John Scottus Eriugena

Journeys of Janus: Explorations in Irish Philosophy

“ ‘Nature’ is a general name for all things,
whether or not they have being.”
— John Scottus Eriugena1

Of the five philosophers that this book examines, the 9th century Eriugena poses the greatest challenge for the reader. You may wish at this point to skip to the 17th century figure, John Toland, whose inclinations more closely resemble those of the modern mind. You can always return to Eriugena.2

However challenging, Eriugena glows with originality and surprise. He blends an infant’s delight in sight and speech, a poet’s passion to see and speak through metaphor, a mystic’s conviction that what is important can neither be seen nor spoken, and a metaphysician’s aspiration to see universally and to speak systematically. Eriugena produces a grand, but daunting, thesis: From an essentially unknowable God flow primal causes that differentiate into the manifold inanimate, animate, human, and angelic actualities, which, having thus differentiated, reflect inward, the multiplicity of individuals returning in a process of reunification to God, the eternal One. All consists in outgoing and incoming, cosmic departure and cosmic return.

Eriugena begins oddly: The word ‘nature’, he says, refers to all that exists and all that does not exist. This pronouncement will puzzle less as we grasp a further—also unusual—distinction: Eriugena divides reality into four aspects.

Nature is a genus which is divided into four species: that which creates and is not created; that which is created and also creates; that which is created but does not create; and that which neither creates nor is created.3

In other words, first, as source, God is the cause that is uncaused. Second, as primal causes, Christ or the Word is caused by God and then causes. Third, as the results of the Word’s causal efficacy, all things—stones, plants and animals, human beings and their spiritual peers, the angels—are caused but themselves do not cause. Finally, God, as Destination of the return of created beings, neither causes nor is caused.

The initial two-fold division—all that exists and all that does not exist—subsumes this further four-fold division. The One becomes many, and the many return to the One through nature’s four phases or dimensions. Eriugena draws on Neo-Platonism. Plotinus, a 3rd century Neo-Platonist, believed that ideas were not just productions of human minds but objectively real; that they were more real than the physical world; that they were hierarchically related to the One, from which they emanate and thereby gain their existence. Emanation is a crucial Neo-Platonic concept. Eriugena adapts the concept of emanation: He adds to this notion of flowing out the notion of flowing back. His cosmology, emphasizing harmony and symmetry, is at once centrifugal and centripetal.

He says more: Surprisingly, God is nothing. God’s reality so exceeds that of the things around us that, paradoxically, God is nothing. Perhaps we may interpret Eriugena here as positing, in effect, a distinction between reality and actuality. This is an uncommon distinction in the 21st century. Many people today believe that only material things exist. A Neo-Platonist would say otherwise: The most real things are immaterial; material things are less real, merely actual. To a Neo-Platonist, reality and actuality differ radically.

Eriugena seems to say that what creates is most real; what is created is most actual. God is thus most real; things, plants, animals, angels, and people most actual. Since created things and beings have no actuality apart from God, through creation God creates God-Self, that is, diversifies into actuality. In this centrifugal dimension God actualizes God-Self. In the centripetal dimension, the return, God “realizes,” re-essentializes, all that God had created.

Thus, the initial puzzling proposal makes sense. The word ‘nature’, he had said, refers to all that exists and all that does not exist. That is, it refers, respectively, to creation, which exists, and to God, which does not. ‘Nature’ does not carry the limited biochemical meaning, which many today identify with ‘creation’. Instead, ‘nature’ refers to what we normally study in the natural sciences and in theology (and in philosophy, for Eriugena believed that theology and philosophy are one).

This cosmology, in which God and creation are inter-bound within nature, involves (A) a distinctive view of our knowledge of God, (B) an optimistic view of human moral potential, (C) a respectful attitude toward women, and (D) a humane understanding of the end of history. An explanation of two theological doctrines will illuminate all four points.


The two doctrines are the “transcendence of God” and the “immanence of God.” These doctrines complement each other: Ordinarily, the more emphasis a theologian places on transcendence, the less she will place on immanence; the more on immanence, the less on transcendence.

