Sunday, July 10, 2016

Scholasticism’s Founders: Anselm of Canterbury

The first of the three foundational scholastics introduced philosophically flavored statements in support of the proposals of faith and against opposing ideas.

This represented a shift from the understanding of theology as a subdivision of philosophy, a kind of metaphysics if you will, to a full-blown discourse about God and godly things. In the 11th and 12th centuries, however, Christianity was split between those who saw theology as little more than biblical commentary and those, like the scholastics, who felt that the analysis of faith by reason and argument was needed and desirable.

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), who died while holding the office of archbishop of Canterbury, is also called Anselm of Aosta, after his birthplace in the Piedmont, and Anselm of Bec, after the French Benedictine monastery of which he was an abbot. He was a saint, ecclesiastical leader and major philosopher before earning renown after his death as “the father of scholasticism.”


Born at the foot of the Alps, in the Piedmont region, which changed hands between France and Italy many times (today it is in Italy; in his day it was French), Anselm sought to enter a monastery as a teenager, against his nobleman father’s will. In his early 20s he set out wandering with two companions through the Frankish kingdom for several years until he came to the abbey at Bec, in Normandy. There he met a man in whose footsteps he would literally follow, the Italian-born Lanfranc, prior of Bec and later archbishop of Canterbury, immediately preceding Anselm’s tenure in both offices.

Lanfranc instructed him and arranged for him to become a monk in his late 20s, in 1060. Three years later, in 1063, Duke William of Normandy (note the date: only three years later William would invade England) asked Lanfranc to become abbot of St. Stephen, at Caen, and the monks of Bec elected Anselm as their new prior. At the time, the prior (Latin for “earlier or first”) of monks, or prioress of nuns, was the superior of a monastic house; they were usually lower in rank than the abbot, who was almost always an ordained priest rather than a vowed, but lay, monk or nun.

Fifteen years later, Anselm was unanimously elected as Bec’s abbot following the death of its founder. The Bishop of Évreux in 1079 consecrated Anselm.

Major Contributions

During his time at Bec, Anselm wrote seven major works, among them two of his most cited.

Monologion, originally entitled Monoloquium de Ratione Fidei (A Monologue on the Reason for Faith), he describes as “an example of meditation on the grounds of faith.” Although he never contradicts the Church Fathers and expressly acknowledges Augustine, Anselm takes a novel tack, which he explains as follows:

“Certain brethren have often and earnestly entreated me to put in writing some thoughts that I had offered them in familiar conversation, regarding meditation on the Being of God, and on some other topics connected with this subject, under the form of a meditation on these themes. It is in accordance with their wish, rather than with my ability, that they have prescribed such a form for the writing of this meditation; in order that nothing in Scripture should be urged on the authority of Scripture itself, but that whatever the conclusion of independent investigation should declare to be true, should, in an unadorned style, with common proofs and with a simple argument, be briefly enforced by the cogency of reason, and plainly expounded in the light of truth.”

Anselm argues that anyone can be persuaded of the existence of God through reason alone, by noting that many different things are known as “good” and that the highest good “is supremely good.” He then considers the attributes necessary to such a being.

In Proslogion (“Discourse”), he seeks “a single argument which would require no other for its proof than itself alone; and alone would suffice to demonstrate that God truly exists” and arrives at what came to be known as the ontological argument for the existence of God. Anselm defines God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived,” arguing that this being must exist in the mind even of the unbeliever. If the greatest possible being exists in the mind, it must also exist in reality. If it exists only in the mind, then an even greater being must be possible—one that exists both in the mind and in reality.

These two are his most significant contributions to medieval scholastic theology. They open up reason as an avenue to the truth of faith, going beyond theologians who simply stopped at the unknowable and proposed belief alone as reasonable.

At Bec he also wrote a work noted for its intervention in the argument between the western and eastern Churches. It started out as a rebuttal of ideas held by a scholar tried for the heresy of tritheism (belief in three gods) and later developed into a defense of the trinity and, in particular, the much debated filioque clause in the Latin version of the Nicene Creed. This work was the last he wrote in the monastery. Anselm would go on to become the first major figure in the English struggle between king and church, a story I will tell separately.

Anselm had a distinctive influence during his time as a scholar. His students included learned men better known in their times than ours, who spread what they learned. Anselm’s works were copied and disseminated in his lifetime. They unquestionably influenced Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. His thought guided later discussion on the Holy Spirit and atonement and anticipated controversies concerning free will and predestination.

He was prominently mentioned in a debate among French scholars in the 1930s—among them Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson—about whether it is possible for there to be a Christian philosophy.

Anselm’s canonization was proposed to Pope Alexander III by Thomas Becket at the Council of Tours in 1163 but was only formally sanctioned in 1494. His feast day is celebrated on the day of his death, April 21, by the Anglican and Catholic communions and some strands of Lutheranism.

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