The disintegration of Graeco-Roman culture, which had begun long before Boethius, continued and even accelerated after his death. Europe entered a long period of intellectual torpor, when learning in general and philosophy in particular was not widely cultivated. With one conspicuous exception, this state of affairs lasted until after the turn of the millennium. The exception was the “Carolingian Renaissance” associated with Charlemagne (786-814) and his successors.
Charlemagne encouraged monastic and cathedral education throughout his realm, and gathered an international group of scholars at his own court. Amongst those who arose in virtue of this “renaissance” was John Scottus Eriugena (c 810- 877), who was in the court of Charlemangne’s grandson, Charles the Bald c 850. As his name suggests, Eruigena was Irish by birth and education. At that time Ireland was called Scotia Major – hence the “Scottus” in his name. In most of Western Europe knowledge of Greek had virtually disappeared by the Carolingan period. But for some reason, it had never wholly died out amongst the Irish monks. Eriugena knew Greek well enough to be thoroughly influenced by Greek thought, and to translate Greek writings into Latin.
Among them were the works of a certain Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. While Eriugena’s was neither the first nor the last medieval translation of this important author’s work, it was the most influential. The Corpus Areopagiticum consists of ten letters and four treatises: On the Divine Names, The Mystical Theology, On the Celestial Hierarchy, and On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. The first two treatises are the most important for philosophy.
The true identity of Pseudo-Dionysius is unknown. He lived in the Near East, probably in the late fifth century, to judge by his philosophical views. But his real identity is not so important as his assumed identity. For works erroneously ascribed to him claim to have been written by the real Dionysius who heard St Paul preach on the Athenian Areopagus have Dionysius the Areopagite.
In Eriugena’s main work, On the Division of Nature, he divides nature or things in general, into four kinds or phases. These four phases or divisions are (i) nature which creates and is not created (God), (ii) nature which creates and is created (the primordial causes or ideas), (iii) nature which is created and does not create (nature in the conventional sense) and (iv) nature which is neither created nor creates (the final end of things, the return of God). The calling of the first division “nature” has led some to see in John a sort of pantheism reminiscent of Spinoza’s “God or Nature”, but it is not clear that that is what he intends Eriugena uses ideas derived from Pseudo-Dionysius to describe knowledge of God – the via affirmativa et negativa - with particular emphasis on the latter. It is an attempt to determine the nature of God in terms of what his is not. But to these two “ways” Eriugena added a third way - the via eminentia, which reconciles the first two ways. Thus, there is a via affirmativa in which predicates are affirmed of God: we call God “good” in so far as he is the source or cause of all the goodness we find in creatives; the is the via negativa, which holds that, since God is not like any of the familiar things language is used to describe, predicates such as “good” cannot be attributed to God – in this sense God is not good, and in fact does not amount to outright atheism, as the via eminentia shows. God in himself is not good and does not exist. But this does not mean that he is less than good or less than existing; rather that he is “super-good” or “hyperexisting” – more than good, more than being.
The second division of nature, which is concerned with the primordial causes, is an attempt to explain how such a transcendent God can both bring about and manifest himself in the plural world. It provides a link, or attempts to do so, between the first and the third divisions of nature. Among the primordial causes is to be found the idea of man – a primordial man, free but lacking most of the characteristics that go with the body and life in a material. Eriugena gives an allegorical account of the Biblical story of creation, in which Adam’s fall is the coming into being of material man, and the whole material world with him. The final division of nature can only be regarded as the last stage of the process, constructed sequentially – the final return to God, which nature desires, and a kind of rest in God. It is clear that Eriugena’s account is highly mystical in character. It has been seen as a great metaphysical construction, and construed as a picture it has something of that quality.