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The condemnation of Eriugena

Sunday, 4 Sep 2016

Eriugena on Dr John Dunn The work of John Scotus Eriugena served as the primary channel of Dionysian thought through his translation of the corpus and appropriation of its content into a philosophical system.

Writing in ninth century, Eriugena was the connecting link between the Platonic underground of the early post-Nicaea church and the humanist Renaissance of the Quattrocento. This makes him a writer of supreme importance to the survival of the church’s Hellenistic origins.

Eriugena’s philosophical system is found in his magnum opus the Periphyseon, and in the lesser Homelia.

In the Periphyseon the Eleusinian light motif is present in the recurrent emphasis on the need for a move from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, away from sense-knowledge towards the intellectual illumination, from the lower to the higher. Eriugena was particularly scathing of those who could not scale the lofty heights of his contemplation, but who remained caught up in carnal thoughts. What was called for in the dialogue (the structure of the work), and what gradually takes place in Alumnus (the student), and in the reader, are a genuine shift in viewpoint, away from the limitations of the senses towards an appreciation of the true nature of things, and their ultimate unity in the Inaccessible One.

In the Homelia, God is the Light which illuminates Itself as well as the whole world. Through the Word, however, we, who are no longer the Light, can once more participate in the Light. The Light comes to us in Scripture but also through the lights of created natures. Our nature is at present a a dark substance, but it is capable of transfiguration. The Light itself is so bright that to us it is an impenetrable darkness.

In the Peripyseon, Eriugena maintains a hierachical metaphysical system under the guise of ‘divisions’ of nature, but argues for the final conflation of these divisions, which include God and nature, uncreated and created being. Heinsists that God and the creature must be considered as one.

It follows that we ought not to understand God and the creature as two things distinct from one another, but as one and the same. For both the creature, by subsisting, is in God; and God, by manifesting Himself... creates Himself in the Creature.(1)

The condemnation of Eriugena by the Church in 1225, long after his death, linked him with Amaury de Beynes and the Amalricians. Thomas Aquinas supposedly denounced Amaury as a pantheist. He wrote of the Amalricians as holding that God was ‘the formal principle of all things’ (Summa Q 3.8).

Eriugena did not not use the term ‘formal principle’, but he did use the formula‘form of all’ to describe God on several occasions. He also wrote that God is ‘the essence’ and ‘all subsistence’. Dermot Moran has pulled together what is known about the Amalricians from the earliest known sources.(2) The Amalricians held that God was the form in the sense of the Ideal Exemplar or Primordial Cause of all things, as was reported by Martin of Poland (i.e. of Troppau) in his The Chronicle of the Popes and Emperors (1265-8) and by Henry of Susa in his Commentary on the Five Books of Decretalsby Pope Gregory IX (1270). Henry reported that Amaury had found his teachings in the writings of Eriugena and listed three principal errors:(1) that all things are God, (2) that the ideas both create and are created, and (3) that there will be a merging of the sexes at the end of time. Martin (d. 1279) reported around 1271-2 that the Amalricians heldthat God was both the creative cause of all things and created in all things, an idea found in Eriugena. Bernard Gui reported that these errors were to be found in a book called Pision, and Franciscus Pipinus (d. 1320), in his Chronicle, wrote that these ideas were to be found in the Peri Pyseon and were condemned in Paris. Other sources of Amaury’s doctrines and their condemnation are Garnier of Rochefort’s Against the Amalricians (1223), which associates the phrase ‘God is all things’ with Amaury, and Ceasar of Heisterbach’s Dialogue of Miracles (c. 1223).

Eriugena’s posthumous association with the Amalrician heresy is important for what it tells us about the Church in the two centuries leading up to the Renaissance. Scholars always cite pantheism as the heresy for which Eriugena was condemned as an influence upon the later Amalricians.

However, pantheism was not coined until the 17th century, during the re-ascendency of Aristotelean Scholasticism in the counter-Reformation of the Catholic Church. What is revealed in the condemnation of Eriugena is a Church that was deadly serious about upholding God as a wholly transcendent entity, ruling out notions of participation in the Divine as others in the Platonic underground would have understood it, i.e. the concepts of deification and capax Dei.

In other words, this was a condemnation of Eriugena and the Amalricians from the standpoint of Jehovianism, when the first wave of Scholasticismwas at its apotheosis under Aquinas.

To return to our analogy with earthly geometry (see Thought Piece, Convergence into the One), the church was repelling threats to its position in the realm of the equator, the realm of separateness, the realm of the Old Testament Jehovah, where the world of antinomies, that abound in individual human experience, are adjudged to be the result of the arbitrary dictates of an Absolute and wholly separate God.

Understanding the condemnation in this way throws light upon the Albigensian Crusade also. The Cathars were condemned as heretics from the same standpoint shortly before.

1. Johannis Scotti Eriugenae Periphyseon: (De divisione naturae), 3 vols, edited by I. P. Sheldon-Williams, (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1968–1981), vol. III, pp. 160-3.
2. See Dermot Moran, The Philosophy of John Scottus Eriugena: A Study of Idealism in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 1989, p.87.

© John Dunn.

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