John the Scot, or Johannes Scotus, to which is sometimes added Eriugena or Erigena,1 is the most astonishing person of the ninth century; he would have been less surprising if he had lived in the fifth or the fifteenth century. He was an Irishman, a Neoplatonist, an accomplished Greek scholar, a Pelagian, a pantheist. He spent much of his life under the patronage of Charles the Bald, king of France, and though he was certainly far from orthodox, yet, so far as we know, he escaped persecution. He set reason above faith, and cared nothing for the authority of ecclesiastics; yet his arbitrament was invoked to settle their controversies.
To understand the occurrence of such a man, we must turn our attention first to Irish culture in the centuries following St Patrick. Apart from the extremely painful fact that St Patrick was an Englishman, there are two other scarcely less painful circumstances: first, that there were Christians in Ireland before he went there, second, that, whatever he may have done for Irish Christianity, it was not to him that Irish culture was due. At the time of the invasion of Gaul (says a Gaulish author), first by Attila, then by the Goths, Vandals, and Alaric, 'all the learned men on their side the sea fled, and in the countries beyond sea, namely Ireland, and wherever else they betook themselves, brought to the inhabitants of those regions an enormous advance in learning'.2 If any of these men sought refuge in England, the Angles and Saxons and Jutes must have mopped them up; but those who went to Ireland succeeded, in combination with the missionaries, in transplanting a great
deal of the knowledge and civilization that was disappearing from the Continent. There is good reason to believe that, throughout the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, a knowledge of Greek, as well as a considerable familiarity with Latin classics, survived among the Irish.3 Greek was known in England from the time of Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury (669–90), who was himself a Greek, educated at Athens; it may also have become known, in the North, through Irish missionaries. 'During the latter part of the seventh century,' says Montague James, 'it was in Ireland that the thirst for knowledge was keenest, and the work of teaching was most actively carried on. There the Latin language (and in a less degree the Greek) was studied from a scholar's point of view…. It was when, impelled in the first instance by missionary zeal, and later by troubled conditions at home, they passed over in large numbers to the Continent, that they became instrumental in rescuing fragments of the literature which they had already learnt to value.'4 Heiric of Auxerre, about 876, describes this influx of Irish scholars: 'Ireland, despising the dangers of the sea, is migrating almost en masse with her crowd of philosophers to our shores, and all the most learned doom themselves to voluntary exile to attend the bidding of Solomon the wise'—i.e. King Charles the Bald.5
The lives of learned men have at many times been perforce nomadic. At the beginning of Greek philosophy, many of the philosophers were refugees from the Persians; at the end of it, in the time of Justinian, they became refugees to the Persians. In the fifth century, as we have just seen, men of learning fled from Gaul to the Western Isles to escape the Germans; in the ninth century, they fled back from England and Ireland to escape the Scandinavians. In our own day, German philosophers have to fly even further West to escape their compatriots. I wonder whether it will be equally long before a return flight takes place.
Too little is known of the Irish in the days when they were preserving for Europe the tradition of classical culture. This learning was connected with monasteries, and was full of piety, as their penitentials show; but it does not seem to have been much concerned with theological niceties. Being monastic rather than episcopal, it had not the administrative outlook that characterized Continental ecclesiastics from Gregory the Great onwards. And being in the main cut off from effective contact with Rome, it still regarded the Pope as he was regarded in the time of St Ambrose, not as he came to be regarded later. Pelagius, though probably a Briton, is thought by some to have been an
Irishman. It is likely that his heresy survived in Ireland, where authority could not stamp it out, as it did, with difficulty, in Gaul. These circumstances do something to account for the extraordinary freedom and freshness of John the Scot's speculations.
The beginning and the end of John the Scot's life are unknown; we know only the middle period, during which he was employed by the king of France. He is supposed to have been born about 800, and to have died about 877, but both dates are guesswork. He was in France during the papacy of Pope Nicholas I, and we meet again, in his life, the characters who appear in connection with that Pope, such as Charles the Bald and the Emperor Michael and the Pope himself.
