A Philosophical History of Psychology, Cognition, and Consciousness: The Carolingian Renaissance(John Duns Scotus(Eriugena))

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The Carolingian Holy Roman Empire included the instituting of a school for scholars that began with the figures of Alcuin and John Duns Scotus but was not strictly speaking meeting the criterion of a renaissance laid down by Adrian Stokes, namely a period of intensification of all forms of religious and philosophical activity. Aristotle’s Philosophy was in this period systematically inhibited in its development by Christian and Neoplatonic influences. This was evident in the restriction of the role of philosophical psychology in the ethical and theological studies of the period. A supernatural soul remains largely an Augustinian entity not in any way related to animal life. The body and external nature are other areas of neglect in this tentative revival of Philosophy in the context of Religious studies. The revival proper probably can only be said to have begun 50 years after the death of Alcuin with the arrival of John Duns Scotus, also known as, Eriugena to the court of the grandson of Charlemagne, Charles the Bald. Eriugena was born and educated in Ireland and arrived in the court with a good working knowledge of Greek. His learning was admired and he was quickly engaged by the Archbishop of Reims to refute the ideas of a troublesome monk by the name of Gottschalk who had been vociferously claiming that predestination defined the fate not just of the blessed and the saints but also of sinners. Eriugena used philosophical argument rather than faith-based argument to claim that the concept of predestination was otiose because God ‘s knowledge was complete and could not be characterized in terms of an incomplete form of knowledge, namely foreknowledge or pre-knowledge(which would imply temporal incompleteness). Eriugena’s argument was found wanting by the Church authorities who eventually condemned the priest on traditional grounds of faith which reasserted the doctrine of the predestination of the blessed but rejected the claim that this also applied to sinners. The argument of Eriugena was also in fact condemned in a Council meeting a few years later.

Professor Brett in his work on the “History of Psychology” has this to say about this mercurial figure:

“The greatest speculative mind of the ninth century was John Scotus Eriugena… Eriugena seems more like a rhapsodist who has specialized in philosophic tradition..Eriugena was the Charlemagne of philosophy..in him is born again the tendency to pure romance which was the beginning of speculative thought…His thought struggles between two ways of looking at life, neither of which he will wholly abandon. Of these, one is the empirical obviously suggested by the Aristotelian element in Eriugena’s education: the other is the Neoplatonic theory of logical inclusion which, by putting the particular in the universal made the unwary think that it was possible to get the particular out of the universal before it had been put there. So, Eriugena becomes, as a result of his Neoplatonism, a realist and declares for the supremacy of reason. At the same time, he keeps his belief in the individual and is compelled to give a place to the will which is not beneath that of reason. These two are therefore coordinate, but in a sense, it is the will which has the superiority, for the reason only lights the way, while the will is the agent, the power.”

This position whilst not recognizable as Aristotelian because of the centrality of the concept of the will is nevertheless beginning to look decidedly pre-Kantian. It departs from Kant in declaring that the will of God is, of course, superior to the will of man but the motivation given by Eriugena for this state of affairs is that God does not fit into any of the ten Aristotelian categories of Being. This is in its turn then connected to the surprising and perhaps ecclesiastically claim that God is “Nothing”–a position that might have contributed to Eriugena’s condemnation by an ecclesiastical council. Eriugena’s learning, however, was sufficiently admired by Charles the Bald for his patronage to continue requesting translation of Greek texts into Latin amongst which were those of Pseudo Dionysius. Whilst translating various works Eriugena was also engaged in the writing of a five-volume work entitled “On Nature”(Periphyseon) which Anthony Kenny in his work “New History of Western Philosophy” characterizes thus:

“There are, according to Eriugena four great divisions of “nature”: nature creating and uncreated: nature created and creating: nature created and uncreating, and nature uncreating and uncreated. The first such nature is God, the second is the intellectual world of Platonic ideas which creates the third nature, the world of material objects. The fourth is God again, conceived not as creator but as the end to which things return… Where do human beings fit into Eriugenas fourfold scheme? They seem to straddle the second and third division. As animals, we belong in the third division and yet we transcend other animals. We can say with equal propriety that man is an animal and that he is not an animal. He shares reason, mind and the interior sense with the celestial essences but he shares his flesh, his outward self, with other animals.”

The soul according to Eriugena controls the body even post mortem when its particles are scattered and dispersed by the four winds. Somehow it is known by someone somehow that these particles were under control of the soul they once belonged to. The dualism is non-Aristotelian and stark. The fourth division refers to the end of all things, space, and time. In this Platonic matrix human nature is an intellectual idea found in the mind of God. Humans, however fail to understand their relation to this timeless idea because they are trapped in a body that dwells in a spatiotemporal physical continuity grasped only by the senses of the body.

