Skip to comments.Cur Deus Homo I-III
Posted on 05/08/2007 4:39:59 PM PDT by annalex
Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man)
Saint Anselm of Canterbury
THE first part of this book was copied without my knowledge, before the work had been completed and revised. I have therefore been obliged to finish it as best I could, more hurriedly, and so more briefly, than I wished. For had an undisturbed and adequate period been allowed me for publishing it, I should have introduced and subjoined many things about which I have been silent. For it was while suffering under great anguish of heart, the origin and reason of which are known to God, that, at the entreaty of others, I began the book in England, and finished it when an exile in Capra. From the theme on which it was published I have called it Cur Deus Homo, and have divided it into two short books. The first contains the objections of infidels, who despise the Christian faith because they deem it contrary to reason; and also the reply of believers; and, in fine, leaving Christ out of view (as if nothing had ever been known of him), it proves, by absolute reasons, the impossibility that any man should be saved without him. Again, in the second book, likewise, as if nothing were known of Christ, it is moreover shown by plain reasoning and fact that human nature was ordained for this purpose, viz., that every man should enjoy a happy immortality, both in body and in soul; and that it was necessary that this design for which man was made should be fulfilled; but that it could not be fulfilled unless God became man, and unless all things were to take place which we hold with regard to Christ. I request all who may wish to copy this book to prefix this brief preface, with the heads of the whole work, at its commencement; so that, into whosesoever hands it may fall, as he looks on the face of it, there may be nothing in the whole body of the work which shall escape his notice.
The question on which the whole work rests.
I HAVE been often and most earnestly requested by many, both personally and by letter, that I would hand down in writing the proofs of a certain doctrine of our faith, which I am accustomed to give to inquirers; for they say that these proofs gratify them, and are considered sufficient. This they ask, not for the sake of attaining to faith by means of reason, but that they may be gladdened by understanding and meditating on those things which they believe; and that, as far as possible, they may be always ready to convince any one who demands of them a reason of that hope which is in us. And this question, both infidels are accustomed to bring up against us, ridiculing Christian simplicity as absurd; and many believers ponder it in their hearts; for what cause or necessity, in sooth, God became man, and by his own death, as we believe and affirm, restored life to the world; when he might have done this, by means of some other being, angelic or human, or merely by his will. Not only the learned, but also many unlearned persons interest themselves in this inquiry and seek for its solution. Therefore, since many desire to consider this subject, and, though it seem very difficult in the investigation, it is yet plain to all in the solution, and attractive for the value and beauty of the reasoning; although what ought to be sufficient has been said by the holy fathers and their successors, yet I will take pains to disclose to inquirers what God has seen fit to lay open to me. And since investigations, which are carried on by question and answer, are thus made more plain to many, and especially to less quick minds, and on that account are more gratifying, I will take to argue with me one of those persons who agitate this subject; one, who among the rest impels me more earnestly to it, so that in this way Boso may question and Anselm reply.
How those things which are to be said should be received.
Boso. As the right order requires us to believe the deep things of Christian faith before we undertake to discuss them by reason; so to my mind it appears a neglect if, after we are established in the faith, we do not seek to understand what we believe. Therefore, since I thus consider myself to hold the faith of our redemption, by the prevenient grace of God, so that, even were I unable in any way to understand what I believe, still nothing could shake my constancy; I desire that you I should discover to me, what, as you know, many besides myself ask, for what necessity and cause God, who is omnipotent, should have assumed the littleness and weakness of human nature for the sake of its renewal?
Anselm.. You ask of me a thing which is above me, and therefore I tremble to take in hand subjects too lofty for me, lest, when some one may have thought or even seen that I do not satisfy him, he will rather believe that I am in error with regard to the substance of the truth, than that my intellect is not able to grasp it.
Boso. You ought not so much to fear this, because you should call to mind, on the other hand, that it often happens in the discussion of some question that God opens what before lay concealed; and that you should hope for the grace of God, because if you liberally impart those things which you have freely received, you will be worthy to receive higher things to which you have not yet attained.
Anselm.. There is also another thing on account of which I think this subject can hardly, or not at all, be discussed between us comprehensively; since, for this purpose, there is required a knowledge of Power and Necessity and Will and certain other subjects which are so related to one another that none of them can be fully examined without the rest; and so the discussion of these topics requires a separate labor, which, though not very easy, in my opinion, is by no means useless; for ignorance of these subjects makes certain things difficult, which by acquaintance with them become easy.
Boso. You can speak so briefly with regard to these things, each in its place, that we may both have all that is requisite for the present object, and what remains to be said we can put off to another time.
Anselm.. This also much disinclines me from your request, not only that the subject is important, but as it is of a form fair above the sons of men, so is it of a wisdom fair above the intellect of men. On this account, I fear, lest, as I am wont to be incensed against sorry artists, when I see our Lord himself painted in an unseemly figure; so also it may fall out with me if I should undertake to exhibit so rich a theme in rough and vulgar diction.
Boso. Even this ought not to deter you, because, as you allow any one to talk better if he can, so you preclude none from writing more elegantly if your language does not please him. But, to cut you off from all excuses, you are not to fulfil this request of mine for the learned but for me, and those asking the same thing with me.
Anselm.. Since I observe your earnestness and that of those who desire this thing with you, out of love and pious zeal, I will try to the best of my ability with the assistance of God and your prayers, which, when making this request, you have often promised me, not so much to make plain what you inquire about, as to inquire with you. But I wish all that I say to be received with this understanding, that, if I shall have said anything which higher authority does not corroborate, though I appear to demonstrate it by argument, yet it is not to be received with any further confidence, than as so appearing to me for the time, until God in some way make a clearer revelation to me. But if I am in any measure able to set your inquiry at rest, it should be concluded that a wiser than I will be able to do this more fully; nay, we must understand that for all that a man can say or know still deeper grounds of so great a truth lie concealed.
