St. Anselm of Canterbury Introduction - Essay


St. Anselm of Canterbury 1033/34–-1109

Italian-born Anglo-Norman theologian.

Saint Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109, is considered an important figure in the field of medieval Scholasticism, a theological school of thought that emphasized the close relationship between faith and reason and dominated Western philosophy for centuries. In practice, Anselm has become best known for his two works on the primary nature of God, the Monologion (1076) and Proslogion (1077–78)—the latter containing his famous ontological argument for God's existence. Both works are of particular interest in the history of church doctrine for their argumentative use of reason as the sole means of explaining the mysteries of revelation, as well as defining the characteristics of God without recourse to direct quotation of past authority. Anselm's other outstanding works include writings on Christian redemption, especially his Cur Deus Homo (1094–98) and his principal devotional compositions collected as Orationes sive Meditationes (1060–78). An innovative thinker and spiritual leader, Anselm also contributed to the development of Christian Platonism in the Middle Ages and was often involved in the eleventh- and twelfth-century disputes between ecclesiastical and secular authorities in the granting of high church offices known as the investiture controversy. Canonized in 1163, he was named a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church in 1720.

Biographical Information

Anselm was born in Aosta, a town in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, in either 1033 or 1034. His parents were members of the continental nobility; his mother, Ermenberga, belonged to a landholding family in Burgundy, and his father, Gondolfo, was a Lombard aristocrat. Schooled in classical languages and the theological doctrines of the period, the young Anselm excelled in Latin and opted to pursue monastic life upon completion of his education. He departed Aosta in 1057, stopping at monasteries in southern and central France before joining the order of Benedictine monks at Bec in Normandy in 1060. There he hoped to serve under Lanfranc, a distinguished cleric who had recently returned from Rome. Lanfranc's departure to Caen in 1063 opened the way for Anselm's elevation to prior of the monastery at Bec; he was later be made Abbot in 1078. During this period, Anselm began to compose his theological and devotional writings, the first outstanding achievement of which was his Monologion. Undertaken at the request of his fellow monks, the Monologion was sent by Anselm to his superior, Lanfranc, in order to win his approval. The Abbot's reaction to Anselm's work, however, was one of thinly disguised disapproval, principally for the work's failure to quote authority in the accepted tradition of theological inquiry and argumentation. Undaunted by Lanfranc's lack of enthusiasm, Anselm began composition of a follow-up work that was far more ambitious in scope. Shortly after its appearance, the Proslogion sparked a vehement challenge by the monk Gaunilo of Marmoutier, who in his Liber pro insipiente questioned Anselm's arguments. In response, the Abbot of Bec composed the Liber apologeticus contra Gaunilonem (1078), which essentially restates the original thesis of the Proslogion. Meanwhile, the Norman conquest of England in 1066 placed lands on the far side of the English Channel under the ecclesiastical authority of Bec, lands Anselm visited several times in the ensuing years. His strong relationship to the region culminated in his being named Archbishop of the See at Canterbury in England by William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, in March of 1093. Despite Anselm's reluctance to transfer his authority to a region devastated by Norman occupation, he accepted the promotion in December of that same year, filling a position previously held by Lanfranc until his death in 1089. Tension between Anselm and William II in regard to the transfer of monies from church possession to the King's treasury erupted in a dispute between the Norman ruler and Pope Urban II regarding ecclesiastical investiture. Two years later, in 1095, English bishops decided in favor of their King, and Anselm was expelled from England. The overall investiture issue remained unresolved. Returning to Italy, Anselm completed work on his Cur Deus Homo (1094–98). The death of William II in the spring of that year prompted Anselm to return to England in support of William's brother Henry I. Continuing controversy over lay versus ecclesiastical investiture raged between 1103 and 1106, however, forcing Anselm to again leave Canterbury. Anselm's return in 1107 was followed by two years of relative calm before his death in April of 1109. The events of Anselm's life were first recorded by the devout monk Eadmer in his Vita Anselmi, completed in the early years of the twelfth century. Later, under the authority of Thomas Becket of Canterbury, Anselm was referred for canonization in 1163. His official sanctification as a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church was affirmed in 1720 by Pope Clement XI.

Textual History

In accordance with Anselm's high ecclesiastical position and sweeping influence on medieval thought, numerous manuscript editions of his works have survived into the modern era. Principal among these is the complete collection of Anselm's writings housed in the British Library, London. Another extant collection, the Hereford Cathedral manuscript, was bequeathed to the Augustinian abbey at Cirencester in the mid-twelfth century and there preserved. A fourteenth-century compilation comprising Anselm's Proslogion and several of his dialogues can be found at the Library of the University of Cambridge. In addition to these texts, many other editions containing portions of Anselm's collected works, including diverse letters written by the cleric, are available from the late medieval period. The standard Latin critical edition of Anselm's oeuvre, the six-volume Sancti Anselmi Opera Omnia, was edited by Franciscus S. Schmitt and published in the middle of the twentieth century. Various English translations of Anselm's major and most of his minor writings also abound.

