Jacques Maritain Center : A History of Western Philosophy Vol. II / by Ralph McInerny

Part III: The Twelfth Century

Chapter II

Saint Anselm of Canterbury

A. The Man and His Work

Saint Anselm was born near Aosta in 1033. His education commenced under the tutelage of the local Benedictines. When his mother died, Anselm knew a period of grief and sadness and, after three years of wandering, came to the monastery at Bee, drawn there by the reputation of Lanfrane. He became a monk of Bec in 1060 and, when Lanfranc went to Caen in 1063, succeeded him as prior of the abbey. He was a teacher in the monastery and became abbot in 1078. After fifteen years in this post he was summoned to England in 1093 to become the archbishop of Canterbury. His years at Canterbury were filled with controversy, and it was in that post that death overtook him in 1109. A rather extensive biography by his pupil Eadmer has come down to us.

This skeletal outline of the life of Anselm seems to present us with a busy ecclesiastic. Despite this impression, it is generally held that Anselm was a reluctant administrator and that he had no real relish for the many controversies into which he was drawn. He seems to have been prompted by a sense of obligation rather than by any deep inclination of his own nature. His essential self, it would seem, was inclined to withdraw into study and contemplation. Eadrner suggests that Anselm was so intent on the life of a teacher that he considered leaving Bec because Lanfranc already occupied the teaching post there. Later Anselm was to chastise himself for this worldly ambition, which he felt to be incompatible with the cloistered vocation that was his. Nonetheless, that ambition symbolizes his deep-seated desire for study, for teaching, for the calm of contemplation. Anselm's dislike for administration and active posts was based on his conviction that he had no real competence for leadership. Twice he asked the pope to relieve him of the see of Canterbury. He sought to return to the peace and tranquillity of the cloister, to prayer, meditation, and the teaching that awaited him there. Although he was a reluctant archbishop, his troubles in the post seem not to have been due to any incompetence of his. He was nonetheless twice exiled from his see, something that caused him no little anguish, but perhaps he derived a kind of ambiguous pleasure from those absences, for during those periods he recaptured in some measure the life he truly desired. But even in his active periods as archbishop he was as much theologian as spiritual administrator, composing some of the works on which his fame was to repose.

Of the writings of Anselm the following are the most important for our purposes. First, the Monologion, written for the monks at Bec, completed in 1076. Second, the Proslogion, written around 1077- 1078, with the replies to his objector, Gaunilon, coming in subsequent years. Third, between 1080 and 1085, three works: De grammatico, De veritate, and the De libertate arbitrii. Fourth, the De casu diaboli, written perhaps between 1085 and 1090. Fifth, begun in 1092 and completed in 1094, the Epistola de incarnatione verbi, more frequently referred to as the De fide trinitatis. Sixth, the famous Cur deus homo, which reached its completion in 1098. Finally, the De conceptu virginali et de originali peccato, written between 1099 and 1100. There are other works, notably prayers and meditations, as well as official letters. Those we have mentioned are easily the most important, some obviously more important than others for an assessment of Anselm the philosopher.

Just as the sketch of his life can mislead us into thinking that in Anselm we are confronted principally with a Church leader, so this seemingly meager list of writings could cause us to think that we will not find Anselm to be a significant thinker. He is a major figure nonetheless. His teaching represents one of the highest points reached by what may be referred to as the Augustinian tradition. It has often been suggested that Anselm has suffered unfairly from the tendency of students to hurry past him in order to arrive at the giants of the thirteenth century. But Anselm is a man of the eleventh century, and it is in its terms that he must be viewed. Thus regarded, he looms above the men of his own time. If we must say, as we must, that the men of the thirteenth century knew much more than Anselm, we may add that Anselm was one of the sources of their knowledge.

B. Faith and Reason

The list of his writings makes it immediately evident that Anselm's major contributions must be classified as theological. This is not to say that he had no philosophical contributions to make, of course, and with respect to the major methodological question of the Middle Ages, the relative status of philosophy and theology, reason and faith, Anselm has much to say that is of abiding importance.

Anselm is a thinker who has submerged himself in the writings of Augustine. One scholar feels that we would be struck by the Augustinian influence on Anselm even if he did not stud his works with overt references to his great predecessor. If we were to seek a motto for the total effort of Anselm, we could do no better than to select the original title of the Proslogion, a phrase which Anselm felt was the best expression of the spirit of Augustine: fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding. Anselm, like Augustine before him, is a believer; he accepts on faith and without the slightest wavering or doubt whatever God has revealed. Yet, since he is a man, a rational animal, he must meditate and reflect on what has been proposed for his belief. Out of such study and meditation, understanding issues.

The very simplicity of this motto conceals the difficulty of grasping its meaning. Is faith merely the starting point, a transient condition, which is to give way when understanding has been achieved? Or is faith as present at the end of the effort as it is at the beginning? In his preface to the Monologion Anselm says that he is seeking to base truths, not on Scripture, but on arguments and the necessity of reason (rationis necessitas). Anselm will also say that Scripture is the source of every problem he discusses. His method, however, is so to consider what Scripture has taught that his considerations will not derive their persuasive force from the authority of Scripture. This makes it clear that faith, the acceptance of Scripture as true, is the starting point.