God’s transcendence consists of God’s greatness, God’s difference from ordinary things. To the extent that God is transcendent, God would elude our capacities for knowing and characterizing God. A strong doctrine of transcendence would entail that is almost or fully indescribable. The latter condition theologians refer to as “ineffability.” A God that is only transcendent presumably would be utterly unknowable, psychologically and religiously irrelevant.

Thus, epistemic and religious considerations seem to require at least a degree of immanence. God’s immanence consists of God’s connectedness to this world, God’s presence, God’s accessibility to human cognitive capacities, or at least partial accessibility. Any theism, including Eriugena’s, will need to balance or reconcile divine transcendence with divine immanence: Without transcendence, God is not God. Without immanence, one could know nothing of God; one could not even know that there is a God that transcends our understanding.

At first sight, Eriugena appears to come down hard in favor of immanence. God and humankind bear a metaphysical intimacy. God creates humankind in God’s image; in creating humankind, God creates God-Self. God creates God-Self by creating humankind. This claim represents an extreme doctrine of divine immanence: God’s very actuality depends on the actuality of creatures. Such a God, we suspect, would be so connected to us that we could know God as transparently as we know ourselves. Eriugena seems to have abandoned transcendence altogether, reducing God to the objects of God’s creations. This God may seem divine in name only.

Paradoxically, however, the extreme emphasis on immanence itself protects Eriugena from this criticism. For God is so immanent that God’s very transcendence is immanent.

This position is distinctive. For most theists, these doctrines, transcendence and immanence, represent exclusive, or partially exclusive, alternatives: the more immanence, the less transcendence; the more transcendence, the less immanence. By contrast, Eriugena does not really balance two—seemingly polar—doctrines, measuring one side at the expense or benefit of the other. Ingeniously, he maximizes both. He brings transcendence to humankind. Transcendence itself becomes immanent. The divine Imager’s ineffability emanates as the human imagee’s ineffability. This is a startling philosophical move.

In creating us in God’s image, the ineffable God has created us as ineffable. According to Eriugena, God does elude our knowledge; but we, as well, elude our own knowledge. Indeed, we elude God’s knowledge, and God eludes God’s own knowledge.

Yet neither God nor we are completely unknowable. By Eriugena’s lights, God’s transcendence entails that God is—as we have noted—not. God, as more-than-essence, as superessential, is not something, however superlatively characterized. God so transcends thingness that God is nothing. The transcendent nothing, artificially conceptualized as distinct from creation, also must be conceptualized as, in principle, completely unknowable. Nevertheless, in fact, God, is partially knowable just because God differentiates into the existences that we do partially know. Therefore, we do, in part, know God. God’s essence is unknowable, ineffable, but we may speak cautiously, metaphorically, of God in God’s mode as created.

Thus God does not enable a clear understanding, for God transcends even the category of existence itself; but God guarantees every human being some knowledge of God, for all human beings—indeed, all beings and all objects—just are emanations whereby God creates God-self and thereby becomes partially knowable. God comes to exist only through the process of emanation. The human being is God made manifest, partly definable. Eriugena allows that the human being is a rational animal, but denies that that proposition constitutes a definition, since the human being is made in God’s image, and God transcends definition.

Eriugena believes that everything is theophanous. A theophany is an appearance of deity, an apparition of the normally unapparent. As usually conceived, theophanies are rare. For example, scripture and theology interpret angels as theophanous, and, of course, we just don’t see many angels. For Eriugena, however, all aspects of us, and all aspects of the creation around us, constitute signs of the divine. Everything is theophanous. The point applies to human productions as well as to the productions of processes that we normally term, “natural;” it applies to art and philosophy and science as well as to stones, sand, lambs, babies and adult human beings. Eriugena would say, in fact, that angels are theophanous, too; but whereas most theologians would say that angels are theophanous because they differ from human beings and philosophy and stones, Eriugena would say that they are theophanous because they resemble human beings and philosophy and stones. Stones and angels and philosophy all emanate from the One, thus point us toward the One.

