Being and Non-Being in Eriugena


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John Scottus Eriugena famously defined his Natura as possessing two primary orders — the things that are, and the things that are not — the startling point of his theory is that Eriugena defines 'being' and 'non-being' as those objects that are, or are not, perceived by the sensible/intellectual faculties of man.

In so doing, he united the two distinct lines of theological development that even today separate East from West — he took the Apophatic or Negative Theology of the East (in the works of the 6th century Syrian Monk Denys the Areopagite), and placed them alongside the tradition of Cataphatic or Affirmative Theology that so marked the Western way.

Eriugena has been declared the last great Platonist of the West, for even in his own time he began to be accused by the champions of an emergent Aristotelianism. His influence is there however, down through the ages ... especially in the line of apophatic speculation, such as in Eckhart, and Nicholas of Cusa ... even today he is admired by the German Idealists in particular, among the Continental schools of philosophy.

Being and NonBeing

The first mode:
"Of these, the first seems to be the one by which reason persuades us that all things subject to corporeal sense and the perception of intelligence can reasonably be said to have being... "

and conversely ...

"those things which are beyond the grasp of the mind, of which God is foremost, are said not to be."

Here Eriugena argues for a mode of non-being by virtue of is 'excellence', which transcends any objective categorisation. (He discusses the Aristotelian Categories at great length.)

He will also argue that, apart from God who alone is, everything else is, and is not, simultaneously ... and finally that the actuality of the being of all things — their is-ness — is their participation in God who alone is.

The second mode:
The first mode dealt with non-being deemed higher than being 'by reason of their excellence' and the second mode is an application of this to the created world. Since God is totally beyond human understanding, He is said not to be. But that is seen by Eriugena as a limit upon the Divine Nature. He prefers to further distance God from the limitations of both being and non-being, and quotes Denys: "The being of all things is Superbeing, Divinity."

With regard to creation, Eriugena assigns being to all creatures in accordance with their place in the hierarchy or order of things, 'from the highest angel down to the lowest part of a rational or irrational soul.'

Every order of rational and intellectual creature is said to have and not to have being. It has being insofar as it is known by higher creatures or by itself; it lacks being insofar as it does not allow itself to be comprehended by its inferiors.

The novel twist taken here is to reverse the normal neoplatonic approach to the hierarchy of creation, where the higher is a cause of the lower, and thus said to have greater being, all the way up to God, the Supreme Being. The higher, he says, has no being at all, at least when perceived, if that's the word, by a creature less than itself.

Being and non-being here are relative terms, depending as they do on the difference between subject and mind, rather than any absolute property in the subject itself. Angels have non-being when they are understood by man, but consist of being as they understand themselves.

The third mode:
The third mode of being and non-being considers the difference between the actuality and the potentiality of things.

Thus something has being with regard to its actuality, but there was a time when it was not, and there will be a time when it will no longer be, so being in this degree is the being of things that come into being and pass away.

Thus wilst all being exists in God eternally, being appears in creation according to their time and place, sequentially. Thus the seed is before the plant, and the plant is before the flower.

There is also with this the idea of a thinh exists actually, and potentially, and that the full potentiality of something, that is its perfection, is its true and real mode of being, whereas the actuality of a thing, inasfar as it is neither fulfilled nor perfect, is then said not to be, according to that measure.

Thus a flower that is still a seed is not a flower, the seed contains the potential to be a flower, but it might not be ... so in this aspect the flower has no being until it is a flower.

The fourth mode:
The fourth mode states that 'according to the plausible theory of philosophers' only those things 'grasped by the intellect alone' can truly be said to be, as opposed those things which are merely accessible through sense perception.

To utilise the flower again, we can see the flower exists as a seed, a plant, a flower ... but all of these are grouped under the idea of flower, and the idea of the flower is its being, whereas the actuality of its substance in a given time and place, as a seed, a shoot, a plant, a leaf, a flower, etc., have being in themselves only according to the idea of the plant that precedes them.

The fifth mode:
This mode is particular to a rational nature. The being of anything is the Divine Idea of the thing, that which God wills into being, and which is good, because God wills it. Man, for example, in attaching himself to other things than those willed by God, is said to fall away as it were into unbeing, in that those things towards which he directs himself have no existential being because they are not willed by God, and are called sin.

Thus, to recap, human existence partakes of being and non-being by participation: Being is then synonymous with the true and the real, whereas non-being is synonymous with that which is false, and the illusory ... not because falsehood and illusion are bad, but rather that they are bad precisely because that which is not true, and that which is not real, can have no being.

Thus, as an aside, we can argue that God is and cannot be the author or mover of sin or evil, because sin ands evil possess not existential being, they are by nature illusions, falsehoods, deceptions ... and arise only in the disordered will.

No-Thing, Really Matters.
We think it is Some-Thing, but really it is much ado about No-Thing.

Thomas, I know you had some related discussion to this in the Panentheism thread, I will have to go back to find it. But could you please underscore what are the central themes in this thinking which relate to Panentheism or refute it ?
So in existence we have being and non being...and what is in those categories is dependent on the mode?

ie first mode G!d is nonbeing, fifth mode G!d is being?