Given faith, one can concern himself dialectically with what he believes. This is why, after the Apostles, the holy Fathers and Doctors have said so much about the content of faith. Their writings are ordered not only to confuting the foolish and correcting the hardness of heart of those who do not have the faith but also to nourishing those whose hearts are already cleansed by faith and who can take delight in reasoning about their beliefs. That we ourselves may undertake to reason about our faith is clear from the fact that the Fathers and Doctors have certainly not exhausted the matter. Far from it. Mortals could spend an infinite time on revealed truths without exhausting their content. The scriptural basis for his position is the same as Augustine's: "Unless you believe, you shall not understand." (Is. 7:9) This text is seen by Anselm as a clear invitation to reason about our beliefs, and he goes on to suggest that such reasoning can bring us to a point midway between blind faith and the perfect vision of the next life. (See the dedicatory letter to Pope Urban II prefacing De incarnatione verbi.) Faith provides the conclusion, Anselm holds, and one seeks reasons for that conclusion. Chiding others, he remarks that no Catholic should entertain the possibility that what the Church believes and confesses is untrue; rather, holding tenaciously to the faith, humbly loving and living according to its truth, he can seek reasons why it is so. If understanding be achieved, one should thank God; if understanding is not forthcoming, one must nevertheless submit his reason to the incomprehensible truth. It is a vast mistake to attempt to reverse the order given in the scriptural passage quoted above, as if reason unaided by faith could bring us to a firm adherence to revealed truth.

Nor is it enough, Anselm continues, to be confirmed in the faith (fide stabilitus) in order to undertake reasoning about revealed truths safely and profitably. One must also possess wisdom and moral maturity lest by sophism and levity he be led astray even to the point of embracing falsehood. That is the difference between those who commendably and continuously approach Holy Writ and those "dialecticians of today, indeed those heretical dialecticians." (PL, 158, 265)

In chapter six of the De fide trinitatis there is a passage in which Anselm describes what he had tried to do in the Monologion and Proslogion. Having said that many of the Fathers, especially Augustine, have given irrefutable arguments that there is but one God though the Persons be three, he continues: "If anyone would deign to read two short works of mine, namely, the Monologion and Proslogion, which were written precisely to show that what we hold by faith concerning the divine nature and Persons, apart from the Incarnation, can be proved by necessary arguments [necessariis rationibus] and without the authority of Scripture -- if, I say, one should read them, I think he will find there nothing that he can disprove nor would wish to reject." That is one of the strongest statements -- though it is by no means isolated or unique -- of Anselm's doctrine of fides quaerens intellectum. An obvious understanding of his claim would be that while faith is necessary to come into acquaintance with the fact of the Trinity, once one has developed necessary arguments he would accept the Trinity on the basis of those arguments and not because it has been revealed. But is that what Anselm wishes us to find in his remarks? Some of the passages mentioned above would suggest that this is not his meaning.

There can be little doubt that Anselm wishes to surpass faith in some sense and to arrive at what he calls reason or understanding. Nevertheless, he seems to want this understanding to be supported by faith. Furthermore, the understanding he seeks assumes a number of different forms. Sometimes the understanding at which he aims is of the fact of the revealed truth and not what that truth is, as if he had comprehended it. In the Proslogion, for example, having given a proof for God's existence, Anselm, addressing God, says that now even if he chose not to believe that God exists, he would still know that he exists. But the argument he has given does not enable him to penetrate to an understanding of the God about whose existence he has no doubt. At other times, Anselm notes, our arguments consist merely in the presentation of analogies to and approximations of the truth that we firmly believe. "Often too we see an object only imperfectly as to what it is, only by way of image and semblance, as when we see someone's face in a mirror." (Monologion, chap. 65) In such cases we cannot understand the thing in terms of its essential properties. Thus, in attempting to know God we can never attain to what is proper to him but can only approach him by way of the similarities we find in other things.

The "necessary arguments" that Anselm mentions quite often have as their purpqse to exhibit the coherence of the objects of faith. Thus, in Cur deus homo he will try to give reasons for the Incarnation, will try to show that it was necessary for God to become man. The arguments are sought by Anselm against the background of his own firm faith in the Incarnation. He seeks them because those without the faith deride this belief, and many of the faithful wonder in their hearts about the grounds and reasonableness of it. Such arguments, then, will silence the infidel and reassure the faithful concerning the reasonableness of the objects of faith.

What in sum is Anselm's view on the relation between faith and reason? Not only does faith happen to precede reason in the case of the Christian but faith must always precede reasoning about the highest matters. However, unless faith is conjoined with rectitude of life, the effort to understand what is believed will have disastrous consequences. In reflecting on the content of his faith one becomes aware of the reasonableness of what God has done to effect our salvation. The way God has chosen, one becomes sure, is the best way. In collating the various objects of his faith he will see their interconnections, the compatibility of these various truths. The expression of the recognition, the attempt to show the reasonableness of faith -- it is this that Anselm has in mind when he speaks of "necessary arguments." He does not use the phrase loosely. In his writings he is striving for the greatest possible rigor. Moreover, he is aware when he is presenting only an analogy or semblance.