Boso. Suffer me, therefore, to make use of the words of infidels; for it is proper for us when we seek to investigate the reasonableness of our faith to propose the objections of those who are wholly unwilling to submit to the same faith, without the support of reason. For although they appeal to reason because they do not believe, but we, on the other hand, because we do believe; nevertheless, the thing sought is one and the same. And if you bring up anything in reply which sacred authority seems to oppose, let it be mine to urge this inconsistency until you disprove it.
Anselm.. Speak on according to your pleasure.
... to be continued
St. Anselm: Proslogium; Monologium: An Appendix In Behalf Of The Fool By Gaunilo; And Cur Deus Homo, Translated From The Latin By Sidney Norton Deane, B. A. With An Introduction, Bibliography, And Reprints Of The Opinions Of Leading Philosophers And Writers On The Ontological Argument, (Chicago, The Open Court Publishing Company,, 1903, reprinted 1926)
I plan to publish it for discussion in short installments as Catholic-Orthodox caucus threads. The Protestants as well as non-Christians are very welcome, but I ask all to maintain the caucus discipline: no interconfessional attacks, no personal attacks, and no off-topic posts.
I would summarize these few chapters briefly.
The book layout is given here, and then the central question is formulated:
what cause or necessity, in sooth, God became man, and by his own death, as we believe and affirm, restored life to the world; when he might have done this, by means of some other being, angelic or human, or merely by his will
Chapter II is interesting in that it explains the relationship between faith and reason, and adopts this twofold methodology. First, we are to understand that faith precedes reason while reason completes faith:
As the right order requires us to believe the deep things of Christian faith before we undertake to discuss them by reason; so to my mind it appears a neglect if, after we are established in the faith, we do not seek to understand what we believe.
Secondly, it is useful to adopt an extreme skeptic attitude in reasoning about the faith:
Suffer me, therefore, to make use of the words of infidels; for it is proper for us when we seek to investigate the reasonableness of our faith to propose the objections of those who are wholly unwilling to submit to the same faith, without the support of reason.
I suspect that Anselm’s account of all this will be very repugnant to our Orthodox brethren.
My untutored take on this is that in the West our language about humanity’s predicament and God’s answer to it is chiefly legal in tone. Our Eastern brothers have a more ontological approach. Anselm says the death satisfies justice. Surely we cannot take too literally either the idea that God owes the devil a ransom -- as though the two of them were litigants in some higher court, OR the idea that God cannot bear to admit sinners to heaven until His thirst for vengeance is satisfied. But understanding and explaining God's relationship to justice is complicated, I think.
My own thinking (Papists, call your holy office!) is two fold:
(a) Each approach has intrinsic merit based on what is very nearly the plain meaning of the language. That is, speaking for the West, we do owe God something we can never pay. And also, since humans are animals with reason and will, any ontological compromise of what we are, owing to our first disobedience, will show itself in many ways among which are moral failures — with consequences pertaining to morality.
We do not always know what is good. Even when we do, we don’t always choose it for the right reasons. Even when we do, our will wavers. Failing to be able to will properly is not only a consequence of the fall, it is the manifestation in the moral sphere of the ontological disaster of the Fall. That we die is part and parcel of our deserving to die.
(b) All this language is using things we experience, things we can scarcely “know” in their essence because they are creatures (and so are we) and very evanescent creatures at that, to explain the unknowable and Most Holy Trinity. Everything we say about God is more wrong than right; it’s all analogies; and we don’t know what we are talking about. So, it seems to me we have to approach these conversations very patiently and praying always for assistance and guidance because we think we must talk about that to which the only correct response is “Hush my mouth,” or maybe “Alleluia!” And we should more then usually commit ourselves to finding the usefulness of one another’s language and thought rather than the problems.
These first two points lead to two more:
(c) Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, is the hermeneutic to the problem. He is unknowable as any human is unknowable -- AND He is unknowable as the Uncreated is unknowable. Some hermeneutic! A key we cannot grasp to open a lock we cannot find! But however impossible it all is, still it seems to me that as we "learn" our Lord we will also come to understand what he did and why He did it.
I am not a pietist, and I'm all over intellectual inquiry by those who can do it and I'm grateful to those who can explain it all as much as they can. But I think theology without prayer and works of mercy and so forth will not prosper. We much get to know the Lord as much as to know ABOUT Him.
And in that enterprise, to which we hope that Father has called us, I think we will find that the moralistic language of the West and the ontological language of the East will help us.
And I don't even know why I wrote this. I hope it at least escapes giving offense and maybe prompts something helpful to someone.
Orthodox etc. ping. You may find this very interesting reading. Anselm’s work is distinctly “non-Orthodox” though from an Orthodox pov, not heresy. Anselm’s atonement theory explains much about the different views of theosis/salvation we see between the East and the West and which are very graphically demonstrated by the way we all experience the Triodion. I am put in mind of a comment made about the Mel Gibson film by the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Boston. +Methodios liked the film but remarked that it was a product of the “Church of the Crucifixion” (the Latin Church) while the Eastern Church is the “Church of the Resurrection”.
Anyway, what you will read here is different from what our Church has taught us, but it is important to understand since it explains so much of the religious mindset of the Western Church.
My plan is to read it together slowly; there are near 50 chapters. We can probably do 4-5 per thread.
