Reading Anselm: Context and Criticism

A conference to be held at Boston College, 27-30 July 2015.

For more details go to conference website.
This Blogsite is dedicated to the work and legacy of Anselm of Aosta, Bec and Canterbury, who died in Canterbury on 21 April 1109.

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Monday, 21 April 2008

Happy St. Anselm's Day 2008

Today is the 899th anniversary of Anselm's death at Canterbury in 1109 and is celebrated as his feast day (though perhaps not in the Greek Church, given his strong opinions on the filioque clause).

Sunday, 20 April 2008

R.W. Southern (1912-2001)

An interesting article on Sir Richard Southern, which points to similarities (not entirely convincingly) between him and the subject of so much of his study, Anselm.

Sir Richard Southern Looks Back: A Portrait of the Medievalist As A Young Man

Southern's account of Anselm can be found in Saint Anselm and His Biographer, Cambridge 1963, and Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape, Cambridge 1990.

What was Anselm like?

In this post, I try to give some idea of what St Anselm was like. The anecdotes I mention are chosen at random, there are many more which are equally interesting and provide insights into different aspects of his character and holiness.

We are very fortunate to have perhaps one of the earliest biographies of a saint written by someone who knew them well and was interested in presenting a factual account of their lives. The Canterbury monk, Eadmer, acted as Anselm’s secretary for much of the period of his archiepiscopacy. He wrote the Vita Anselmi and the Historia Novorum; the first an account of Anselm’s person, the second an account of his role in the political and religious life of England. In the Vita Anselmi, which was translated by Richard Southern as The Life of Saint Anselm in the Oxford Medieval Texts series, Eadmer recounts some fascinating anecdotes about Anselm, which reveal his personality and the nature of his sanctity:

1. How as a young boy Anselm dreamt that he was in God’s presence and that God gave him a piece of the whitest bread, and how when he awoke “like a simple and innocent young boy he believed that he had been in heaven and that he had been fed with the bread of God” (The Life of Saint Anselm, p. 5), and went round telling everyone that he had seen God and eaten the bread of God.
2. How after his mother died he father became more and more aggressive and hostile to him, so that in the end he had to leave home, and crossed the Alps to France. After travelling around he came to Bec in order to attend the school that Lanfranc had founded. In the end he decided to become a monk at Bec rather than at Cluny, because he would be more insignificant, given the dominating person of Lanfranc at Bec.
3. How he became prior at Bec just three years after his monastic profession.
4. How he disciplined himself with fasting, so that “neither hunger nor pleasure in eating were induced by any amount of abstinence” (Life, p. 14).
5. How after spending a full day in prayer, teaching and giving spiritual advice, he would work into the night correcting the manuscripts in the library.
6. How he won over the difficult young monk, Osbern, by his gentleness and discretion as opposed to discipline and blows (the usual fare for miscreants at this time), gradually withdrawing the concessions he made to his youth as Osbern grew in the religious life. [On another occasion he showed another abbot how to treat the boys in his care properly, “So, if you want your boys to be adorned with good habits, you too, besides the pressure of blows, must apply the encouragement and help of fatherly sympathy and gentleness” (Life, p. 38)]
7. How he came to write the Proslogion having become so captivated with the idea of developing a single argument to prove God’s existence that it interfered with his daily life and worse disturbed his attention during the liturgy and the divine office. Convinced that this was a temptation from the devil he tried to banish the thought from his mind, but it pursued him even more, until “one night during matins the grace of God illuminated his heart, the whole matter became clear in his mind, and a great joy and exultation filled his inmost being” (Life, p. 30).
8. How when involved in law suits he would not participate in the intrigue and dishonesty of others. Whilst others planned intrigue Anselm would discourse to anyone who would listen about the Scriptures, and if there was no-one to listen to him, he would sleep. Once the case got under way he would quickly see through the false arguments as if he had never been asleep.
9. How Anselm taught Lanfranc, when the latter was Archbishop of Canterbury, to show greater respect to the traditions of the English Church and to re-institute the feast of St Elphege, which Lanfranc had abolished.
10. How, in Eadmer’s words, “he employed his tongue as an instrument of spiritual meolody during meals”, addressing a question arising from scripture or from a guest. And because he would be so engrossed in the talk Eadmer and other monks would have to ply him with bread to ensure he ate. If he saw anyone enjoying their food, “he would given them a friendly and cheerful look, and, full of pleasure, would raise his right hand a little, blessing them and saying ‘May it do you good [Bene vobis faciat]”. (Life, p. 78).
11. How secular business distressed him so much, that the monks of Christ Church developed a strategy to ask him a question about Scripture when he was overcome by his horror of secular affairs, so that he would quickly return to his normal state.
12. How at Rockingham in 1095 he resisted King William Rufus, the nobility, and all but one of the bishops in recognising Pope Urban II as the rightful pope in spite of threats and blackmail, and was eventually forced into exile, even though the King came to accept Urban as pope. And how he was forced into exile again by Rufus’s successor, King Henry 1, over the ‘lay investiture’ dispute. In spite of his gentle character, Anselm was a fortress in defence of the rights of the Church, and a forerunner of Saint Thomas a Becket. [Becket in fact had a great devotion to Anselm, and was a King's man until he became Archbishop of Canterbury, when he followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, Anselm, in protecting the rights of the Church. Before his death Becket tried to set in motion the process for Anselm's canonisation.]
13. How in the last months of his life, although very weak, he had himself carried to the Church to be present at the consecration of the Lord’s Body, “which he venerated with a special devotion and love” (Life, p. 141).
14. How on the Palm Sunday before he died, he wondered whether God would allow him to live a little longer so that he could solve the problem of the origin of the soul, since he did not know whether anyone would solve it after his death.
15. And, finally, how as the Gospel reading for the day (the Wednesday of Holy Week) was being read out to him at the words “that you may eat and drink at my table in the kingdom” (Luke 22:30) his breath began to slow and he was placed on sackcloth and ashes on the floor and died with the community of Christ Church priory around him.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

