Friday, March 14, 2014

To be and not to be

It surprises me still that so many current interests can be traced to hints and suggestions planted many, many years ago, often at college.

When I was a sophomore I took a class in medieval philosophy, and our reader contained a short selection from John Scottus Eriugena.  I remember that I found him quite difficult, but was intrigued by the task he set himself:  explaining how a thing can both be and not be, at the same time.  I spent a few hours, late one night, pouring over it, slowly, and sometime between eleven and midnight I got it.  Rushing back to the dorm, almost intoxicated with this new insight, I excitedly tried to explain to a few friends still hanging around the fooz-ball table how a thing could both be and not be at the same time.  They were amused, uncomprehending and uninterested.  I went on to bed, and the next morning I had pretty must lost it.

So, run the clock forward about forty years.  I come across John, again, in a piece from the Classics of Western Spirituality volume, Celtic Sprituality.  Now John's only certain connection with Ireland is his name, and, whatever his origin, his surviving work was all done on the continent, in the first century of Charlemagne's reconstituted Holy Roman Empire.  He was a strikingly original thinker, conversant not  only with the Greek language, but with the Greek Fathers and the few scraps of pre-
Christian Greek philosophy still extant in the West.

So, my interest piqued, I then come across an outfit called the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, which seems to have two primary foci: the cutting edge of particle physics and Celtic studies.  And, lo and behold, they have published four of the five volumes of John's Periphyseon, his magnum opus on the divisions of nature.  I have now acquired the first volume.

It is a strange and fascinating book, but apparently one that had very little long-term influence, owing to its susceptibility to charges of pantheism.  And thereon hangs a tale.

I was a philosophy major as an undergraduate.  The professor from whom I took the standard introductory sequence on the history of philosophy, Jim Ware (blessings and peace be upon him), had a theory about the history of philosophy being primarily the spinning out of central explanatory models.  Ancient philosophy develops around the idea physis, nature.  By contrast, medieval philosophy, developing an idea of a transcendent creator God from the Jewish and Christian religions, has recourse to a new model, the supernatural, an idea distinct from, but not independent of nature, and infused with the Christian notion of grace.  Whatever the merits of this development-- this division of "all that is" into a divine and creatures, a natural and a "graced," a "spacial-temporal" and an eternal--its establishment takes God unambiguously out of the "nature" category.

Meanwhile, back in the ninth century, our friend John Scottus  Eriugena, is trying to make sense of things, and he hits upon this idea that the notion of "creation" provides a helpful means of analyzing things.  He begins, though, with what exactly it is that is to be analyzed: "nature," which he unexpectedly defines as "omnium quae sunt et non sunt," "all things that are and that are not."  That's broad.

This nature, then, divides into four parts, using the category of "creation" as a knife:  (1) that which is uncreated and creates, (2) that which is created, and creates, (3) that which is created, and does not create, and (4) that which is uncreated, and does not create.  Division one is God, division two, roughly, the Platonic Ideas, whose participation in the world brings individual beings into existence, division three is us creatures, and division four--well, I'm not so sure yet.

The point is that John begins with nature as such a broad category that it includes God. And even though, in his schema,  the orthodox insistence on the initial radical division between creator and creature is rigorously observed, the later, near-universal understanding of "nature" as "creation" makes his putting God into that category suddenly suspect...which makes me wonder about other "suspected" pantheists, from Eckhart to Spinoza.

Not that I've gotten that far.  Actually, the above came to me at page one, of volume one.  Not a lot of progress.  But a fruitful beginning.

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