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Significant Scots
John Erigena


ERIGENA, JOHN, SCOTUS, an eminent scholar of the middle age, is supposed to have been born at Ayr, early in the ninth century, though neither the place nor the date of his birth is ascertained with any precision. According to some, his principal name, Erigena, signifies that he was born at Ayr; but others point to Ergene, on the borders of Wales, as the place of his nativity; while others, again, contend for Ireland, on the strength of his name Scotus, which, at that period, was used to indicate a native of the sister island. It would be a mere mockery to say, that any thing is known with certainty respecting the life of John Scotus Erigena. It is almost inconceivable, that a man should have been born among the rude people of Scotland in the ninth century, who afterwards distinguished himself in the eyes of Europe as a scholar. Assuming, nevertheless, the imperfect authorities which have handed down the name of this person, he seems to have, at an early period of his life, been entertained at the court of Charles the Bald, king of France, as a profound philosopher, and, what is strange, a witty and amusing companion. It is stated, as an instance of the latter qualification, that, being once asked by the king what was between a Scot and a sot, he answered, "Only the breadth of the table;" a proof, in fact, of the fabulous character of Erigena’s history, since there could have been no such jingle between the words that must have been required to express those ideas in any language of the ninth century. The biographers of Erigena represent him as having been employed for a number of years in the court of king Charles, partly as a preceptor in knowledge, and partly as a state councillor. At the same time, he composed a number of works upon theological subjects, some of which were considered not orthodox. Having translated the works of Dionysius, or St Denis, the Greek philosopher, which were considered as particularly adverse to the true faith, he was obliged, by the persecution of pope Nicolas I., to retire from France. This work is remarkable as having been the means of introducing the Aristotelian or scholastic system of philosophy into the theological learning of the western churches; an absurdity which retarded the progress of true science for many centuries, and was not finally put down till the days of Bacon. The subsequent life of this great scholar is doubly obscure. He is said to have been a professor of mathematics and astronomy at Oxford, about the time of Alfred the Great, or at least to have delivered lectures at that seminary of learning. But nothing is known with certainty respecting Oxford till a much later period. From Oxford he is said to have retired to the abbey of Malmesbury, where for some time he kept a school. Behaving, however, with great harshness and severity among his scholars, they were so irritated, that they are reported to have murdered him with the iron bodkins then used in writing. The time of his death is generally referred to 883.

A great multitude of works have been attributed to Erigena but the following are all that have been printed:—l. "De Divisione Naturae," Oxon. by Gale, folio, 1651.—2. "De Praedestinatione Dei, contra Goteschalcum," edited by Gilb. Maguin, in his Vindiciae Priedestinationis et Gratiae, vol. i. p. 103.— 3. "Excerpts de Differentiis et Societatibus Graeci Latinique Verbi," in Macrobius’s works.—4. "De Corpore et Sanguine Domini," 1558, 1566, 1653; Lond. 1686, 8vo.—5. "Ambigua S. Maximi, sen Scholia ejus in Difficiles locos S. Gregorii Nazianzeni, Latine versa," along with the "Divisio Naturae," Oxford, 1681, folio.—6. "Opera S. Dionysii quatuor, in Latinam linguam conversa," in the edition of Dionysius, Colon., 1536.


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