Thinking Nature and the Nature of Thinking
From Eriugena to Emerson
Willemien Otten



Thinking Nature . . . (and the Nature of Thinking)

Man carries the world in his head, the whole astronomy and chemistry suspended in a thought. Because the history of nature is charactered in his brain, therefore is he the prophet and discoverer of her secrets.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature”

“Thinking nature” is the rubric under which this book brings together the religious thought of Johannes Scottus Eriugena (810–77) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82) with a number of other congenial minds, creating a Platonic symposium of sorts that stretches across the Western religious tradition. The aim of my project is to explore nature or creation as driving the structure of thought rather than being driven by it, which I think is the case in all of the thinkers treated here, despite their differences. I refer to this as their practice of “thinking nature” in order to bring out the human encounter with nature in thought rather than any instrumentalization or domestication of nature as the object of thought. The thinkers I have chosen form a diverse historical array of premodern and modern authors. They include Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, and Eriugena, as my premodern representatives, and Friedrich Schleiermacher, William James, and Ralph Waldo Emerson as my modern ones. The term representative is deliberately chosen, because it is through them that we glimpse how the focus on “thinking nature” makes for an alternate way of dealing with nature as a theme of religious import. The discussion of nature as a religious term has included such questions as the status and meaning of createdness, the impact of God as creator on the world, the role of human nature, and the impact of material reality on thought. Calling attention to an alternate way of thinking that I see as being present within the mainstream tradition of Western thought, as I do here, is distinct from seeing this as an alternative way in a formal sense. What I am attempting to draw out is not an esoteric, gnostic, or pantheistic tradition underlying the Western religious tradition, or hidden within it, and I categorically reject the attempt to project it as such. I consider all of these representatives to be mainstream thinkers, and however we wish to formulate the parameters of the Western religious tradition, I think that these voices, most notably those of Eriugena and Emerson, my prime interlocutors, should be heard, their weight and position regarded precisely as mainstream, more than they have been. If anything, this book is a plea, and a reason, to do so.

Before I go into the details, dimensions, and historical scope of the exercise of “thinking nature,” let me first explain how I came to make this my rubric of choice. Beginning with my interest as a medievalist in Johannes Scottus Eriugena, I have always found medieval thought to radiate something uniquely powerful and fascinating. One of its most distinctive, but also puzzling, characteristics is that it is suffused with religion. As I see it, the religious aspect of medieval thought is an endemic and enduring trait, woven into and inspiring its very structure, which has made me suspicious of philosophical attempts to either dismiss this religiosity as a shell or attribute it to the dated disposition of premodern authors.

But working on the Carolingian Johannes Scottus Eriugena has also put the medievalist that I am in a particular quandary. Not only has he historically been neglected by medievalists, but apart from a small group of specialists, philosophers and theologians have historically overlooked him and continue to do so. Situated between Augustine and Aquinas, in an era that lies fallow between the confessional furrows that have shaped the theological and ecclesial history of the Christian West, Eriugena was already labeled a heretic in medieval times (his Periphyseon was condemned in 1225 by Pope Honorius III) for his views on nature, views that would come to be described—when the term emerged in the eighteenth century—as pantheist. That is, he was considered to have conflated the identity of God and creation in such a way that creation did not appear to have a lasting existence outside God, while God acquired a this-worldly immanence that was unseemly, a charge that all but guaranteed his removal from any intellectual canon while also preventing any later reinstatement.1 Yet Eriugena’s work encapsulates everything that I find attractive about medieval thought: it is self-enclosed while also allowing for different points of entry. It is accessible insofar as it presupposes little to no prior knowledge and, even while technical at times, eschews esotericism. It reveals a command of various pedagogical styles, even as it transgresses the predominance of any specific one. Combining and cementing all these characteristics, Eriugena evokes a powerful overarching vision that is deeply religious throughout. His vision primarily revolves around nature, a concept that hovers between the traditional sense of Christian creation and a larger, more evocative sense of reality and the cosmos.