That all of created nature is theophanous justifies statements about God with respect to God as created, but not with respect to God in God’s essence. We can know that God is, but not what God is. Moreover, we can say what God is not, but we cannot know what God is by virtue of what God is not. We can say that God is more-than-wise, more-than-good, more-than-eternal, more-than-true, even that God is more-than-essence; but beyond such superlatives we may not speak.

Two problems arise for the contemporary reader. First, she may find these attributions so hedged as to be meaningless. For Eriugena, however, extreme theological caution sings to the fathomless mystery of the Source of all emanations. Eriugena has a point. Before we dismiss the lyrics as too indeterminate, we might examine our own, universally human, inclination to wonder. Could that inclination reflect exactly the theophanous mystery to which Eriugena makes music?

Second, the notion of God’s creating God-Self initially seems preposterous. It is, we want to say, illogical. This objection, however, may be misdirected; possibly we should focus not on the proposal that God creates God-self, but, if anywhere, on the notion of the divine transcendence itself, to which believers widely and often uncritically subscribe. For if we accept the divine transcendence, does it not follow logically that neither ordinary principles of logic nor ordinary principles of physics apply to God? If so, to criticize ‘God creates God-Self’ as being illogical, is, itself, illogical, since God has already been accepted to be beyond logic.

Moral Anthropology

Eriugena’s metaphysics of emanation produces an optimistic understanding of human nature. In Christian thought usually, the fall requires the resurrection whereby Christ cleanses us of our sins. Christianity generally teaches that (1) God created humankind in His image; that (2) this integrity between Imager and imagee—between God and humankind—did not preclude that the imagee might disobey the Imager; (3) that the imagee did freely choose disobedience; (4) that this act initiated a universal falling of man and woman from their Imager; (5) and that man and woman were thereby weakened, so that only the gracious action of God can save the imagee from sinful inclinations. Incarnation and resurrection constitute this gracious action. Christianity is pessimistic about human nature since regeneration depends essentially on its external source.

In contrast with the usual Christian conceptualization, Eriugena draws on Neo-Platonism. He thus creates a tension. He wishes to develop a fully Christian philosophy. Compared to much of Christianity, however, Neo-Platonists are optimistic about human nature. In their view, leading the highest moral life lies within our capability. We are not destined by essentially sinful natures to a life of sin, fundamentally regenerated only by divine intervention. We are not originally, intrinsically sinful. Moral failure results from ignorance, moral achievement from knowledge. We suffer from a natural human condition, ignorance. Natural human frailties, those associated with ignorance, generate our failures. Natural mental acts can remedy the defects can remedy our defects, acts such as observing, inferring, questioning, hypothesizing, criticizing. From the Neo-Platonic perspective, while the objects of human knowledge—the objectively real ideas, ultimately, the Good or the One—transcend the physical world, we human beings have the potential, through reason, to transcend the physical world ourselves.

How would Eriugena, both Neo-Platonic and Christian, resolve the tension between optimism and pessimism? In his view, the fall and resurrection consist of cosmic processes of differentiation and return to unity. While he conceptualizes the cosmology in four parts or phases, the parts are really one: God, the uncaused, causing the Word or Christ; wherein the primordial principles emanate into the realm of stones, plants, animals, angels, and human beings; these last, the human beings, contributing the further differentiation of gender through the fall; whereupon the Word, Christ, returns to God, unifying man and woman into genderless humankind; and, through humankind, the entirety of creation, returns to unity in the undifferentiated One. In the end, all will be saved, saints and sinners.

Moreover, God had originally made humankind in God’s image. Eriugena takes this claim seriously: Transcendence itself is immanent. Therefore not only does the ineffability of the divine essence transfer to the human essence; the divine ineffability creates itself in the actual human as a rational mind. In its pristine state, before the fall, humankind’s unity reflects the divine unity, and is thus ineffable. After the creation and the immediate fall, humankind becomes embodied with rationality that is conferred by God. While this rationality does not constitute the fully unified pre-fall rational purity—logic as it subsists in created beings necessarily requires distinctions—the rationality, nevertheless is good. Humankind, now gendered into male and female, can make moral choices. Thus, Eriugena’s anthropology more closely resembles Greek optimism than Christian pessimism, though Eriugena wants to say that his views cohere with Christianity.

