An Irish Scot

Circa 800-877

Known as John the Scot, Johannes Scotus, sometimes with the added name Eriugena or Erigena.

The Short Version

John the Scot lived in the 9th Century during the papacy of Pope Nicholas I. He was an Irishman, a Neoplatonist, a strong Greek scholar, a Pelagian, and a pantheist. He spent the majority of his life working for Charles the Bald, the King of France.

John placed reason above faith. He did not care for the authority of the Ecclesiastics but did arbitrate in disputes for them. Little is known about his life prior to his time with Charles, nor after it.

A Dispute

John was invited to France by Charles in 843 to head his court school. While there he arbitrated a dispute between a monk named Gottschalk and an ecclisiastic named Hinchman who was the Archbishop of Rheims. The dispute was about divine predestination. The monk was in favor of it whereas the archbishop was in favor of free will. John sided with Hinchman in favor of free will. John went so far as to write a treatise about it - On Divine Predestination.

Scot's Porrige

John's treatise was controversial, not because it was about free will, but because it was argued from a purely philosophical basis. John was not out to controvert the theology of the day, but did hold that a philosophy independent of revelation was superior to theology. John argued that both reason and revelation were sources of truth, but that if there was a conflict between the two, reason was preffered. True religion was true philosophy and vice versa. The treatise was condemned by councils in both 855 and 859, the first of which called it "Scot's porrige."

John was not punished in any way for his beliefs due to the king's guardianship which ended in 877 with the death of Charles the Bald. Some beleive that due to this loss of protection John died soon after.

It's all Greek to John

Another work John was known for was his translation of the pseudo-Dionysius, the work of Dionysius the Areopagite. Dionysius studied with St. Paul, after which he travelled to France and began the Abbey of St. Denis. Dionysius' work was known for its reconcilliation of Neoplatonism and Christianity. It was well known in the East, but not in the West due to its being written in Greek.

The abbot of Denis had possession of the work and wanted it translated so it turned over to John through the king. After its translation a copy was sent to the Pope in 860. The Pope was offended for he had not been contacted for permission to publish the work. That was where his offense ended though for the scholarship was impeccable, his librarian Anastasius was stunned with John's knowledge of Greek.

A Strong Finish

John's greatest work was his On the Division of Nature. The philosophy it espoused would now be called "realism," due to its maintanence of Plato's claim that universals are anterior to particulars. John claimed that Nature was broken up into four categories:

  1. That which creates but is not created. (God)
  2. That which creates and is created. ((Platonic)Ideas)
  3. That which does not create but is created. (Space and Time)
  4. That which does not create and is not created. (God)
As noted above, John argues that both the first and the last are God. God is the essential substance of creation. God creates the thing, while it exists it yearns to be closer to God, to return to God, and finally does return to God when it ceases to exist. God is the Father, God's wisdom is the Son, and God's life is the Holy Ghost.

Along with this, John says that there is a realm of non-being. Included in this realm of non-being are physical objects for they do not belong to the intelligeable world and sin. John says sin is the loss of the divine pattern, for God equals order.

Heretical Beliefs

As touched on above, John's greatest heresies were his interpretation of creation out of "nothing" (God created everything out of God) and his version of the Trinity, which is similar to Plotinus' but does not keep an equality between the three members. Due to God's creating all out of God, creation is timeless - this belief leads to an allegorical understanding of the Creation in Genesis, Paradise and the Fall should not be taken literally, John claims.

On the Division of Nature was repeatedly condemned as heretical and finally in 1225 Pope Honorius III had all copies burnt. Thankfully this order was not taken too seriously.

Source - Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy

Between 1976 and 1993, Scotus graced one side of the Irish five pound note. On the new, smaller, fivers, designed by Irish artist Robert Ballagh, Scotus's place is taken by Sister Catherine MacAuley, who was a pioneer in the field of education of people with mental handicaps. These in turn will be replaced by Euro notes and coins in 2002, so the once-familiar image of the bald and begowned Scotus will be pushed even further back into memory.

Update: There is some confusion as to whether the figure on the five pound note was in fact John Scotus Eriugena or thirteenth century philosopher John Duns Scotus. As yet, I can't come up with any reliable information to support either claim, as the figure on the note is almost always referred to as just "Scotus". At the moment, I'm leaning towards Eriugena, as he is more closely associated with Ireland, and his mode of dress on the banknote seems more in keeping with the ninth century than the thirteenth. If anybody can enlighten me further, please do so by means of a /msg. Thanks.

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