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.