What I would like to accomplish is to illuminate what exactly constitutes the “very repugnant to our Orthodox brethren” Latin mindset. We already know the end result, — that atonement theology is as a whole not heretical per the Eastern view, but foreign. I’d like to know what exactly is that foreign phronema.
For example, the opening methodological comment signals the onset of scholasticism: the separation of faith and reason, to the point of taking the point of view of the infidels. Is this in itself already foreign to the Orthodox?
“Is this in itself already foreign to the Orthodox?”
I couldn't agree more. It is a legalistic approach to atonement (although that term wasn't invented yet in the 11th century). For the proper Orthodox-Catholic dialogue his concepts and mindset are just as critical as understanding our hesychastic foundations.
Anselm is, to put is simply, the epitome of Latin legalism, a prism through which they view theological issues. We, of course, do not teach his doctrine of atonement, but the one that was taught in the first millennium by the whole Church, known as the ransom doctrine.
For those unfamiliar with it, the doctrine says that Satan demanded Christ in exchange for freeing humans from the bondage of death. When Christ died, death reached for Him and discovered it was God over whom it had no power, whereby it was rendered powerless. Thus this doctrine is one of a divine "sting" and is beautifully summarized in St. John Chrysostom's Paschal Homily (see Kolokotronis' tag line).
Wow, what a prayer. Thank you.
That's it right from the start, Alex. We are a hesychastic Church, steeped in monasticism, not scholasticism.
First published Thu May 18, 2000; substantive revision Tue Aug 10, 2004
Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) was the outstanding Christian philosopher and theologian of the eleventh century. He is best known for the celebrated “ontological argument” for the existence of God in chapter two of the Proslogion, but his contributions to philosophical theology (and indeed to philosophy more generally) go well beyond the ontological argument. In what follows I examine Anselm’s theistic proofs, his conception of the divine nature, and his account of human freedom, sin, and redemption.
1. Life and Works
2. The Theistic Proofs
3. The Divine Nature
4. Freedom, Sin, and Redemption
Other Internet Resources
1. Life and Works
Anselm was born in 1033 near Aosta, in those days a Burgundian town on the frontier with Lombardy. Little is known of his early life. He left home at twenty-three, and after three years of apparently aimless traveling through Burgundy and France, he came to Normandy in 1059. Once he was in Normandy, Anselm’s interest was captured by the Benedictine abbey at Bec, whose famous school was under the direction of Lanfranc, the abbey’s prior. Lanfranc was a scholar and teacher of wide reputation, and under his leadership the school at Bec had become an important center of learning, especially in dialectic. In 1060 Anselm entered the abbey as a novice. His intellectual and spiritual gifts brought him rapid advancement, and when Lanfranc was appointed abbot of Caen in 1063, Anselm was elected to succeed him as prior. He was elected abbot in 1078 upon the death of Herluin, the founder and first abbot of Bec. Under Anselm’s leadership the reputation of Bec as an intellectual center grew, and Anselm managed to write a good deal of philosophy and theology in addition to his teaching, administrative duties, and extensive correspondence as an adviser and counsellor to rulers and nobles all over Europe and beyond. His works while at Bec include the Monologion (1076), the Proslogion (1077-78), and his four philosophical dialogues: De grammatico, De veritate, and De libertate arbitrii (1080-85), and De casu diaboli (1085-1090).
In 1093 Anselm was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury. The previous Archbishop, Anselm’s old master Lanfranc, had died four years earlier, but the King, William Rufus, had left the see vacant in order to plunder the archiepiscopal revenues. Anselm was understandably reluctant to undertake the primacy of the Church of England under a ruler as ruthless and venal as William, and his tenure as Archbishop proved to be as turbulent and vexatious as he must have feared. William was intent on maintaining royal authority over ecclesiastical affairs and would not be dictated to by Archbishop or Pope or anyone else. So, for example, when Anselm went to Rome in 1097 without the King's permission, William would not allow him to return. When William was killed in 1100, his successor, Henry I, invited Anselm to return to his see. But Henry was as intent as William had been on maintaining royal jurisdiction over the Church, and Anselm found himself in exile again from 1103 to 1107. Despite these distractions and troubles, Anselm continued to write. His works as Archbishop of Canterbury include the Epistola de Incarnatione Verbi (1092-94), Cur Deus Homo (1094-98), De conceptu virginali (1099-1100), De processione Spiritus Sancti (1102), the Epistola de sacrificio azymi et fermentati (1106-7), De sacramentis ecclesiae (1106-7), and De concordia (1107-8). Anselm died on 21 April 1109. He was canonized in 1494 and named a Doctor of the Church in 1720.
2. The Theistic Proofs
"Faith Seeking Understanding": The character and purpose of Anselm's theistic proofs
Anselm’s motto is “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). This motto lends itself to at least two misunderstandings. First, many philosophers have taken it to mean that Anselm hopes to replace faith with understanding. If one takes faith to mean roughly belief on the basis of testimony and understanding to mean belief on the basis of philosophical insight, one is likely to regard faith as an epistemically substandard position; any self-respecting philosopher would surely want to leave faith behind as quickly as possible. The theistic proofs are then interpreted as the means by which we come to have philosophical insight into things we previously believed solely on testimony. But as argued in Williams 1996 (xiii-xiv), Anselm is not hoping to replace faith with understanding. Faith for Anselm is more a volitional state than an epistemic state: it is love for God and a drive to act as God wills. In fact, Anselm describes the sort of faith that “merely believes what it ought to believe” as “dead” (M 78). (For the abbreviations used in references, see the Bibliography below.) So “faith seeking understanding” means something like “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God.”
