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



Nature as Conversation

Augustine on Verbal and Natural Signification

To take stock of where we are at the end of our first foray into that other, more elusive nature, I want to elaborate in this postscript on my idea of putting nature into dialogue or conversation. While I have done so through debating an array of premodern authors on their view of nature and creation, the focus inside my chapters has increasingly been on nature’s dialogue with God and with humanity. Such a dialogue occurs in Eriugena’s Periphyseon ever more poignantly, even to the point, I contend, of transforming nature itself into conversation. To explain nature’s transformation from being in conversation to being itself conceived as conversation, we need to discuss Augustine’s complex view of signification, which is visual—as we ended the last chapter with modes of vision—but also vocal-verbal, which opens up the connection with conversation. Since vision in Augustine is mostly eschatological, I will pursue here the vocal-verbal aspects of nature. From there I will move to Eriugena and the idea of nature as conversation.

While the study of nature in premodern thinkers is often found linked with the divine through Paul’s statement in Romans 1:20 that God’s invisible nature is attested through his visible attributes,1 making the main prism through which to see nature that of divine self-disclosure, various references in Confessions can make us more attuned to the idea of nature’s own voice. Below I cite two examples from Confessions where nature is associated with speech.

In the first example, from Conf. 9, we are privy to Augustine and Monica’s last dialogue before her death. In the so-called mystical vision at Ostia, we follow their gradual move upward from earthly, material reality to the ethereal heavenly reality of the divine. The passage in question does not present created things as actually speaking, for the general emphasis is on vision above voice. Insofar as Augustine imagines hearing them speak, however, he tries to infer what it is they would say: “We did not make ourselves, we were made by him who abides for eternity.” This silence and the creatures’ general lack of language enables Augustine and Monica to lock nature out of their shared bond of human intimacy. Thus, we are confronted with the limits of nature’s relationality, as the interlocutors in this passage seem keen on bypassing creatures to hear the voice of the creator unfiltered and unmediated.

This is how Augustine records their vision as he converses with Monica:

Therefore we said: If to anyone the tumult of the flesh has fallen silent, if the images of earth, and water, and air are quiescent, if the heavens themselves are shut out and the very soul itself is making no sound and is surpassing itself by no longer thinking about itself, if all dreams and visions in the imagination are excluded, if all language and every sign and everything transitory is silent—for if anyone could hear them, this is what all would be saying “We did not make ourselves, we were made by him who abides for eternity” (Ps. 79:3, 5)—if after this declaration they were there to keep silence, having directed our ears to him that made them, then he alone would speak not through them but through himself. We would hear his word, not through the tongue of the flesh, nor through the voice of an angel, nor through the sound of thunder, nor through the obscurity of a symbolic utterance. Him who in these things we love we would hear in person without their mediation.2

From the fact that creatures are seen as unable to speak, we can nevertheless infer that they equally desire to have a voice of their own and to signify who they are through self-expression. Augustine makes a similar point about creatures’ inchoate attempts at linguistic self-expression in the related passage below from Conf. 10, where he asks what he loves when he loves his God. Here he engages in actual dialogue with natural creatures, though, in describing the answer that they resonate back to him, namely their beauty, he mixes registers again by slipping in the visual with the vocal:

And what is the object of my love? I asked the sea, the deeps, the living creatures that creep, and they responded: “We are not your God, look beyond us.” I asked the breezes which blow, and the entire air with its inhabitants said: “Anaximenes was mistaken; I am not God.” I asked heaven, sun, moon and stars; they said: “Nor are we the God whom you seek.” And I said to all these things in my external environment: “Tell me of my God who you are not, tell me something about him.” And with a great voice they cried out: “He made us” (Ps. 99:3). My question was the attention I gave to them, and their response was their beauty [outward form (species)].3

While it is tempting to dismiss this passage as a pagan rudiment indicative of an older material notion of God, Robert Markus has productively connected the visual and the vocal by highlighting the Augustinian link between signification and creation. Exploring that link, this postscript will press on the notion of verbal or vocal signification to see what room there is in Augustine and Eriugena for the notion of dialogue and conversation with nature.

