Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Scotus

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
606124Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 51 — Scotus1897Reginald Lane-Poole

SCOTUS or Erigena, JOHN (fl. 850), philosopher, was, as his first surname shows, of Irish origin; and the fact is expressly stated by Prudentius, bishop of Troyes (‘De Prædestinatione contra Ioannem Scotum,’ xiv., in Migne's Patrol. Lat. cxv. 1194 A). The supposition that he was a native of Scotland is altogether contrary to the usage of the word ‘Scotus’ at the time. To contemporaries he was always known as Joannes Scotus or ‘Scotigena.’ His alternative surname was used only as a literary pseudonym in the titles of his versions of Dionysius the Areopagite; and this, as it is found in the oldest manuscripts, was not Erigena, but Eriugena or Ierugena. That John formed it on the model of Grajugena has been inferred from the lines in which he celebrates his favourite author, St. Maximus:

Quisquis amat formam pulchrae laudare sophiae
Te legat assiduus, Maxime Grajugena.

(Opp. p. 1236.)

The first element in the name is doubtless derived from Érin (accus. Érinn): the alternative form suggests ἱερός, since Ireland was ἡ ἱερός νῆσος or νῆσος τῶν ἱερῶν, and the omission of the aspirate occurs also in the translations of Dionysius (see Floss, prœem., pp. xix, xx, and L. Traube, Abhandl. der phil. Cl. der kgl. Bayer. Akad. xix. 360, 1891). William of Malmesbury (Epist. ad Petrum) read the word as Heruligena, and traced John to Pannonia; while in modern times Bale made him a Briton born at St. David's, Dempster (Hist. Eccles. Gent. Scot. i. 42, ed. 1829) derived him from Ayr, and Thomas Gale (‘Testimonia’ prefixed to his edition of the books de Divisione Naturæ) from ‘Eriuven’ in the marches of Hereford. The combination of ‘Ioannes Scotus Erigena’ is perhaps not older than Ussher (Veterum Epistolarum Hibernicarum Sylloge, p. 57) and Gale; and Gale, who prints ‘Joanne Erigena Scoto’ at the head of the version of St. Maximus, is careful to avoid either combination in his text; nor is it found in Bale, Tanner, or Cave. At an earlier time, indeed, many writers believed John Scotus and John Erigena to be different persons, the former of whom, according to Trittheim (‘De Script. Eccles.’ in Opp. Hist. i. 252, ed. 1601), lived under Charles the Great, the latter under his grandson; while Dempster in 1627 made Erigena the earlier.

Of John's earlier life nothing historical is recorded. There is indeed a fable in Bale which tells how he travelled to Athens and studied Greek, Chaldee, and Arabic for many years, returning thence at last to Italy and Gaul; but Bale gives the clue by which to discover the real basis of his story, since he describes John as ‘ex patricio genitore natus.’ Now John, the son of Patricius, a Spaniard (see Fabricius, Biblioth. Græc. iii. 284, ed. Harles), was the translator of the ‘Secreta Secretorum’ currently attributed in the middle ages to Aristotle, and the facts above stated are a mere adaptation of the account which John the translator gives of his own wanderings. Anthony Wood (Hist. and Antiq. of the Univ. of Oxford, i. 39) carries back the identification of the two Johns to the authority of Roger Bacon, but simply because he used a copy of the ‘Secreta Secretorum’ which contained glosses by Bacon (MS. Corpus Christi Coll. Oxon. No. cxlix); the translator's narrative, however, naturally occurs not in Bacon's glosses, but in his own preface (see on the whole question Poole, Illustr. app. i.). The identification, with all that follows from it, is a modern invention.

Not less apocryphal is the story which makes John Scotus a disciple of Bede, and invited to Gaul by Charles the Great. Even Bale (ii. 24, p. 124) noticed the anachronism, though in another place (xiv. 32, pt. ii. pp. 202 seq.) he fell a victim to the confusion, attributing to the first John Scotus, whose existence is doubtful, works by the second, and referring to the former a statement which Simeon of Durham (‘Hist. Reg.’ § 9, in Opp. ii. 116, ed. Arnold) makes of the latter. The confusion reappears in many other writers (e.g. Possevinus, Apparatus Sacer, i. 939). A grosser variant of it, which made John Scotus one of the founders of the university of Paris, is older than Vincent of Beauvais, who cites it in his ‘Speculum Historiale,’ xxiii. 173, f. 308 (ed. Cologne, 1494). The story is, in fact, an enlargement of the legendary account which the monk of St. Gall (‘Gesta Karoli Magni,’ i. 1, in Pertz, Mon. Germ. Hist. ii. 731) gives of the ‘merchants of wisdom’ who came from Ireland, and were welcomed at the Frankish king's court, assisted by an interpolation in a rescript of Nicolas I (as given by Bulæus, Hist. Univ. Paris. i. 184), designed for the glorification of the antiquity of the university of Paris (Poole, p. 56 n. 3; Rashdall, Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, i. 273 n. 2).