D.P. Henry (1921-2004)

An example of the art work of the noted Anselm scholar Desmond Henry, who made a major contribution to the understanding of Anselmian logic.

Desmond Paul Henry: Drawing Machine Art is a website dedicated to his art.

© Desmond Paul Henry Estates.

Anselm's Major Writings

Monologion, 1076

A meditation on the essence of the divine and on other subjects bound up with such a meditation, arguing from reason in a non-technical way and not on the basis of scriptural authority (this at the request of his brethren). Anselm’s aim is to be consistent with the Fathers and especially Augustine, but it is noticeable how he does not appeal to them. Rather he asks that what he writes is read in the light of Augustine’s De Trinitate. In the Monologion, Anselm sets out to establish that God exists, that it is he through whom everything exists and that he created everything out of nothing, that He possesses the attributes Christians believe him to have, and even to establish the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity.

Proslogion, 1077-78

The Proslogion is arguably Anselm’s most famous work and covers much of the same subject matter as the Monologion, but in a radically different way. Rather than employing the connected chain of arguments of the Monologion, he tries to establish the existence and attributes of God by using a single argument, which is not dependent on any other argument. The orginal title of the work was Fides Quaerens Intellectum (Faith Seeking Understanding). This phrase has become the description for many of the theological enterprise, but it is important to note that Anselm’s work here is primarily philosophical, i.e. an attempt by reason to establish what we believe about God. The Proslogion contains Anselm’s famous description of God as ‘id quo nihil maius cogitari potest’ (‘that than which a greater cannot be thought’). Anselm seeks to prove that if we understand this description we understand that both God’s existence/attributes and God’s being beyond our grasp are entailed in our possession of it as the precondition of our understanding of the description. Much has been written about this argument, virtually all of it failing to do justice to or even to address Anselm’s argument.

De grammatico, 1075-85?

This is the only technical philosophical work of Anselm’s we have other than fragments of works. It addresses the to us rather abstruse question of the way in which words such as albus (white) and grammaticus (literate) can function as both adjectives and nouns, given that logicians and grammarians appear to take different views of the matter.

De veritate, 1080-85

This is the first of three treatises which Anselm classed together as pertaining to the study of Sacred Scripture, taking the form of dialogues between Master and Student. In this first work Anselm addresses the question what is truth, in what it is found and what is justice. Truth is “rectitude perceptible by the mind alone”. Justice is “rectitude of the will preserved for its own sake”.

De libertate arbitrii, 1080-85

In the second treatise Anselm considers the question of free will and its relationship to sin. Free will is “the power of preserving the rectitude of the will for its own sake”, whilst “the power of sinning does not pertain to free will”.

De casu diaboli, 1080-85

In the third and last of the treatises Anselm considers how the devil came to sin given that he was created good by God and experienced God’s presence before he fell. It also contains Anselm’s thoughts on the privative nature of evil.

Epistola de incarnatione verbi, 1092 (1st version); 1094 (final version)

In this work Anselm considers the relations of the persons in the Trinity, arguing against the “heretici dialecticae” (heretics of dialectic) in the person of Roscelin of Compi├Ęgne. Building on the ‘faith seeking understanding’ principle of the Proslogion, he argues that if one doesn’t understand Catholic teaching “one should bow one’s head in veneration rather than sound off trumpets”.

Cur deus homo, 1098

Apart from the Proslogion, Cur deus homo, is Anselm’s most important work. In it he sets out again to show “remoto Christo” (without reference to Christ) and “sola ratione” (by reason alone) that the redemption of the human race required the Incarnation of God as man. Here we see how Anselm does not operate within what was to become the standard distinction between philosophy and theology.