Other philosophers have noted that “faith seeking understanding” begins with “faith,” not with doubt or suspension of belief. Hence, they argue, the theistic arguments proposed by faith seeking understanding are not really meant to convince unbelievers; they are intended solely for the edification of those who already believe. This too is a misreading of Anselm’s motto. For although the theistic proofs are borne of an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of the beloved, the proofs themselves are intended to be convincing even to unbelievers. Thus Anselm opens the Monologion with these words:
If anyone does not know, either because he has not heard or because he does not believe, that there is one nature, supreme among all existing things, who alone is self-sufficient in his eternal happiness, who through his omnipotent goodness grants and brings it about that all other things exist or have any sort of well-being, and a great many other things that we must believe about God or his creation, I think he could at least convince himself of most of these things by reason alone, if he is even moderately intelligent. (M 1)
And in the Proslogion Anselm sets out to convince “the fool,” that is, the person who “has said in his heart, There is no God “ (Psalm 14:1; 53:1).
The arguments of the Monologion
Having clarified what Anselm takes himself to be doing in his theistic proofs, we can now examine the proofs themselves. In the first chapter of the Monologion Anselm argues that there must be some one thing that is supremely good, through which all good things have their goodness. For whenever we say that different things are F in different degrees, we must understand them as being F through F-ness; F-ness itself is the same in each of them. Thus, for example, all more or less just things “must be more or less just through justice, which is not different in diverse things” (M 1). Now we speak of things as being good in different degrees. So by the principle just stated, these things must be good through some one thing. Clearly that thing is itself a great good, since it is the source of the goodness of all other things. Moreover, that thing is good through itself; after all, if all good things are good through that thing, it follows trivially that that thing, being good, is good through itself. Things that are good through another (i.e., things whose goodness derives from something other than themselves) cannot be equal to or greater than the good thing that is good through itself, and so that which is good through itself is supremely good. Anselm concludes, “Now that which is supremely good is also supremely great. There is, therefore, some one thing that is supremely good and supremely great—in other words, supreme among all existing things” (M 1). In chapter 2 he applies the principle of chapter 1 in order to derive (again) the conclusion that there is something supremely great.
In chapter 3 Anselm argues that all existing things exist through some one thing. Every existing thing, he begins, exists either through something or through nothing. But of course nothing exists through nothing, so every existing thing exists through something. There is, then, either some one thing through which all existing things exist, or there is more than one such thing. If there is more than one, either (i) they all exist through some one thing, or (ii) each of them exists through itself, or (iii) they exist through each other. (iii) makes no sense. If (ii) is true, then “there is surely some one power or nature of self-existing that they have in order to exist through themselves” (M 3); in that case, “all things exist more truly through that one thing than through the several things that cannot exist without that one thing” (M 3). So (ii) collapses into (i), and there is some one thing through which all things exist. That one thing, of course, exists through itself, and so it is greater than all the other things. It is therefore “best and greatest and supreme among all existing things” (M 3).
In chapter 4 Anselm begins with the premise that things “are not all of equal dignity; rather, some of them are on different and unequal levels” (M 4). For example, a horse is better than wood, and a human being is more excellent than a horse. Now it is absurd to think that there is no limit to how high these levels can go, “so that there is no level so high that an even higher level cannot be found” (M 4). The only question is how many beings occupy that highest level of all. Is there just one, or are there more than one? Suppose there are more than one. By hypothesis, they must all be equals. If they are equals, they are equals through the same thing. That thing is either identical with them or distinct from them. If it is identical with them, then they are not in fact many, but one, since they are all identical with some one thing. On the other hand, if that thing is distinct from them, then they do not occupy the highest level after all. Instead, that thing is greater than they are. Either way, there can be only one being occupying the highest level of all.
Anselm concludes the first four chapters by summarizing his results:
Therefore, there is a certain nature or substance or essence who through himself is good and great and through himself is what he is; through whom exists whatever truly is good or great or anything at all; and who is the supreme good, the supreme great thing, the supreme being or subsistent, that is, supreme among all existing things. (M 4)
He then goes on (in chapters 5-65) to derive the attributes that must belong to the being who fits this description. But before we look at Anselm’s understanding of the divine attributes, we should turn to the famous proof in the Proslogion.
The arguments of the Proslogion
Looking back on the sixty-five chapters of complicated argument in the Monologion, Anselm found himself wishing for a simpler way to establish all the conclusions he wanted to prove. As he tells us in the preface to the Proslogion, he wanted to find
a single argument that needed nothing but itself alone for proof, that would by itself be enough to show that God really exists; that he is the supreme good, who depends on nothing else, but on whom all things depend for their being and for their well-being; and whatever we believe about the divine nature. (P, preface)
That “single argument” is the one that appears in chapter 2 of the Proslogion. (We owe the curiously unhelpful name “ontological argument” to Kant. The medievals simply called it “that argument of Anselm’s” [argumentum Anselmi].)
The argument goes like this. God is “that than which nothing greater can be thought”; in other words, he is a being so great, so full of metaphysical oomph, that one cannot so much as conceive of a being who would be greater than God. The Psalmist, however, tells us that “The fool has said in his heart, There is no God “ (Psalm 14:1; 53:1). Is it possible to convince the fool that he is wrong? It is. All we need is the definition of God as “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” The fool does at least understand that definition. But whatever is understood exists in the understanding, just as the plan of a painting he has yet to execute already exists in the understanding of the painter. So that than which nothing greater can be thought exists in the understanding. But if it exists in the understanding, it must also exist in reality. For it is greater to exist in reality than to exist merely in the understanding. Therefore, if that than which nothing greater can be thought existed only in the understanding, it would be possible to think of something greater than it (namely, that same being existing in reality as well). It follows, then, that if that than which nothing greater can be thought existed only in the understanding, it would not be that than which nothing greater can be thought; and that, obviously, is a contradiction. So that than which nothing greater can be thought must exist in reality, not merely in the understanding.
