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Thursday, April 21, 2005

How Eriugena ontologically explained the multiplicity of Being and became a heretic

for Dr. Thomas Burke
Medieval Philosophy 212

There is a tension, in the work of John Scotus Eriugena, between ontology and orthodoxy. He approaches one of the main problems of metaphysics from within Christian philosophy and, in doing so, falls outside of it. This paper is an exploration and hopefully and explication of a series of relationships: between Eriugena and the problem of the One and the Many, between Eriugena and Christianity, between Christianity and neoplatonism, and between Christianity and the problem of the One and the Many.

Every ontology must answer the problem of the multiplicity of Being, must explain how the total and singular Being relates to the plurality of beings. Often called the problem of the One and the Many and approached since the pre-Socratic debate we find in the fragments of Heraclites and Parmenides, this taxonomic question is one of the basic questions of metaphysics and one that reemerges needing to be answered with each ontological explanation of existence.

Simply put, the question is this: what is the relationship between Being and beings. One might conceivably answer that there is no unity or that there are no particulars, yet the philosophers of the western tradition have agreed that there is a One and there are Many, leaving the relation between them a continuing debate. Metaphysics wants to identify and describe the “basic and pervasive categories” of everything and the most basic categories are the One and the Many. We have recognized in the world many different and unique beings, and yet also cannot conceive of that which exists without the conception of a unity of Being, of a One that is the source of the Many and more than a collective name for things that exist.

In the similar though less theoretical and simpler question of genera, we ask about the relationship between men and a man, or leaves and a leaf, seeing that there is an emphatic particularity marking the particular, Socrates, yet not such that we cannot identify him as relating to and participating in this more general group. Similarly, the problem of the multiplicity of Being asks how is it that there is a oneness of being and also these particular things that are beings. All ontological theories start with the simplicity of two categories: that which is and that which is not, Being and nothingness. Yet, the unity of Being quickly becomes confusing and tenuous in trying to see how it actually categorically unifies all that is the case and works out into each individual piece of the world. We recognize, through the data of the senses, the reality of particulars, the reality of normal objects in the world, yet we also recognize an ultimate reality that is more than the sum of individualized and particularistic realities and binds them all together. The question is how the two relate in such a way that particular realities – the existence of chairs or cats – takes place within the single category of that which exists, of Being as a unity. We cannot create a third basic ontological category for particular beings without separating them from the category of Being. In order for there to be beings they must be unified with Being, must all be contained within or under Being. Thus, the One must be One, but also divided and the divisions must be divisions though they are whole, and we struggle to clarify the problematic and persistent tangle of that relationship of the One to the Many and the Many to the One.

John Scotus Eriugena, in his On the Divisions of Nature, sets forth an ontology that deals with the multiplicity problem by what has been characterized as a neoplatonic pantheism. In Eriugena’s ontology, everything that is, is nature. Nature, in its four parts of (1) that which creates and is not created, (2) that which creates and is created, (3) that which does not create and is created, and (4) that which neither creates or is created, is One. Nature is One, Being, and Being is God. As Eriugena quotes from Pseudo-Dionysius, “esse omnium est superesse Divinitatis” (the being of all is the over-being of God). The first division of nature is God “in His primordial, finite” being. The second division of nature is God in the second person of the trinity “engender[ing] in Himself the forms or ideas.” The third division is the third person of the trinity bringing about the effects of the eternal causes to create the external world, which is “a multiplicity of manifestations of God.” The forth division is the flow of nature back into itself, God returning to God, the end terminating in the beginning where they exist as they have from eternity past.

