welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please

Short Story

John Scotus

A short story about a philosopher during the dark ages by Joanna Motyl.

From the window in his room, John sees a ship moving away from the shore. The morning sun shines gently on the sea. The winds are perfect. “Edmund is safe on that ship.” John states in a matter of fact way. His pupil, a young, devoted man, carries a letter to the Pope, explaining point by point why John is not a heretic. How injustice was done to him. Injustice. The word itself has a bitter taste in John’s mouth. “Edmund shouldn’t be so devoted to me,” John thinks sarcastically. “He shouldn’t be so infatuated with philosophy. It will bring him only misery. But is it possible to restrain a young heart?” Once, a long time ago, John, too, was a young man excited by a long journey, carrying an important letter to a king.

Except that his was a perilous journey. The sea was crashing at the ship with steel-coloured waves. The rain fell on sails from the sky shattered by dark clouds. John was sick most of the time, his vomit mixed with the swirling sea. The good-natured sailors joked about the young monk unaccustomed to the hardships of their life. What kind of a man of God is he, they asked, if he is not able to withstand a storm? It was not Edmund’s warm sea of blue waters enclosed between Europe and Africa. It was a Northern sea, the cold waters between Ireland and Europe, taking John from his island to the kingdom of Charles the Bald, to France. In 841AD.

John falls on his bed overwhelmed by the memory, as if the hopes of his youth could exhaust him even now. His heart pants with a frantic speed that is entirely unsuitable for an old man, for a philosopher. Closing his eyes, he tries to remember the events that took place thirty years earlier.

First, Abbot Ethelwold called for him after the morning Mass. The abbot was overlooking the building of the new extension to the monks’ dormitory. Novices and penitent villagers worked faster under his scrutinising eyes. No one wanted to appear sluggish in the presence of the severe abbot.

As John was approaching, the abbot looked at him closely. John’s green eyes were too bright and his body did not show any signs of ascetic life. “Wordly and stubborn,” the abbot thought, “like his soul.”

“Our order is growing,” the abbot started, taking his eyes away from him. “We have become known throughout the Christian world for our piety and learning. We are among the very few, my son, who preserved the knowledge of the ancient language of the Greeks.” He glanced at John checking what impression his words made and continued in his icy voice. “You were very fortunate to study with us. You were given knowledge that only a few still have.”

“I’ve studied with all my heart.”

“Don’t be insolent!” the abbot scolded him. “You excelled in your studies and that’s why you’ll go to France and serve its king. The king requested a learned young monk to be sent to him to translate the works of great Greek masters. No one in his kingdom knows the ancient tongue. I’ve chosen you, even though I disapprove of your haughtiness.”

“It is the desire to know…”

“A simple belief suits a monk better than any desire!” With these words the abbot dismissed him.

The perspective of leaving everything he knew seemed to John a fantastic dream, like the stories he had found in the margins of the manuscripts describing the exotic animals and people living in foreign places, on the way to the Holy Land.

Then, as the day of his departure drew closer and he was told to bid his last farewells, his spirit danced under the cloudy, Irish sky and looked in anticipation toward the vast sea and the new lands.

At their last meeting, Abbot Ethelwold stood on the cliff above the harbour, in his sordid, penitential robe, his face long from too much fasting, his hands like claws of a predatory bird, clenching a letter.

“This is the letter which recommends you to the king. Don’t bring shame to your teachers. And remember, only suffering and humility lead to God. When you feel stillness in your heart, when you feel nothing for the world, only then can you know God." He said it with his grey, almost white eyes piercing John, letting him soak in the Northern rain, watching him tremble, as if John were his secret adversary, a shadow which had to be vanquished.

Even after he had already boarded on the ship, John thought that he heard the abbot’s scream from the cliff: “There’s no other way!”

I recommend to you my best and most difficult student, the letter said. His mind is as bright as the sun on a spring day, but his heart is filled with fire and he is bent on controversies. Use his mind to the highest goals because he is the best I have. Punish his untamed heart when you find it necessary. He is used to the harsh discipline of our monastery. Teach him humility - the most desirable quality in a monk.

All the days and long sleepless nights spent bending over the manuscripts. The little candle at his side was John’s only help, blowing up his shadow on the wall into bigger than life proportions, a mocking picture of a man shrivelled over the manuscripts. His eyes were shot with blood from reading, his back was aching from sitting at his desk for long hours. Was it the humility that the abbot expected from him or the curiosity of a restless mind?

The king was pleased. Several times, he invited John to the royal hall with the privilege to sit at the table with him and the drunken vassals. The knights showed off their armour, their strong arms and long manly hair as a contrast to John’s tonsured head and monkish robe. With a stately gesture, the king asked for silence. His bold head shone like a polished shield and his hands seemed too big for a subtle conversation with a philosopher. “The wise Greeks,” the king inquired awkwardly, “Do you understand their tongue? Do you know what they said?”

