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Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-B006-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 13, 2024, from

Article Summary

Anselm of Canterbury, also known as Anselm of Aosta and Anselm of Bec or Saint Anselm, was first a student, then a monk, later prior and finally abbot of the monastery of Bec in Normandy, before being elected Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093. He remains one of the best-known and most readily engaging philosophers and theologians of medieval Europe. His literary corpus consists of eleven treatises or dialogues, the most important of which are the philosophical works Monologion and Proslogion and the magnificent theological work Cur deus homo (Why God Became a [God-]man). He also left three meditations, nineteen prayers, 374 extant letters including Epistolae de Sacramentis (Letters on the Sacraments) and a collection of philosophical fragments, together with a compilation of his sayings (Dicta Anselmi) by Alexander, a monk of Canterbury, and a compilation of his reflections on virtue, De morum qualitate per exemplorum coaptationem (On Virtues and Vices as Illustrated by a Collage of Examples), possibly also by a monk at Canterbury.

At Bec Anselm wrote his first philosophical treatise, the Monologion, a title signifying a soliloquy. This work was followed by the Proslogion, the title meaning an address (of the soul to God). At Bec he also completed the philosophical dialogues De grammatico (On (an) Expert in Grammar), De veritate (On Truth), De libertate arbitrii (Freedom of Choice) and De casu diaboli (The Fall of the Devil). Near the end of his time at Bec, he turned his attention to themes more theological, drafting a first version of De incarnatione Verbi (The Incarnation of the Word) before September 1092 and completing the final revision around the beginning of 1094. During his time in office at Canterbury, which included two long exiles from England (1097–1100 and 1103–6), he wrote the Cur deus homo, followed by the concisely reasoned treatises De conceptu virginali et originali peccati (The Virgin Conception and Original Sin), De processione Spiritus Sancti (The Procession of the Holy Spirit) and De concordia praescientiae et praedestinationis et gratiae dei cum libero arbitrio (The Harmony of the Foreknowledge, the Predestination and the Grace of God with Free Choice).

Though his principal writings at Bec were more philosophical while his foremost writings as archbishop were more theological, still we must remember that Anselm himself made no express distinction between philosophy and theology, that at Bec he also wrote two meditations and sixteen prayers, and that his Cur deus homo and De concordia, in dealing with the weighty theological doctrines of atonement, predestination and grace, incorporate philosophical concepts such as necessitas praecedens (preceding necessity) and necessitas sequens (subsequent necessity).

Anselm’s most famous philosophical work is certainly the Proslogion, while his most influential theological work is undoubtedly the Cur deus homo. The style of the Proslogion imitates that of Augustine in the Confessiones, where the soul invokes God as it prayerfully reflects and meditates. By contrast, the Cur deus homo is cast in dialogue form because, as Anselm states in I.1, ‘issues which are examined by the method of question and answer are clearer, and so more acceptable, to many minds – especially to minds that are slower.’ About his aims in the Proslogion there is no scholarly consensus. The traditional view holds that he is undertaking the twofold task of demonstrating the existence of God and demonstrating certain truths regarding God’s attributes. In carrying out this task, he has recourse to a single consideration (unum argumentum), namely, that God is aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari potest (something than which nothing greater can be thought). This single consideration gives rise to a single argument form; the logical structure of the reasoning which purports to establish that quo nihil maius is actually existent is also the structure of the arguments which conclude that quo nihil maius is so existent that it cannot be thought not to exist, is alone existent per se, is omnipotent, merciful yet impassable, is supremely just and good, is greater than can be thought, and so on. According to this interpretation, the Proslogion seeks to establish most of the same conclusions that were reached in the earlier Monologion, but to establish them more directly, simply and tersely.

The central thrust of the Cur deus homo may be discerned from the title: namely, to explain why it was necessary for God, in the person of the Son, to become a man (that is, to become incarnate as a human being (homo)). Anselm uses the Latin word homo generically and not in the sense of male (vir). This fact is seen clearly in Cur deus homo II, 8: ‘nil convenientius, quam ut de femina sine viro assumat [deus] illum hominem quem quaerimus’ (nothing is more fitting than that God assume from a woman without a male that man [human being] about whom we are inquiring). Though the sense of homo varies in accordance with whether Anselm is speaking about a human being or about a human nature, there is no doubt about the meaning of the title: the Son of God assumed a human nature, thereby becoming a man; he did not assume another man (in other words, assume a human person together with a human nature) as the heretical Nestorians had taught, nor did he become man (in other words, become universal man, by assuming unindividuated human nature as such).

Anselm’s detailed theory of satisfaction for sin was in large measure a putative theoretical justification of the institutionalized practices of the confessional and the penitential system as found in the medieval Christian church, which understood every sin to constitute a punishable demerit and to require both the imploring of God’s forgiveness and the making of amends for having dishonoured him. Throughout the intricate and sustained reasoning of the Cur deus homo, Anselm seeks to show one central truth: ‘because only God can make this satisfaction and only a man ought to make it, it is necessary that a God-man make it’ (Cur deus homo II, 6).

As in the Cur deus homo, so also in his other treatises Anselm proceeds insofar as he deems possible, sola ratione (by recourse to rational considerations alone). Accordingly, he is rightly called the ‘Father of Scholasticism’. He understands ratio in a broad sense, broad enough to encompass appeals to experience as well as to conceptual intelligibility. Although the main intellectual influence upon him was Augustine, he is less platonistic than the latter, and the influence of Aristotle’s De interpretatione and Categories (from Boethius’ Latin translations) is clearly discernible in his philosophical works.

Citing this article:
Hopkins, Jasper. Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-B006-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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