Markus’s Signs and Meanings: World and Text in Ancient Christianity, a collection of several essays on Augustine’s sign theory,4 contains perhaps the most complete analysis of Augustinian signification. These essays are held together by Markus’s deep interest in the multivalence of scripture or what he calls, using an expression from James O’Donnell, “the polysemy of scripture and the licit plurality of interpretation.”5 For Markus, Augustine’s openness to plural interpretation is rooted in the new network of meanings that he culls from the foundational distinction between res (things) and signa (signs). Through this distinction, first introduced in On Christian Teaching, Augustine multiplies the possibilities of scriptural exegesis exponentially. For, pushing the notion of “sign” beyond the literary sphere, he stretches its exegetical application into the natural sphere. Expressing his awareness of this, Markus holds that when things (res) are seen as signs (signa) in Augustine, they do not automatically become swept up in the realm of verbal interpretation but retain their materiality rather than forfeiting it. The fact that even in their capacity as signs, material things are not deprived of their thingness allows Augustine to engage nature in what is in fact a double conversation. By this I mean that, parallel to a vertical interpretation along the conventional lines of things and their spiritual or conceptual meanings, there is a new web of interpretations that allows for the horizontal interconnection of material things themselves.

As Markus clarifies, by giving signs a hermeneutical purchase that goes beyond the literary, Augustine coins in fact a novel usage of signs and therefore of scriptural exegesis.6 Whereas things (res) can indeed function as literary signs (signa) through which to communicate spiritual or intellectual matters, as physical signs retaining their thingness they can, through bodily and material communication, also point to other material things. Instead of seeing things qua signs and their (literal or spiritual) meaning as inhabiting two separate, vertically ordered spheres, Augustine’s referential system unlocks a far richer network of meanings with myriad interconnections. Especially, Augustine allows for things qua signs to not only be verbally explained but also to gain further clarity through correspondence with other things.

In contrast to the upward pull of Origen’s Alexandrian tradition, Augustine bequeaths us a solid preference for the literal sense and the material and historical groundedness of things that underlies it. Pointing us forward as well as upward, Augustine’s hermeneutics of signification is suffused with incarnation and shot through with temporality. Given the dialectic of promise and fulfillment animating both (incarnation and temporality), it bears little surprise that Markus’s particular focus, which parallels Augustine’s own, is on deeds or events that draw together the Old and the New Testament. As he explains: “A text can be taken in its strictest literal meaning and may nevertheless have, indirectly, a further reference. It is the events narrated by it that may themselves have a meaning, that is to say, they constitute, as he [Augustine] said, a divine discourse. It is not the biblical text that means something other than what it appears on the face of it to be saying. It is what the text is literally referring to that itself has a further meaning.”7 Below I extend Augustine’s notion of a divine discourse (diuina eloquentia) to make it resonate not only with the deeds or events on which Markus focused—and what Augustine in De ciuitate Dei 11.18 calls the eloquence of things (eloquentia rerum)8—but also the world of natural things.

If we inspect what biblical interpretation looks like for Augustine with regard to the so-called signa translata, the figurative or transferred signs that are hardest to read and thus most in need of interpretation, we see Augustine lay out consecutive stages of meaning. The word ox, to take Markus’s example, can indicate the physical beast (scenario A), but once the sign is known, “ox” (that is, the word and/or the beast) can also refer to the evangelist Luke (scenario B).9 For a thing to be a sign, there has to be a first meaning, but by reverberating onward, the thing-that-is-a-sign can itself also acquire a second meaning. That second meaning may be called transferred (translata), but it is still embodied and temporal. Markus visualizes the train of interpretation that emerges as follows:

A: Sign (word) → Signified (thing, event)

B: Sign (word) → Signified1 (thing, event)1 → Signified2

[Transferred sign = Sign + signified1] → Signified2

where A represents the normal relationships of signification and B represents the relationships in the case of ‘transferred’ signs.10

Augustine’s notion of a transferred sign compresses what, on unpacking, unfolds into a double meaning, corresponding to his engagement of creation in what is hence a multimedial conversation—that is, through words and through creatures. Since the process is set in motion by one and the same sign—the word ox can denote both the animal and the human evangelist—the assumed priority of anthropological interpretation retreats into the fuller resonance of creation.

In the exegetical context of his stated focus on “the polysemy of scripture and the licit plurality of interpretation,” Markus applies Augustine’s notion of signa translata mostly to signs as words. But there is no reason why the chain of resonances should end there, as material or created things (res) can themselves evoke further meanings. In the absence of a hard and fast distinction between verbal and nonverbal signs, Augustine’s hermeneutics of signification allows him to cast a wide net of meaning over all of created reality, even though the net of natural(ist) interpretations remains replete with scriptural echoes.