Versions of this argument have been defended and criticized by a succession of philosophers from Anselm’s time through the present day (see ontological arguments). Our concern here is with Anselm’s own version, the criticism he encountered, and his response to that criticism. A monk named Gaunilo wrote a “Reply on Behalf of the Fool,” contending that Anselm’s argument gave the Psalmist’s fool no good reason at all to believe that that than which nothing greater can be thought exists in reality. Gaunilo’s most famous objection is an argument intended to be exactly parallel to Anselm’s that generates an obviously absurd conclusion. Gaunilo proposes that instead of “that than which nothing greater can be thought” we consider “that island than which no greater can be thought.” We understand what that expression means, so (following Anselm’s reasoning) the greatest conceivable island exists in our understanding. But (again following Anselm’s reasoning) that island must exist in reality as well; for if it did not, we could imagine a greater island—namely, one that existed in reality—and the greatest conceivable island would not be the greatest conceivable island after all. Surely, though, it is absurd to suppose that the greatest conceivable island actually exists in reality. Gaunilo concludes that Anselm’s reasoning is fallacious.
In order to defend himself against Gaunilo’s criticism, Anselm would have to show why Gaunilo’s argument about the island is not in fact analogous to his own argument about that than which nothing greater can be thought. Surprisingly, he never does this. His long-winded and indeed somewhat intemperate “Reply to Gaunilo” asserts more than once that the island example fails, but he never explains why it fails. The usual reply given on Anselm’s behalf (and indeed often attributed to Anselm himself) is that the notion of a greatest conceivable island is incoherent; however great an island might be, one could always conceive of a greater. This is a lame response, since it is open to Gaunilo to say exactly the same thing about the greatest conceivable being; it is therefore no wonder that Anselm did not say anything of the sort. (For a reading of the argument that endorses a response of this sort, see Klima 2000.) Indeed, Nicholas Wolterstorff argues convincingly that Anselm
realized the tellingness of [Gaunilo’s] points. . . . The sign of his realization, however, is not concession; Anselm does not concede. The sign is rather bluster. . . . Anselm’s glittering genius has made many reluctant to concede that Gaunilo made any telling points against him; his saintly reputation makes us all reluctant to concede that he concealed when he should have conceded. (Wolterstorff 1993, 87)
3. The Divine Nature
Proving the divine attributes
Recall that Anselm’s intention in the Proslogion was to offer a single argument that would establish not only the existence of God but also the various attributes that Christians believe God possesses. If the argument of chapter 2 proved only the existence of God, leaving the divine attributes to be established piecemeal as in the Monologion, Anselm would consider the Proslogion a failure. But in fact the concept of that than which nothing greater can be thought turns out to be marvelously fertile. God must, for example, be omnipotent. For if he were not, we could conceive of a being greater than he. But God is that than which no greater can be thought, so he must be omnipotent. Similarly, God must be just, self-existent, invulnerable to suffering, merciful, timelessly eternal, non-physical, non-composite, and so forth. For if he lacked any of these qualities, he would be less than the greatest conceivable being, which is impossible.
The ontological argument thus works as a sort of divine-attribute-generating machine. Admittedly, though, the appearance of theoretical simplicity is somewhat misleading. The “single argument” produces conclusions about the divine attributes only when conjoined with certain beliefs about what is greater or better. That is, the ontological argument tells us that God has whatever characteristics it is better or greater to have than to lack, but it does not tell us which characteristics those are. We must have some independent way of identifying them before we can plug them into the ontological argument and generate a full-blown conception of the divine nature. Anselm identifies these characteristics in part by appeal to intuitions about value, in part by independent argument. To illustrate Anselm’s method, I shall examine his discussions of God’s impassibility, timelessness, and simplicity.
According to the doctrine of divine impassibility, God is invulnerable to suffering. Nothing can act upon him; he is in no way passive. He therefore does not feel emotions, since emotions are states that one undergoes rather than actions one performs. Anselm does not find it necessary to argue that impassibility is a perfection; he thinks it is perfectly obvious that “it is better to be . . . impassible than not” (P 6), just as it is perfectly obvious that it is better to be just than not-just. His intuitions about value are shaped by the Platonic-Augustinian tradition of which he was a part. Augustine took from the Platonists the idea that the really real things, the greatest and best of beings, are stable, uniform, and unchanging. He says in On Free Choice of the Will 2.10, “And you surely could not deny that the uncorrupted is better than the corrupt, the eternal than the temporal, and the invulnerable than the vulnerable”; his interlocutor replies simply, “Could anyone?” Through Augustine (and others) these ideas, and the conception of God to which they naturally lead, became the common view of Christian theologians for well over a millennium. For Anselm, then, it is obvious that a being who is in no way passive, who cannot experience anything of which he is not himself the origin, is better and greater than any being who can be acted upon by something outside himself. So God, being that than which nothing greater can be thought, is wholly active; he is impassible.