Anselm's arguments are addressed to the infidel, not with the idea that they may lead him into faith, but rather to silence his objections. If such an objector acquired faith, he might then return to Anselm's arguments and see them in a new and more positive light. The term of argumentation, of the search for understanding, is such that one realizes he has not exhausted the object of faith, has not comprehended it. Anselm's remark, after having offered a proof for the existence of God, that he would now have to affirm it even if he did not have faith, may be interpreted in several ways. First, it may refer to that truth alone and not be a generalization about every effort to understand what is believed. Second, if we should want to think of the remark as applying as well to Anselm's "proofs" of the Trinity and the Incarnation, we would have to stress what he stressed, namely, that he in no way comprehends the truths of whose factual existence he feels certain.

One check to the interpretation that Anselm felt reasoning goes beyond faith is found in his insistence that faith is always the guide of the search for understanding. Anselm does not seem to hold, with Erigena, that we can conclude truly only to what has been revealed, but he will say that when we think we have a good argument which concludes to something contradictory to the faith, we can be sure by that fact alone that our argument is faulty. "We accept everything which is clearly demonstrated and that Holy Writ does not contradict, for since it is not opposed to the truth, it does not favor any falsehood, and from the fact that it does not deny any affirmations of reason, it sustains them by its authority. But if Scripture were evidently repugnant to our senses, no matter how irrefutable our reason may seem, we must believe to be sure of truth." (De concord. grat., 6) St. Anselm's fides quaerens intellectum does not elevate reason into an absolute criterion of truth. To have done that would have been to engage in that philosophy against which St. Paul warns us lest it lead us astray.

Anselm's position on faith and reason is complex and not in every way clear. Nevertheless, it contains a good many precisions which will be operative in later, more definitive resolutions of the question. In the light of his views, can we say that Anselm was a philosopher? If the question means Did Anselm consider himself a philosopher? the answer would likely be negative. Given his principal purpose, to show the reasonableness of what is believed, we must call him a theologian. This does not, of course, preclude the possibility that much philosophy will be found in his writings -- that is, arguments which do not bear on the object of faith as such and whose cogency is independent of faith, antecedent or concomitant.

C. The Proof of God's Existence

It is not only a convenience historians avail themselves of, or invent, that explains our tendency to identify a thinker with one point or item of his doctrine, however extensive that doctrine may be. The historian considers the chronological progression of thinkers, and this consideration brings to light what in a given doctrine has been most influential on later thought. Whether or not what has been most influential in a doctrine is the key to that doctrine itself is another question, of course, although its otherness is not always recognized by historians. At any rate, the single most influential item in Anselm's works is the so-called ontological argument for the existence of God. In his own lifetime it quickly became a source of controversy, and in later ages it is almost possible to classify philosophers in terms of their response to it. It has had its champions, and there are champions of it today; it has never been without its critics, and there are critics of it today. Its historical importance, gauged in terms of its influence, is accordingly beyond dispute. Moreover, it is perfectly clear that Anselm himself regarded it as a most important achievement of his thought. This is not to say that it provides us with a key which will unlock every door of Anselmian doctrine, but it is certain that we are not faced with a position which, while of little importance to the man who first held it, came to loom large in later estimates of his accomplishments.

In concentrating on the ontological argument (Anselm never called it that), we would not want to convey the impression that it represents Anselm's only attempt to prove that God exists. There are a number of proofs offered in the Monologion, but there is nothing particularly novel or original in them or in Anselm's presentation of them. The proof of the Proslogion, which came to be called the ontological argument, is both novel and original, and we will go into some detail in our presentation of it.

In his preface to the Proslogion. which, as we have seen, was first entitled Fides quaerens intellectum, or faith seeking understanding, Anselm recalls that in the Monologion there was a great concatenation of arguments which lead to knowledge that God truly exists. This complexity bothered him when he looked back on it, and the thought grew in his mind that it would be desirable to have a single, self-sufficient proof of this truth. This thoughtful wish seemed doomed to frustration, however; Anselm sought in vain over a period of time for that single clinching proof, and though often he had the feeling it hovered just out of reach, he was unable to formulate it. Yet he could not set aside the hope. However he tried to turn his mind to other things, he found himself importuned anew by that drive for simplicity and cogency and self-sufficiency. And then, as is the way with thought, with inspiration both good and bad, one day he had it whole: the proof of which he had despaired simply came. Out of the charity that motivated his intellectual life, Anselm wanted to convey this proof to others and thus communicate to them the joy he had felt in discovering it. He presents the proof in the role of one seeking to elevate his mind to contemplation of God, of one seeking to understand what he believes. This explains the style of the Proslogion, where we find Anselm communing with his God, addressing him as the object of love and faith, the Being toward which Anselm's whole being tends. The first chapter is an exhortation and prayer in which Anselm approaches the God of his faith. He wishes some degree of understanding of the truths he believes since he believes in order that he might understand, and unless he believed, he would not understand.

