Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Johannes Scotus Erigena is often regarded as the first of the real medievals. Boethius and Saint Augustine, from several centuries earlier, are his only substantial predecessors. Erigena was familiar with Boethius, about whose life he wrote, and he introduced classical Neoplatonism into the formative years of the medieval period through his translations from Pseudo-Dionysius. He was also familiar with the fathers of both the Latin Church and the Greek Church. Yet, more than the fact that he is the first major writer to appear in several centuries, his importance to the Middle Ages lies in his production of one of the first complete metaphysical schemes, his On the Division of Nature. The Middle Ages became noted for its systematic, speculative, and constructive effort, and the tone for such effort is set here in Erigena’s major work.

His Platonistic tendencies are immediately evident in the use he makes in his writing of the dialogue form. Master and disciple question and answer each other, although the form is more that of alternating brief essays than that of Plato’s more dramatic rapid reply. Of course, Plato also tends to adopt a more sustained form of speech in his later dialogues, and it is perhaps primarily from the Neoplatonists that Erigena learned his writing style. Another similarity to Neoplatonism (in contrast to Plato) can be seen in the cosmic perspective that Erigena adopts. Plato’s metaphysics is more fragmentary; the Neoplatonists tend naturally to deal with problems in the total setting of a cosmic scheme. Erigena outlines such a scheme in book of On the Division of Nature.