A Sensational Figure in Irish History: Maybe You Know This Face … Do You Remember?

Neoplatonist philosopher, theologian, and scientific pioneer who influenced Hegel: John Scotus Eriugena embodied the golden age of Irish culture.


Scotus Eriugena’s face bedecked the old currency of Ireland.

Irish people over the age of about 30 will likely recognize one of the most celebrated Neoplatonists in world history. Fewer, I suspect, will know that the name of the man who adorned the old £5 note (shown above) was John Scotus Eriugena. Even fewer will know about Neoplatonism. A quick biography of Scotus Eriugena and then a brief look at Neoplatonism will be presented.
Eriugena was one of the major intellectuals of his time and Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753) remains the only serious challenger to Eriugena for the title of the greatest Irish philosopher in history. Born around 800 A.D., the titles Scotus and Eriugena both referred to his homeland. Scotus means ‘Irish inhabitant’ (Ireland used to be called Scotia Maoir); Eriugena means ‘Irish born.’
The Ardagh Chalice is an artefact of the Irish golden age
It is not certain where in the ecclesiastical hierarchy John fitted, but it seems that he served as a monk. For sure, he was known over much of Western Europe as an exceptionally learned individual. Eriugena stood out both because of the range of learning he could draw on and the ease with which he could move from classical scholarship, of the Greek and Roman tradition, to that of Christian sources. A hybrid philosopher-theologian may seem unremarkable nowadays but in Scotus Eriugenas time it required a subtle intellect.
As for Neoplatonism it is somewhere between the rationality of Old Platonism and Middle Platonism, which were philosophical schools that based their opinions on that of Plato. Old Platonism ‘stuck’ to the classic texts of Plato. Middle Platonism was somewhat more of a mystical doctrine and posssibly even a Pythagorean philosophy. Neoplatonism returned somewhat to the rationality of Plato, and remained mystical without being Middle Platonism. In particular Neoplatonists tended to emphasize cosmological order, the purity of experience, and in particular they mediated on ‘The One.’
So how could Neoplatonism possibly come into conflict with Christianity? Neoplatonism could conflict with Christianity for a number of reasons, the most important reason being that the belief in the ‘One’ of Neoplatonism was at odds with the Christian view of God. Therefore, a view of God out of step with Church teaching would affect man’s perception of his place in a Christo-centric world (i.e. a world where Christianity was dominant).
It was Eriugena’s genius that he developed a Christian theology which was, at the same time, coloured perceptibly by Neoplatonism.
In his scientific views, Eriugena was way ahead of his time. He developed a heliocentric model of the universe (i.e. the one that Galileo is famous for when he said that the Earth moves around the Sun) which built on the work of Martianus Capella, an Algerian jurist of the 5th century A.D. Eriugenas views were in sharp opposition to the idea of celestial bodies moving around the Earth. A later figure who agreed with both Martianus and Eriugena was Copernicus.
Copernicus developed the now famous heliocentric model
Interest in Eriugenas philosophical works peaked in the 19th century. Hegel, the German philosopher who influenced Marx, noted his immense debt to Eriugena. By the 20th century, Eriugena had become a visible symbol of the Irish state’s desire to recapture an era when Ireland was the intellectual heart of Western Europe and Eriugena the champion of a Hibernian golden age.

Currently, I am researching a book on Carl Schmitt. Any comments or suggested corrections to this post are welcome. I have already authored one book Mysteries of State in the Renaissance. My Amazon page is here.

Hegel, one of the most famous modern philosophers, was indebted to Eriugena
Ardagh Chalice Credit: “Ardagh chalice” by Kglavin. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ardagh_chalice.jpg#/media/File:Ardagh_chalice.jpg

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