Although the ostensible purpose of Augustine’s On Christian Teaching is to teach scripture, reading the work in Emersonian fashion, with an eye toward the wider hermeneutical circles that it draws, helps us see that Augustine is unlocking biblical exegesis here as a supple and capacious genre of interpretation of the broader natural world as well. I begin to diverge from Markus in that I see Augustine, apparent in his many Genesis commentaries, as being interested not just in “the polysemy of scripture” as a theoretical possibility but in actively upholding a full spectrum of dynamic meanings of biblical and natural signs qua signs. I submit that the full spectrum of meanings is more interesting to him than finding the single most accurate interpretation, this being the interest of Jerome and his peers. It would be a fallacy to conclude, however, that Augustine leaves interpretation up to the whim of the interpreter. As Markus explains, Augustine’s hermeneutics of signification as the process of exegetical meaning-making is always patterned on a clear triad, consisting of (a) the signifier, generally seen as the created thing, (b) the signified, that is, the message that it sends about divine authorship, and (c) to whom something is signified, that is, the reader(s) or audience. There is no reason to think that, just as in Maximus’s parallelism of nature and scripture, a similar triad cannot apply to the reading of natural signs.

Augustine’s hermeneutical system is so powerful because it makes sure that signs (signa), by which Markus refers especially to the facta or events of the Old Testament but in which I have now included natural things, retain their maximal expressiveness. As Markus sees it, Augustine’s arguments bring him at times into conflict with the Jews of his interpretation, whom he considers bound to useless signs in carnal fashion, that is, heeding the commandments without adequate motivation or reflection, and at other times with the pagans of his interpretation, who confront him with the insidious problem of idolatry—that is, the worship of simulacra. Because, in Augustine’s view, pagans lack any recognition of God as the author of creation, they mistake creatures and their artifacts for the creator. His awareness of idolatry leads Augustine to state in Conf. 10.6.9 that the mission of created things is to reflect their maker, and they can only do so in relation to a reader who has the right semiotic intention. Hence, while Augustine’s hermeneutics blurs the divide between scripture and reality (by which we mean culture and nature), the interpretive circles he draws remain concentric in reflecting a joint sense of purpose. Fostering creation’s worship of God, through his theory of signs, must blend in with the Confessions’ overall goal of conversion, in the course of which the world and the self are slowly but surely reoriented to God. Much like Augustinian selfhood, creation (meaning the panoply of creatures) in Confessions does not merely intone a state of divine dependency but actively participates in the work’s ongoing process of interlocking dialogue, prayer, confession, and the dynamism of conversion.

While Augustine never states that created things are signs of, and hence “speak,” their creator, the triadic theory of signification put forth in Conf. 10.6.10 that I see operative in the Confessions’ last three books (11–13) allows us to weave an ever-closer relational web between the three parts of the triad: the reader/interrogator (to whom is signified; we might say the confessing self), the creatures put to the question “who made you?” (the signifiers), and the creator (the signified). Within this triadic relationship, the statement that creatures qua creatures speak of their maker does not so much connote a doctrinal or exegetical truth as it instigates a performative one, insofar as creatures are called upon to execute the so-called eloquentia rerum.

For Markus, the triadic configuration of subject-sign-signified is an important mainstay of Augustine’s hermeneutical thought. It reflects his habit of reading not just referentially (that is, accurately denoting any signified objects) but ethically (that is, connoting that signification thrives under the right relations). If we take account of the full spectrum of Augustine’s hermeneutics, its depth alongside its integrative reach and moral character, and bring it full circle, it reflects the circle of signs proceeding out from God and returning back to God. Given this parallel, it becomes clear that there are great repercussions for the interpretation of the natural world. Augustine alerts us to the need to communicate creation’s relevance and meaning, simultaneously charging us with a sense of both duty and possibility. As Markus states:

The ability to read God’s deeds in the Old Testament as his speech (eloquentia diuina), and the ability to read God’s creatures in the world as telling of their creator (eloquentia rerum), both require the right disposition or intention as Augustine would say. The disposition to see things as signs, with a meaning beyond their obvious, immediate appearances is an intention to “put them to the question.” Meaning is not obvious to us: our understanding is clouded. Fallen human beings as we are, we are permanently liable to failing to communicate and failing to be communicated with. In this life we are denied the transparency of mutual understanding which would allow direct communication between us and other minds.11

I am not offering a correction to Markus but am further applying what he says. He limits things (res) mostly to deeds and Old Testament events; I run with this and apply it to all creatures. Given that humanity’s understanding is clouded, what we search for is to read the opaque sign as one that discloses meaning and therein enables and inspires us as flawed human beings to break through life’s opacity by conversing with others.12 The difficulty implied in the search for meaning makes clear how much Augustine’s quest is at root a quest for transcendence: transcendence not of creaturehood in Neoplatonic fashion but of the reification of compromised selfhood. His wide exegetical circle invites the sinful self to open itself up to a fuller manifestation of the divine. Finding itself imprisoned among the opaque signs tends to isolate the self from its human community as well as from the realm of creatures, to which it also belongs and craves access. Right interpretation, in other words, whether scriptural or natural, means conversion to community—envisioned as a fully embodied, nature-wide, incarnational reality—in which humans have their place with all of creation: a community, consequently, in which nature is not only freely thought but in which it can freshly raise its voice and speak its mind.