This ontology is distinctly neoplatonic in its language of emanation. Neoplatonism is an ontology that holds to a single transcendent One, God beyond comprehension, which emanates or effulgrates outward into the multiplicities of mind, souls and nature, so that all that exists are emanations of the One. It is a reading of Plato that beings in the 3rd century with an Alexandrian dockworker and is systematized in the writings of Plotinus, 54 treaties that were edited by his disciples into 6 groups of 9 and entitled Ennead. Plotinus argues from Plato that the principle of all reality is not matter or multiplicity, not below us, but above us. The principle of reality is in spirit which is One and transcendent and emanating. The ontological (and the ethical ) explanations of neoplatonism are synthesized with and integrated into a Christian framework by Pseudo-Dionysius in the 5th century. Pseudo-Dionysius adopts the neoplatonic metaphors of Being as flowing water the explanation of Being as light moving out from a single source, becoming more dispersed yet always remaining a single unity, and becoming weaker as it moves from the source until it ceases. He uses neoplatonism and its metaphors as a framework for Christian doctrines, especially for the trinity, and for the fall and redemption of creation. Pseudo-Dionysius, translated into Latin by Eriugena, teaches that the ontological fabric of the world is the emanations, the flowing forth, of God, the world being the procession from and returning to God.

Eriugena’s neoplatonic ontology solves the problem of the One and the Many by describing a relationship between the two categories such that there is a One and a Many. He doesn’t lose either of the One or the Many and ensures that they are at once distinguishable and united. He holds to a One that is all and in the multiplicity of all. The analogy here is light, which radiates or emanates outward from a source, can divide and, in passing through a prism or just the atmosphere, change from containing all colors to the particulars of the color wheel while never ceasing to be united as light. Using the language of light’s emanation, he says that God, the One Being, flows and passes into the particulars of beings, is the source and reality of all that is more than the sum and never not God. The particulars are divisions within the undivided unity of the whole. In this way Eriugena sets forth a relationship between the One and the Many that allows both the unity of Being and the diversity of beings to coexist, diversified and unified within a single category of that which is.

This ontology is pantheistic in as much as, for Eriugena, there is no world extra deum. The reality of the world is the reality of God, so that if all-that-is were a circle, God would be the center with the radii of primordial causes and, farther our, phenomena, coming from, being, and returning to God. God is everything that truly is, since He makes all things and is made in all things. “When we hear that God makes all things,” he writes, “we should understand nothing else but that God is in all things, i.e. is the essence of all things. For He alone truly is, and everything which is truly said to be in those things which are, is God alone.” Nature is One, is all that is, and the One is God. The creator and the created are God, one and the same, for God can be said to be “created in creatures” in that the One manifests itself to itself, creating in itself and from itself that it might know itself. God knows God, reflexively, in the manifestation of creation. Yet, while Eriugena does set forth a pantheism, such that everything that is, is God, he’s also not a pantheist in that there is a distinction being God, who is Being, and creatures, which are Being and God only in as particulars and divisions. Eriugena’s pantheism is an ontological and at least quasi-Christian manifestation of pantheism. But, at the same time, his ontological and quasi-Christian pantheism still does not fall into any orthodox Christian schema

The objections to Eriugena’s solution for the relation between Being and beings are not philosophical objections, but rather theological ones. In condemning his work as pantheistic, Pope Honorius III said Eriugena’s On the Divisions of Nature was “a book teeming with the worms of heretical depravity.” His book was banned, in 1585, by Pope Gregory XIII as outside of acceptable Christian understanding of the world, as containing abhorrent theological consequences. The objection to his ontology was not that it didn’t work philosophically, but that if his ontology were to be accepted then God looks nothing like the orthodox Christian conception of God.
Eriugena’s ontology is rejected because “the God of the Neoplatonists is too remote from the world to serve satisfactorily.” This solution to the problem of the One and the Many is a solution where God has lost a face. He becomes too remote by becoming everything and thereby becoming impersonal. Eriugena’s neoplatonism loses the Christian distinction between creator and created, and the two collapse into One so that the creator is “created in creatures.” Being becomes indistinguishable from beings and God, identified by Christians in the language of philosophy as Being, becomes indistinguishable from chairs and trees and people and dogs.

Eriugena’s ontology further strays from orthodox Christian doctrine by redefining the nihilo from which creatures were created in the Christian understanding of creation. For Eriugena’s neoplatonism, there is nothing, no space or principle, outside of God from which God could create. Thus God creates ex nihilo and a se, that is, from a nothing that is from within himself, his superabundance and transcendence. This is Eriugena’s rigorous explanation of the idea of God’s transcendence by means of neoplatonic ontology, which cannot allow him the traditional Christian description of the doctrine where God speaks or calls things into being out of a void, since such a God would be bounded and limited.

