The first of the possible sources to be considered will be the 9th-century Neoplatonist philosopher, Eriugena, who has been recognised as the Amalricians’ main source of inspiration by historians for at least a century, from C. Jourdain to H. Grundmann and beyond.
Several centuries before the appearance of the Amalricians, an extraordinary thinker, named Johannes Eriugena, worked at the court of Charles the Bald (Charles le Chauve). Charles and his brothers had carved up the Frankish empire of their grandfather, Charlemagne. Charles had been given West Francia, which was most, but not all, of present-day France. He had probably ‘drawn the short straw,’ as it were, because he then had to spend much of his time trying to fend off Viking attacks along his coastline. It sounds like a dark time in the so-called dark ages.
However, Charles the Bald, like his grandfather, encouraged academic and religious studies, which often meant using Irish monks and scholars. In these difficult times, the young, vibrant Irish church sent many enthusiastic missionaries, with well-educated and enquiring minds, back to the European mainland to found schools and monasteries.
In 827 C.E., Charles the Bald’s father, Louis the Pious (Louis le Pieux), had been sent a copy of books in Greek which everyone believed to have been written by a famous early Christian, Dionysius the Areopagite, – because that was what the author had called himself. Dionysius the Areopagite figures in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament: he was an early Greek Christian, converted by Paul’s famous sermon, preached at Athens, on the unknown God in whom “we live and move and have our being”. The books which Dionysius was supposed to have written were actually the product of a much later time, being part of a Late Classical flowering of Christian Neoplatonism in about 500 C.E. Since the real author remains anonymous, he is nowadays called pseudo-Dionysius.
As Charles the Bald’s kingdom was being squeezed back by the Vikings into an ever smaller area, the king was keen to foster the cult of his country’s patron saint, an early Bishop of Paris martyred for his faith, named Dionysius (known in French as Saint Denis). This Dionysius was assumed to be the same person as Dionysius the Areopagite. (It was assumed that he rose to be bishop of Athens, wrote his books of mystical theology, then travelled to Gaul, where he became bishop of Paris before his martyrdom!) From such a concatenation of misunderstandings, the Irish scholar, Johannes Eriugena was given the task, by Charles the Bald, of translating pseudo-Dionysius from Greek into Latin!
Johannes called himself Eriugena, which means a native of Erin (Ireland); he is often called John the Scot, which means the same thing (the Scots were Irishmen who spread into western Caledonia and eventually gave their name to Scotland). He not only translated Neoplatonic works from the Greek, but also went on to write his own work of Neoplatonic theology, called the Periphyseon (About the Physical Universe). It was written in the form of a dialogue between a master and a pupil. It was later called De Divisione Naturae (On the Division of Nature), a name that should probably only refer to its first volume.
The aim and structure of the Periphyseon
Neoplatonists all wrestle with the same basic problem: how can the universe of matter, in its multiplicity and temporality, derive from a God who is one and eternal. This is particularly important to any who believe that God is Being and is therefore present in anything that is. Most try to establish a hierarchy of beings, often called ‘emanations’, which are carefully graded to stretch from the wholly divine to the wholly material. Eriugena settled for 4 simple categories:
- what creates but is not created : God as the first cause of the universe; his unity and divinity are as yet undisturbed;
- what is creative and created : the exemplars, the models for all created things – one might consider them as ideas in God’s mind before he actually made anything; there is still nothing material, but multiplicity has now appeared;
- what is created but does not create : the universe and everything in it, in all its materiality and multiplicity;
- what is uncreated and uncreative : God as the final cause of the universe, its ultimate purpose, the unity and divinity towards which all things strive.
Nutritor (the character in the dialogue who is the teacher) calls these the four divisions of nature (natura). Alumnus (the pupil) objects that his master seems to be confining God, the infinite, the unlimited, to the limitations of the natural universe. The word natura causes problems, because for medieval Latin speakers it often means the world of living things, the biosphere, since it is connected to the Latin word for being born. This may explain why Eriugena prefers the Greek word physis, the whole physical universe, organic and inorganic. Nutritor (the master) has to define natura as including everything that has being, and so includes God, even though God is also outside, before and beyond the universe. Although he intends natura to translate physis, it is still remarkably bold to include the divinity within this term.