De conceptu virginali et originali peccato
, 1099-1100

This work follows on from the Cur deus homo and looks at what original sin is and how it came about, and how it was possible for God to assume a sinless human nature. In his desire to maintain consistency Anselm puts forward the unpalatable doctrine that even unbaptised children are condemned.

Meditatio redemptionis humanae, 1099-1100

A meditation on the themes contained in Cur deus homo.

De processione spiritus sancti, 1102

In this work Anselm reiterates and develops the arguments he put forward against the Greeks at the Council of Bari in support of the Catholic doctrine of the procession of the Holy Spirit from both the Father and the Son.

Epistolae de sacramentis
(Epistola de sacrificio azymi et fermentati and Epistola de sacramentis ecclesiae) 1106-1107

These cover questions about the celebration of the Eucharist in particular, which divide East and West. Anselm argues that different practices such as the use of leavened or unleavened bread are legitimate, although the Catholic practice is preferable.

De concordia praescientiae et praedestinationis et gratiae dei cum libero arbitrio, 1107-1108

In his last work Anselm addresses questions which were to arise again and again during the medieval period and beyond. How can divine foreknowledge, predestination and grace be reconciled with human freedom.

In addition to these works we possess a series of prayers and meditations written at various times, fragments of some more technical philosophical writings, and approximately 470 letters.

Anselm - a chronological synopsis of his life

1033 - born in Aosta, Italy.

1056 - left Aosta and travelled through France and Normandy.

Arrived in Bec, Normandy, to be student of Lanfranc who was prior of the Benedictine Abbey founded by Herluin, who was still abbot at this time.

In 1060 entered the monastery.

In 1063 when Lanfranc left to become Abbot of another Norman monastery, Anselm was made prior.

In 1078 after the death of Herluin he was elected Abbot.

In the meantime, following Duke William of Normandy’s successful invasion of England in 1066, Lanfranc had been made the first Norman archbishop of Canterbury.

1087 - William the Conqueror died and was succeeded by William Rufus

1089 - Lanfranc died. Rufus kept the see of Canterbury vacant in order to despoil the goods of the Church

1093 - Rufus agreed to the election of a new Archbishop of Canterbury – Anselm. Anselm was soon engaged in conflict with Rufus, who refused to accept Urban II as pope and consequently would not let Anselm go to Rome to collect his pallium. All the other bishops apart from one sided with the king. Eventually a compromise was reached; Rufus accepted Urban and the pallium was sent to Anselm from Rome. However relationships were still difficult and although Anselm repeatedly asked for permission to go to Rome, it was refused. In the end Anselm went to Rome without Rufus' permission. Thus began his first exile in 1097,which only ended with the death of William Rufus in 1100.

In exile Anselm was welcomed in Rome by Pope Urban II, who took him with him to the Council of Bari (October 1098) where Anselm defended the Latin addition of the filioque clause to the Creed against the Greek teaching that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, but not the Son. Later Anselm wrote a treatise on the subject, De processione Spiritus Sancti (1102).

1099 - Urban held a council in Rome which addressed the question of lay investiture and excommunicated lay people who ‘appointed’ clergy to church livings and clergy who accepted such appointment. This was to lead to further conflict between Anselm and the future monarch, Henry I.

1100 - Rufus died and Anselm returned to Canterbury at the request of the new king, Henry I. To the surprise of those present, Anselm wept at the news of Rufus’s death, because he had died in a state of sin. He said that “he would much rather that his own body had died than that the king had died in his present state”. (Eaadmer, Vita Anselmi, p.126)


Almost immediately on his return conflict with Henry blew up. Anselm informed Henry of the decisions of the council of Rome, but Henry would not accept them. This went on for 2½ years, until in 1103 Anselm went with a representative of the King to obtain adjudication from the new Pope, Paschal II, on the matter.

The Pope sided with Anselm and when Henry learnt of this he refused to let Anselm return to England “unless he would definitely promise to ignore his submission and obedience to the Apostolic See” (Eadmer, Vita Anselmi, p. 130) on the question of lay investiture. Thus began Anselm’s second exile, during which the King seized control of the possessions of the Archbishopric of Canterbury.

It was only when Henry found out that Anselm was about to excommunicate him that he returned his possessions to him and agreed that he could return. However, Anselm would not return until the issue was properly settled. After a delay of nearly a year, Anselm set off to return to England, but was taken ill and returned to Bec, where he had been monk, prior and abbot. Here on the Feast of the Assumption, 1106, the King came to him and they were reconciled. Although expected to die, Anselm recovered, and returned to England.

He wrote his final work De concordia after his return.

Anselm died in Canterbury on 21 April 1109 on the Wednesday of Holy Week.