Notice that Augustine also found it obvious that the eternal is better than the temporal. According to Plato’s Timaeus, time is a “moving image of eternity” (37d). It is a shifting and shadowy reflection of the really real. As later Platonists, including Augustine, develop this idea, temporal beings have their existence piecemeal; they exist only in this tiny sliver of a now, which is constantly flowing away from them and passing into nothingness. An eternal being, by contrast, is (to use my earlier description) stable, uniform, and unchanging. What it has, it always has; what it is, it always is; what it does, it always does. So it seems intuitively obvious to Anselm that if God is to be that than which nothing greater can be thought, he must be eternal. That is, he must be not merely everlasting, but outside time altogether.
In addition to this strong intuitive consideration, Anselm at least hints at a further argument for the claim that it is better to be eternal than temporal. He opens chapter 13 of the Proslogion by observing, “Everything that is at all enclosed in a place or time is less than that which is subject to no law of place or time” (P 13). His idea seems to be that if God were in time (or in a place), he would be bound by certain constraints inherent in the nature of time (or place). His discussion in Monologion 22 makes the problem clear:
This, then, is the condition of place and time: whatever is enclosed within their boundaries does not escape being characterized by parts, whether the sort of parts its place receives with respect to size, or the sort its time suffers with respect to duration; nor can it in any way be contained as a whole all at once by different places or times. By contrast, if something is in no way constrained by confinement in a place or time, no law of places or times forces it into a multiplicity of parts or prevents it from being present as a whole all at once in several places or times. (M 22)
So at least part of the reason for holding that God is timeless is that the nature of time would impose constraints upon God, and of course it is better to be subject to no external constraints.
The other part of the reason, though, is that if God were in place or time he would have parts. But what is so bad about having parts? This question brings us naturally to the doctrine of divine simplicity, which is simply the doctrine that God has no parts of any kind. Even for an Augustinian like Anselm, the claim that it is better to lack parts than to have them is less than intuitively compelling, so Anselm offers further arguments for that claim. In the Proslogion he argues that “whatever is composed of parts is not completely one. It is in some sense a plurality and not identical with itself, and it can be broken up either in fact or at least in the understanding” (P 18). The argument in the Monologion goes somewhat differently. “Every composite,” Anselm argues, “needs the things of which it is composed if it is to subsist, and it owes its existence to them, since whatever it is, it is through them, whereas those things are not through it what they are” (M 17). The argument in the Proslogion, then, seeks to relate simplicity to the intuitive considerations that identify what is greatest and best with what is stable, uniform, and unchanging; the argument in the Monologion, by contrast, seeks to show that simplicity is necessary if God is to be—as the theistic proofs have already established—the ultimate source of his own goodness and existence.
The consistency of the divine attributes
Anselm’s success in generating a whole host of divine attributes through the ontological argument does present him with a problem. He must show that the attributes are consistent with each other—in other words, that is possible for one and the same being to have all of them. For example, there seems at first glance to be a conflict between justice and omnipotence. If God is perfectly just, he cannot lie. But if God is omnipotent, how can there be something he cannot do? Anselm’s solution is to explain that omnipotence does not mean the ability to do everything; instead, it means the possession of unlimited power. Now the so-called “ability” or “power” to lie is not really a power at all; it is a kind of weakness. Being omnipotent, God has no weakness. So it turns out that omnipotence actually entails the inability to lie.
Another apparent contradiction is between God’s mercy and his justice. If God is just, he will surely punish the wicked as they deserve. But because he is merciful, he spares the wicked. Anselm tries to resolve this apparent contradiction by appeal to God’s goodness. It is better, he says, for God “to be good both to the good and to the wicked than to be good only to the good, and it is better to be good to the wicked both in punishing and in sparing them than to be good only in punishing them” (P 9). So God’s supreme goodness requires that he be both just and merciful. But Anselm is not content to resolve the apparent tension between justice and mercy by appealing to some other attribute, goodness, that entails both justice and mercy; he goes on to argue that justice itself requires mercy. Justice to sinners obviously requires that God punish them; but God’s justice to himself requires that he exercise his supreme goodness in sparing the wicked. “Thus,” Anselm says to God, “in saving us whom you might justly destroy . . . you are just, not because you give us our due, but because you do what is fitting for you who are supremely good” (P 10). In spite of these arguments, Anselm acknowledges that there is a residue of mystery here:
Thus your mercy is born of your justice, since it is just for you to be so good that you are good even in sparing the wicked. And perhaps this is why the one who is supremely just can will good things for the wicked. But even if one can somehow grasp why you can will to save the wicked, certainly no reasoning can comprehend why, from those who are alike in wickedness, you save some rather than others through your supreme goodness and condemn some rather than others through your supreme justice. (P 11)
In other words, the philosopher can trace the conceptual relations among goodness, justice, and mercy, and show that God not only can but must have all three; but no human reasoning can hope to show why God displays his justice and mercy in precisely the ways in which he does.
4. Freedom, Sin, and Redemption
Truth in statements and in the will
In On Freedom of Choice (De libertate arbitrii) Anselm defines freedom of choice as “the power to preserve rectitude of will for its own sake” (DLA 3). He explores the notion of rectitude of will most thoroughly in On Truth (De veritate), so in order to understand the definition of freedom of choice, we must look first at Anselm’s discussion of truth. Truth is a much broader notion for Anselm than for us; he speaks of truth not only in statements and opinions but also in the will, actions, the senses, and even the essences of things. In every case, he argues, truth consists in correctness or “rectitude.” Rectitude, in turn, is understood teleologically; a thing is correct whenever it is or does whatever it ought, or was designed, to be or do. For example, statements are made for the purpose of “signifying that what-is is” (DV 2). A statement therefore is correct (has rectitude) when, and only when, it signifies that what-is is. So Anselm holds a correspondence theory of truth, but it is a somewhat unusual correspondence theory. Statements are true when they correspond to reality, but only because corresponding to reality is what statements are for. That is, statements (like anything else) are true when they do what they were designed to do; and what they were designed to do, as it happens, is to correspond to reality.
