ANSELM (c. 1033–1109), Benedictine theologian, doctor of the church, archbishop of Canterbury, and Christian saint. Anselm is best known for an ontological argument for the existence of God that is still debated and for his opposition to the English kings William Rufus (William II) and Henry I on matters of ecclesiastical rights.
Born of a wealthy Lombard family in the Alpine village of Aosta in Piedmont, northern Italy, Anselm received his earliest education first from a relative and then from the local Benedictines. After the death of his mother in 1056, he gave up his patrimony and crossed the Alps with a companion in search of learning. In 1059 he made his way to the Benedictine abbey of Bec in Normandy (founded around 1039 by the abbot Herluin), where the learned and famous Lanfranc, a fellow Lombard from Pavia, taught. During the following year, at the age of twenty-seven, Anselm was persuaded to enter the abbey and begin a life of intense prayer and study. Three years later, when Lanfranc was chosen to be abbot of Saint Stephen's in Caen, Anselm succeeded him as prior and teacher. On the death of Herluin in August 1078, the community pleaded with Anselm to become their abbot, and he was consecrated in 1079. Within his first year as abbot he visited England on business for the monastery and took time to visit Lanfranc, who had been induced by William the Conqueror to accept the archbishopric of Canterbury in 1070. About the year 1070, when he was thirty-seven years old, Anselm began his writing career. Most of his works were begun, and almost all of them were published, at the request of his monks as an aid to understanding and defending the teachings of faith or expressing devotion.
When Lanfranc died in May 1089, the new king William Rufus refused to name a successor, claiming all revenues of Canterbury and other monasteries for his military campaigns. William eventually consented to appoint Anselm, who reluctantly was invested as abbot by the king on March 6, 1093, and consecrated bishop on December 5. Over the next four years tension mounted between king and archbishop over William's refusal to repair churches, to acknowledge Urban II as pope, and to give up his claim to lay investiture of the clergy. Refused permission to leave the realm, Anselm blatantly left England in November 1097 to see the pope, whereupon the king confiscated all church property belonging to Anselm and annulled all his transactions. During his first exile (1097–1100), Anselm was well received by the pope, completed his best-known work, Cur Deus homo (Why the God-Man), addressed the Council of Bari on the procession of the Holy Spirit (later published as De processione Spiritus Sancti ), visited the abbey of Cluny, and wrote De conceptu virginali et peccato original i (On Virginal Conception and Original Sin).
On the death of William on August 2, 1100, Henry I was crowned king, succeeding his brother; the king and a number of barons invited Anselm to return to England. Henry, however, insisted that Anselm be reinvested and pay homage for his see. When Anselm refused, it was agreed that the case would be presented to the new pope, Paschal II. In Rome the king's envoy claimed that Henry would never submit to the loss of the right to invest the clergy, and the pope was equally adamant that he do so. On the journey back to England, Anselm was informed by the envoy that he would not be welcome in England unless he recognized all rights claimed by the king. Anselm's second exile (1103–1106) ended in a compromise reached in Normandy between the king and the archbishop: Henry relented on the issue of lay investiture of the clergy, and Anselm allowed payment by an English bishop for temporalities of his see. Relative peace was restored, and Anselm composed his most significant work, De concordia praescientiae et praedestinationis et gratiae Dei cum libero arbitrio (On the Harmony between God's Foreknowledge, Predestination, Grace, and Free Choice). During Lent of 1109, Anselm became seriously ill and died on Wednesday of Holy Week, April 21, 1109.
Writings and Doctrine
Just as Anselm was always able to give "reasons" for the rectitude of his actions, so as a theologian he was always ready to give "justifying reasons" (rationes necessariae ) for the faith and hope that was in him (1 Pt. 3:15). In his writings, he touched on the whole Roman Catholic teaching found in scripture and the Fathers without adducing the authority of the scriptures to establish his conclusions. He tried instead to convince his readers "by rational arguments," by which he meant the reasonableness of his conclusions. When Lanfranc, who was not enthusiastic about Anselm's writing, suggested that scripture be quoted as an authority, Anselm replied that all his own statements could be supported by the Bible or Augustine and that he was only doing what Augustine had done in his De Trinitate, but more briefly (Epistle 1.68). Indeed, Anselm's writings are so thoroughly Augustinian in spirit and Boethian in logic that he can rightly be called "the father of Scholasticism."