Nature’s Conversation in Eriugena

If we transfer the idea of natural signification to the Periphyseon, are we not justified in seeing Eriugena’s monumental work as an attempt to encode the eloquence of things (eloquentia rerum) or, better, nature(s)? As for Augustine, the extraction of meaning from natures that speak of their creator marks also for Eriugena an important step toward a more complete understanding of God’s eloquence (eloquentia diuina), which Eriugena likewise sees conveyed by scripture. In line with this I submit that the Periphyseon is best read as an early medieval application of Augustine’s referential system of signs and things, with renewed emphasis placed on divine communication directly through res (things)—that is, natures- or creatures-assigns—as much as through verbal signs. Pursuing this approach will be particularly helpful in connecting the Periphyseon’s first half, consisting in a dialectical appraisal of reality that includes a wide-ranging discussion of the applicability of the Aristotelian categories to God, of denial and affirmation as the two modes of Dionysian theology, and of theophany, with the work’s second, exegetical half, in which a literal interpretation of the hexaemeron is followed by an allegorical one.

Approaching the Periphyseon from the perspective of signification and communication, we do best to see the dialogue partners, Nutritor and Alumnus, as stand-ins for the community at large, meaning the integrated whole of human and other created beings, to whose restoration both Augustine and Eriugena aspire. Teasing out further implications, I want to underline that community in Eriugena includes all of creation, as I think it also does in Augustine. Creation or nature as community mirrors the comprehensiveness of Maximus’s liturgical cosmos, even if it remains true for Eriugena and Augustine, that knowledge is primarily communicated through the direct interaction of human minds with each other. Maximus’s overt liturgical agenda and requisite ascetic setting, however, are absent in both Augustine and Eriugena. Even so, exegesis lies at the heart of what all three of them do, and salvific intent remains their key operative principle.

So, what kind of restoration does Eriugena have in view? The liturgical ambiance that dominates Maximian discourse is drained from the Periphyseon, while the Carolingian school context lends the dialogue of master and student a formulaic playfulness.13 These are connected in that we see the role of Christology, in Eriugena, becoming transposed to anthropology (rather than liturgy) in a manner proportionate to the work’s school-based, protohumanistic context. Following Gregory of Nyssa’s idea that humans are made in the image of God, Eriugena sees the human mind (nous) as the site of humanity’s quality of imago Dei, even as he complements it with the Maximian trope that humanity is the workshop (ἐργαστήριον/officina omnium) of creation.14

Debating the possibilities and limitation of their knowledge, master and student enunciate at one point what is no doubt Eriugena’s most radical position on the unity and priority of divine understanding—namely, that man is a notion eternally made in the divine Word (homo. . . . notio aeternaliter facta in mente diuina).15 While at first blush this statement underwrites Eriugena’s so-called idealism, insofar as it privileges the essential notions in the divine mind over the corporeal existence of things in the world (and hence seems to disqualify human efforts to arrive at rational judgment through sense-based knowledge), the Periphyseon’s latter half, the half that deals with the return through exegesis rather than speculative analysis, shows the situation to be rather more complex. Not unlike Emerson, Eriugena stays remarkably close to the concrete and the imperfect, which means that he often brings into focus the sinful and imperfect aspects of human life. Besides seeing humanity as a notion inside the divine mind, master and student also put forth another definition of humanity, according to which the human mind contains within itself the images of all the things that it knows.16 In the same Platonic vein, humanity’s understanding of things must rank above their historical, material reality.

These two definitions clash on the point of human self-knowledge: is it perfect in its identity with God’s transparent knowledge, or is it deficient in its rootedness in the imperfect process of human knowing? Eriugena struggles to achieve a resolution. Making ingenious use of Dionysian apophasis, he grafts what amounts to the divine epistemological surplus (by which humanity is a notion in the divine mind) onto humanity’s epistemological deficit (whereby its imperfect state impedes perfect self-knowledge), canceling out their opposition. Yet in the quest for knowledge, humanity’s imperfection ultimately has the edge, insofar as the dialogue between the two interlocutors produces, and hence relies on, intersubjective knowledge.

