An Irish gem in the West: The Proper Use of Dialectic

“For just as God is both beyond all things and in all things — for He Who only truly is, is the essence of all things, and while He is whole in all things He does not cease to be whole beyond all things, whole in the world, whole around the world, whole in the sensible creature, whole in the intelligible creature, whole creating the universe, whole created in the universe, whole in the whole of the universe and whole in its parts, since He is both the whole and the part, just as He is neither the whole nor the part — in the same way human nature in its own world (in its own subsistence) in its own universe and in its invisible and visible parts is whole in itself, and whole in its whole, and whole in its parts, and its parts are whole in themselves and whole in the whole.”

-John Scotus Eriugena Periphyseon, IV.759a-b

17 Responses to An Irish gem in the West: The Proper Use of Dialectic

  1. Nobody’s perfect. 😉

  2. Photios, you didn’t catch my dialectic!, I’m now thinking. “The words are not the destination” seems to separate them too much from God. Words, which I assume are part of the universe, also contain the wholeness of God, according to the quote.

  3. Neo,

    I dunno and I haven’t really thought about it much, but my first inclination is that it would be both. 😉


  4. Photios,

    How would Euthyphro’s Dilemma factor into this?

  5. If God is beyond reason and beyond words, and science only points to a fallen, dead, yet seductive view of creation, then “who shall deliver [us] from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24) Turning toward our revelatory God is all we can and need to do. To use a scientific word, this can be “classified” as transcendence. Scientific or philosophical words can point us to the road, or even describe the road, but they are not the destination. And if we did not have guiding words (corrected by the Orthodox Church), we would probably stray off the road.

  6. Neo,

    (1) St. Photios said that dialectic and philosophy is competent in its own sphere in the evaluation of “sensible things” and I believe St. Gregory of Nyssa said the same. In other words, the sciences, but its competence is only an evaluation of a fallen world not paradise, which leads to point 2.

    (2) The fall according to the Fathers left us with burden of sensible analysis and the seduction of the mind by sense.

    Your question also reminds me, I need to do a post on Monophysitism and how it’s Christology of aspects of Christ as “nature” or “miracle” (depending on which aspect is in view) renders Science impossible since it renders a wholesale surrender of “nature” and lies outside the Logos (Rational Principle) (following Dr. Farrell here).


  7. Photios,

    (1) What are the ‘proper domains’ of reason & language?
    (2) Is the misuse of the dialectical tools supposed to be an effect of the darkened eye of the soul?

  8. Neo,

    That is correct, the only caveate is that when Eriugena (or his predecessors) starts using language of the divinity (i.e. the divine essence) in contradictory terms (e.g. “the divinity: nothing”; “the being of beings is the divinity beyond being”), he is moving beyond the realms of empirical theology (i.e. the ordo theologiae of asking questions) and into mystical theology, apophaticism, and devotion. For Eriugena, the divine essence is radically unknowable and undefinable in the same way that it is for Sts. Maximus and Dionysius. The both/and dialectic takes on a “function” of the ultimate inadequacy of all language applied to God. The event horizon of rational speech has exhausted itself at that point. For Eriugena, this is the method, this is how God has revealed Himself, and how we as human can speak of Him.


  9. Photios,

    Thanks, now let me take my analysis a few steps further.

    The only reason that Eriugena is able to predicate this ‘both/and’ dialectic of the same object is that he has started with the person, not attempted definitions of the essence, not even the ‘how’ of the operation(s). Contemplation & empirical description of the encounter with the ‘who’ must precede all other questions & assertions. The Augustinian order of theology makes the above text completely unreadable for it would have to made to look something like this:

    “For just as [The Divine Essence] is both beyond all things and in all things — for He Who only truly is…”

    Of course, this is wholly nonsensical since two contrary attributes cannot inhere or be predicated of the same ‘what.’ In this altered text, the categories of essence, energy and person have been irredeemably confused: (1) the operations of the Person have been made the definition of the essence, (2) the essence has been made the subject of the operations, and (3) the Person has been turned into an operation of the essence.

  10. This statement from the article makes me interested in taking your recommendation, even thought it’s $30 from Amazon, “to defend the doctrine of liberty of will against the extreme predestinarianism of…”

  11. Andrea,

    Read Carabine’s book on Eriugena–there is growing awareness by some scholars to read him in light of the Eastern tradition. A lot of these philosophy scholars can’t make heads or tails out of what Eriugena is saying, so take it with a grain of salt.


  12. The article on this particular Scotus on Wikipedia uses some unfortunate terms though like ‘Neoplatonism with its “graded hierarchy”‘, universalism, and reason being primary to revelation.

    I think we can sift these things out from the first millennium a.d. theologians through the lens of St. Maximus and St. Gregory Palamas? The article also says his work is based on St. Maximus so I wonder why he didn’t sift some of that (like a universal view that includes ever ill and well being and better sight into the true nature of things as Fr. John wrote about on another thread) out himself. Though it seems back then there was more freedom for speculation and picking and choosing than there is now as we have hindsight into the ramifications of some of the wrong directions things took. Also thinking about St. Augustine here.

    And on graded hierarchy, I know we (Orthodox) ascribe to some of it, I understand the Monarchy of the Father, the hierarchy of the Church, and of man over animals in this way, but it seems that there is more of an emphasis on kenosis seeking to equal things out, and to bring all into communion in the Orthodox view.

    Just some thoughts.

  13. I’m so proud of my people. ;p

  14. “He is both the whole and the part, just as He is neither the whole nor the part…” – Eriugena

  15. Photios,

    “Eriugena, like the those of his forebearers predicates contradictions about something to point reason in the direction of something that is truly beyond reason.”

    Could you elaborate here? Perhaps give some examples of this in action.

  16. Correct. Eriugena, like the those of his forebearers predicates contradictions about something to point reason in the direction of something that is truly beyond reason. The flip side of that is that God is truly “all in all,” to refute a dualistic cosmology.

  17. Unless I’m misunderstanding dialectics, the application would be “just as He is neither the whole nor the part”, which denies Pantheism. The rest is all ‘both/and’ while maintaining non-oppositional distinctions, right?

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