This work was always going to fall into disrepute with the ecclesiastical authorities who were extremely suspicious of reasoning detached from the teaching of the scriptures. The above reasoning seemed to be a mixture of the philosophical and the mythical that was clearly pagan. Eventually, in 1225 Pope Honorius 3rd ordered all copies of the Periphyseon destroyed. Clearly, the Neoplatonic aspect of the work placed God outside the chain of Being, making it difficult if not impossible to characterise the nature of God. All that can be said by man is that God is a Nothing or alternatively what God is not. This obviously suggests that reason is superior to a revelation which would not have been good news to ecclesiastical scholars who believed that the nature of God could somehow be “revealed” in the mystical process of revelation. “The content” of such a revelation would presumably be truth and goodness and these terms normally understood have opposites, i.e. falsity and evil, but it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to attribute or relate these opposites to God. Eriugena’s work, on the contrary, controversially, yet interestingly, suggested that Evil and Sin have their roots in the freedom of the will of man, who, in his hubris turns not to God for salvation but toward himself for solace. Men are many but God is One and the only conceivable fate of the many is to join at the end of all things, space, and time, with the One.

These insights into the role of freedom and the will from the point of view of Philosophical Psychology were unfortunately buried under the initial confusion of Ecclesiastical scholars attempting to correctly evaluate the ideas of Pseudo-Dionysis. A confusion that might have lasted until Aquinas finally managed to turn the Church’s attention away from Neoplatonism and toward the work of Plato’s major interpreter and critic, namely Aristotle.

Bertrand Russell in his work “The History of Western Philosophy” claimed that the Carolingian Renaissance was a revival of limited significance because any real new beginning would have dealt with the abuses of the monastic system and the clergy who exercised a powerful influence over the everyday life of men not to mention kings. Priests, for example, were claiming to perform the miracle of transusbstantiation at every mass and were also thought to possess the power to determine whether one belonged in heaven or hell and yet simultaneously were involved in simony and concubinage. During this time there was as yet no full-blooded revival of Aristotelian thought and this was evident in for example the influence of Eriugena’s work which was largely mystical, fitting well into an age which expected revelations of the miraculous. In hindsight Eriugena’s work appeared to many commentators to herald philosophical movements to come: movements as broadly differentiated as those of Spinoza and Hegel and perhaps also one can detect the presence of analytical philosophy. Eriugena claimed in this latter context, for example, that reason was connected to a fourfold method of division, definition, demonstration, and resolution which aids our investigation into the search for the truth. Juxtapose this with a mystical approach to philosophical investigation inherited from Eastern Christian scholars and leaders and the breadth of Eriugena’s writings begin to become apparent. In the eyes of the Church, however, he was the subject of deep suspicion and the combination of his attachment to the concepts of the freedom, the will and the methodical pursuit of the truth rather than a commitment to the interpretation of Scripture, led to him being accused of Pelagianism.

Yet it is clear to the objectively minded scholar that we have on the one hand a clinical analytical mind performing a kind of “philosophical surgery” on concepts such as predestination, and on the other a heaven gazing mystic speculating on there not just being a possibility of the transubstantiation of God into the image of Jesus but also a transubstantiation in the reverse direction of man becoming God-like. This juxtaposition would not have been possible in a mind committed to the assumptions and definitions of Aristotle. It was only possible for a mind embracing a very plastic Platonic matrix. Aristotle is conspicuous by his absence except for the negative claim that God is not to be described in terms of the ten Aristotelian categories and also possibly the claim that God is “the form of all things”. This latter claim is somewhat paradoxical, however, given the belief Eriugena held that God is formless, a non-being or in a certain sense a nothingness. Gods mind, then, appears sometimes to be understood in terms of a Platonic undivided form containing the principle of all things: a form in which Being and Goodness are united. Everything in the universe “emanates” from this matrix which has in itself no spatiotemporal characteristics. Spatio-temporal sense perception rather is a manifestation of a “fallen” mind as is the exercise of man’s freedom. The sense in which freedom is the reason for man choosing to sin is however obscure and yet we know this is what Eriugena claims is the case. There will be a return after the fall of all things, space and time, to the matrix of God’s mind and in this process, the image of God will dissolve into his reality. echoes of Heraclitus’ idea of Logos are also to be found: man is rational and yet he is not, he is free and yet he is not, he is spiritual and he is not, he is an animal and yet he is not(cf Heraclitus claim that the road up and the road down are the same). Is this dualism or is it dual aspectism? We know the work Periphyseon has been accused of many things including the collapsing of the ideas of God and the creation into one another thus violating Biblical recorded revelation and wisdom. Some Platonists have also accused Eriugena of failing to recognize that the creation was the work not of the gods but of the demiurge. Some critics have also wondered how, if God is nothingness, could something come from nothing? One of the more serious ecclesiastical accusations, however, was that of Pantheism and this might have led to the work being placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitum in the late 1600’s to be finally removed from censure only in the 1960s. This did not prevent nineteenth-century philosophers, however, from reading Eriugenas works and declaring him to be the father of German Idealism. It is interesting to note that the spirit of Aristotelianism failed to permeate this movement and resulted in Hegel finding it necessary to turn the philosophy of Kant upside down on its head, leaving Kant’s Philosophy in the shadows as Neoplatonism(with the aid of Christian dogma). had once done to Neo Aristotelianism.