Anselm of Canterbury

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Anselm of Canterbury

The Beginning of the Modern Age.

Whether or not the ending of the first millennium aroused the same apocalyptic fears as the year 2000 witnessed, a growing number of modern historians in fact see the year 1000 as marking the beginning of the modern age. The life of St. Anselm (1033–1109), who is commonly called Anselm of Canterbury, in many ways reflects this new era. Born in the Val d'Aosta area of northern Italy, he left home at an early age to seek an education (and to escape a repressive father). Significantly, he headed not south to Mediterranean countries but north to Normandy in the north of France, attracted to the monastery of Bec because of the reputation of its abbot, the learned Lanfranc. In those dark centuries whatever glimmer of culture and learning still existed was being preserved in these monastic centers. Among other activities at the monasteries that followed the Rule of St. Benedict, monks would copy whatever piece of writing came into their hands, not infrequently without being able to read what they were copying. It was in the quiet and seclusion of Bec that Anselm wrote his best philosophical works. Eventually he succeeded Lanfranc as abbot when the latter was made archbishop of Canterbury, following the Norman Conquest in 1066. Called by historians "the second Augustine," Anselm had an almost unbounded confidence in the power of reason. He even went so far as to seek what he called "necessary reasons" for the Incarnation, the central teaching of Christianity.


introduction: Anselm's famous argument for the existence of God in the Proslogion (or "Allocution"), which was requested by his monks, demonstrates not only that God exists in reality—not simply in the mind—but also that one cannot even think that God does not exist. How then can one explain the atheist, or "the Fool" in the language of the Psalms? In this passage Anselm attempts to explain how the atheist can think the unthinkable.

How indeed has [the Fool, that is, the atheist] "said in his heart" what he could not think; or how could he not think what he "said in his heart," since to "say in one's heart" and to "think" are the same? But if he really (indeed, since he really) both thought because he "said in his heart" and did not "say in his heart" because he could not think, there is not only one sense in which something is "said in one's heart" or thought. For in one sense a thing is thought when the word signifying it is thought; in another sense when the very object which the thing is is understood. In the first sense, then, God can be thought not to exist, but not at all in the second sense. No one, indeed, understanding what God is can think that God does not exist, even though he may say these words in his heart either without any [objective] signification or with some peculiar signification. For God is that-than-which-nothing-greatercan-be-thought. Whoever really understands this understands clearly that this same being so exists that not even in thought can it not exist. Thus whoever understands that God exists in such a way cannot think of Him as not existing.

source: Anselm of Canterbury, St. Anselm's Proslogion. Trans. Maxwell John Charlesworth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965): chapter 4.

Proof of God's Existence.

The work of Anselm that is most familiar to contemporary philosophers, however, is a short treatise entitled Proslogion, which means an address or discourse. It is called this because it is addressed to God, and it asks God's help in proving not only God's existence but also everything else that has been taught about Him. It was a part of Anselm's belief as a Christian that God is something than which a greater cannot be thought. But to be in the mind and in reality is surely greater than to be in the mind alone. Therefore, to deny that God exists, as the atheist does, is to involve oneself in a contradiction: something than which a greater cannot be thought is the same as that than which a greater can be thought.

Gaunilon's Response.

This philosophical argument, which was to receive more attention in future centuries than any other, already proved provocative in Anselm's own day. A monk by the name of Gaunilon, about whom nothing is known except his monastery (Marmoutier in the south of France), wrote a response, which he entitled On Behalf of the Fool. "Fool" is Scriptural language for the atheist, and Gaunilon, though a believer, did not think Anselm had proved anything to the man without faith. First, he did not believe this formula for God ("something than which nothing greater can be thought") was meaningful, and therefore it did not exist in the mind in any real way, that is, in any way different from non-real things. And second, even if it did, one could not conclude from this that God existed in reality, just as one could not conclude that the most perfect island that the mind can conjure must really exist; otherwise, any truly existing island, no matter how humble, would be greater.

Anselm's Reply.

The long-distance correspondence between Gaunilon and Anselm ended with Anselm's reply to the "fool": of course his way of thinking about God is meaningful to Gaunilon for it is part of his faith as a Christian. But even if his attacker were truly a godless man, Anselm showed how he might construct a meaningful concept of God from his experience in a contingent world. Everyone has experience of beings that begin and end; is it not clear that beings that begin but never come to an end are greater—even if one has no experience of such beings? And so Anselm concluded that a being that has neither beginning nor end nor duration is greater than any other conceivable being, and therefore close to a being than whom a greater cannot be thought.

The Advantages of Dialogue.

The "dialogue" between Anselm and Gaunilon shows clearly the great advantages to be gained by such exchanges. As Aristotle had said, philosophical dialogue "polishes" the truth. Though he has been called the "Father of Scholasticism," the fact is that Anselm was a monk, which entailed a retreat from the world to be "alone with the Alone," as Plotinus phrased it; hence the etymology of "monk" from monos, meaning "alone." A few decades after Anselm's death, the situation was to change dramatically; institutions were evolving that were to create the proper cultural climate for philosophical activity up to the end of the Middle Ages and beyond.


Jasper Hopkins, "Anselm of Canterbury," in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Eds. Jorge J. E. Gracia and Timothy B. Noone (London: Blackwell, 2003): 138–151.

Armand A. Maurer, Medieval Philosophy. 2nd ed. (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1982): 47–58.

Richard Southern, Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).