With intersubjective knowledge taking priority over both imperfect human self-knowledge and angelic intellectual transparency, Eriugena secures that the interaction of master and student can yield concrete mutual understanding. In this way Eriugena turns the ontological asymmetry of human and divine into what is a level epistemological exchange between two human interlocutors. This gives the unfolding of nature the status of template in ways reminiscent of how Augustine saw scripture as mediating between God and humanity.17 In this epistemological exchange the perfect divine creator and the flawed human self can through intersubjective dialogue likewise interact, thereby contributing to nature’s unfolding. Thus, every step forward in the dialogue allows Eriugena to express nature’s role with greater accuracy. Insofar as master and student jointly move the course of natura forward, their dialogue sustains and even expands natura’s orbit by instilling in us the sense that, short of the eschatological return, the point of nature, and its entire span, is conversation.

The broad restoration of community, including the full community of creation, that the Periphyseon’s dialogue aims to achieve liberates nature to both speak freely and be freely thought. Nature can present itself qua nature to the two discussants and, in and through their intersubjective exchange, to both God and humanity alike. This does not mean that nature ceases to be the go-between that links God integrally to the human self, for it will continue to fulfill that ambassadorial role; but in Eriugena, more than in any other premodern Christian author, natura as a genus is itself permitted to take the initiative. It can style itself radically, even if it always also remains elusive, presenting itself on its own intractable terms.

I clarified in Chapter 1 that God is internal to Eriugena’s natura, as genus that encompasses all things that are and are not, but over the course of the work’s development we see natura becoming saturated with both divine and human aspects. In consequence, not only do we see nature lead the way for both, but it begins to shape the manner in which they relate to each other. It is not simply the case that God’s inscrutability migrates from the divine to the world of nature, for inscrutability remains a prime divine attribute. Rather, it is as if inscrutability becomes extended to the whole of nature, which, since it encompasses the divine, can absorb it as an endowed trait. The goal of master and student is in my view not solely to find unity with each other and God, as I have earlier rejected the mystical alongside the idealist option, but the establishment of coexistence and open communication between God and humanity and, in equal measure, between natura and the natures that constitute it. In the final analysis, then, “thinking nature” means that natura is accorded the space to define itself. Nature’s self-definition, in turn, affords us, through our following of the interlocutors’ effective exchange, both the opportunity and the platform to (re)constitute ourselves and our relationship to God by adding the natural to the scriptural world.

Defining the purpose of Eriugena’s Periphyseon as the gearing up for such an all-out and holistic communal restoration—not only of master and student with each other but of both with natura as including the divine and the physical world—helps us to better situate natura in both its temporal specificity and its projection of omneity. While the Augustinian conversation of individual creatures with the divine by means of the discourse of things (eloquentia rerum) takes us outside of scripture, what the concept of natura does for Eriugena is precisely to keep us inside of its all-encompassing contours as conveyed by the Periphyseon’s wide-ranging and at times meandering text. Mediated by the interlocutors’ reciprocal understanding, natura bolsters the long-sought contact of creation with the divine, not through mystical ecstasy but by doubling down on the well-worn path of dialogical conversation: between master and student, between creator and creatures, between God and the human self. Return must hence always be aspirational. It never comes to rest, not even in God, who is not created and does not create. It is dynamic continuity without end.

The Vision from Nature’s Conversation

The idea the Periphyseon projects—that when thought freely, natura unfolds as aspirational conversation—has far-reaching consequences. To the extent that Eriugena’s natura is rooted in dialogue, it is not just a platform for conversation; it shapes and becomes itself that conversation. Different from Augustine’s known penchant for soliloquy, even if likewise dialogical in character, natura’s conversation in Eriugena is fluid and externalized, at once ongoing and ever deepening.

That natura is all about and, in the end, indeed, is conversation is most clearly expressed in those moments when we see the need for a course correction, as when the Periphyseon’s power structure suddenly shifts or its intuitive balance becomes endangered. At such pivotal moments, where there may be the possibility that nature’s course becomes derailed, Eriugena must use all his rhetorical mettle to try and keep the Periphyseon’s conversation, and hence the course of nature, on track. I conclude this postscript with a few salient examples from the Periphyseon of the intertwined fate of nature and self; I will focus especially on the suspense that is generated when God’s favor is on the line.