John Scotus, who was born, no doubt, in the first quarter of the ninth century, went abroad before 847, since Prudentius, who by that year was already bishop of Troyes (Hist. lit. de la France, v. 241), speaks (De Prædest. ch. i. p. 1012) of their former intimate friendship, which was clearly formed when both were attached to the palace of king Charles the Bald, afterwards emperor. That John was employed there as a teacher, though possibly not even a clergyman (‘nullis ecclesiasticæ dignitatis gradibus insignitum,’ says Prudentius, ib. ch. ii. p. 1043), appears from the tract written in the name of the church of Lyons, and attributed to Florus the deacon, ‘adversus Joannis Scoti erroneas definitiones’ (Migne, cxix. 103 A); John is here referred to as ‘quasi scholasticus et eruditus’ (compare the rhetorical preface to John's book ‘De Prædestinatione,’ Migne, cxxii. 355 A, and the ‘Liber de tribus Epistolis,’ xxxix, in Migne, cxxi. 1052 A, commonly ascribed to Remigius of Lyons, but more probably written by Ebo of Grenoble; see H. Schrörs, Hinkmar Erzbischof von Rheims, p. 128, n. 11, Freiburg, 1884).

It was as a man of learning that John was requested by Hincmar, archbishop of Rheims, and Pardulus, bishop of Laon—not, as Neander says (Hist. of Christian Religion, vi. 196, transl. Torrey 1852), by the king—to write a reply to the monk Gottschalk, whose exaggerated statement of the Augustinian doctrine of predestination had led to his condemnation by the second synod of Mentz in 848, and again by the synod of Quierzy, a year later. John produced his tract ‘De Prædestinatione’ early in 851 (see Schrörs, p. 115, n. 24, cf. p. 117, n. 30). Opening with the announcement that true philosophy and true religion are identical, he urged against Gottschalk's assertion of predestination to evil that such a doctrine was incompatible with the unity of God, since unity of essence implies unity of will, and that, as evil is merely the negation of good, it lies outside God's knowledge; otherwise he would be the cause of it, since what he knows he causes. Predestination can therefore only be spoken of in the sense that God permits his creatures to act according to their free will; the only limit to the possibility of evil-doing is set by the order of the world, within which the creature moves and which he cannot overpass. John's reasoning was not well adapted to its purpose. His friends were startled by the unusual nature of his exposition; and his contribution to the controversy only brought upon him indignant and contemptuous reproofs. His views were condemned by the synod of Valence in 855, where his arguments were described (can. vi., Mansi, Concil. Collect. ampliss. xv. 6) as ‘ineptas quæstiunculas et aniles pene fabulas Scotorumque pultes’ (‘Scots' porridge’); and the condemnation was repeated at the synod of Langres in 859 (can. iii. Mansi, xv. 537 seq.). Whether before or after the composition of his tract on predestination, it is probable that John also engaged in the controversy touching the Holy Communion which agitated the Frankish domain in the second quarter of the ninth century. In 844 Paschasius Radbertus, the advocate of what became the accepted catholic doctrine, presented a revised edition of his book, ‘De Sacramento Corporis et Sanguinis Christi,’ to King Charles; and in the course of the following years the question which he raised was eagerly discussed. That John did contribute to the controversy has been argued from the fact that a treatise on the subject bearing his name was condemned by the council of Vercelli in 1050 (Lanfranc, de Corpore et Sanguine Domini, iv., Migne, cl. 413 seq.); but this treatise is generally believed to be the work of Ratramnus of Corbie. Still, the fact that a work very likely not John's was attributed to him is an indication that he was known to have taken part in the controversy against Paschasius; and the reference made to his teaching on the subject (Hincmar, de Prædest. xxxi, Migne, cxxv. 296), as well as the title of Adrevald's book ‘de Corpore et Sanguine Christi contra ineptias Joannis Scoti,’ points in the same direction (cf. Mabillon, Acta Sanctorum O.S.B., sec. iv. 2, præf. pp. xliv–xlviii, lxiv–lxvii; and C. von Noorden, Hinkmar Erzbischof von Rheims, p. 103 n. 2, Bonn, 1863).