Truth in the will also turns out to be rectitude, again understood teleologically. Rectitude of will means willing what one ought to will or (in other words) willing that for the sake of which one was given a will. So, just as the truth or rectitude of a statement is the statement’s doing what statements were made to do, the truth or rectitude of a will is the will’s doing what wills were made to do. In DV 12 Anselm connects rectitude of will to both justice and moral evaluation. In a broad sense of just, whatever is as it ought to be is just. Thus, an animal is just when it blindly follows its appetites, because that is what animals were meant to do. But in the narrower sense of just, in which justice is what deserves moral approval and injustice is what deserves reproach, justice is best defined as “rectitude of will preserved for its own sake” (DV 12). Such rectitude requires that agents perceive the rectitude of their actions and will them for the sake of that rectitude. Anselm takes the second requirement to exclude both coercion and “being bribed by an extraneous reward” (DV 12). For an agent who is coerced into doing what is right is not willing rectitude for its own sake; and similarly, an agent who must be bribed to do what is right is willing rectitude for the sake of the bribe, not for the sake of rectitude.
Since, as we have already seen, Anselm will define freedom as “the power to preserve rectitude of will for its own sake,” the arguments of On Truth imply that freedom is also the capacity for justice and the capacity for moral praiseworthiness. Now it is both necessary and sufficient for justice, and thus for praiseworthiness, that an agent wills what is right, knowing it to be right, because it is right. That an agent wills what is right because it is right entails that he is neither compelled nor bribed to perform the act. Freedom, then, must be neither more nor less than the power to perform acts of that sort.
Freedom and sin
Thus Anselm takes it to be obvious that freedom is a power for something: its purpose is to preserve rectitude of will for its own sake. God and the good angels cannot sin, but they are still free, because they can (and do) preserve rectitude of will for its own sake. In fact, they are freer than those who can sin: “someone who has what is fitting and expedient in such a way that he cannot lose it is freer than someone who has it in such a way that he can lose it and be seduced into what is unfitting and inexpedient” (DLA 1). It obviously follows, as Anselm points out, that freedom of choice neither is nor entails the power to sin; God and the good angels have freedom of choice, but they are incapable of sinning.
But if free choice is the power to hold on to what is fitting and expedient, and it is not the power to sin, does it make any sense to say that the first human beings and the rebel angels sinned through free choice? Anselm’s reply to this question is both subtle and plausible. In order to be able to preserve rectitude of will for its own sake, an agent must be able to perform an action that has its ultimate origin in the agent him- or herself rather than in some external source. (For convenience I will refer to that power as “the power for self-initiated action.”) Any being that has freedom of choice, therefore, will thereby have the power for self-initiated action. The first human beings and the rebel angels sinned through an exercise of their power for self-initiated action, and so it is appropriate to say that they sinned through free choice. Nonetheless, free choice does not entail the power to sin. For free choice can be perfected by something else, as yet unspecified, that renders it incapable of sinning.
In On the Fall of the Devil (De casu diaboli) Anselm extends his account of freedom and sin by discussing the first sin of the angels. In order for the angels to have the power to preserve rectitude of will for its own sake, they had to have both a will for justice and a will for happiness. If God had given them only a will for happiness, they would have been necessitated to will whatever they thought would make them happy. Their willing of happiness would have had its ultimate origin in God and not in the angels themselves. So they would not have had the power for self-initiated action, which means that they would not have had free choice. The same thing would have been true, mutatis mutandis, if God had given them only the will for justice.
Since God gave them both wills, however, they had the power for self-initiated action. Whether they chose to subject their wills for happiness to the demands of justice or to ignore the demands of justice in the interest of happiness, that choice had its ultimate origin in the angels; it was not received from God. The rebel angels chose to abandon justice in an attempt to gain happiness for themselves, whereas the good angels chose to persevere in justice even if it meant less happiness. God punished the rebel angels by taking away their happiness; he rewarded the good angels by granting them all the happiness they could possibly want. For this reason, the good angels are no longer able to sin. Since there is no further happiness left for them to will, their will for happiness can no longer entice them to overstep the bounds of justice. Thus Anselm finally explains what it is that perfects free choice so that it becomes unable to sin.
Grace and redemption
Like the fallen angels, the first human beings willed happiness in preference to justice. By doing so they abandoned the will for justice and became unable to will justice for its own sake. Apart from divine grace, then, fallen human beings cannot help but sin. Anselm claims that we are still free, because we continue to be such that if we had rectitude of will, we could preserve it for its own sake; but we cannot exercise our freedom, since we no longer have the rectitude of will to preserve. (Whether fallen human beings also retain the power for self-initiated action apart from divine grace is a tricky question, and one I do not propose to answer here.)
So the restoration of human beings to the justice they were intended to enjoy requires divine grace. But even more is needed than God’s restoration of the will for justice. In Cur Deus Homo (Why the God-Man? or Why God Became Man) Anselm famously attempts to show on purely rational grounds that the debt incurred by human sin could be suitably discharged, and the affront to God’s infinite dignity could be suitably rectified, only if one who was both fully divine and fully human took it upon himself to offer his own life on our behalf.
References in this article to Anselm’s works use the following abbreviations:
DLA = De libertate arbitrii
DV = De veritate
M = Monologion
P = Proslogion
All translations are my own.
Schmitt, Franciscus Salesius (1968). S. Anselmi Cantuariensis Archiepiscopi Opera Omnia. Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Friedrich Fromann Verlag, 1968.