My first example is when God confronts Adam in the garden with the haunting reproach: Adam, where are you (Adam, ubi est)? This moment reflects an acute crisis not only for human selfhood but also for creation, since doubt is cast on Adam’s integrity as made in God’s image and, as such, the cornerstone of creation. Eriugena’s reading of the biblical episode as one “fraught with background” to use Auerbachian terminology,18 is truly magisterial. When an intervention in the discourse of things (eloquentia rerum) is urgently needed to avert escalation, Eriugena avails himself directly of divine speech (diuina eloquentia) by means of an exegetical voice-over, which we can see as a move that collapses a commentary on the scriptural text, with God stepping out of the scriptural frame and into that of the Periphyseon. Even as God’s pressing accusations intensify to register outright conflict, the unfolding of natura continues unflinchingly:

In this intelligible Paradise God goes walking. For He is the Guardian and Inspector of the Garden which He has made in His image and likeness. His is the Voice which cannot be expounded: “Adam where are you?” This is the voice of the Creator rebuking human nature. It is as if He said: Where are you now after your transgression? For I do not find you there where I know that I created you, nor in that dignity in which I made you in My image and likeness [non in ea dignitate, qua ad imaginem et similitudinem meam te feci, inuenio], but I rebuke you as a deserter from blessedness, a fugitive from the true light, hiding yourself in the secret places of your bad conscience, and I enquire into the cause of your disobedience [causamque tuae inoboedientiae inquiro]. Do you suppose that I do not know what you have done or whither you have fled or how, in fear of My voice, you have concealed yourself or in what way you came to a late recognition of your nudity, that is, of the purity and simplicity of nature, in which you were created? Have you not gone through all this because you have eaten of the tree which I commanded you were not to eat? For if you had not eaten perhaps you would not fear the voice of your Creator as He walks within you [non fortassis uocem deambulantis in te creatoris tui timeres], nor flee from His face, nor have become aware of the nakedness which you lost when you sinned.19

Walking a thin line here between divine accusation and his own vicarious indignation, Eriugena faults Adam, even when Adam places the blame for sin on Eve. Whereas Augustine held Adam and Eve jointly responsible for human sin,20 Eriugena declines to settle the matter within their marital union alone, relating everything back to the overarching story of natura. Yet again, it becomes apparent that for Eriugena, the integrity of nature’s unfolding as the eloquence of things (eloquentia rerum) is what counts above all. When both human and divine eloquence are absorbed in the story of natura, its flow of procession and return cannot be disturbed.

Refusing to give Adam a way out, Eriugena applies another exegetical voice-over, this time folding what seems like an outright derailment of nature into its ongoing procession, making it just another one of nature’s many folds and creases. Since God obviously saw through Adam’s deception in blaming everything on Eve, Eriugena looks back on Eve’s creation (“Let us make him a helpmate”) as, in retrospect, a case of supreme divine irony:

This is also made quite clear by God’s ironical words [diuina ironia]: “It is not good for man to be alone. Let Us make for him a companion like unto him” (Gen. 2:18). The meaning is: Man whom We have made in Our image and likeness does not think it good to be alone, that is, to be a simple and perfect nature, abiding everywhere without the division of his nature into sexes, being wholly in the likeness of the angelic nature [uniuer-saliterque diuisione naturae in sexus, ad similitudinem angelicae naturae, absolutum permanere], but prefers to tumble down headlong into earthly couplings like the beasts and so to multiply out of his seed the unity of his nature through carnal generation and the sexual organs of his body, holding in contempt the mode of propagation of the heavenly host. Let Us then make for him a companion like unto him through whom he can perform what he longs to do, that is to say, a woman who is fragile and unstable like the male, and is eager for earthly lusts [feminam uidelicet, quae similiter ut masculus fragilis ac lubrica terrenas appetat concupiscentias].21

At no point does Eriugena deem Eve’s creation inferior or in any way less real, or less willed, there being no trace of idealism, lofty Platonism, or male ascetic dominance. For Eriugena, God’s irony marks the acknowledgment of physical reality rather than a detraction from it. Closer to Augustine than to Gregory of Nyssa, Eriugena gives us a wholesale embrace of humanity’s predicament.