As laid out in the five books of his major work, On Natures (Periphyseon), which is written as a dialogue between a master and a student, natura is the central problem of Eriugena’s reception. The reason for this is twofold and exemplifies the vulnerability of medieval thought when we allow it to be ghettoized as medieval, the penultimate step before shelving it definitively. One prong of my twofold reason is that the Periphyseon is simply hard to read and track. It puts forth a meandering argument, covering nearly six hundred columns in the nineteenth-century Migne edition.2 As a single text, the Periphyseon is not only excessively long, but its wandering style—the weaving of the various themes and genres that make up its investigation of natura—obviates a straightforward reading of the work. In book 1, for instance, Eriugena gives us a discussion of dialectic, the divine names, and the Aristotelian categories, even as he also launches into the meaning of theophany, that is, of creation as divine manifestation. In book 3 Eriugena gives us an intriguing excursion on divine nothingness (nihil) before embarking on a literal reading of the creation story of Genesis, and in books 4 and 5 he switches to an allegorical reading of that biblical text. All the while he is engaged in completing the work’s intended goal, which is to guide nature on its journey back to God, in whom it originated, as he is keen on complementing the so-called procession with a matching return.3

The second prong of my twofold reason for the Periphyseon’s neglect is that in contrast to a scholastic work like Aquinas’s Summa theologiae, the themes and arguments of the Periphyseon cannot be divided into discrete compartments that are further subdivided through distinctions without substantively affecting the whole of which they are a part. For Eriugena, the whole of natura not only precedes but also always fully permeates each and every one of its parts. As a result, these parts represent and can speak for the whole of natura at all times, as befits nature’s inherent dynamism, and they cannot be replaced or rearranged without doing lasting damage to them individually, as well as to the whole of which they are constitutive.

Although Eriugena was charged as a pantheist because natura—which he divides into things that are and things that are not based on whether or not they can be understood—notably includes God (who transcends understanding and hence resides in nature as nonbeing), I have increasingly wondered why the aspect of divine immanence is necessarily considered so scandalous, given that omnipresence is a traditional attribute of the divine from Augustine to Luther and beyond.4 An alternative and more plausible hypothesis to the question of why Eriugena’s work became theologically troublesome is precisely its indivisibility—in terms of both presentation and content. The indivisibility of Eriugena’s work—and by inference the intractability of nature that drives and is glimpsed within it—ran counter to the compartmentalization of Western religious thought that would become standard in scholastic education from the thirteenth century onward and that found a philosophical continuance of sorts in the segmented rationality of Enlightenment thinking.5

To bring out the unicity of Eriugena’s project then—and here I come to the origin of my chosen rubric—I see the Periphyseon, when pared down to its dynamic essentials, as an amazing attempt at “thinking nature.” Standing out, in the way it does, as Eriugena’s container and schema for “all things,” nature acquires from Eriugena a vigor that defies the ordinary limitations of Christian “creation,” though he is generally careful not to eliminate the transcendent power of the divine entirely. More important, ingrained in natura we find a deep-seated desire to act and move on its own and, especially, to chart its own course, rather than being something more passive that exists simply to execute a divinely dictated script.

It is this quality that has led me to set up the book in the way I have, that is, with the focus on “thinking nature.” In my view, thinking is the most crucial and radically free act known to the otherwise closely regimented and hierarchal Middle Ages. With social and gender relations narrowly prescribed, and the church itself a body increasingly known not just for the aesthetics of liturgy but for power and the enforcement of discipline, there is an inherent unconventional robustness to medieval thought that Eriugena’s project of “thinking nature” both exemplifies and reinforces.

Natura itself, then, conceived in Eriugenian fashion as the pulsating whole of reality to which God is interior, is where this book finds its deepest inspiration. In trying to approach the intractability of Eriugena’s nature, I bring him in conversation with Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom I have come to appreciate as the other master of “thinking nature” in Western religious thought. Emerson, it is good to know, is not just helpful in this conversation because he is located outside the medieval period. In fact, I chose him over his contemporary, Thoreau, precisely because of the near-medieval robustness of his thought, his willingness to mix genres, styles, and even audiences. He is quite able to project a power and vision entirely his own. This has caused significant reception issues, as he has alternately been considered a pamphletist, aphorist, lapsed Unitarian minister, and nineteenth-century motivational speaker rather than, indeed, a thinker, which is how I choose to see him. Though no ties bind Eriugena and Emerson—theological, philosophical, or otherwise—what joins them at the hip is their uncommon enterprise of wanting to “think nature”—that is, engage in thinking in such a way that they hold nature in their minds, always reserving space for nature’s ability to dictate thought, all the while recognizing the innate correspondences or links between nature and selfhood. Both authors “think nature” wholesale, that is, apart from any looming threat of instrumentalization—which in Emerson’s age of budding sciences was always just around the corner—and with regard for neither prior models of framing nor forensic means of compartmentalization. In fact, both thinkers concur in that they abstain from any desire to frame it at all. Like Eriugena, Emerson does not buy into firm dividing lines separating what is human, what is created, and what is divine. The only principle to which both defer is that of seeing the maieutic self as nature’s sparring partner, its interlocutor rather than master or slave, its midwife but at the same time its offspring. Human selves are, after all, created beings or, as Augustine says of himself at the opening of Confessions, “a portion of your creation” (aliqua portio creaturae tuae).