It should be pointed out, in Eriugena’s defence, that the whole book gives the impression of being a work in progress, that he was probably changing his emphasis as he was writing, and that by Book 5 he was making a distinction between ousia (the universe of being) and physis (the physical universe of space and time).
Eriugena’s treatise may originally have been intended to be in 4 books, to correspond with his 4 categories, and to cover the typically Neoplatonic procession of the world, from God as Creator, back to God as final unity and completeness. Book 3, however, has so much to say about the created universe of the first five days of the Genesis chapter 1 creation story, that a separate book (book 4) has to deal with what was created on the sixth day, in particular human nature. The process of reditus, the return of all created things to their source, when God will be all in all, comes in book 5. The whole is not neat and tidy, and is full of digressions to clarify difficult points.
Eriugena is careful to remind his readers that, strictly, we should not attempt to speak of God, because we can only use human terms, which do not fit. The divine essence is beyond comprehension; but we cannot stop ourselves from trying to understand it, as it is revealed in the created world.
“The Divine Essence which, when it subsists by itself, surpasses every intellect, is correctly said to be created in those things which are made by itself, through itself, in itself and for itself, so that in them, either by the intellect if they are intelligible, or by the senses if they are sensible, it comes to be known by those who investigate it in the right spirit.”
God is the essence (being) of all things. The world only exists inasmuch as it participates in the being of God.
“God is the essence of all things. For, as there is nothing good by its own nature, except the divine nature, but everything, which is said to be good, is good by participation in the one supreme good…”
so everything exists, only by participating in the one supreme nature that truly exists.
“It receives its true being by participation in the One who alone by himself truly is.”
Everything is in God and God is in everything. Eriugena is prepared to understand immanence and transcendence in terms of this world, as he makes clear in his treatment of the creative and sustaining force, which he calls the Word of God, (which is part of his second division of nature). It is immanent and multiple, since it is in created things; yet it is one and transcendent, because it is what unites all things.
“As the unity of everything, the Word of God is one and inseparable, but it can also be thought of as multiple, because it is diffused through everything without end, and that diffusion is the means whereby everything subsists.”
God is in everything as Being: this is classic philosophical pantheism, although Eriugena is careful to stress that God also transcends the whole universe.
As God is invisible and incomprehensible, humans have to rely on the two revelations about God that they have, in nature and in scripture. Luckily, they have their reason to help them in their interpretation.
“For true authority does not conflict with right reason nor right reason with true authority, since both flow from the same source, the wisdom of God.”
Alumnus (the pupil) then goes further:
“For every authority which is not upheld by true reason is seen to be weak, whereas true reason is kept firm and immutable by her own powers and does not require to be confirmed by the assent of any authority. For it seems to me that true authority is nothing else but the truth that has been discovered by the power of reason and set down in writing by the Holy Fathers.”
Nutritor (the master) does not contradict his pupil’s remark.
Eriugena is convinced that God will not allow anyone, who ardently prays for enlightenment, to remain in the darkness of ignorance. He often prays for illumination by a ray of the divine light. He speaks of the ineffable light, which is always present to the eyes of the understanding. He refers to those who have begun to penetrate the celestial mysteries, as illumined by the splendour of the divine light. Alumnus, early on in the book, says that he is keen to follow Nutritor:
“as far as the inner light will allow.”
As so often, light symbolism is important to those who seek to find their religious authority within their own experience.
Christ has a key role to play in Eriugena’s system. As the Logos, the Word of God, he is involved in the early stages of creation; as incarnate in Jesus, he brings light into the world and is the supreme symbol of the immanence of God in his creation; and as the Saviour, it is through him that the universe will eventually be perfected and gathered back into unity. This is the return of all things to God at the end of time. It is a movement necessitated by the love of God.
“He is the cause of all love and is diffused through all things and gathers all things together into one and involves them in Himself in an ineffable return, and brings to an end in Himself the motions of love of the whole creature.”
Bodies will return to spirit, spirit to primordial causes, and eventually all to God. This reditus (return to God) will depend on the actions of mankind. It was the Fall of mankind that led to the depravity of the world: consequently, it is for mankind to achieve a perfect state of restoration, so that the universe can again become one with God. For this, mankind is utterly dependent on divine help, in the form of Christ the Redeemer. This return to God will not be the same for all creatures. There will be an end to all deformity and division; and all created things will be restored to a universal harmony through the grace of the Redeemer. However, for the few who deserve it, there will be a deification, a state of beatific vision, when they will see God face to face. The extent of this vision will depend on the preparedness of the individual. Each will receive the theophany (self-revelation by God) that he is capable of understanding.