John was invited to France by Charles the Bald about the year 843, and was by him placed at the head of the court school. A dispute as to predestination and free will had arisen between Gottschalk, a monk, and the important ecclesiastic Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims. The monk was predestinarian, the archbishop libertarian. John supported the archbishop in a treatise On Divine Predestination, but his support went too far for prudence. The subject was a thorny one; Augustine had dealt with it in his writings against Pelagius, but it was dangerous to agree with Augustine and still more dangerous to disagree with him explicitly. John supported free will, and this might have passed uncensored; but what roused indignation was the purely philosophic character of his argument. Not that he professed to controvert anything accepted in theology, but that he maintained the equal, or even superior, authority of a philosophy independent of revelation. He contended that reason and revelation are both sources of truth, and therefore cannot conflict; but if they ever seem to conflict, reason is to be preferred. True religion, he said, is true philosophy; but, conversely, true philosophy is true religion. His work was condemned by two councils, in 855 and 859; the first of these described it as 'Scots porridge'.
He escaped punishment, however, owing to the support of the king, with whom he seems to have been on familiar terms. If William of Malmesbury is to be believed, the king, when John was dining with him, asked: 'What separates a Scot from a sot?' and John replied, 'Only the dinner table.' The king died in 877, and after this date nothing is known as to John. Some think that he also died in that year. There are legends that he was invited to England by Alfred the Great, that he became abbot of Malmesbury or Athelney, and was murdered by the monks. This misfortune, however, seems to have befallen some other John.
John's next work was a translation from the Greek of the pseudo-Dionysius. This was a work which had great fame in the early Middle Ages. When St Paul preached in Athens, 'certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite' (Acts xvii. 34). Nothing the schoolmen more is now known about this man, but in the Middle Ages a great deal more was known. He had travelled to France, and founded the abbey of St Denis; so at least it was said by Hilduin, who was abbot just before John's arrival in France. Moreover, he was the reputed author of an important work reconciling Neoplatonism with Christianity. The date of this work is unknown; it was certainly before 500 and after Plotinus. It was widely known and admired in the East, but in the West it was not generally known until the Greek Emperor Michael, in 827, sent a copy to Louis the Pious, who gave it to the above-mentioned Abbot Hilduin. He, believing it to have been written by St Paul's disciple, the reputed founder of his abbey, would have liked to know what its contents were; but nobody could translate the Greek until John appeared. He accomplished the translation, which he must have done with pleasure, as his own opinions were in close accord with those of the pseudo-Dionysius, who, from that time onward, had a great influence on Catholic philosophy in the West.
John's translation was sent to Pope Nicholas in 860. The Pope was offended because his permission had not been sought before the work was published, and he ordered Charles to send John to Rome—an order which was ignored. But as to the substance, and more especially the scholarship shown in the translation, he had no fault to find. His librarian Anastasius, an excellent Grecian, to whom he submitted it for an opinion, was astonished that a man from a remote and barbarous country could have possessed such a profound knowledge of Greek.
John's greatest work was called (in Greek) On the Division of Nature. This book was what, in scholastic times, would have been termed 'realist'; that is to say, it maintained, with Plato, that universals are anterior to particulars. He includes in 'Nature' not only what is, but also what is not. The whole of Nature is divided into four classes: (1) what creates and is not created, (2) what creates and is created, (3) what is created but does not create, (4) what neither creates nor is created. The first, obviously, is God. The second is the (Platonic) ideas, which subsist in God. The third is things in space and time. The fourth, surprisingly, is again God, not as Creator, but as the End and Purpose of all things. Everything that emanates from God strives to return to Him; thus the end of all such things is the same as their beginning. The bridge between the One and the many is the Logos.