This commonality of principle, in the robust medieval way that I see instantiated as vibrantly in Emerson as in Eriugena, means that, of their vision of the connection between self and nature, we can also say the reverse: that is, see created beings and nature as if they are human selves. In fact, Emerson is keen to engage precisely in this kind of wild and daunting hyperbole, stating as he does that “plants are the young of the world, vessels of health and vigor; but they grope ever upward towards consciousness; the trees are imperfect men, and seem to bemoan their imprisonment, rooted in the ground” (“Nature,” CW 3:105–6).6 His is truly a whole and undivided universe, then, suffused with religion in spite of his departure from the ministry, where “nature is thoroughly mediate” and “the farm is a mute gospel” (Nature, CW 1:25, 26).

So far, so good, then, insofar as we have now established a connection between nature’s dynamics and its indivisibility-cum-intractability, perhaps even irreducibility. In Emerson’s “Method of Nature,” however, he goes further still by describing nature as “the best meaning of the wisest man” (CW 1:132). Following Emerson’s lead, I see the project of “thinking nature” edge closer here to another kind of reversibility, allowing for the idea of “nature (doing the) thinking” in addition to “(a person who is) thinking nature.” What I mean by this is a concept of nature that is fully set free, released from the constraints of human, or even divine, control and that seems to actualize most concretely there where it is able to melt with pure thinking. In such a melting, nature acquires a temporal dimension through achieving or performing what Emerson calls “onwardness,” the notion that humans are never completely in control of their own thoughts insofar as nature is always prospective, putting us on our way.7 It is this deeper assimilation of nature with thought and temporality that the juxtaposition of Eriugena and Emerson allows us to pursue further, whereby thought does not indicate the equivalent of ethereal speculation but instead references the crystallization point that turns the world into a free space where agent and act are no longer distinguishable and where object and subject can trade places.

One of the motivating reasons for me to go this route is that, if we can indeed conceive of nature as thinking, expressed in the notion of a thinking nature, we can then begin to develop an aspirational concept of nature that reclaims agency and empowerment. In such a concept, nature is no longer only passively defined by being subordinated to human or divine conversation—a changing thing, yet devoid of agency—but becomes empowered to take matters (i.e., life) into its own hands, rendering both humans and the divine attentive listeners to it. When nature is no longer just passively conceived, we are invited through the exercise of “thinking nature” to construct a thinking nature. A different and altogether new register of thought opens up, one that Emerson taps into throughout his writings. This is the register of nature as force, as executing a prophetic office, as not only representing “the best meaning of the wisest man” but reaching beyond the passive role of representative. Nature as force projects divine thoughts but does so authoritatively and of its own accord. This concept of nature as force stands quite apart from the charges of pantheism that have been leveled at our two thinkers. It simply reaches beyond the orthodoxy-heresy divide.

To bring all this out, I develop in the first chapter what I call an Eriugenian-Emersonian axis of “thinking nature.” To flesh out this axis and preserve the myriad transgressive and hybrid forms that “thinking nature” can assume in their individual works, I have flanked my portrait of the Carolingian and Irish Eriugena with chapters on Maximus the Confessor (580–662) and Augustine (354–430), placed in chronologically reverse order, while I surround the modern and American Emerson with chapters on Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) and William James (1842–1910). These figures form a diverse array of thinkers. By combining an Eastern (Byzantine) and Western church father with a continental and an American religious thinker, I mean to express my desire for a more capacious canon of Western religious thought. The concrete goals of these flanking chapters are to clarify how Eriugena and Emerson stand out from their age while also showing what these authors share. My hope is that by familiarizing ourselves with Eriugena’s and Emerson’s concepts of nature within the broader context of a more historically diverse and inclusive set of investigations into “thinking nature,” we can take our leave from the conventional notions of creation that have been all but taken for granted. Taking these conventional notions for granted has meant that they have been imposed as uniformly valid and, therefore, have become oppressively representative, which is altogether unnecessary, given the robustness and freedom inherent to both thought and nature. In their place I would like for us to be open to receiving a new, more open-ended and asymptotic, notion of nature, one in which the divine is an integral, rather than a foreign, presence and the self plays a role that is internally constitutive of nature rather than externally reflecting on it.