The objections concerning these theological consequences are serious. Eriugena’s ontology could be said to have disfigured God. In the 9th century, there was little distinction between theology and philosophy – certainly Eriugena made none – so this counter-objection to the opposition to Eriugena’s ontology, that it is all theological and not philosophical, is not one that would have been raised by Eriugena or anyone else at the time. Nevertheless, let it stand to highlight the difficulty that orthodox Christianity did not have a better solution for the relation of Being to beings and in objecting to heretical consequences and not to the ontology per se, does not come any closer to a solution.

There was no intention of unorthodoxy on the part of Eriugena, who considered himself a faithful son of the Church, a point that is regularly emphasized in secondary works. He didn’t disregard the church fathers or church orthodoxy or consider them irrelevant in coming to his conclusions. He doesn’t hold his ontology as in rivalry with an orthodox ontology or believe he’s thinking outside of the framework of orthodoxy or the community of the church. Eriugena, it seems, would have taken the condemnations of his writings by Pope Honorius III in the 13th century and Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th century quite seriously.

Indeed, Eriugena saw himself as rigorously applying the philosophy of the Church and the thought of the church fathers. He wasn’t attempting to propose anything radical or original, but to work out a consistent, thorough and systematic understanding of the neoplatonic ontology that was, then, also Christian philosophy. He extensively quoted the church fathers, especially St. Augustine, St. Basil, and St Gregory of Nyssa, in support of his views, and was working from a neoplatonism that was understood to be the philosophy of Christians. Even when Eriugena claims that reason held primacy over authority, he points out that this is because the two could not possibly be in contradiction. As Coplestone notes, “John Scotus is not questioning a dogma as such or claiming the right to deny it.”

This neoplatonism, for early Christianity, was not considered something foreign but something distinctly Christian and was appealed to as authoritative. Eriugena was renowned for translating the works of the Christian neoplatonist Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the philosopher who was then believed to be the dramatic Pauline convert mentioned in the Acts 17.34, St. Dionysius, and who was given, at that time, a near apostolic status. Pseudo-Dionysius’ writings were appealed to by Severus, the Patriarch of Antioch, in the 6th century to defend the doctrine of monophysitism and by iconoclasts during the Eastern Orthodox church’s iconoclastic controversies of the 8th century, and while the iconoclasts and the monophysites were eventually declared unorthodox, their appeals to the works of Pseudo-Dionysius as a recognizable authority points to his place in the philosophical tradition of Medieval Christendom. The 6th century sainted Pope Gregory “the Great” called Pseudo-Dionysius an “ancient and venerable Father.” Pseudo-Dionysius is cited in the letters of Pope Martin I and Pope Agatho, in the 7th century. Pseudo-Dionysius is mentioned in the 680 Constantinople and 787 Second Nicene Councils, which used, in the formulation of perhaps the most universally accepted and definitive creed, the neoplatonic language of procession to describe the inter-relations of the trinity.

Augustine, the Roman church’s largest intellectual influence on Eriugena, points to neoplatonism as leading him closer to Christianity and making it possible for him to accept the Church’s and the scripture’s intellectual position of authority. Augustine makes use of neoplatonic philosophers, specifically Plotinus, to answer the problem of evil, to oppose the dualism of the Manicheans, and to describe the ontological position of sin, and possibly it is at work in his doctrine of illumination, his vague thesis that God plays an active role in human understand by illuminating the individual mind in a way that might be compared to what’s happening in Eriugena’s second and third division of nature.

Eriugena was firmly, and saw himself as being firmly in the tradition of Christian neoplatonic ontology, and was attempting to work it out to a systematic formulation when he ending up with a position that was irreconcilable to orthodoxy. Yet, if Christianity abandons the neoplatonic ontological pantheism as heretical, as leading to an understanding of God, the problem of the multiplicity of Being remains.

Perhaps the most accessible Christian ontological answer to the problem of the multiplicity of Being is Bonaventure’s analogy of the prism, where unified light refracts and divides into colored light. Yet this is straightforwardly neoplatonic, and if pushed would look explicitly like Eriugena’s ontology and would likewise be found unacceptable to orthodoxy, with the same heretical outcome of disfiguring God.

