John Scotus Erigena and the Hole in Our Socks image

John Scotus Erigena and the Hole in Our Socks

Carl Trueman summarises the way John Scotus Erigena, perhaps the greatest thinker of the early Middle Ages, approached the problem of evil:

He also adopts, from Augustine and Boethius, the notion of evil as non-being. I think we’d have to say here that the later language of “privation of being” is better. If I don’t have wings, it’s not a privation of being; it’s not evil for Trueman not to have wings. But if I go into the park and rip the wing off a seagull, that’s a privation of being. That’s an evil state of non-being. The non-being of my wings is not evil. But ripping off the wing of a bird is evil, because something that should be there, isn’t there. This isn’t simply non-existence; it’s non-existence where existence should be. It’s a privation of the good of the being that should be there.

It’s a brilliant way of addressing the evil problem, of course, because it solves the problem of positive connection between God and evil, on one level. There is no positive connection between God and evil, because evil is the denial of being, and God is the source of being.

It’s a bit like the hole-in-the-sock argument. The hole is totally dependent on the existence of the sock, yet really stands in no positive connection the sock whatsoever. The hole in the sock is a privation of being. It’s not the sock’s fault that it has a hole in it. The hole in itself has, in a way, no independent existence of the good of the sock. And yet the hole is still itself an evil: a privation of being. This allows Scotus to go on and say: evil, then, is a result of man’s will, not the result of God’s will.

Trueman goes on to show how Scotus develops this view into his heterodox doctrine of hell, in which heaven and hell are one and the same place (!), which ends up getting him into trouble. But nevertheless: a fascinating approach, and a helpful analogy.

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