What believed truth is it that Anselm would understand? That God is as he believes him to be and that God is that which he believes him to be. How can the God of belief be described? He is that being than which nothing greater can be conceived. Can anyone who knows that this is what the word "God" means possibly think that God does not exist? Perhaps, but as the psalmist has sung (14:1), it is the fool who says in his heart there is no God. But even the fool, hearing God described as that than which nothing greater can be conceived, understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his understanding, even if he does not understand God to exist. What Anselm is getting at is the difference between two modes of existence: existence in the mind and existence outside the mind. He illustrates the distinction by reference to the painter who, before he executes something on canvas, has in mind what he will paint. Idea precedes execution in this case; existence in the mind precedes existence outside the mind. Furthermore, this example shows that something can exist in the mind prior to, and thus without, its being instanced outside the mind. We may surmise that Anselm would also agree that, at least with respect to human minds, existence out-there can be independent of, or unaccompanied by, mental existence. Once the painter has executed his idea, the subject may be said to exist both in the mind and on canvas.

Anselm now returns to the fool, for whom God enjoys at least mental existence since he knows that God is said to be that than which nothing greater can be conceived, but who would deny that the idea is exemplified or instanced outside his mind. Anselm's argument attempts to show that the fool is indeed a fool if he thinks his denial is reasonable. That than which nothing greater can be conceived cannot, Anselm maintains, exist only in the mind. Why? Because if that than which nothing greater can be thought existed only in the mind, it would not be that than which nothing greater can be thought; for if it exists only in the mind, it can be conceived to exist in reality as well, which is more. "Consequently, if that than which nothing greater can be thought is in the mind alone, that than which nothing greater can be thought is something than which something greater can be thought. It is beyond doubt, consequently, that there exists something than which nothing greater can be thought, and it exists both in the mind and in reality." (Chapter 2)

This is Anselm's first statement of the proof. No one can deny its simplicity, and few have failed to be at least momentarily attracted by it. The word "God" means something, involves an idea, such that whoever gets that idea lodged in his mind cannot, except at the risk of contradicting himself, deny that there is an entity, something outside the mind, which responds to or instances the idea. In short, the argument as stated relies on the validity of a passage from the conceptual to the real order, from the grasping of a definition or description to the assertion that there exists outside the mind something which this description describes. One can appreciate the elation of Anselm at having come up with so succinct an argument. The term "God" means, to put it in a less indeterminately comparative way, the summation of all perfection. Surely then, our notion of God must include existence outside the mind, since not to exist outside the mind would be to lack a basic perfection. Say then that God is the greatest existent being. Is it not at the least odd to suggest that the greatest existent thing does not exist? It is that oddity that struck Anselm. So there you are, Anselm would say. To know that by the term "God" is meant the greatest possible existent is to know that it makes no sense to deny that such an entity exists. Only a fool would do so, and his denial must be considered merely verbal. One can say that two and two are five, but one cannot really mean it if he knows what he is saying.

The objection to Anselm's argument that comes fairly quickly to mind is one that can be found already in the work of his contemporary Gaunilo, who wrote a reply to the opening of the Proslogion which he entitled On Behalf of the Fool. In a number of ways Gaunilo points out the truth that it is indeed possible to think of the greatest existent thing, to entertain the notion of something which lacks no perfection, without thereby being committed to the judgment that such a thing exists. We will try to convey the apparent purpose and content of Gaunilo's reply without great concern for putting the matter in his exact words.

Both the believer and the unbeliever can agree on this: the term "God" means the greatest existent thing, the most perfect existent. In Anselm's terminology, then, they both can be said to agree that God exists in their understanding. Now, it should be noticed that "to exist in the understanding" is no part of what either means by "God," although this is obscured by the phrase Anselm uses to express the meaning of the term "God," namely, that than which nothing greater can be thought or conceived. Surely he does not mean by this description the limit of our abilities to think of objects. So we have the believer and unbeliever established on a common ground; they both know that when men speak of God they are speaking of the greatest existent. Now to say either that there is nothing in reality responding to this idea or that there is something in reality responding to it is to go beyond a grasp of what the term "God" means. Only in this going beyond would the unbeliever claim that God is only an idea, and when he says this, he should not be taken to mean that other men, particularly believers, mean to speak of some mental activity of theirs when they use the term "God." By the same token, when the believer says that God exists, he is not claiming that an idea of his exists outside his mind as well as in it, but that there is something in reality which responds to the content of the idea he has when he uses the term "God."

The objections of Guanilo enable us to see an ambiguity latent in Anselm's presentation of this thought. The unbeliever understands that the believer means the greatest existent thing when he uses the term "God." External existence, consequently, is built right into the concept in the way most of us would think merely imaginary existence is built into the concepts of elves and unicorns. In short, Anselm means by the term "God" the greatest existent you can think of, but the "you can think of" is only the usual concomitant of attending to any object and not part of what the object is or is presumed to be. Now Gaunilo has trouble in grasping Anselm's insistence that simply by allowing that he is thinking of the greatest existent he is committed to asserting that there is such a thing. For him "Does the greatest possible existent exist?" is still a fair question. That is, is there something which is all perfect and good and on which everything else depends for its being? Gaunilo cannot allow that that question is answered as soon as one understands that by the term "God" men mean an all-perfect and good being on which everything else depends for its being. In summary, Gaunilo is expressing his misgiving about the view that a mental act whereby we understand the meaning of the word "God" necessitates the further mental act whereby we affirm that God exists.