The most thorough Christian answer to the problem of the One and the Many is Aquinas’ “analogy of being.” Aquinas argues that the word “Being” can be attributed only in a secondary and lesser way to beings, and is an essential attribute only of God. The being of creatures is “a different kind of being from the divine being, since it is received, derived, dependent, finite.” God and creatures, the One and the Many, have nothing in common. They are radically and absolutely different from each other, and are only similar by analogy. A comparison between the created and the creator can only rightly be done as a sort of symbolism. “God and creatures,” Copleston writes, “have no mutual real relationship.” Creatures, in their particularity and therein finitude, can have no real identification with the infinite perfection of the One, and even while we can compare creatures to God, we cannot in reverse compare God to creatures. Aquinas, like Eriugena, starts with the transcendence of the One, yet constructs it so that there can be no actual relation between the One and the Many. Aquinas’ ontology could not be charged with unorthodoxy, or with pantheism, or with an un-Christian conception of God, yet in remaining orthodox he fails to propose an explanation of the relationship of Being to beings. He so strongly emphasizes the gulf between the One and the Many, their dissimilarity and disconnection, that one finds no possible taxonomic reconciliation between them, and we are consequently left with three basic ontological categories: Nonbeing, Being and beings.

It is unclear, actually, that an answer to the problem of the One and the Many could be offered within an orthodox Christian ontology. As long as God is identified with Being, any system understood such that Being and being were somehow unified would seem to be strongly objectionable. After all, Christianity, in that identification, changes philosophy by establishing at that point a great metaphysical divide between Being and beings, emphasizing the separation between man and God, creation and creator. Thus, for an orthodox ontology, the distance and difference between the one Being and the many beings seems crucial, for the very extremity of the distinction which causes the dangling and enduring question of the multiplicity of Being is definitional of the orthodox Christian’s ontological God. For an ontology to remain acceptably Christian, the ontological relationship between Being and beings may have to be distant, dis-related and problematic.

This paper will focus on the neoplatonic ontology as seen by Eriugena, but ethics could be conceived of as the primary focus in a mysticism that sought to ascend from the lower physical realities to the ecstasy of union with the higher spiritual realities of Being.

The emanation of light is used both as a metaphor and literally. At some points it is a picture to explain the process of Being and the relationship of the One and the Many and at others light is Being. With our science explaining light in terms of waves and particles, it’s difficult to understand the latter as more than the primitivism of the ancients, yet the former, metaphoric use of light comes to us easily.

Augustine’s earlier writings, like Against the Academics, express a certainty in the extensive compatibility of neoplatonism and Christianity, while in his Confessions he notes divergences between the two and in City of God the difference are marked as important and Christianity is said to be able to stand on its own. To consider how the Christian Augustine broke with neoplatonism, see Wittgenstein, Augustine and the Fantasy of Ascent by C. Thompson in Philosophical Investigations, April 2002, vol. 25, no. 2, pp. 153-171(19).

Afonasin, Eugene. “Dionysius the Areopagite in the context of Byzantine-Slavonic Literary Relations.” Dumbarton Oaks, 2001

Becker, Siebert W. John Scotus Eriugena. Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, 2001.

Bosley, Richard N. and Martin Tweedale, editors. Basic Issues in Medieval Philosophy. Broadview, Peterborough, 1999.

Blackburn, Simon. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford U., Oxford, 1994.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy, volume II, Medieval Philosophy. Image, New York, 1993.
A History of Philosophy, volume I, Greece and Rome. London, Search, 1976.
A History of Medieval Philosophy. New York, Harper, 1972
Religion and the One. New York, Crossroad, 1982.

Eriugena, John Scotus. Periphyseon (On the Division of Nature). I.P. Sheldon-Williams, translator. Dumbarton Oaks, 1987.

Moran, Dermot. "John Scottus Eriugena." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2004 Edition), Edward N. Zalta ed.,

Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, Volume IV: Mediaeval Christianity. Grand Rapids, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1882.

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