Alumnus (the pupil) raises the question of the punishment of the wicked, if all return to God. The difference will be that the wicked will not know the joys of unity. Beatitude, then, is knowledge of the truth and damnation is ignorance of the same. The holier the spirit, the closer it will be to an experience of oneness with God. Although all will now be one, Eriugena has to try to preserve individual identity, and so he uses Maximus Confessor’s analogy that, just as the air, when it is permeated by light, seems to be only light but is also air, so every nature, at the last, will seem to be only God, but will preserve the integrity of its own nature.
Similar thoughts can be found in an earlier work by Eriugena, in which he says that eternal life is knowledge of the truth, whereas eternal death is ignorance of the truth. A similar interpretation of heaven and hell, in a personal and interior sense, will be taught by the Amalricians, but whereas Eriugena is thinking of the afterlife of the soul, the Amalricians seem to be looking at the state of the soul in this life: the heaven of integrity at the heart of the self, or the hell of selfish isolation.
The Voice of the Mystic Eagle
Eriugena is not only concerned with the more philosophical side of theology. In his homily on the prologue to the Gospel of John (John 1: 1-14), he seems to suggest that exceptionally spiritual individuals, John the Evangelist at least, can achieve some form of deification in this life. This homily, composed about 865-870 C.E. and known, from its opening words, as The Voice of the Mystic Eagle (Vox spiritualis aquilae), describes John as the spiritual eagle who, on the wings of “the innermost theology”, has managed to soar up to the highest heavens of the clearest and most luminous contemplation. John
“reaches beyond the whole visible and invisible creation […] and, deified, enters into the God who deifies him.”
To have attained such perfect knowledge of God, as is shown in the first chapter of his Gospel, John must have been, to some extent, deified himself. Paul was caught up to the third heaven, but John must have been beyond all the heavens.
“He could not otherwise have ascended into God, if he had not first been made god.”
This is all said about a very special figure in the Christian tradition, but the homily does also treat John as the exemplar of the contemplative life, as Peter is of the active life. The Voice of the Mystic Eagle remained in use in many monasteries, where it was often thought to be the work of the 3rd-century Christian writer, Origen, later a favourite patristic author in the Cistercian order.
The three priesthoods
There is one last idea from Eriugena, which needs to be considered, because it could have influenced later medieval speculations about the three ages of religious development. In a commentary, on the Gospel of John, of which only fragments remain, he works out that there are two Bethanies: Bethany beyond Jordan where John the Baptist was, i.e. Bethabara, and Bethany by the Mount of Olives, where Lazarus was raised, which was only 15 furlongs from Jerusalem. He uses these three places, Bethabara, Bethany and Jerusalem, as symbols of the three priesthoods or hierarchies. The first (symbolised by Bethabara, a long way from Jerusalem) is the priesthood of the Old Testament, under the Law. The second (Bethany near Jerusalem) is the priesthood of the New Testament, lasting until the end of the world. The third priesthood (Jerusalem itself) will be in a future life, after the resurrection, when the truth will shine directly on to them, without any need for obscurities or symbolic language.
Eriugena expounds a similar theme in one of his commentaries on pseudo-Dionysius. There are three hierarchies or forms of religious organisation. The first is that of the carnal law, the law of Moses, heavily dependent on external rituals and symbols. The second is that of grace and the church of the New Testament, with its sacraments, still partly dependent on ritual and symbol. The third, that of the future, can be known in part now; it is the religion of direct experience of God. The truth will then be perceived as it is, in its simplicity, without any need for symbols and sacraments, when, after the resurrection, people will see God face to face.
Eriugena shows an awareness of progress in the religious history of mankind and divides this progress into three main stages, characterised by the authority of, in turn, law, grace and spirit, which correspond to the Old Testament, the New Testament and a future state of bliss. There will be no need for symbols or sacraments in this third state, because it does not happen within history.
Whether any of Eriugena’s radical ideas could have been known to the Amalricians must be considered in the next piece.