In the realm of not-being he includes various things, for example, physical objects, which do not belong to the intelligible world, and sin, since it means loss of the divine pattern. That which creates and is not created alone has essential subsistence; it is the essence of all things. God is the beginning, middle, and end of things. God's essence is unknowable to men, and even to angels. Even to Himself He is, in a sense, unknowable: 'God does not know himself, what He is, because He is not a what; in a certain respect He is incomprehensible to Himself and to every intellect.'6 In the being of things God's being can be seen; in their order, His wisdom; in their movement, His life. His being is the Father, His wisdom the Son, His life the Holy Ghost. But Dionysius is right in saying that no name can be truly asserted of God. There is an affirmative theology, in which He is said to be truth, goodness, essence, etc., but such affirmations are only symbolically true, for all such predicates have an opposite, but God has no opposite.
The class of things that both create and are created embraces the whole of the prime causes or prototypes, or Platonic ideas. The total of these prime causes is the Logos. The world of ideas is eternal, and yet created. Under the influence of the Holy Ghost, these prime causes give rise to the world of particular things, the materiality of which is illusory. When it is said that God created things out of 'nothing', this 'nothing' is to be understood as God Himself, in the sense in which He transcends all knowledge.
Creation is an eternal process: the substance of all finite things is God. The creature is not a being distinct from God. The creature subsists in God, and God manifests Himself in the creature in an ineffable manner. 'The Holy Trinity loves Itself in us and in Itself;7 It sees and moves Itself.'
Sin has its source in freedom: it arose because man turned towards himself instead of towards God. Evil does not have its ground in God, for in God there is no idea of evil. Evil is not-being and has no ground, for if it had a ground it would be necessary. Evil is a privation of good.
The Logos is the principle that brings the many back to the One, and man back to God; it is thus the Saviour of the world. By union with God, the part of man that effects union becomes divine.
John disagrees with the Aristotelians in refusing substantiality to particular things. He calls Plato the summit of philosophers. But the first three of his kinds of being are derived indirectly from Aristotle's moving-not-moved, moving-and-moved, moved-but-not-moving. The fourth kind of being in John's system, that which neither creates nor is created, is derived from the doctrine of Dionysius, that all things return into God.
The unorthodoxy of John the Scot is evident from the above summary. His pantheism, which refuses substantial reality to creatures, is contrary to Christian doctrine. His interpretation of the creation out of 'nothing' is not such as any prudent theologian could accept. His Trinity, which closely resembles that of Plotinus, fails to preserve the equality of the Three Persons, although he tries to safeguard himself on this point. His independence of mind is shown by these heresies, and is astonishing in the ninth century. His
Neoplatonic outlook may perhaps have been common in Ireland, as it was among the Greek Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries. It may be that, if we knew more about Irish Christianity from the fifth to the ninth century, we should find him less surprising. On the other hand, it may be that most of what is heretical in him is to be attributed to the influence of the pseudo-Dionysius, who, because of his supposed connection with St Paul, was mistakenly believed to be orthodox.
His view of creation as timeless is, of course, also heretical and compels him to say that the account in Genesis is allegorical. Paradise and the fall are not to be taken literally. Like all pantheists, he has difficulties about sin. He holds that man was originally without sin, and when he was without sin he was without distinction of sex. This, of course, contradicts the statement 'male and female created he them'. According to John, it was only as the result of sin that human beings were divided into male and female. Woman embodies man's sensuous and fallen nature. In the end, distinction of sex will again disappear, and we shall have a purely spiritual body.8 Sin consists in misdirected will, in falsely supposing something good which is not so. Its punishment is natural; it consists in discovering the vanity of sinful desires. But punishment is not eternal. Like Origen, John holds that even the devils will be saved at last, though later than other people.
John's translation of the pseudo-Dionysius had a great influence on medieval thought, but his magnum opus on the division of Nature had very little. It was repeatedly condemned as heretical, and at last, in 1225, Pope Honorius III ordered all copies of it to be burnt. Fortunately this order was not efficiently carried out.