One unusual but appealing direction in which the new conceptualization-cum-construction of nature can lead us is that of nature as listening (listening because it chooses to, as agent, not because that is its passive function), as compassionate, as assuming a new mantle of stability (as opposed to necessary victimhood), serving as a kind of wailing wall for prayers of despair and disillusionment as we reflect on our present ills and past wrongs. It is in such a conceptualization that I see nature’s religious quality play out more fully, a quality that is deep-seated and goes far beyond its coming into being as the delimited product of divine creation. What we see here is nature having an authorized divine mission to serve as a well of compassion, consolation, and insight. In this respect it is not surprising that the source for the personification of Lady Nature in twelfth-century medieval allegories was that of Lady Philosophy, the protagonist of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.

The idea of nature acting as consoler-in-chief accords surprisingly well with the agentially receptive and deeply intractable character that it exhibits in both Eriugena and Emerson. Both of them see nature as highly malleable—“thoroughly mediate” in Emerson’s terms8—yet by allowing it to have agency in charting its own course, they also lend nature a quality of being perennially unperturbed. One takeaway from the notion of a compassionate and consoling nature is that it allows for a portrayal of nature that goes beyond both victimhood and inviolability. Instead, the resultant portrayal of nature allows us to project a wide-ranging spectrum of cosmic attitudes on its canvas even as nature maintains its own integrity, an integrity that shows it to be far from indifferent, while forcing us to hold it and ourselves to greater account.

The above lays out the project of “thinking nature” and its various ramifications as it emerges through my juxtaposition of Eriugena and Emerson. But there is another, still deeper, level of “thinking nature,” for which I mean this project to serve as a kind of preamble. As I explain in the first chapter, nature is there before we are. In fact, we become who we are only by distinguishing ourselves from nature, gaining our own identity as different and increasingly independent from it. Hence, we might say, in a slight rephrasing of the Augustinian statement above, that before assuming our anthropological selves, we have identity as natural beings, whether or not we choose to put that in Christian creational terms or not. In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh captures the alignment of human identity with nature when, overseeing his own travels and the journeys of his ancestors, he states: “When I look into my past the river seems to meet my eyes, staring back, as if to ask, Do you recognize me, wherever you are?” Ghosh then reflects on recognition as being the passage from ignorance to knowledge. Complicating the assumed uniformity and forward movement of this transition, he stresses that its most important element lies in its first syllable: re-. And he expounds: “The knowledge that results from recognition, then, is not of the same kind as the discovery of something new: it arises rather from a renewed reckoning with a potentiality that lies within oneself.”9

Transposing Ghosh’s thought to this book, I consider my musings on nature quite different from the various environmental projects in science, ethics, and humanities that are so quickly populating the libraries of the contemporary academy. While many of them breathe an atmosphere of crisis, in large part justifiably so, this book wants to take a step back into the historical past, to do the work of the “re-,” and thereby bring under way the process of the “renewed reckoning with the potentiality that lies within oneself” on the level of Western religious thought. Even aside from any environmental crisis, in the way that nature has been conceptualized over the course of two millennia of Western religious thought, nature finds itself increasingly boxed in between the boundary concepts of creatio ex nihilo, on one hand, and pantheism, on the other. This unnecessary and unfruitful delimitation is itself ample reason for it to be rethought. I can here only offer a new starting point with such a reappraisal, but I hope that my attempt to conceive of nature more dynamically and more capaciously will have a ripple effect, affecting our thinking not just about creation but, more broadly, about the role and engagement of religious tradition in the formulation of our concepts.

Obviously, and perhaps inescapably, there is a moral element to this book, not only with regard to the concept of nature animating it but also to the quality of thought that can result from being grounded in such a conceptualization. The more we accord nature a measure of integrity and agency, the more we will find that we need to hold ourselves to account. Schleiermacher and William James feel the need to distinguish between religion and morality and struggle to do so, this struggle for distinction becoming a backdrop against which their views on nature and creation seem increasingly muddled. Part of the difficulty of their discernment process is no doubt attributable to the effect of an encroaching secular mind-set on their thought, which clearly sets them apart from the premodern thinkers treated in Part 1. In this way, though, their struggles underline the uniqueness of the equally modern Emerson. For Emerson, nature’s prophetic office is a steadfast theme, and, with a truly natural seamlessness, nature is at once a carrier of religion and truth, as well as of justice. Thus, we encounter Emerson again as a thinker of near-medieval robustness who both represents and transcends his era, not only by looking ahead but also by harking back, pointing to untapped potentialities. He, more than any of his contemporaries, urges us onward to “renewed reckonings.”