A further trace of John's activity at the court of Charles the Bald is furnished by his translations from the Greek. The growing fame of the abbey of St. Denys had added a new interest to the name of Dionysius the Areopagite; and when the writings falsely ascribed to him were presented by Michael the Stammerer to Lewis the Pious in 827 (Hilduin, Rescript. ad Imper. Ludov., iv.; Migne, cvi. 16), there was a natural desire to have the means of reading them. At length, by the command of Charles the Bald, John Scotus made a translation (under the name of Ioannes Ierugena) of the books ‘De Cælesti Ierarchia,’ ‘de Ecclesiastica Ierarchia,’ ‘de Divinis Nominibus,’ ‘de Mystica Theologia,’ and ‘Epistolæ.’ To the whole he subjoined a set of verses in which he extolled the glories of Greece by comparison with those of Rome (Opp. p. 1194). Whether owing to these verses, in the presence of an angry dispute between the pope and the patriarch of Constantinople, or to the Neo-Platonic complexion of the work itself, the orthodoxy of the book was doubted, and Nicolas I ordered that it should be sent to him for approval. The date of this letter, which is only preserved as a fragment in the ‘Decretum’ of Ivo of Chartres, iv. 104 (Migne, clxi. 289 seq.), is quite uncertain (Jaffé, Registr. Pontif. Roman. No. 2833, ed. 2), and it has been placed variously in 859 (Christlieb, p. 27), 861–2 (Floss, p. 1026), and 867 (Migne, cxix. 1119).

These are almost the only facts known to us on contemporary authority concerning John's life. The inference from a letter to Charles the Bald, written by Anastasius ‘the librarian’ (Migne, cxxix. 739 seq.), that he was already dead in 875, is not justified by its language (cf. Christlieb, pp. 52 seq.); indeed, some verses by the Scot enable us to guess that he was still in Francia in 877, the year of his protector's death (Opp. pp. 1235 seqq.; cf. Huber, p. 120). It is not until the twelfth century that we obtain from the writings of William of Malmesbury a fuller notice of him. William describes in the ‘Gesta Pontificum,’ v. 240 (pp. 392 seq., ed. N. E. S. A. Hamilton), the honour in which the sage—a man little in person and of a merry wit—was held by Charles the Bald, and the intimacy with which they were associated, both in serious studies and in the familiar intercourse of daily life. In this connection two stories of John's lighter mood are told. One is the famous answer to the king's ‘Quid distat inter sottum et Scottum?’—‘Mensa tantum,’ in regard to which it is to be observed that the play upon ‘Scot’ and ‘sot’ was not, even in John's day, much less in William's, a new one. After this William gives an account of his works and his later life, which he repeats almost word for word in his letter to Peter (printed by Gale in Testimonia, ubi supra, and with a collation of a second manuscript by Poole, pp. 317–20) and, more briefly, in his ‘Gesta Regum,’ ii. 122 (i. 131 seq., ed. Stubbs). This narrative has, however, been often suspected because it relates how John was invited by King Alfred to England, and what befel him there; and it has been generally believed that this account has arisen from a confusion with another John, spoken of by Asser, bishop of Sherborne, in his ‘Life of Alfred.’ Asser, in fact, makes two separate statements. In one he says that Alfred sent to Gaul to obtain teachers, and called over two men, Grimbald (who has been mixed up, to the discredit of this notice, with a very late story bringing in the schools at Oxford, which was interpolated by Archbishop Parker in his edition of Asser) and John, ‘Johannem quoque æque presbyterum et monachum, acerrimi ingenii virum, et in omnibus disciplinis literatoriæ artis eruditissimum, et in multis aliis artibus artificiosum’ (‘De Rebus gestis Ælfridi’ in Monum. Hist. Britann. i. 487 B). In the second passage Asser states that Alfred set over his newly founded monastery of Athelney ‘Johannem presbyterum monachum, scilicet Ealdsaxonem genere’ (p. 493 c), i.e. a continental Saxon by descent. The specification has the appearance of intending a distinction from the other John; and mediæval writers uniformly agreed, as is not at all unlikely, that the latter, the companion of Grimbald, was the same with John Scotus. Asser relates that John the Old Saxon was attacked in church by the servants of two Gaulish monks of his house, who wounded but did not slay him.

