Eriugena by the Belgian scholar Dom Maïeul Cappuyns in 1933, he has become one of the most studied of all medieval intellectuals in recent times. But the extensive literature that now exists on him has been written mostly for students of philosophy and medieval history, and so I wrote this short book in the hope of bringing his work to a more general readership.
When I gave talks on Eriugena here in Dublin, listeners constantly asked where they might find the passages from his work that I had read to them. Evidently they wanted to read him for themselves. This is exactly what I wanted to hear, but it also poses a problem: the English translations, if they exist at all, lie scattered in books that can be difficult to come by. So, having selected the short passages that I would like newcomers to read first, I translated them again, and around them I have written the story of Eriugena’s life and his extraordinary account of “all the things that are and those that are not.”
Having done that much, however, I found that I was obliged to do the same again for the three Byzantine scholars whose work he translated into Latin, Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius the Areopagite, and Maximus the Confessor; and likewise for the Graeco-Roman poet and educationalist Martianus Capella whose famous Latin textbook for the teaching of the Liberal Arts was richly annotated by Eriugena for his students. He was greatly indebted to all four, in both the content and presentation of his work, and I felt that they too needed to be heard in their own words.
There was another reason for the text-based approach: Eriugena was a poet, and even in his most abstract work he writes in a style that lies somewhere between prose and poetry. I have tried to acknowledge this in my selections and translations, partly just to complete the picture and also because Eriugena’s poetry is an important part of the aesthetic that pervades his work.
He was also a naturalist and a scientist, and this is another perspective I have retained. Not only was he enthralled by the beauty of nature, he also wanted to understand its origins and composition. Above all else, he sought a more adequate account of the functioning of the human mind, in both anatomical and psychological terms, and a fuller account of where it stands in relation to the rest of Creation.
Finally, I present Eriugena as a thinker who was affected deeply by the division of Christianity into its Greek and Latin traditions. The schism was already a bitter reality in the scholarly environment in which he worked, and it soon brought him into open conflict with Church authorities since his sympathies were with the Greeks.
The book has separate chapters on Martianus, Gregory, Dionysius, and Maximus and what Eriugena had to say about them, and seven chapters on his own work, one for the Book on Predestination, one for the homily and commentary on John’s Gospel, one each for the five books of Periphyseon (Concerning Natures), and a concluding chapter, followed by chapter summaries. Martianus is placed first because Eriugena began his career as a teacher of the humanities and sciences, and the influence of Martianus is evident from his earliest writings. The chapter on Gregory has been placed before The Book on Predestination because this is where I think it belongs in the development of Eriugena’s thinking. And while Periphyseon was not Eriugena’s last work, it is kept until last because it gives the best overview.
My thanks to Coiscéim for permission to use some materials on Eriugena here that were previously published in Irish (Mac Aogáin, 2009), to the staff of Trinity College Library, where most of the research was done, to Breandán Ó Cíobháin for our discussions of Eriugena, and to Paddy Sammon and Seán McCrum for reading the manuscript and making many useful comments on it.
Eoghan Mac Aogáin
Dublin, February 2017