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John Scotus Eriugena

John Scotus Eriugena

By Wayne Hankey

The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, ed. Lloyd P. Gerson (Cambridge, 2010)

Introduction: Eriugena, master of the liberal arts, translator, philologue, poet, philosopher, and theologian, ‘reinvented the greater part of the theses of Neoplatonism’, by his time largely forgotten in the Latin West. Such a profoundly authentic retrieval of the doctrines developed in the pagan Platonic schools of late Antiquity from Plotinus to Damascius would not be created again in the Middle Ages until Maître Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa—both, directly or indirectly, under Eriugena’s influence. His accomplishment is the more remarkable because made almost entirely without access to non-Christian authors, by drawing out philosophy largely from theological writings—into which genres his own works almost entirely fall.

After Boethius, he was the first to unite the Greek and Latin Platonisms of late Antiquity; this enabled his reconciliation of Latin and Greek Christian theology. The Latin Fathers were foundational—pre-eminently Augustine, crucially Boethius, and importantly Ambrose. In Periphyseon they are contained within a single system with the Greek Fathers. The writings of the Greeks were known to him and affected his thought before he made his famous translations beginning with the Pseudo-Dionysian corpus. While producing them, he learned, and deeply reflected upon, the doctrines of the late Hellenic Platonists in the tradition from Iamblichus to Damascius, ideas he had not acquired by means of the Latins. Eriugena’s reconciliation was accomplished by extending the primarily Plotinian and Porphyrian Platonism of the Latin Fathers in the direction of notions from Iamblichus, Syrianus, Proclus, and Damascius transmitted by the Greeks. The logical conclusion of pagan Hellenic philosophy, John encountered indirectly, first, by way of Boethius, and, then by way of the more radically apophatic theologies of Pseudo-Dionysius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor—to name the most influential sources. In general, in the Latin Middle Ages, when the earlier Platonism of Augustine met the later, most authoritatively conveyed by Dionysius, ‘this highest theologian’, the later determined the systematic structure within which ideas were placed. Eriugena established the pattern which would prevail among the Latin medievals.

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