It is through Emerson, then, that I must read Eriugena. To deal with nature, we need a greater arc of human accountability and a more capacious sense of religious tradition. I find both of these expanded notions most readily in Emerson in a way that, once excavated, we can see more clearly in Eriugena. The aim is to expand our familiarity with this fresh notion of nature so that we might achieve greater intimacy with nature itself. Thus, while it is in Eriugena that the project of “thinking nature” has its origin, it is with Emerson that its narrative will commence.


1. On Eriugena’s pantheism see Dermot Moran, The Philosophy of John Scottus Eriugena: A Study of Idealism in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 84–89; and Dermot Moran, “Pantheism from John Scottus Eriugena to Nicholas of Cusa,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 64, no. 1 (1990): 131–52. The eighteenth-century term pantheism itself is both problematic and protean, as is well argued by William Mander in his “Pantheism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Archive (Winter 2016 Edition), Recently, Mary-Jane Rubenstein has commented on the different ontologies underlying pantheism, focusing either on unity or on immanence. In the former case, oneness is ascribed to the world and God, while in the latter there is a claim of this-worldliness for the divine. See Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 21–22. While the circumstances of his condemnation are unclear, it would seem that Eriugena was guilty on both counts. For further comments on pantheism and my objections to the term, see Chapter 1 below.

2. The edition of the Periphyseon by H. J. Floss in J. P. Migne’s Patrologia Latina 122:441A–1022C, which was standard for a long time, has now been replaced by Edouard Jeauneau’s five-volume critical edition. This critical text is found in the series Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis [CCCM], vols. 161–65 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1996–2003). The columns of the Migne text are carried over into the critical edition. I generally quote the critical text of the Periphyseon according to book and Migne column numbers and have taken the English translation, and where needed adapted, from Eriugena, Periphyseon, trans. I. P. Sheldon-Williams, rev. J. J. O’Meara (Montreal/Washington: Bellarmin and Dumbarton Oaks, 1987).

3. Elena Lloyd-Sidle offers us an outline of the entire Periphyseon as an appendix to her introduction to its themes in her chapter “A Thematic Introduction to and Outline of the Periphyseon, for the Alumnus,” in A Companion to John Scottus Eriugena, ed. A. Guiu (Leiden: Brill, 2020), 113–33.

4. One way of looking at pantheism is that it foregrounds an outsized notion of divine immanence (see note 1 above). It is this view that seems to have most haunted the evaluation of the Periphyseon. A key text in this regard is Periphyseon 2.528B (here I quote from the Sheldon-Williams translation):

M[aster]. But suppose you join the creature to the Creator so that you understand in the former nothing save Him who alone truly is—for nothing apart from Him is truly called essential since all things that are, are nothing else in so far as they are, but participation in Him who alone subsists from and through Himself—you will not deny then that Creator and creature are one?

S[tudent]. It would not be easy for me to deny it. For it seems to me ridiculous to resist this conclusion. (127)

5. The above passage continues by emphasizing precisely nature’s indivisibility, which we can even take to mean its irreducibility:

M. So the universe, comprising God and creation, which was first divided into four forms, is reduced again to an indivisible One, being Principle as well as Cause and End.

S. I see that we have meanwhile said enough about the universal division and unification of universal nature.

6. This passage is quoted in Branka Arsić, “Brain Walks: Emerson on Thinking,” in The Other Emerson, ed. Branka Arsić and Cary Wolfe (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 75; also published in Branka Arsić, On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 149.

7. The locus classicus of Emersonian onwardness is found in his essay “Experience” (CW 3:32): “The secret of the illusoriness is in the necessity of a succession of moods or objects. Gladly we would anchor, but the anchorage is quicksand. This onward trick of nature is too strong for us: Pero si muove. When, at night, I look at the moon and stars, I seem stationary, and they to hurry. Our love of the real draws us to permanence, but health of body consists in circulation, and sanity of mind in variety or facility of association.”

8. I comment further on precisely this Emersonian citation in my conclusion.

9. Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 4–5. I am grateful to Charles Hallisey for this reference.