Asked to explain his reflections of God's nature and attributes, Anselm compiled a book without a title, which he began to refer to as Exemplum meditandi de ratione fidei (An Example of Meditating on the Rationale of Faith). When the work was readied for publication around 1076, Anselm renamed it Monologion de ratione fidei, meaning a monologue or soliloquy on reasons for the faith. Anselm's work, like the Apostles' Creed, started with the existence of God, and then considered the Trinity, the life of Christ, and the "four last things." Although Anselm in the Monologion speaks as a believer, he argues that God must exist because (1) the grades of goodness in nature require an all-perfect good, (2) everything that exists requires a cause, and ultimately one supreme cause, and (3) the hierarchy of more or less perfect beings, since they cannot be infinite in number, requires an infinitely perfect being superior to all and inferior to none. From this all-perfect being, Anselm argued to all the truths of the Catholic faith.
Soon afterward he wondered whether he could show by a single, brief argument "what we believe and preach about God … that he is what we believe him to be," and he completed a second treatise on the same material by 1078. When Anselm came to give it a title, he called it Fides quaerens intellectum (Faith Seeking Insight), then simply Proslogion (Address), because it is addressed either to himself or to God in prayer. This single brief argument presented in chapters 2 through 4 is original, startling, and undoubtedly the most famous of all Anselm's contributions to religious thought.
The argument may be summarized thus: According to our faith, God is that being than which no greater can be thought. Even the fool, on hearing the phrase "that than which no greater can be thought," understands what he hears, and what he understands is in the understanding. But "that than which no greater can be thought" cannot exist in the understanding alone, for what exists in reality as well as in understanding would be greater than what exists in understanding alone. Therefore, "that than which no greater can be thought" must exist in reality, or it would at the same time be and not be "that than which no greater can be thought." Hence God exists in reality. Even the fool who says in his heart, "There is no God" (Ps. 14:1), would have to admit that God necessarily exists in reality as well as in his understanding.
Almost immediately this ontological argument, as Kant was to call it, was criticized politely but very insistently by Gaunilo, a monk of the abbey of Marmoutier in his Liber pro insipiente (For the Fool); Anselm replied to this in his Liber apologeticus. Thereafter Anselm requested that both these works be appended to his Proslogion in all future copies. In defense of the fool, Gaunilo raised two main objections: first, there is no distinct idea of God from which to infer his existence; second, one cannot rely on existence in thought to prove existence outside thought, for although one can conceive the idea of the most perfect of all blessed islands, it does not follow that that blessed island also exists in reality. To which Anselm replied: passing from existence in thought to existence in reality is possible and necessary only when it is a question of the greatest being one can conceive. Whatever exists except God alone can be thought of as not existing. Over the centuries there have always been thinkers to take up the argument and refashion it or reject it. Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, Descartes, Leibniz, and Hegel took it up, whereas Thomas Aquinas, Locke, and Kant followed Gaunilo in rejecting it, each for different reasons.
Between 1080 and 1085 Anselm wrote De grammatico, a useful introduction to logic, and De veritate, a thorough analysis of different kinds of truth, namely, truth in God as truth itself (cause of all truth), truth in things produced by God (ontological), and truth in the mind (logical) and in the will (moral), both measured by reality. During this same period he wrote De libero arbitrio, a work on the true nature of freedom, particularly regarding morality. True freedom for Anselm isnot the ability to choose evil (sin) but the ability to choose different kinds of good as means to a worthy end. This led to his De concordia gratiae Dei cum libero arbitrio (1107–1108), an influential work that harmonized God's foreknowledge and grace with human freedom. Anselm's most important theological work was Cur Deus homo (1097–1100), followed by De conceptu virginali, a treatise on "necessary reasons" why God became sinless man by a virgin and died on the cross to redeem fallen humanity from sin.
The case for Anselm's canonization was presented to Rome around 1163 by Thomas à Becket when he was archbishop of Canterbury, but there is no record of the proceedings. However, a calendar from Christ Church, Canterbury, before 1170 mentions the transfer of the relics of "Saint Anselm the Archbishop" on April 7 and his feast day on April 21. He was declared a doctor of the church by Pope Clement XI in 1720.
The first satisfactory edition of Anselm's complete works was by Gabrielis Gerberon, Opera omnia (1675), reprinted in Patrologia Latina, edited by J.-P. Migne, vols. 158 and 159 (Paris, 1863–1865). A critical edition was published by F. S. Schmitt, S. Anselmi opera omnia, 5 vols. (Seckau, 1938–1942; reprinted and a sixth volume added, Edinburgh, 1946–1961). The chief sources for Anselm's life are the Historia novorum and the Vita Anselmi by his chaplain and disciple, Eadmer, edited by Martin Rule (London, 1884); see also Migne's Patrologia Latina, vol. 159 (Paris, 1865). The best modern biography and study is Richard W. Southern's Saint Anselm and His Biographer: A Study of Monastic Life and Thought, 1059–1130 (Cambridge, 1963). A good exposition of Anselm's philosophical doctrine can be found in Étienne Gilson's History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (New York, 1955), pp. 128–139, with good bibliography, pp. 616–619.
James A. Weisheipl (1987)
David Richard Bates