The objection of Gaunilo may be thought of as more or less the usual reaction to the argumentation of Anselm. So forceful and obvious has the objection seemed that many have been content with the curtest dismissal of the ontological argument. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas, after having pointed out that it is by no means obvious that just anybody would take the term "God" to mean what Anselm wishes it to mean, since after all there have been men who thought of trees as divine, proceeds on the assumption that the desired meaning of the term can be presupposed. "Once it is granted that everyone would understand the term 'God' to mean what has been mentioned, namely, that than which nothing greater can be thought, it does not from that fact follow that everyone would understand that what is signified by the name exists in the external world [esse in rerum natura] rather than in the mind alone. It cannot be argued that it exists in reality unless it is granted that there is given in reality that than which nothing greater can be thought, something which would not be granted hy those who maintain that God does not exist." (Summa theologiae, Ia, 2, 1, 2m)

Recently there has been a growing chorus of voices suggesting that such a dismissal of the ontological argument is cavalier because it takes Anselm's weaker presentation of his argument as the definitive one. In other words, it is suggested that, despite his avowal that he had hit on one simple proof, Anselm, perhaps in a way of which he himself was insufficiently aware, actually stated his proof in two ways and that, however weak and vulnerable his first statement of it may be, the second is a different kettle of fish entirely. That second statement has been called, by Professor Charles Hartshorne, the "modal proof" for the existence of God. He maintains that if it were presented without any allusions to the history of the Anselmian argument, it would meet with a far more favorable reception than is actually the case.

The second statement of the proof is made in terms of possibility, impossibility, and, by implication, necessity. The merit of this alternative statement is that it brings out what is so easily overlooked in the first, namely, that by the term "God" one means a being for whom it is impossible not to exist. In short, God is a necessary being, and his existence cannot be confused with the mere factual givenness of anything else, of any creature, since presumably of any creature it can be said that, however true that it now exists, it is possible for it not to exist and possible for it not to have existed. Now those who have difficulty seeing that existence without qualification can function as a predicate (by which they mean a further descriptive note of an entity) do not have the same difficulty in seeing that necessary existence, the impossibility not to exist, is significantly descriptive. Consequently, those passages in which Anselm makes it clear that God is such that for him to exist is not some merely factual matter, something that happens to be the case, but that God is such that it is impossible for him not to exist -- these passages are considered to contain an alternative presentation of his argument that is not open to the criticisms we mentioned earlier. Thus, it is the kind of existence that is God's that functions in the proof, not mere existence. When this is considered, things are not so bad with the proof as may have been thought. Peter exists. Let us take this as a true statement signifying that there is in the external world an individual man and his name is Peter. While Peter exists, it is impossible for Peter not to exist, that is, only in virtue of some Pickwickian sense could it be true that Peter exists and does not exist. Yet it does not require any exhaustive acquaintance with Peter to realize that he could very easily not have been and that, however true that he now exists, he can in the future cease to be. His existence, on this basis, may be described as possible or contingent. Accordingly, there are things, and by far the vast majority of things, of which we can say that it is possible for them to be or not to be. But God is not one of those things. He is a being such that it is impossible for him not to exist; he is a necessary being; he necessarily exists. That, it has been suggested, is the full meaning of Anselm's phrase "that than which nothing greater can be thought": that which is thought of as necessarily existing.

One must agree that this is a far more nuanced way of putting the matter than we find at the end of chapter two of the Proslogion. But does it follow that we are faced with an ineluctable need to agree that once we grasp the significance of God being defined as a necessary being, we must affirm that God exists? Is it not possible to retort that now we have definitions of necessary and contingent being, but we still do not know if the definition of necessary being applies to anything? My own view is that concentration on the modal statement of the proof changes nothing at all with respect to the central move Anselm wants to make, namely, from the conceptual to the real order. That movement remains suspect, and the valuable precision we have just sketched does nothing to validate the desired move. In saying this, I think I am expressing what underlies Aquinas' admittedly peremptory dismissal of Anselm, namely, that it is only by examining that region of being populated by entities of which it is true to say that their existence is contingent and by coming to knowledge of their constituents that one will find grounds for claiming that an ultimate cause of them must be present. Thus, what provides the nexus for assenting to the proposition that there exists something which is the first cause of all we survey is precisely our knowledge of what we survey, and not concentration on the descriptions we may have ready at hand for that cause should it come to be learned that it does indeed exist.

While a foreshadow of the ontological argument has been discovered in Augustine (De moribus Manichaeorum, II, xi, 24; PL, 32), the proof itself is fittingly ascribed to Anselm. We have already mentioned that in subsequent ages this proof has had its champions and its opponents. Descartes offers a variant of the proof; Spinoza and Leibniz thought some version of the ontological proof valid. In addition to the opponents we have already mentioned, it should be stated that Kant and Schopenhauer were convinced that the proof is invalid. Kant's criticism, which has been perhaps the most influential in modern times, is the more serious because he maintains that other attempts to prove the existence of God participate in the flaw he finds in the ontological argument and thus, together with it, must be consigned to the wastebasket of history. In our own times there has been a remarkable renewal of interest in the argument, an interest which is so intense that a strident note enters both the refutations and defenses of it. We can be certain that the discussion will continue so long as men philosophize and, in philosophizing, recognize that it is such ultimate Questions as that concerned with the existence of God which must occupy us. If the treatment of such questions makes us aware of both the grandeur and debility of the human mind, the persistent role of the ontological argument in the discussion amply attests to the importance and influence of Anselm of Canterbury.

