A while back Photios Jones on Energetic Procession recommended Deirdre Carabine’s book on the medieval Irish philosopher and theologian, John Scottus Eriugena, who, according to the back cover, “is known as the interpreter of Greek thought to the Latin West.” Commenter Rick recently resurrected my interest in reading this book with his valuable contribution to this post On Reading Plato. My hackles were raised a tiny bit on referring to the Greek theologians mentioned as “NeoPlatonists”, and I gave a rather unstudied, but nevertheless true defense against this appellation. But I find my mind not wanting to take its customary break after determinedly pushing through my resistance to reading an entire book. Dostoevsky makes reading and thinking fun, so I may just keep my momentum going by picking up this 111 page book before returning to Father Seraphim Rose’s longer, if only it had been so in years, Life.
Now I find this NeoPlatonist name-calling in the forward to the book on Eriugena,
Little is known about the life of the subject of the present volume, the ninth-century Irishman John Scotus Eriugena. But his significance as a thinker is now commonly acknowledged by all serious medievalists. Translator, exegete, theologian, and philosopher, Eriugena is one of the greatest of Christian Neoplatonists. Along with figures like Maimonides (1135-1204) and Aquinas (c.1225-74), he is also one of the most distinguished practitioners of negative theology – the attempt to safeguard the transcendence of God by stressing the limits of human understanding, by reminding us of what God cannot be. In this respect he resembles some of the authors who clearly had an impact on him, writers like St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Dionysius the Areopagite (c.500), Gregory of Nyssa (c.330-c.395), and Maximus the Confessor (c.580-662).
Since negative, or apophatic, theology is brought up, in light of my observation a few posts back on Dostoevsky’s chapter on the Devil, which does not negate “reason”, I’ve been meaning to post a quote from G.K. Chesterton found in the Father Brown Mystery, The Blue Cross.
But no more innocently clerical conversation could have been heard in any white Italian cloister or black Spanish cathedral.
The first he heard was the tail of one of Father Brown’s sentences, which ended: “… what they really meant in the Middle Ages by the heavens being incorruptible.”
The taller priest nodded his bowed head and said:
“Ah, yes, these modern infidels appeal to their reason; but who can look at those millions of worlds and not feel that there may well be wonderful universes above us where reason is utterly unreasonable?”
“No,” said the other priest; “reason is always reasonable, even in the last limbo, in the lost borderland of things. I know that people charge the Church with lowering reason, but it is just the other way. Alone on earth, the Church makes reason really supreme. Alone on earth, the Church affirms that God himself is bound by reason.”
The other priest raised his austere face to the spangled sky and said:
“Yet who knows if in that infinite universe–?”
“Only infinite physically,” said the little priest, turning sharply in his seat, “not infinite in the sense of escaping from the laws of truth.”
[… Later Flambeau asks how he knew he wasn’t a priest,]
“How in blazes do you know all these horrors?” cried Flambeau.
The shadow of a smile crossed the round, simple face of his clerical opponent.
“Oh, by being a celibate simpleton, I suppose,” he said. “Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil? But, as a matter of fact, another part of my trade, too, made me sure you weren’t a priest.”
“What?” asked the thief, almost gaping.
“You attacked reason,” said Father Brown. “It’s bad theology.”
Not long ago, when I first read this, I thought it went along with the accusation that the western theological tradition wrongly elevates reason or reasonableness as the highest test of true theology. The Saints listed above emphasized negative theology, that God’s ways are higher than man’s ways, and it appears are thus termed, Neoplatonists. So when Dostoevsky seems to applaud reason, not that he goes all the way to being dogmatic about its conclusions, perhaps he demonstrates a way to redeem reason by practicing it on a transcendent level. This would combat any promotion of randomness or chaos, which on second thought is what Flambeau may have been espousing and Father Brown defending against. So I’ll give the western Mr. Chesterton a second chance too.