William of Malmesbury's account of John Scotus has some points of resemblance to this, but more of difference. He says that John quitted Francia because of the charge of erroneous doctrine brought against him. He came to King Alfred, by whom he was welcomed and established as a teacher at Malmesbury, but after some years he was assailed by the boys, whom he taught, with their styles, and so died. It never occurred to any one to identify the Old Saxon abbat of Athelney with the Irish teacher of Malmesbury—with the name John as the single point in common—until the late forger, who passed off his work as that of Ingulf, who was abbat of Croyland towards the end of the eleventh century (‘Descr. Comp.’ in Rer. Angl. Script. post Bedam, p. 870, Frankfurt, 1601); and the confusion has survived the exposure of the fraud. It is permissible to hold that William has handed down a genuine tradition of his monastery, though it would be extreme to accept all the details of what happened more than two centuries before his birth as strictly historical (see an examination of the whole question in Poole, app. ii.) William adds that the body of the ‘Sanctus sophista Johannes’ lay for a time unburied in the church of St. Lawrence, but was afterwards translated to the greater church, where it was placed at the left hand of the altar, with an inscription which he records (Gesta Pontif., Ep. ad Petr. Gest. Reg. ll. cc.). Towards the end of the eleventh century, however, the tomb was removed by Abbot Warin, who destroyed also the monuments of previous abbats, and stowed away in a corner of St. Michael's Church (Gest. Pontif. v. 265, p. 421).

The verses upon the tomb declared John to be a martyr, and he has accordingly been identified with the Joannes Scotus who was commemorated on 14 Nov. But this Joannes Scotus was bishop of Mecklenberg, and suffered martydom on 10 Nov. (Adam of Bremen, Gesta Hammaburg. Eccl. Pontif. iii. 50; cf. Mabillon, Acta SS. O. S. B., sec. IV. ii. 513). After 1586, in consequence no doubt of this confusion, the name was omitted from the martyrologies (see Poole, p. 327 and n. 48).

John Scotus's principal work, the five books ‘περὶ φύσεων μερισμοῦ, i.e. de Divisione Naturæ,’ written in the form of a dialogue, is of uncertain date, but plainly later than the tract ‘de Prædestinatione’ (851) and the translations from the pseudo-Dionysius. It presents the author's developed system, a system which has been taken for pantheism, but which is really a Neo-Platonic mysticism. John's leading principle is that of the unity of nature, proceeding from (1) God, the first and only real being; through (2) the creative ideas to (3) the sensible universe, which ultimately is resolved into (4) its first Cause. Within this circle the four ‘divisions of nature’ are comprehended. The supreme Nature is expounded by alternate affirmation and negation, ‘the two principal parts of theology’ (καταφατική and ἀποφατική); for that which may be asserted of God may also be denied of him, because he transcends human conceptions. By this means John John attempts to reconcile contradictions. The ideas are the primordial causes of things, the effects of which are manifested in time and place in a series of ‘theophanies;’ but the effects cannot be separated from the causes, and, in them, are eternal, though not eternal in the sense in which God is eternal, because the causes are derived from him: they are, however, cöeternal with the Word, though here again not absolutely cöeternal. Matter has no existence except as dependent on thought, and our thought (here the Scot anticipates, more plainly than St. Augustine, the famous argument of Descartes) is itself the proof of our being. The ideal world is wholly good, but as the creature passes from it into the world of matter, that which was one becomes manifold, and evil arises. But evil, being thus a mere accident of the material existence, will cease when man, losing again the distinction of sex, returns to the primal unity. Not less remarkable is John's statement of the relation of reason to authority. Reason is a theophany, the revelation of God to man; authority is one species of this revelation; it stands below reason, and needs it as its interpreter, for the Bible has many senses. If Scotus may here seem to anticipate the later dispute which accompanied the beginnings of the scholastic movement, still more evidently does this appear in his treatment of the scope and functions of logic. The universals, he maintained, were words; and although, in his view, there was a necessary correlation between words and thoughts, and therefore between words and things, still it was open to his successors to neglect this association, and to lay a stress on the primary connection between logic and grammar (see Prantl, ii. 24–37). Besides, the strict syllogistic method which John employed, and against which his opponents murmured, may well have had its influence upon later method. Yet it is hazardous to see in John Scotus the John who is mentioned in a chronicle known only from Bulæus's citation (Hist. Univ. Paris. ii. 443) as the founder of nominalism (cf. S. M. Deutsch, Peter Abälard, p. 100, n. 3, Leipzig, 1883). In some respects he may be accounted the herald of the movement of the eleventh century, but in more he is the last prophet of a philosophy belonging to earlier ages. When, in the first years of the thirteenth century, his books ‘de Divisione Naturæ’ won a passing popularity through the teaching of Amalric of Bène, their pantheistic tendency was at once detected, and the work suppressed by Honorius III in 1225 (see his mandate printed by Denifle, Chartul. Univ. Paris. i. 106 seq., Paris, 1889). It was not John's original writings, but his translations which exercised a notable influence on mediæval theology.