D. Anselm and Dialectics

Anselm lived at a time when the quarrel between the dialecticians and antidialecticians was raging, and it was doubtless inevitable that he would be drawn into it. There is some reluctance in Anselm's entry into the fray, and it is certain that his language was a good deal more moderate than that of other disputants. This has led to the following judgment: "Thus Anselm's interest lay in a field above the controversies of logic; his thoughts did not readily move within that formal circle. He joined of necessity in debates to which one cannot believe that he devoted his best faculties." (R. L. Poole, Illustrations of the History of Medieval Thought and Learning [New York: Dover Publications, 1960], p. 92). Anselm, in short, was not only a reluctant logician; he was a poor one. To counter this unfortunate attitude, we want to consider two things: first, Anselm's treatment of the errors of Roscelin with respect to the Trinity; second, Anselm's little work De grammatico.

Refutation of Roscelin. The position of Roscelin concerning the doctrine of the Trinity is as follows. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost must be three things and not merely one; if this were not so, if they were but one thing, then we could not say that only the Son became man; rather the one thing which is the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost was united with human nature. Since our faith forbids us to accept this consequence, we must agree that the three Persons are not one thing, but three, and that if usage permitted it, we could say there are three Gods. The three Persons are three things in the same way as there may be three angels or three souls.

In presenting this position Roscelin invoked the authority of Lanfranc and Anselm, and, as De Vorges has shown (pp. 74-75), there is some basis for Roscelin's appeal to Anselm in the latter's preface to the Monologion. There Anselm notes that the Greek phrase "mia ousia, treis hypostaseis" can he rendered in Latin as "una essentia, tres substantiae." In short, a transliteration of the Greek into the Latin suggests that the persons of the Trinity can be referred to as three substances in one essence. Now this is quite misleading, since the traditional rendering of the Greek term "hypostasis" had been "persona," while "substantia" had quite another function in Latin. That this is indeed ambiguous had been pointed out to Anselm, but he was not convinced of the possible danger until Roscelin put the translation to such alarming use. Roscelin took it as warrant for claiming that the three Persons are three substances in exactly the same way as three men or three angels are three substances.

Before launching his refutation, Anselm expatiates on the proper approach to an analysis of truths of faith, a discussion we drew on in speaking Anselm's views on the relation between faith and reason. First, Anselm forestalls the misunderstanding that he is out to establish the truth of the Trinity of Persons in God. This is something he accepts on faith, a truth which cannot be grounded on pure reason. Nevertheless, although this truth exceeds the comprehension of reason and because it seems to be repugnant to reason, it is important to show that this repugnance is only apparent. Second, he warns against temerity in undertaking such a discussion. The Christian ought not to undertake to show that any truth believed and confessed by the Church is impossible; rather, holding any such truth to be indubitable, loving that truth and living in humble accord with it, he may rationally seek to understand the fact. If he succeeds, let him give thanks to God; if he does not succeed, his head should be lowered, not in preparation for a defiant charge, but in venerating submission. Third, he observes that one who presumes to combat a truth confessed by the universal Church cannot be considered a Catholic; further, one who, without faith, undertakes to dispute about believed truths, simply cannot be dealt with as if he had the faith. We have already seen Anselm's insistence that faith is a prerequisite for doing theology; without faith one simply does not have the appropriate experience of what is up for discussion. "For he who does not believe does not experience; and he who is not an expert [qui expertus non fuerit] will not know." (De incarn. verb., 1) This suggests his approach to Roscelin, who Anselm bluntly says is not a Catholic. If he were of good faith, it would be a simple matter to show him on the authority of Scripture that there is one God and three divine Persons. Lacking this simple approach, being unable to avail himself of it, Anselm proposes to show Roscelin's error in a rational manner (ratione), which is here opposed to showing it by appeal to authority.

There are dialecticians nowadays, Anselm begins, indeed heretical dialecticians, who maintain that universal substances are nothing other than vocal sounds (flatus vocis), who are unable to distinguish between a body and its color, who see no difference between a man's soul and the knowledge he has. It is such men as these who presume to discuss spiritual questions, men for whom reason is unable to rise above bodily imaginings. How, Anselm rhetorically asks, how can men who are unable to understand that many men are specifically one man grasp how it is that in the exalted and hidden nature of God there are several Persons, each of whom is God, and yet that there is but one God? A mind so dim that it cannot distinguish a horse from its color cannot be expected to be able to distinguish the one God and his several relations. He who identifies man and individual man can only think of man as person. How then can he understand the assumption of human nature by the Word of God? Christ is not a union of two persons, but the union of a divine Person with human nature. But how could a nominalist grasp that?

