Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works

Davies, Brian and Evans, Gillian. eds. Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

In 2005, I bought this volume before I left for seminary. It has been a constant companion ever since. Anselm did not anticipate every problem in contemporary philosophy of religion, but he did anticipate the most important problems. Even when his conclusions might not convince, one can only stand in wonder at how clearly he stated the problems.

Monologion

This is Anselm’s treatise on God’s being.  It should be required reading for all discussions on divine simplicity. In short, differing things can both be said to be “good,” yet it is clear they are not the same thing. They are good though a greater good. This ultimate good is good through itself. Anselm calls this the supreme good and ascribes the predicate “existence” to it. This is the first plank in the “perfect being theology.”  

Everything that exists, exists through something or nothing. Obviously not through nothing. There is either one or more things through which everything exists. Either one of these options will ultimately reduce to one thing.[i] Anything that exists through something other than itself is necessarily less than that thing through which it exists. Anselm calls this the divine essence. It is the highest good and efficient cause of all things.

Creation ex nihilo

Things didn’t spring from nothing as from a void.  Rather, they pre-existed in the Divine Mind. The Supreme Essence creates through an “inner verbalization.[ii]

Back to the main argument (sec. 15): “Now it is quite out of bounds to imagine that there could be some P true of the substance of the supreme nature such that ~P would be better in some respect.”  

God and Time

Sect. 21 gives the standard account of God’s timelessness. The Supreme Essence is not spatially in time.  Rather, it is present as a whole simultaneously to all places and times.

Sect. 23: We say God exists everywhere rather than in every place.

Sect. 26ff: Substance language.  In the rest of the treatise Anselm explores how the Son is of the Father.  It’s a good meditation but nothing new here.

Proslogion and Reply to Gaunilo

Either you are convinced of the ontological argument or you are not. I think it is more of a meditation on divine perfections than an actual argument. Gaunilo’s analogy to an island doesn’t work because an island, or a tree, implies contingency. A perfect being implies necessity.

Kant’s objection:  existence isn’t a predicate. A concept must contain as much content as possible.
Response: Kant’s objection holds for contingent things.  But if we are talking about modal necessity, it might not hold.

On Truth

In this dialogue Anselm begins by setting forth a roughly Platonic theory of truth: something is true by its participation in the truth.  That’s true (no pun intended).  It’s inadequate, though.  He sharpens it to mean: “A true statement has ‘its cause of truth.’”  There is something that just makes it true.  Modern analytic philosophy calls this something “a truthmaker.”  It is to Anselm’s credit that he anticipated this development. Of course, truthmaker theory is itself dense and this discussion can’t exhaust it.

He expands it to mean “truth is rectitude” (1.2). It fulfills its function of signifying rightly. In fact, he asserts that if both “truth” and “acting well” have the same contrary, then “they are not different in signification” (1.5).

This raises a problem, though.  If there is correlation between truth and being, then wouldn’t we have to say that some bad things (I’m deliberately not using the word ‘evil’) are true since they exist?  With these cases of “ought not to be,” Anselm opts for a “thinner” account. God only permits them.

On Free Will

Thesis: To be able to sin does not belong to the definition of free will (1.1).  However, we did have a capacity to sin or not to sin, yet this was not of necessity. We do have a “natural free will” of sorts (3). Our liberty of will is “the capacity of preserving rectitude of will.”

A truly free will is one that preserves rectitude of will for its own sake (13).

Why God Became Man

Aside from the ontological argument, this might be what Anselm is most known for. God became man because only a God-man could properly mediate between both God and man.  Seems simple enough.  Yes, this is substitutionary atonement, but not in the way a modern reader might think. Anselm’s primary argument is that only a God-man could restore the offense against God’s honor.  God, as our feudal lord, has been wronged.  This is not what we normally think of in the atonement.

That has always been my criticism of this book.  I was recently corrected on this by Mr. Philip Pugh.  He pointed out that Anselm’s model is closer to ANE covenant models than one might expect.  To be sure, Anselm knew nothing of such models. Nevertheless, if only by accident, he got much of it correct.

Conclusion

You cannot be called a serious student of theology if you have not read this book.  The Monologion and Proslogion could probably be read with profit every few years.  Other treatises, such as De Grammatico, are better read with commentaries on Anselm in h and.


[i] Davies and Evans, Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 13.

[ii] Ibid.

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