Reading Anselm: Context and Criticism

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Saturday, 12 April 2008

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.

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