With respect to trinitarian doctrine as such Anselm's reply can be briefly stated. When it is said that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three things, what is meant by thing? If thing refers to Persons which are diverse relations, there is no difficulty in the phrase, but if it refers to the divine substance, to what the Persons possess in common, then the statement is heretical. Anselm's remarks on the analogues to which Roscelin appeals are of interest from the point of view of opposition to nominalism. Roscelin argues that the Persons are three as three angels or three souls are. In what way are three members of the same species one for Anselm? The question is directed at the possible realism of Anselm. A realistic answer to the question would maintain that there is some one thing which is referred to by the common name. Is there, over and above individual men, a human nature which is referred to by "man"? Given his attitude toward Augustine, as well as the general tradition, we would expect that Anselm will accept the doctrine that in the Divine Word are to be found the exemplars of whatever is. In fact, Anselm holds this. (Monologion, 10) Furthermore, with respect to individual men he will maintain that however much they may be alike with respect to human nature, they differ from one another because of the collection of accidents peculiar to each. (Dc proc. spirit. sancti, 28) Thus, we have already seen Anselm asking rhetorically how those who cannot understand how many individual men are one man in species can expect to understand the Trinity. But in what sense are all men one man? "Specie," Anselm says: specifically. But what does that mean? The fact is that it is difficult to come up with a clean-cut answer when we ask how Anselm stands on the question of universals.

De grammatico. The remark of Poole that we quoted earlier concerning Anselm's general disinterest in dialectics and his obvious incompetence when he overcomes his disinterest and indulges in it expresses a widespread estimate which is currently being questioned. The negative assessment of Anselm's talent as a logician was in large part based on a little dialogue, De grammatico, but the recent edition of that text with a commentary by Desmond P. Henry provides grounds for believing that it is Anselm's critics who may come out badly.

In the first place, the De grammatico is solid proof that Anselm was interested in logic apart from current debates. In the preface to his De veritate Anselm suggests that the De grammatico could be useful for introducing people to the study of dialectics. If, contrary to received opinion, that dialogue presents us with an Anselm not only adept at logic but original and exciting when he turns his mind to it, a reappraisal is obviously called for. Furthermore, the dialogue may cast some light on Anselm's position with respect to to the problem of universals.

The topic under discussion in the De grammatico is the meaning of denominative terms, and the title is taken from the common example of such terms, "grammatical" or "literate." The dialogue revolves around the difficulties which ensue when one fails to distinguish between the qualities signified by such terms and the bearers of these qualities. "White," for example, signifies whiteness and is applied to such things as cloth, skin, clouds, and so on. Since so many different things can possess the quality, it would be a mistake to identify the meaning of "white" with any of its possible bearers, for then it might seem to follow that we must identify cloth and skin, for example. If we think that whatever can possess the quality is a substance and notice that when we use the concrete quality-word (as "white"), we do so to speak of substances (for example, of skin, cloth, clouds, and so forth), then we may seem forced to accept both (1) "white is a substance" and (2) "white is a quality." The difficulty with (1) is that we think of any substance without thinking of it as white, and the difficulty with (2) again is that what is white is always a substance. Anselm suggests two kinds of meaning to dissolve these difficulties. First, there is precisive meaning. In this kind of meaning "white" only signifies "what possesses whiteness." Second, he speaks of oblique meaning. In this sense the vehicle or bearer of the quality is meant by the denominative term. Anselm's point is that no determinate type of hearer is included in the precisive meaning of a quality-word or denominative term. When a particular bearer of the quality is referred to and thus meant in a given context, it is only the context and not the precise meaning of such a denominative as "white" which enables us to see what is referred to. Anselm gives the following example. We are standing with someone and looking at two horses, a black one and a white one. He says, "Hit it." We look confused, and he adds, "Hit the horse." We ask which one, and he replies, "The white." It is not the meaning of "white" (precisely it means only what possesses whiteness) but the context which enables us to know that it is the white horse which is meant.

So far so good. Substances are named or denominated from qualities which are not part of what they are, not part of their essence or nature. A man may be and be called short, fat, learned, and so forth. "Short" and "fat" do not have human nature in their meanings and cannot, in the sense of precisive signification, be said to signify or mean man. In certain contexts they are used to speak of man; we can then say that man is obliquely signified or referred to by them, but this does not commit us to the view that whatever is short is man and vice versa. Now Anselm wants to equate "grammaticus," or "literate," with "short." We may find it difficult to agree with him in this. If, as is sometimes held, "literate" is a proper accident of man, then man must enter into the definition of "literate." Anselm denies this. He explicitly says that "literate" is just like "white" and "short" and the like. One way he employs to show this is by comparing the relation between genus and species, on the one hand, and the denominative term and the denominated, on the other. He observes that while it would be silly to say of man that he is animal man, it is not silly to say that he is literate man. This is because man is not part of the definition of "literate." But, of course, with respect to the former example, we could say that man, or a man, is a human animal.

