There is a strong flavour of his Gaelic origin in Eriugena’s thought, an unmistakable dash of that Gaelic love of enterprise, fearlessness of consequences, and joy in conflict which can find a field in philosophy and literature as well as in deeds of war and difficult feats of self-devotion. As a thinker he follows without hesitation the lead of reason, not fearing that the end of philosophy could be any other thantruth, though charges of heresy and the thunders of the Church abound. The quality of the race which have made many of its difficulties are yet the qualities which make individual Irishmen, and will yet make the Irish nation great.
In the general consciousness, philosophy is more associated with the arts than with science. The nesting of philosophy under “literature” in the Oxford Reference timeline tool is one example. In the case of Irish philosophy it’s understandable given great writers such as Swift, Wilde and Yeats fit into the category of Irish philosopher. But Irish philosophy (as all philosophy) also includes people who are interested in the natural world, mathematics and technology.
AE wrote in 1925 (Irish Statesman): “Ireland has not only the unique Gaelic tradition, but it has also given birth, if it accepts all of its children, to many men who have influenced European culture and science, Berkeley, Swift, Goldsmith, Burke, Sheridan, Moore, Hamilton, Kelvin, Tyndall, Shaw, Yeats, Synge and many others of international repute.” Four of those names unequivocally played a role in the history of STEM. Three of those were also philosophers.
Eriugina was not understood in his time
“which explains, perhaps, the delay in condemning him”
And they went looking for Manicheans
And found, so far as I can make out, no Manicheans
So they dug for, and damned Scotus Eriugina
“Authority comes from right reason,
never the other way on”
Hence the delay in condemning him
Aquinas head down in a vacuum,
Aristotle which way in a vacuum?
From Canto XXXVI by Ezra Pound.
Poster poems: light in the Guardian, on the role played by light in the work of various poets: “For Pound, light was the informing principle of the universe, a view best summarised in the phrase ‘all things that are, are lights’ which he attributed to the Irish philosopher John Scotus Eriugena in the Pisan Cantos.”
The podcast series The History of Philosophy without any Gaps has arrived at the early medieval period. The first major philosopher to be covered is Irishman John Scottus Eriugena.
Episode 197: “Charles in Charge: The Carolingian Renaissance” gives an introduction to the growth of learning in France in the years before Eriugena. The focus is on the star of Charlemagne’s court, the philosopher Alcuin of York. The court was also home to many Irish scholars such as Clemens Scotus (teacher, at court before Alcuin), Joseph Scottus (a poet and scholar who probably accompanied Alcuin), Dungal of Bobbio (teacher and astronomer), Dicuil (geographer), Donatus of Fiesole (teacher), Cruindmelus (teacher), and Cadac-Andreas (scholar). This reflects the focus the Carolingian Court had on education and learning, which drew in scholars from all over Europe. It also shows the wide range of learning held by Irish monks.
It is fitting, then, that every 16 June the Irish should commemorate a day on which nothing much happened. Like many modernist works, Ulysses revolves on a botched revelation or bungled epiphany, as Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus finally meet to no momentous effect. Nothingness is a traditional topic of Irish writing, all the way from the negative theology of the great medieval schoolman John Scottus Eriugena to the vision of hell of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. It is true that nothing, like something, happens anywhere, but it tends to happen more in a down-at-heel colony (‘an afterthought of Europe’, Joyce scornfully called it) than it does on Wall Street or in Whitehall. Riba’s parental home strikes him as ‘more and more Irish’ precisely because nothing ever happens there. It is full of ghosts, as indeed Dublinesque is as a whole. Ireland, too, is haunted by a history which is dead but won’t lie down.
Quoted from “Irishness is for other people”, LRB. A review by Terry Eagleton of Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas, trans. by Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey
Scholastic philosophy is considered to begin with John Scotus Erigena who flourished about the year 860, and who must not be confused with the Duns Scotus of a later date. We do not quite know whether he belonged to Ireland or to Scotland, for Scotus points to Scotland, and Erigena to Ireland. With him true philosophy first begins, and his philosophy in the main coincides with the idealism of the Neo-Platonists. […]
Scotus was also the author of some original works, which are not without depth and penetration, upon nature and its various orders (De naturæ divisione), &c. Dr. Hjort, of Copenhagen, published an epitome of the writings of Scotus Erigena, in 1823. Scotus Erigena sets to work philosophically, expressing himself in the manner of the Neo-Platonists, and not freely, and as from himself, Thus in the method of expression adopted by Plato, and also by Aristotle, we are rejoiced to find a new conception, and on bringing it to the test of philosophy, to find it both correct and profound; but here everything is ready to hand, cut and dry. Yet, with Scotus, theology is not yet built on exegesis, and on the authority of the Church; the Church in many cases rejected his writings. Thus Scotus is reproached by a Lyons church council […] Scotus Erigena hence even said: “The true Philosophy is the true Religion, and the true Religion is the true Philosophy. The separation came later on. Scotus then made a beginning, but properly he does not belong to the scholastics
From Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy: Part Two. Philosophy of the Middle Ages. This second section covers The Scholastic Philosophy.
The entire lecture, including an unabridged version of the quote above is available here.
Searching for material on John Scotus Eriugena, I was surprised to learn Pope Benedict XVI had made an address about him on 10th June 2009. It’s a solid summary in 2 minutes; the text is available for those who prefer it.
Today I would like to speak of a noteworthy thinker of the Christian West: John Scotus Erigena, whose origins are nonetheless obscure. He certainly came from Ireland, where he was born at the beginning of the ninth century, but we do not know when he left his Island to cross the Channel and thus fully enter that cultural world which was coming into being around the Carolingians, and in particular around Charles the Bald, in ninth-century France. Just as we are not certain of the date of his birth, likewise we do not know the year of his death but, according to the experts, it must have been in about the year 870.
A book by Leonard O’Brian exploring the work of five Irish philosophers.
- John Scottus Eriugena
- John Toland
- George Berkeley
- Francis Hutcheson
- Iris Murdoch