Yet precisely when natura is at an ever-greater remove from God, Eriugena reins it back in. The point I want to bring across is that his exegetical choices carry real weight for the unfolding of natura, forcing him at times to interpret scripture against the grain so as to accommodate natura’s progression. Nature continues its autonomous course even when the possibility for return appears blocked. Adam’s expulsion from paradise is a case in point, as Eriugena interprets this consummate hurdle for return as a de facto promise of humanity’s ultimate restoration. His crafty pivot from protology to eschatology has been recognized as enabling humanity’s turn from procession to return.22 In changing the meaning of condemnation (namely, that man will not stretch out his hand to eat from the Tree of Life) to promise (that one day he may eat from it), Eriugena sets the stage for the promise of paradisiacal union of nature and self:

The Return of which we speak is implied in the Voice of God saying [Diuina itaque uox talem reditum, de quo sermo est, his uerbis insinuat]: “Now therefore (Nunc ergo),” or as the alternative translation more explicitly puts it, “And now (et nunc), said God.” . . . Do you see the largeness of the Divine Compassion which is compressed within the single temporal adverb Now and a single causal conjunction Therefore? This same divine compassion, converting the lamentation for man to a consolation both of man himself and of the Heavenly Powers, promises under an ambiguous and interrogative form of speech the Return of man into Paradise.23

If, however, we read Eriugena’s exegetical choices from the perspective of universal nature rather than human nature, the turn from protology to eschatology may not be the crucial pivot it has been made out to be. I am swayed by Cavell’s Emersonian argument that “the need for a call for change gets expressed as an imperative when what is problematic in your life is not the fact that between alternative choices the right one has become hard to find, but that in the course of your life you have lost your way.”24 Thus, I desire a position that is more embedded or grounded, defined by the fullness of nature rather than dictated by the vanishing point of sin. I no longer think that the exegetical hinge of this grammatical moment in the Periphyseon warrants the climactic interpretation it has received. Instead, it prepares us for what I see as a deeper “conversion.” Contrary to standard readings of tensive hexaemeral exegesis whereby irreversible crisis crests in Adam’s expulsion from paradise, we should not seek the opposite by latching on to the miraculous change from procession to return in the Periphyseon. As if only a last-minute intellectual U-turn can give us the secret key to the correct interpretation of what was, by all accounts, a work of long deliberation and contemplation. When approaching the Periphyseon in an Emersonian way, what matters is not that procession morphs into return and apocalyptic crisis is averted but that creation continues its journey home in such a way that, congruent with the divine turn from lamentation to consolation, the entirety of natura is reconciled within itself and can thereby assume the force of revelation.

As if to underscore the point that what ultimately matters is natura’s self-reconciliation as a condition for its ability to convey revelation, Eriugena’s exegesis can display dramatic and even existential overtones. Eriugena no longer conforms to Augustine in this overarching view, focused as he is on restoration as a wholesale return that does not confront or remedy sin but overcomes it by integrating it. In the divine speech that follows the above passage, Eriugena hones in on God’s powerful vow “I grieve for him” (eique condoleo). Eriugena does something far more consequential than the “U-turn” by nesting the restoration of the divine-human relationship inside of what can truly be seen as nature’s ongoing self-revelation. The possibility for conversion emerges only when nature’s ongoing self-revelation overcomes the tension between divine accusation and human consciousness of guilt and when God takes pity on the nakedness of Adam by shielding him like Job.

Fed by this tiny spark of divine solidarity, human conversion fans out into the full and frank holistic conversation that natura was meant to constitute all along. Here Eriugena’s tone acquires all the traits of a frank Emersonian sermon:

Here we are to understand that the Divine Mercy and infinite Goodness, so ready to forgive and pity us, to sigh over the fall of the Divine image, and in His clemency to condescend unto us and to bear in patience the arrogance of man [casum diuinae imaginis suspirans, misericorditerque condescendens, hominisque arrogantiam patienter sufferens] is saying: Now therefore, I behold man driven forth from paradise [iam de paradiso expulsum hominem uideo]; formerly blessed, now become wretched; once rich, now needy; once an eternal being, now a temporal; once enjoying everlasting life, now mortal; once wise, now foolish; once a spiritual creature, now an animal; once heavenly, now earthly; once enjoying eternal youth, now growing old; once happy, now sad; once saved, now lost; once the prudent son, now the prodigal; straying from the flock of the heavenly powers I behold him, and I grieve for him (eique condoleo). For it was not to this end that he was made: he whom you his neighbors and friends (Job 19:21) now behold driven forth from Paradise into the region of death and misery [quem uos, o uicini eius et amici, in regionem mortis atque miseriae uidetis nunc de paradiso expulsum] was formed for the possession of eternal life and blessedness, to consort with the heavenly orders who had adhered to their Creator and remained in everlasting bliss—though a number of them were lost in man’s transgression.25

Instead of being extrapolated from nature, salvation is, and always has been, fully ensconced within it. At no point does Eriugena invite us to climb a pathway to mystical union with the divine. He simply allows his readers to learn from Adam and Eve by resuming their lives, albeit with a new awareness of the inherent dynamism of those lives. From this frank sermon, articulating the intra-natura conversation that constitutes created life in all its brokenness, the vision of return flows naturally.