Theory of Gender

The pristine state of humankind before the fall reflects the divine unity, and is thus genderless. In an irrational moment,4 humankind turns away from God toward carnal delight. For this act, humankind bears full responsibility. God, however, does not respond punitively. God separates humankind from paradise, the original pristine human condition. God divides humankind into male and female, inaugurating sexual reproduction. Eriugena associates the masculine with reason and the feminine with sensation. We here anticipate the entry of sexism. Deirdre Carabine, however, writes,

While this is not a particularly flattering identification in the light of contemporary feminist theology, Eriugena is clear that both together make up human nature. Woman was not created simply for assistance in the process of mortal generation, because the image of God in which the whole of human nature was made was free from all sexuality.5

While women are associated with sensation rather than reason, no people are essentially associated with sensation rather than reason because no people are essentially women. Nor are any people essentially men. ‘Man’ does not express the human essence; ‘humankind’ does. Woman is not added to creation, as if an after thought; gender is added. We should not say merely that woman complements man. If anything, we should say that woman and man complement each other. Even here we need to be careful. ‘To complement’ cannot mean ‘to complete’. It would be imprecise to say that woman and man complete each other. They cannot be completed except in the return through which they regain their essence, which is genderless. What completes humankind is the absence of gender.

The association of women with sensation and men with reason may be flawed psychologically—we would have to talk to the psychologists about that question. Metaphysically and morally, however, Eriugena’s views are, for the most part, equalitarian.

Last Things

The school of thought known as universalism asserts that all will be saved, none damned. Eriugena’s universalism is writ large. Few Christians have subscribed to universalism, although many have propounded its antithesis fiercely. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, the central character, Stephen Dedalus, when at chapel with other college students, hears the priest begin,

Now let us try for a moment to realize, as far as we can, the nature of that abode of the damned which the justice of an offended God has called into existence for the eternal punishment of sinners. Hell is a strait and dark and foul smelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke. The straitness of this prison house is expressly designed by God to punish those who refused to be bound by His laws. In earthly prisons the poor captive has at least some liberty of movement, were it only within the four walls of his cell or in the gloomy yard of his prison. Not so in hell. There, by reason of the great number of the damned, the prisoners are heaped together in their awful prison, the walls of which are said to be four thousand miles thick: and the damned are so utterly bound and helpless that, as a blessed saint, Saint Anselm, writes in his book on Similitudes, they are not even able to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it.6

The contemporary philosopher Jonathan L. Kvanvig cautions against confusing the idea of hell with its literary depictions, which involve fire and unending pain,

“For there is nothing in the traditional doctrine that requires hell to be a place of torture. Such language, as well as the contrasting language of outer darkness, must be treated as the metaphorical language it is, the literal significance of which is to signal an ending for a person that is as bad as anything can be (consistent, of course, with the moral perfection of God).”7

The qualification in the parentheses should give us pause. If hell must be conceived as consistent with the moral perfection of God, it is unclear how even a metaphorical interpretation of sermonic and literary depictions can protect them from the charge that hell would constitute God’s infliction of injustice. As Kvanvig himself notes, it would seem unjust to subject people to a punishment that is infinite for sins that are but finite.8

Kvanvig believes theology should probably replace the traditional punishment model with some version of a choice model. Such a model would represent hell as primarily a choice, which people make, rather than as a punishment; if a punishment at all, a punishment only secondarily. Hell would be a place or state that “honors” human choices. Since, on this model, hell does not (primarily) punish, it does not punish excessively.

Problems confront a choice model. On any account, hell must be an unpleasant place or state, if the concept is to retain recognizable continuity with the ordinary usage of ‘hell’. Questions arise immediately. For example, should a person who disbelieves that there even is a hell be held accountable for choosing to enter hell? Indeed, can we even coherently say that a person who disbelieves that there is a hell “chooses” to enter hell? A man may not suspect that, on a river, his motorboat approaches a submerged log. After hitting the log, would we say that the man “chose to damage his motor?” If we cannot say that a person who disbelieves that there is a hell can choose to enter it, only a modest number of contemporary westerners could enter hell, since many doubt that such a place or state exists. Beyond all of that, who in his right mind, believing that there is a hell, would choose to go there? No one. Since only those in their right minds can be held morally accountable, the concept of hell seems superfluous.