Besides the works already enumerated, John wrote a series of commentaries on Dionysius: ‘Expositiones super ierarchiam cælestem,’ ‘Expositiones super ierarchiam ecclesiasticam’ (a fragment), and ‘Expositiones seu Glossæ in mysticam Theologiam;’ ‘Homilia in prologum S. Evangelii secundum Ioannem’ and a commentary on the Gospel itself, of which only four fragments are preserved; ‘Liber de egressu et regressu animæ ad Deum,’ of which only a dozen sentences remain; and a number of poems, some only fragmentary, which are remarkable for their macaronic combination of Greek and Latin. These have been edited by L. Traube in the ‘Poetæ Latini Ævi Carolini’ (Monum. Germ. hist.) iii. 518–556 (1896) with a valuable introduction. John also translated the ‘Ambigua’ of St Maximus, with a dedication to Charles the Bald. This was edited, together with the ‘De Divisione Naturæ,’ by T. Gale, Oxford, 1681. All John's known works and translations were collected by H. J. Floss in Migne's ‘Patrologia Latina,’ cxxii. (1853), whose edition represents the only attempt hitherto made (except for the poems) to construct a critical text. The editor's notes, however, on the ‘Liber de Prædestinatione’ serve rather for the edification of the Roman catholic reader than for the scientific elucidation of John's opinions (cf. Noorden, Hinkmar, p. 103, n. 2). Since Floss's book was published two more works claiming John's authorship have come to light. One is the brief life of Boethius, printed as ‘Vita III’ in R. Peiper's edition (Boetii Philos. Consol., Leipzig, 1871), which is contained in a Laurentian manuscript, written in an Irish hand, of c. 1100 (described, with a facsimile, by G. Vitelli and C. Paoli, Collezione Fiorentina di Facsimili paleografici, plate 4, Florence, 1884), and is there expressly described as ‘Verba Iohannis Scoti.’ The other is a set of glosses on Martianus Capella, discovered by the late M. Hauréau (Notices et Extraits des Manuscrits, xx. pt. ii. 5–20, Paris, 1862).

[Bale's Script. Brit. Cat. ii. 24, p. 124; Ussher's Veterum Epistolarum Hibernicarum Sylloge (Dublin, 1632); Oudin's Comment. de Script. Eccl. Antiq. ii. 234–47 (Leipzig, 1722); Hist. Lit. de la France, v. 416–29 (Paris, 1740); Cave's Script. Eccles. Hist. Lit. ii. 45 seq. (1743); Tanner's Bibl. Brit.-Hib. pp. 263 seq. (1748); biographies of John Scotus by F. A. Staudenmaier (Frankfurt, 1834), T. Christlieb (Gotha, 1860), and J. Huber (Munich, 1861); and an anonymous ‘Comment. de Vita et Præceptis Joannis Scoti Erigenæ,’ prefixed to Floss's edition and understood to be his composition; C. von Prantl's Gesch. der Logik im Abendlande, vol. ii. (Leipzig, 1861); Ebert's Allgemeine Geschichte der Literatur des Mittelalters im Abendlande, ii. 257–67 (Leipzig), 1880; Mullinger's Schools of Charles the Great, ch. v.; Poole's Illustr. of the History of Mediæval Thought, ch. ii. and append. i. and ii. (1884); G. Buchwald's Der Logosbegriff des Johannes Scotus Erigena (Leipzig, 1884); Webb on the De Divisione Naturæ in Proc. of the Aristotelian Society, vol. ii. (1892).]

R. L. P.