I need a chart, I's confuddled.

What about heat or light? Being or nonbeing? I can perceive both, and exactly what was said about excellence??
Thomas, I just read the wiki article on Eriugena. Can you please give your thoughts on the quote below ? Do you agree with it ? I am especially curious whether you agree with the observation about authority ?

The Division of Nature has been called the final achievement of ancient philosophy, a work which "synthesizes the philosophical accomplishments of fifteen centuries." It is presented, like Alcuin's book, as a dialogue between Master and Pupil. Eriugena anticipates Thomas Aquinas, who said that one cannot know and believe a thing at the same time. Eriugena explains that reason is necessary to understand and interpret revelation. "Authority is the source of knowledge", but the reason of mankind is the norm by which all authority is judged.[1]

Johannes Scotus Eriugena - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

If reviewed your posts on the panenthesim thread about Eriugenia - #61, 111, 122, and 183. You seem to be more skeptical of panentheism than Eriugenia was. Do you agree with that ?

Do you think it is possible to draw some analogy between: being = pantheism and non being = panentheism - (minus) pantheism (this is a mathematical analogy)?

Also, I am interested in the analogy that you seem to draw between the Greek philosophers and Middle Ages Christian Theologians. Can you clarify this analogy ?

I am also a fan of the Greek philosophers. Do you think they had an unequalled impact on subsequent religions ?

And, can you contrast Eriugenia's ideas of being and non being to what you think Spinoza would have believed ?

I must admit, for the most part, when it comes to philosophers of all kinds, I am woefully ignorant. I haven't read anything, by any that I can recall. And if I can't recall it, I may as well not have... :)

I find it fascinating the way non-being is used. And that it applies to things according to their 'excellence.' I wonder what excellence is considered to be in this instance. It appears he means something along the lines of how much of a mystery something is to beings below it, hierarchically speaking. Which is an interesting way of thinking about it...

Very thought provoking! I think I may like these philosophers. :) I think I may start with the Greeks, they always seemed the most interesting to me.

There is a basic logic here, isn't there?
(If you accept a Platonic Idealism.)

There is a simple hierarchy in space and time.

Say you are traveling:
- Where you have been has 'Being' - it exists to you. You have seen it.
- Where you are going has 'NonBeing' - it has no existence till you get there, and see it for yourself.

As you climb the hierarchy from Rock to Tree to Animal to Human to Angel to God, the same is true:
- A Human can prune a Tree and not kill it - the Tree exists within a Human's mindscape (so the Tree has 'Being' from the Human perspective). But ...
- A Tree cannot repair a Human bicycle (so the Human and its bicycle are 'NonBeing' where the tree is concerned).

Each of the species above you in the hierarchy has no cogent existence to you (and to other species below it) in the hierarchy (thus, the species above have 'NonBeing').
But those below you in the hierarchy can be perceived by you (and by all other species above it) with relative cogency, and thus those below you on the hierarchy can be said to have 'Being.'

Same in temporal chronology:
To an adult, their own childhood has a cogent existence to them ('Being'). But their old age does not - given that the future is uncertain and their retirement plan may not go by the script ('NonBeing').

Thomas said:
Thus a flower that is still a seed is not a flower, the seed contains the potential to be a flower, but it might not be ... so in this aspect the flower has no being until it is a flower.
{The Pro-Life Movement cannot be too fond of Eriugena's ideas, huh?}

Likewise, in the hierarchy, Intellect is superior to Sense-perception - a higher level of cogency. Intellect can perceive the whole (the full 'Being' of something), while Sense-perception can only perceives some of the parts (thus 'NonBeing' regarding the parts which Sense-perception is incognizant of, as well as regarding the failure to perceive the full entirety of the Idea).

There is a pretty consistent and logical phenomenology at work here, so far.
But Mode 5 is another story.

Till here, Being and NonBeing are defined in terms of relative mental cogency. Suddenly Eriugena jumps from how things are 'experienced' by the mind to ...

Will - i.e. 'behavior' (God's and Man's). Actions taken in the world, not phenomena apprehended (not 'experience').

That's a pretty big leap, isn't it, Thomas?

Okay. A 'Divine (whole) Idea' is higher (thus is 'Being') on the Space-Time hierarchy than a 'Human (fragmentary) Idea' (i.e. 'NonBeing'). I get that.

But a 'faulty idea' is not an action (neither a 'Divine' action nor a 'Sinful' action). It has nothing whatever to do with action. Unless we assume that bad cogitation necessarily leads to bad (sinful) action. (The jump from 'cogitation' to 'ethics.') And that is an awfully big leap, don't you think, Thomas?

Logic by association, by metaphoric parallelism.

Is Eriugena just trying to sneak in, thru the back door, that Bad Behavior does not originate from God? ... Is he claiming (by implication, not by logical argument) that 'Will' is the highest form of an 'Idea' and operates by the same principles?

How did Eriugena logic-out that discrepancy?
(It looks like a huge epistemological blunder to me.)