Major Works

Principal among Anselm's early works are a series of devotional writings collected in his Orationes sive Meditations (Prayers and Meditations of St. Anselm), most of which were composed before Anselm became abbot of Bec in 1078. They include a number of pious exhortations that insist on the sinners' finding repentance through their acceptance of the boundless love of God. Outstanding among these works is Anselm's “Meditation on Human Redemption,” written somewhat later than the other prayers, which encapsulates the monk's intense devotional spirit. Scholars regard Anselm's first groundbreaking work, the Monologion, as a meditation on the subject of faith combined with a philosophical inquiry into the existence of God. Based upon reason alone, without appeal to authority, Anselm's early treatise outlines his conception of God as the ultimate standard of perfection conceivable by human beings. In the early chapters of its companion work, the Proslogion, which originally bore the subtitle Fides Quarens Intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”), Anselm lays out his famous ontological argument for the existence of God. Like the Monologion, this work completely eschews traditional appeals to authority in favor of a meditative understanding of divine nature. Building upon Anselm's definition of God as “something a greater than which cannot be conceived” (“aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari posit”), the Proslogion employs the device of a questioning Fool who denies God's existence. Using this format, Anselm argues in the work that God necessarily exists precisely because of His presences in such diverse conceptual frames as those of the Fool, the author himself, and by logical extension all beings capable of thought. Anselm's contributions to soteriology rest on the arguments of his Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man), in which he offers his view of human redemption through the death of Christ. Articulating a theory of satisfaction atonement, Anselm's treatise forwards a conception of justice that mirrors the hierarchical moral and social orders of medieval feudalism. Just as individuals in feudal society demand recompense for harm done based upon their position within the social hierarchy (i.e., a king may claim far greater satisfaction than a peasant if he is wronged), so does God demand the highest possible level of atonement for the sins of humankind against him—an infinitude. Such an amount can only be equaled by an act of God Himself, namely the act of sacrificing Christ. Another notable work, the Epistola de Incarnatione Verbi (1094) contains Anselm's response to the monk Roscelin of Compiègne, an outspoken critic of ecclesiastical authority, and was drafted in the form of a letter to Pope Urban II. The treatise condemns Roscelin's theory distinguishing the three persons of the Trinity as separate entities, calling this conceptualization heretical. Anselm's additional writings comprise a series of theological discourses composed as dialogues. Scholars are quick to point out that despite the seeming dialectical character of this literary form, Anselm's dialogues instead fall squarely into the Platonic tradition. Rather than making distinctions between rival points of view or schools of thought in order to come to a synthetic conclusion, Anselm's dialogues generally offer a convenient form in which to organize his essentially monologic thought. Representative of these works, De Libertate Arbitrii (1085) defines freedom in human obedience to God and De Concordia Praescientiae Praedestinationis et Gratiae Dei cum Libero Arbitrio (1007–08) presents arguments against theological fatalism. Finally, Anselm's extant Correspondence (c. 1089–1109) contains some 400 letters written over the course of his career as Abbot of Bec and Archbishop at Canterbury.

Critical Reception

Long venerated as a seminal figure of Scholastic thought and a promulgator of church orthodoxy as a Doctor of Roman Catholicism, Saint Anselm has continued to elicit considerable scholarly interest in the contemporary era. Primarily, critics have been drawn to his arguments for the existence of God in the Proslogion and its precursor the Monologion, as well as to the soteriological theories of his Cur Deus Homo. Regarding his well-known ontological argument, numerous theologians and philosophers have sought to either champion or condemn Anselm's methodology in arguing for God's existence. Generally, critics have acknowledged that Anselm's argument fails to withstand rigorous logical analysis, noting his tacit assumption of divine existence in the opening portions of the proof. Thus, some have accused Anselm's ontological argument of failure on the grounds that it “begs the question” by postulating elements of its final conclusion, or otherwise have suggested that it derives false conclusions from inaccurate assumptions. Critics have usually recognized its greatest logical flaw in its implication that because God exists on a conceptualized level, He must necessarily also exist in reality. Most commentators sympathetic to Anselm, however, urge that the general methods and ideas of Anselm's ontological argument, rather than the specifics of his logical proof, are the principal issues at stake in these works. His reliance on reason to produce a compelling description of God's characteristics, then, constitutes the work's main value for such scholars. These views notwithstanding, many critics have continued to maintain that Anselm's writings, despite their clarity of purpose, remain deficient in logical precision, and are thus open to a thorough rational critique. Other areas of critical interest are his intensely felt and highly personal devotional writings, particularly his Orationes sive Meditationes, which have also been studied in the context of similar works by St. Augustine. Likewise, the intellectual relationship between Anselm and Augustine, and particularly the influence of Augustine's De trinitate and other writings on Anselm's thought has fascinated many scholars. Anselm's unique and fundamental articulation of the relationship between faith and reason, which posits the primacy of faith as a necessity to the exercise of rational thought, has also been viewed as a formative and enduring contribution to the tradition of Scholasticism in the Middle Ages.