“Yes, my Lord, I’ve almost completed translations of the great Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius, and Maximus the Confessor so your scholars can read them in Latin.”

“Ah that’s good. Let them bring glory to my kingdom,” the king responded and gave a sign that he was satisfied. John was free to go to continue with his work.

After his last audience with the king, John sat down by an old Roman fountain in the empty courtyard. The warmth of the afternoon air embraced him tenderly. The exhaustion of sleepless nights overtook his body. “I’m tired,” he thought lazily. All his work of transcribing the words of the philosophers of the past seemed irrelevant for a moment. He looked around. The courtyard was animated with the subtle dancing of afternoon shadows. A few tiny birds were bathing themselves luxuriously in the crystal waters of the fountain. They chirped to each other in delight.

The time spent among the manuscripts made John’s eyes unaccustomed to the splendour of the world. God manifests Itself in the world, his Greek masters taught him. All the creatures represent God on earth. They are God’s theophany. John touched the limestone carvings of the fountain, overgrown with soft, green moss. They felt voluptuous under his fingers. Little droplets of water shooting to the sky and falling again turned iridescent in the light of the setting sun. Life-giving fountain, with a source of water hidden from the human eye. The Fountain of Life.

The world comes from God, he thought, his heart pounding with excitement, as water comes from a fountain. God is the source of everything, known by no one. No name can describe It. No attribute can be given to It. The world is like the descending fountain of beings of unbelievable beauty. And the world comes back to God,to its Source, at the end of all things – the good ones, the bad ones – all God’s creatures in unity with their Source. We all are going to be saved through the unity with God. It is the natural motion of the world--the journey back to the Source.

He rushed back to his cell and committed his vision to words. In his meticulous long hand, he wrote – The Division of Nature by John Scotus Eriugena, the philosopher from Ireland.

The king’s translations would have to wait.

John sighs at the memory of this work. So much time, so much effort because of the vision he could not escape. Before he even finished The Division, he was told that the Fathers of the Church were troubled by it, and they called councils to declare him a heretic. They must have believed me dangerous, he thinks not without spite, to summon so many powerful bishops at once.

In a flash he recalls the councils. Bishops, from the height of their episcopal seats, with the golden insignia of the faithful servants of God in their hands, questioned him: “If all the creatures return to the union with God, what about Hell and Heaven? What about the punishment of the wicked? What about the Church as the only way to salvation? And if God is unknowable, what about the Fathers of the Church, about the great theologians? Were they all ignorant discussing names and attributes of God? Is this what you think?!” The contemptuous laughter of the bishops still echoes in his heart. All he could do then was to stand upright, eyes fixed on the mocking bishops.

“Why? Why did I listen to the vision? Why was it so strong, so beautiful?” he asks, angry with himself. Then he sits down on the edge of his bed, suddenly quiet and resigned. Curiosity and the need to understand. What else would drive me to record the vision in words even though I knew they would punish me. Yes, John shakes his grey head, had I only managed to tame this curiosity, this need to know, my life would have been different. I would have been the pride of the abbot, of my family. I would have been a bishop or a cardinal. But I couldn’t tame it and will die in disgrace. A difficult thought to grasp in old age.

He gets up from his bed, feeling his bones squeaking with his every movement, and reaches for his commentary on Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy “Hmm,” he murmurs, “the best thing written in the sixth century.” It is the consolation of philosophy that he needs now when the world cannot give him any. “Boethius,” he whispers in his weak voice, “he was so much like me. The only man who could translate both Plato and Aristotle and all that was known in his time from Greek to the dying world overrun by the barbarians. Executed like a criminal by a petty barbarian chieftain.”

John opens Boethius’ book dedicated to Lady Philosophy.

So sinks the mind in deep despair
And sight grows dim; when storms of life
blow surging up the weight of care,
It banishes its inward life…

He puts the book away and whispers by heart the words that Boethius wrote in prison:

This was the man who once was free…

Free. He, too, was once free to choose his destiny. Lady Philosophy, the only woman he has ever loved and she punished him so severely. Disgraced. He will die disgraced. In a foreign land. She is like the golden haired girl he had once seen passing the fields by his monastery in Ireland. She laughed at him as she saw him watching in awe after her. The memory is so strong. So beautiful. Even 30 years later, her eyes seem bluer than the sky, her hair like the golden sun on a spring day… Ah, the curious mind that can never be purged, maybe you are a gift to me, not a curse…

He walks back to the window. The ship is already gone. The waters of the bay are calm. Edmund will reach his destination peacefully. He won’t encounter any storms on his way. He may even achieve the stillness of the heart once valued so much by Abbot Ethelwold.

Mine was a perilous journey, John thinks smiling involuntarily. Life like a stormy sea.

© Joanna Motyl 1998

Joanna Motyl left her native Poland after spending time in jail in the 1980s for her political activities. She took degrees in Philosophy and Mediaeval Studies in Toronto, and now works as a Classics and French teacher and translator. She is a Canadian citizen.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X