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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


( c. 810 — c. 875)



As his name implies, John was born in Ireland and was educated in one of the monastic schools. An outstanding Greek scholar he translated the works of Pseudo-Dionysius and others into Latin. He was for some years at the court of the Frankish king Charles the Bald and became head of the Palace School about 845. He is noted for his highly original work On the Divisions of Nature.



[1] By 'Nature' John means the totality of (1) everything which exists 'actually' (that is, things which we perceive through the senses or conceive through the intellect, and human nature which is reconciled to God through grace); and (2) those things which 'are' in some way only potentially (all objects which transcend the power of reason, changeable material things in space and time, and human nature alienated from God). Nature thus includes God and the natural world [a]. John holds also that while one must accept revealed Christian dogma as a matter of faith, its 'authoritative' interpretation by the Church must be subject to the test of reason. Moreover, faith derives ultimately from reason which is in God. There is thus no real distinction between faith and reason [b]. In On the Division of Nature he identifies four divisions.

(1) [Book I] Nature which creates and is not created. This is God the Uncaused cause — the primary principle — of all things created out of nothing [c]. God in this first aspect is known (i) mainly negatively [d] in that his essence transcends anything which is in the natural world; (ii) affirmatively in that natural things are predicated of Him as first cause [d]. He is thus super-essential, that is, simultaneously essence and non-essence. God therefore both transcends the world and is 'in' all things [e]

(2) The second division [Book II] — Nature which both is created and creates — refers to the Divine Ideas as prototypes (prototypia, praedestinationes) of natural things. They are creative, in the sense that they are primary 'exemplary' causes or eternal reasons (rationes aeternae), that is, they are the archetypes [f] on which natural things in the world are patterned when created by God. They may be said to be created in so far as they exist in the Word (God the Son), which emanates eternally from God the Father [g] It is only logically prior; for they are generated with it. But, although in their effects they are a plurality, in their origin in the Word they are one and not separate; and indeed are identical with God's essence [h].

(3) [Book III] Nature which is created but does not create. Creatures, external to the mind of God and constituting the spatio-temporal world, participate in or derive from the prototypes and yet are created from nothing [i]. They are thus called participationes. God, the Divine Goodness, pours Himself into and is diffused through his creation [i]. The 'hidden God' thereby manifests Himself as the "form of the formless". This created world is essentially good, evil being understood as a privation of the good [j].

(4) Lastly [Book V] Nature which neither creates nor is created. John means by this that Nature is God as the end or final cause of the creative process — God as all in all [k]. The created world, including man redeemed through the Incarnation of the Word — returns to and is united with the rationes aeternae in God — respiritualized, as it were.



John is the only significant and original thinker in the West throughout the long period from Pseudo-Dionysius in the sixth century to Anselm in the eleventh. His Neoplatonic doctrine of nature as an eternal reflection of God — a theophany — and of God as all in all led some later medieval thinkers to regard him as a pantheist. This brought him into conflict with the Church and resulted in the condemnation of his book. It is fair to say that in his thought there sometimes seems to be a tension between the concepts of creator and created. On the one hand God is identified with Nature, and creation seen as a 'procession'. On the other hand John views God as prior to being and distinct from the created world. The role of the Divine Ideas is clearly central here; they seem to be both identical with God's essence and yet are the 'entities' which spatio-temporal beings derive from and participate in. However, this is a problem common to Neoplatonic thinkers generally; and in the context of his system as a whole John's views are generally regarded as philosophically consistent.



John Scotus: De divisione naturae. (On the Division of Nature). Selections in R. McKeon, op. cit. vol. I, ch. 3.


H. J. Bett, Johannes Scotus, a Study in Mediaeval Philosophy.

D. Moran, The Philosophy of John Scotus.

S. Steel & D. W. Hadley, 'John Scotus', in J. J. E. Garcia (ed.), A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages.



John Scotus (Eriugena)


[1a] Nature (actual and potential existence): God and world    Ps-Dionysius [1d]


[1b] Faith and reason — no distinction    Ps-Dionysius [1a]


[1c d] God as First Cause; creation from himself    Ps-Dionysius [1c]


[1d] God known negatively and affirmatively


Nicholas of Cusa




[1e] God: super-essential, transcendent and immanent    Ps-Dionysius [1b c e]


[1f i] Divine Ideas: exemplary causes/eternal reasons; 'participations'


Nicholas of Cusa


[2e h]


[1g] Emanation


Nicholas of Cusa

[1c e]



[1h] Divine Ideas: unity and multiplicity


Nicholas of Cusa


[2c e]


[1i] Individuals — participation in Divine Goodness    Ps-Dionysius [1g]


[1j] Evil as privation






[1k] God as Final Cause and 'all in all'


Nicholas of Cusa

[1d f]