Eriugena’s universalism offers a reasonable alternative. He denies that hell is a place, construing it instead the painful condition of living with the self-indictments of one’s own conscience. Since we are made in the image of God, we have the inherent potential to choose rationally; if we choose irrationally, our own reason will admonish us.

Again, Eriugena’s optimism about human nature predominates. Is he unrealistic? Does he ascribe to human beings greater potential than we have? Do we need the harsh disincentive to moral error that proponents of the punishment model have always invoked, a hell that is bifurcated from heaven as pain is bifurcated from bliss? Maybe, but if Eriugena overestimates the human motivational condition, he does not do so obviously. For, on Eriugena’s view, while all will be saved, not all will be saved equally. “There are many rooms in my Father’s house,” Eriugena says. He continues,

So in the paradise of human nature, everyone will have his place in proportion to his conduct in this life. Some will be farther out as in the outermost porticoes; others closer within, as in the nearer halls of divine contemplation; others in the spacious temples of divine mysteries; and still others in the inmost theophanies above all nature in and with Him who is superessential and supernatural. Blessed are those who enter the inner shrines of Wisdom, which is Christ.9

Eschatology, a division within Christian theology, examines the last things, the second and final coming of Christ, the culmination and end of history. A critic of Eriugena could assert, “… Heaven and hell should be seen as the exclusive and exhaustive eschatological options: one is either with God eternally or one is not, corresponding respectively to heaven and hell.”10 Heaven, in fact, must be bifurcated from hell as torment is bifurcated from bliss.

But why must the incentive and disincentive exclude each other, as the critic claims? Why is this dichotomy not a false dichotomy? Why is there not a third alternative, namely, being farther or nearer to God in degrees that reflect one’s choices in life? Indeed, why would a morally perfect God, to which Kvanvig refers, have it otherwise?

In summary, Western philosophy probably has underestimated the importance of John Scottus Eriugena. He expounds a sophisticated metaphysics and epistemology that were integrated with one another, and that evoke the mystery of human experience without retreat into skepticism.

Though Irish, Johannus Scottus Eriugena spent most of his life in France, teaching and writing in schools supported by King Charles the Bald, grandson of Charlemagne. To improve the quality of French education, Charles imported scholars from other countries, many of them Irish by birth and educated in Irish monasteries. We suppose, but do not know, that Eriugena, too, was educated in Irish monasteries. We know not when, where, or how he died. We can say, though, that had his views on human moral potential, on women, and on last things found a more receptive audience, Stephen Dedalus—and all within Christendom—would have been born into a different religious world.


  1. (Back to text) Eriugena, Periphyseon: On the Division of Nature, translated by Myra L. Uhlfesder, with summaries by Jean A. Potter (Bobbs-Merrill, 1976), p. 1.
  2. (Back to text) For a more thorough discussion than that presented in this book, you may consult my paper, “Eriugena on Immanence and Transcendence,” under “Papers” at this web site.
  3. (Back to text) Translated by John O’Meara, Eriugena, (Oxford, 1988), p. 80.
  4. (Back to text) How could pristine natures lapse into “an irrational moment?” This problem seems to dog every theologian who posits a perfect Creator.
  5. (Back to text) Deirdre Carabine, John Scottus Eriugena (Oxford, 2000), p. 81.
  6. (Back to text) James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published with The Dubliners (Barnes and Noble, 1992), p. 294.
  7. (Back to text) Jonathan L. Kvanvig, “Heaven and Hell,” A Companion to Philosophy of Religion (Blackwell, 1999), p. 563.
  8. (Back to text) Kvanvig, 565.
  9. (Back to text) Eriugena, Periphyseon: On the Division of Nature, pp. 339-40.
  10. (Back to text) Kvanvig, p. 564.