There may be restrictions on the applicability of the point Anselm makes in the dialogue. What comes through clearly is the point that a denominative word signifies chiefly the denominating form and not anything which happens to possess that form. Such a term as "white" may be taken to mean "whatever possesses whiteness." If it were taken to mean, in the strong sense of "mean," the bearer of the quality, at least one of two absurdities would follow. Either there are different bearers of the quality, which we will then be committed to identifying, or, given there is but one bearer, we will find ourselves involved in infinite repetitions. To exemplify the first undesirable consequence, given that snow is white and swans are white, if these bearers are involved in the meaning of "white," or indeed if only one of them is, we would seemingly have to say that to be a swan and to be snow are the same. If there should be but one bearer of the quality and it be understood to be part of the meaning of the denominative, or quality, word, then "snow is white" can be analyzed into "snow is white snow" and that into "snow is white snow snow," and so on. Our earlier qualms about Anselm's generalization may be reexpressed now in terms of a distinction between qualities which just happen to have a single bearer and a quality which could not have more than one bearer. If "literate" be an example of the second type, then its analysis would have to proceed differently than the De grammatico suggests.

It is not our intention to enter into a formal discussion of the logical doctrine of Anselm's little dialogue. Our principal historical point is that this dialogue exhibits, in a manner which cannot be gainsaid, Anselm's interest in dialectics for its own sake. Thus, not only did he employ dialectics in his other works but he was interested in the study of dialectics itself. Furthermore, and this is the point of Henry's study, he does so with an expertise and fruitfulness which ought to be appreciated. In commending this reassessment, Henry employs devices of recent logic and experiences none of the misgivings we have shown in our brief exposition of the subject matter of the De grammatico.

In his work on free will Anselm is concerned to analyze a definition of Augustine's according to which free will is a power to do good and evil, a definition which would seem to preclude our speaking of God and the angels as free. In his work on truth Anselm distinguishes many meanings of "true" and extracts from them the core meaning of rectitude or correctness. He is thereby able to compare and distinguish the meanings involved in speaking of God as truth, of judgments and statements as true, of willing as correct or true. Both works repay close study and exhibit a fine mind at work.

The thought of St. Anselm by and large proceeds within a context provided by faith, but if his is a believing intelligence, his writings give us the fruit of an activity which is not simply a reiterated act of faith. He wanted to understand what he believed, and this ideal, as we saw at some length above, is not a simple or uniform one. Furthermore, with respect to the controversy between the dialecticians and the antidialecticians, the placement of Anselm is not a black-and-white matter. He was understandably harsh with those he felt were trying to subject matters of belief to the canons of natural reason in a crude and distasteful manner, but his writings exhibit, deliberately and consciously, the bringing to bear of a questioning intelligence on matters of faith. Finally, Anselm wrote a logical work which, though it was for a long time dismissed as unimportant and inept, has recently undergone a significant reappraisal.

It is not the task of the historian to predict the influence Anselm may have on future philosophy, but it can be asserted that it could be a broader and consequently different influence than he has exercised up to the present. Looking backward, it is safe to say that the single most important Anselmian doctrine is the proof of God's existence attempted in the Proslogion. We can be certain that Anselm's ontological argument will continue to be discussed. For the Christian, Anselm can be a model of the intellectual life; his was an intellect captivated by faith but not, for all that, indisposed to range as far and wide as possible. His writings convey, not so much by an argument to this effect as by their pervading spirit, that no rational truth could be inimical to or incompatible with what God has chosen to reveal to man. That conviction and his efforts to exhibit its grounds in particular matters are indication enough that obscurantism and narrowness are not necessary concomitants of religious faith.

Bibliographical Note

In English there is Saint Anselm's Basic Writings, translated by S. N. Deane with an introduction by Charles Hartshorne (LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Co., 1962). Obras completas de San Anselmo (Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, vol. 1, 1952; vol. 2, 1953) gives the Latin text together with a Spanish translation. Two works of Charles Hartshorne are important: Anselm's Discovery: A Re-examination of the Ontological Proof for God's Existence (Open Court, 1964) and The Logic of Perfection and Other Essays (Open Court, 1962). Also, Karl Barth, Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum (New York: Meridian Books, 1962); Alvin Plantinga, ed., The Ontological Argument (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1965); Desmond P. Henry, The De Grammatico of St. Anselm (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1964). An old but still interesting book is that of Domet de Vorges, Saint Anselme (Paris: Alcan, 1901). A recent edition of Cur deus homo has appeared in the series Sources chrétiennes: Rena Roques, Pour quoi Dieu s'est fait homme? (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1963). Roques presents the Latin text, gives a French translation of it, and has written an interesting introduction. Also on the Cur deus homo is John McIntyre, St. Anselm and His Critics (London: Oliver and Boyd, 1954). For the influence of Augustine on Anselm see Armando Ciechetti, L'agostinismo nel pensiero di Anselmo d'Aosta (Rome, 1951); C. B. Phelan, The Wisdom of Saint Anselm, Wimmer Lecture (Latrobe, Pa., 1960); and The Life of St. Anselm . . . by Eadmer, edited with introduction, notes, and translation by R. W. Southern (London: Nelson and Sons, 1962); also by Southern, Saint Anselm and his Biographer (Cambridge, 1963). A fairly recent addition is Desmond P. Henry, The Logic of Saint Anselm (Oxford, 1967).

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