Davies, Brian, and G. R. Evans, ed. (1998). Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Williams, Thomas (1996). Monologion and Proslogion. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1996.
Williams, Thomas (2002). Three Philosophical Dialogues: On Truth, On Freedom of Choice, On the Fall of the Devil. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2002.
Davies, Brian, and Brian Leftow, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Anselm. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Evans, G. R. (1978). Anselm and Talking about God. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.
Evans, G. R. (1984). A Concordance to the Works of Saint Anselm. Millwood, NY: Kraus International Publications, 1984.
Evans, G. R. (1989). Anselm. London: G. Chapman, 1989.
Henry, Desmond Paul (1967). The Logic of Saint Anselm. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.
Holopainen, Toivo (1996). Dialectic and Theology in the Eleventh Century. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996.
Hopkins, Jasper (1972). A Companion to the Study of St. Anselm. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972.
Klima, Gyula (2000). “Saint Anselm’s Proof: A Problem of Reference, Intentional Identity and Mutual Understanding”, in G. Hintikka (ed.), Medieval Philosophy and Modern Times (Proceedings of “Medieval and Modern Philosophy of Religion”, Boston University, August 25-27, 1992), Dordrecht: Kluwer, pp. 69-88. [Preprint available online]
Leftow, Brian (1997). “Anselm on the Cost of Salvation,” Medieval Philosophy and Theology 6 (1997): 73-92.
Oppenheimer, P., and Zalta, E. (1991). “On the Logic of the Ontological Argument”, Philosophical Perspectives 5 (1991): 509-529; reprinted in The Philosopher’s Annual: 1991, XIV (1993): 255-275
Plantinga, Alvin, ed. (1965). The Ontological Argument. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1965.
Southern, R. W. (1990). Saint Anselm: A Portrait in Landscape. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Williams, Thomas, and Sandra Visser (2001). “Anselm’s Account of Freedom,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 31 (2001): 221-244.
Williams, Thomas (1997). Review of Holopainen (1996) in History and Philosophy of Logic 18 (1997): 55-59.
Wolterstorff, Nicholas (1993). “In Defense of Gaunilo’s Defense of the Fool,” in C. Stephen Evans and Merold Westphal, ed., Christian Perspectives on Religious Knowledge. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993.
Other Internet Resources
Catholic Encyclopedia article on Anselm
Prof. Jasper Hopkins’s homepage, including links to the Hopkins-Richardson translations of Anselm’s complete theological and philosophical treatises, as well as some essays on Anselm.
For later review.
This should be interesting. The West (Catholic and most non Catholics) view the Incarnation in a legal sense, the East does not.
A great thing to review.
What is the Orthodox grasp on faith and reason?
I find it amusing that on this doctrine, the Eastern Church is all to happy to fall in behind St. Augustine:
"The Redeemer came and the deceiver was overcome. What did our Redeemer do to our Captor? In payment for us He set the trap, His Cross, with His blood for bait. He [Satan] could indeed shed that blood; but he deserved not to drink it. By shedding the blood of One who was not his debtor, he was forced to release his debtors" (Sermons 130.2).
While the West follows St. Gregory of Nazianz in rejecting an overliteral ransom from the devil theory:
"Now we are to examine another fact and dogma, neglected by most people, but in my judgment well worth enquiring into. To Whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was It shed? I mean the precious and famous Blood of our God and High priest and Sacrifice. We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether. But if to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim? Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; but on account of the Incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son, Who also arranged this to the honour of the Father, Whom it is manifest that He obeys in all things?" (Oration 45.22)
+Augustine was simply expressing the dioctrine of the Undivided Church which the Orthodox Church retained. It wasn't his teaching (and the Orthodox "falling behind it"), but the teaching of the whole Church.
+Augustine is a saint in the Orthodox Church as well, even though some of his teachings do not represent the consensus patrum, just as the Church does not teach +Gregory of Nyssa's Origen-influenced universal salvation.
St. Gregory Nazianz clearly states it is "in my judgment" and not the Church doctrine.
” +Augustine is a saint in the Orthodox Church as well, even though some of his teachings do not represent the consensus patrum, just as the Church does not teach +Gregory of Nyssa’s Origen-influenced universal salvation.
St. Gregory Nazianz clearly states it is “in my judgment” and not the Church doctrine.”
Ah, Kosta, you beat me to it! Some of us do have to work. :) It is ironic, is it not, that the West chose theological opinions of both +Augustine and +Gregory which were outside the consensus patrum.
There has been of late quite a discussion in the Latin Church over the proper “translation” of the words “pro multis” at the consecration. The post Vatican II era saw the usage of “for all” as opposed to the appropriate “for many”. +Gregory’s theology arguably would support the former.
“Anselms work is distinctly non-Orthodox though from an Orthodox pov, not heresy.”
I’m curious what you and other Orthodox FReepers would say about the following.
If St. Anselm’s work is not “heresy” but “non-Orthodox,” would it be acceptable for an Orthodox Christian to use it for spiritual reading?
“If St. Anselms work is not heresy but non-Orthodox, would it be acceptable for an Orthodox Christian to use it for spiritual reading?”
Absolutely. But there is a caveat to this. As with all theological reading and study, which of rus is at base a hesychastic pursuit, one needs to be properly prepared, at a minimum through prayer, and be conversant with the consensus patrum. If one isn’t conversant with the consensus patrum, then the reading and study should be undertaken under the guidance of a spiritual father. As we know, the Fathers were not infallible and there are some ideas here and there among their writings which can lead a believer into serious error.
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