1. Rom 1:20 (RSV): “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” Next to the transfiguration scene, this is another biblical trope that underlies the parallelism of nature and scripture treated in Chapter 2. See also W. Otten, “Nature and Scripture: Demise of a Medieval Analogy,” Harvard Theological Review 88, no. 2 (1995): 257–84.

2. Augustine, Conf. 9.10.25, ed. O’Donnell, 1:113–14; Chadwick transl., 171–72.

. Augustine, Conf. 10.6.9, ed. O’Donnell, 1:122; Chadwick transl., 183. Cf. Robert A. Markus, Signs and Meanings: World and Text in Ancient Christianity (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011), “World and Text I,” 1–43, 27.

4. See Markus, Signs and Meanings.” While I have drawn mostly on Markus’s first chapter, the book contains three other articles on signs and semiotic theory in Augustine as well. For an overview of Augustine’s thought on signification and language see also John M. Rist, Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptized (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 23–40.

5. Markus, Signs and Meanings, “World and Text I,” 19, with reference to O’Donnell, 3:316.

6. Markus, 11.

7. Markus, 10.

8. In De ciuitate Dei 11.18 Augustine compares the verbal beauty of antithesis or opposition in a poem to the beauty in “the composition of the world’s history arising from the antithesis of contraries—a kind of eloquence in events, instead of in words” (Bettenson transl., 449). Following Markus, I broaden the notion of res (things) in eloquentia rerum to include natural things, as well as historical, prophetic events.

9. The evangelist Luke is traditionally depicted as a bull or calf, whereas Mark is a lion, Matthew a man, and John an eagle. See Thomas P. Scheck, trans., St. Jerome: Commentary on Matthew (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2008). These identifications fill out various biblical texts, esp. Rv 4:2, 6–8 and Ez 1:5–10.

10. Markus, Signs and Meanings, 11.

11. Markus, 29.

12. See Markus, 30.

13. See Elizabeth Kendig, “La forme dialogique dans le Periphyseon: Recréer l’esprit,” Les études philosophiques, no. 1 (Jan. 2013): 101–19.

14. Eriugena states in Periphyseon 5.893C, CCCM 165:49; Sheldon-Williams transl., 562: “In man every creature is established (condita), both visible and invisible. Therefore he is called the workshop of all (officina omnium), seeing that in him all things that came after God are contained. Hence he is also customarily called the Intermediary (medietas), for since he consists in soul and body he comprehends within himself and gathers into one two ultimate extremes of the spiritual and the corporeal.” Note that condita can also mean created. Maximus discusses the notion of humanity as workshop in the context of his five divisions, discussed in Chap. 2; see Ambiguum 41, in On Difficulties 2:104.

15. Periphyseon 4.768B, CCCM 164:40; Sheldon-Williams transl., 413: “We may then define man as follows: Man is a certain intellectual concept formed eternally in the Mind of God.”

16. Periphyseon 4.768C–D, CCCM 164:40–41; Sheldon-Williams transl., 414: “and indeed the essence of man is considered principally to consist in this: that it has been given him to possess the concept of all things which were either created his equals or which he was instructed to govern. For how could man be given the dominion of things of which he had not the concept?”

17. See W. Otten, Anthropology of Johannes Scottus Eriugena (Leiden: Brill, 1991), 203–19.

18. Auerbach’s famous essay “Odysseus’ Scar” characterizes biblical texts, as opposed to classical ones, as “fraught with background.” This places a need for interpretation on such texts and a duty to tease out their moral truth on their readers as they translate them into contemporaneous cultural categories. See Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), 3–23.

19. Periphyseon 4.841D–42A, CCCM 164:142–43; Sheldon-Williams transl., 500–501.

20. See W. Otten, “The Long Shadow of Human Sin: Augustine on Adam, Eve, and the Fall,” in Out of Paradise: Eve and Adam and Their Interpreters, ed. B. E. J. H. Becking and S. A. Hennecke (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2010), 36, with reference to De ciuitate Dei 14.11.

21. Periphyseon 4.846B–C, CCCM 164:148–49; Sheldon-Williams transl., 506.

22. See W. Otten, “The Dialectic of the Return in Eriugena’s Periphyseon,” Harvard Theological Review 84 (1991): 409.

23. Periphyseon 5.862A–C, CCCM 165:5; Sheldon-Williams transl., 525.

24. Stanley Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), xxx.

25. Periphyseon 5.862B–C, CCCM 165:5; Sheldon-Williams transl., 525.