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Anselm of Canterbury - Biography

Anselm of Canterbury, by scholarly agreement, was born in the year 1033 in the Aosta region in the Kingdom of Burgundy (now northern Italy). He died on the 21st of April in 1109 in Canterbury, Kent, England and was buried in the Canterbury Cathedral. He was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 until his death. Anselm of Canterbury is most known for his sophisticated studies in philosophy and theology and his commitment to argumentative reason in addressing issues of the divine and of faith, which led to his being referred to as the “founder of Scholasticism.” In theology he is most widely recognized for his doctrine on atonement in Cur Deus Homo. In philosophy, and in general, he is most renowned and fêted for what has come to be called his “ontological argument” for the existence of God presented in this theistic proof, Proslogion.

Born “Anselmus Candiae Genavae” to Gundulf de Candia and Ermenberga of Geneva, Anselm of Canterbury was of a noble aristocratic family. Little is known of his early childhood or education, though given his heritage it is assumed his early education was formidable. Apparently, he sought a monastic life as early as his adolescence, but was inhibited by his father. After the loss of his mother and his abandonment of his studies Anselm of Canterbury left Aosta at the age of twenty-three and traveled through the Alps. He arrived in Bec Normandy in 1059, presumably to meet Lanfranc, who was also from Burgundy and now with the Benedictine Abbey of Bec and regarded as a prominent theologian and dialectician.

At Bec, Anselm of Canterbury devoted himself to scholarship at the monastery and became particularly influenced by Augustine of Hippo and Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius. Through the encouragement of Lanfranc he officially entered the monastic life there the following year in 1060. Three years later he was appointed Prior of the abbey as Lanfranc relocated to Caen. During this time he was instructor to the monks and began his deep deliberations in spiritual thought and exercise. He started writing his own prayers, and began writing what have become his highly regarded dialogues and treatises. After the death of Herluin, the then abbot of Bec, Anselm of Canterbury was made abbot in 1078. The Abbey of Bec had already gained a reputation as a center for learning and study, and under Anselm of Canterbury’s tutelage it continued to expand. As well, the abbot’s correspondence increased, as he became a long-distance consul to many officials, rulers and noblemen and women.

In Bec he produced his four philosophical dialogues: De grammatico (1059-60), De veritate (On Truth), De libertate arbitrii (On Freedom of Choice), and De casu diaboli (On the Fall of the Devil), (1080-86); and his two major theistic proofs, the Monologion (1075-76) and the Proslogion (1077-78). In all of these one can read Anselm of Canterbury’s scholastic approach in which his infamous maxim, “fides quaerens intellectum” (faith seeking understanding), is determined. Thus, in the treatises he is seeking, with devout faith, a deeper understanding and active participation of and with God and Christianity. As well, the texts take into account the emptiness of simply blind faith and the inconceivability of the faithless while, like Augustine of Hippo and Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, acknowledging the efficacy and limitations of reason.

em>I think that for someone investigating an incomprehensible matter it ought to be sufficient, if by reasoning towards it, he arrives at knowing that it most certainly does exist, even if he is unable to go further by use of the intellect [penetrare. . . intellectu] into how it is this way. Nor for that reason should we withhold the certainty of faith from those things that are asserted through necessary proofs [probationibus], and that are inconsistent with no other reason, if because of the incomprehensibility of their natural sublimity they do not allow themselves [non patiuntur] to be explained. –Monologion

The Monologion takes the form of a meditation, written as one engaged in a dialectical exercise with oneself. In the opening chapters he sets forth the argument for goodness in all things which can only be thus through the presence of goodness ‘itself.’ Through a singular goodness, which things participate in, there resolves a goodness in all things, or more precisely to varying degrees. ‘Itself” a thing, must be of a higher order to be goodness as such, thus there is a hierarchy of things. To be good through itself (goodness) is to be ultimately good: “Now that which is supremely good is also supremely great. There is, therefore, some one thing that is supremely good and supremely great—in other words, supreme among all existing things.” Through processes of logic and reason Anselm of Canterbury establishes the necessity for a supreme Being, which is followed by (and is the majority of the text) the attributes that would compose such a Being, namely God.

Discontented with such an account for the existence of God, primarily because of its a posteriori starting ground, Anselm of Canterbury produces the second ‘proof’ in the Proslogion, in which he puts forth the infamous “ontological argument” (as named by Kant prior to which it was known simply as Anselm’s argument). He opens the discussion with his clearly stated problem of what he had hoped to produce in the former proof (and what he’ll ideally thus prove): “a single argument that needed nothing but itself alone for proof, that would by itself be enough to show that God really exists; that he is the supreme good, who depends on nothing else, but on whom all things depend for their being and for their well-being; and whatever we believe about the divine nature.”

The Proslogion is written as a dialogue to and with God about the validity of his existence, taking in the perspective of the fool from the Psalm who doubts the premise that God exists and is essentially, as Anselm of Canterbury will famously assert, “something than which nothing greater can be thought (hoc ipsum quod dico).”

Therefore even the fool is compelled to admit that there is in his understanding something than which nothing greater can be thought, since when he hears this he understands it, and whatever is understood is in the understanding. And certainly that than which a greater cannot be thought cannot exist in the understanding alone. For if it is in the intellect alone, it can be thought to also be in reality, which is something greater. If, therefore, that than which a greater cannot be thought is in the intellect alone, that very thing than which a greater cannot be thought is that than which a greater can be thought. But surely that cannot be. Therefore, without a doubt, something than which a greater cannot be thought exists both in the understanding and in reality. –Proslogion

Thus the ontological argument, the discrepancies of which have been debated, seems to say that if nothing greater can be thought than “that than which nothing greater can be thought” (this greatness, which is God), than as such it exists in concept and reality.

In repute of this argument a monk from the Abbey of Marmoutier named Gaunilo wrote, “Reply on Behalf of the Fool,” in which he ‘simply’ replaces Anselm’s ‘unthinkable’ with an island: “that island than which no greater can be thought.” While cynical, it is not unjust as it follows from his argument that this unthinkable can precisely not be thought, “I cannot think it or have it in the intellect on the basis of something I know from its species or genus. . . . For I neither know the thing itself, nor can I form an idea of it from something similar.” The abbot’s response disposes of Gaunilo’s “Lost Island” argument as he reads it as a complete misrepresentation of his original argument, which for him is not about degrees of greatness in reality vs. understanding: “saying ‘that which is greater than all’ and ‘that than which nothing greater can be thought’ do not have the same value for proving that what is being talked about is in reality.”

The Anselm of Canterbury continues to provide further accounts of how his original premise can in fact be thought, as in one’s ability to think the varying degrees of goodness, and thus follows through to the same logic already proposed in the Proslogion. A last important distinction to note in respect to Anselm of Canterbury’s response is his clarification (and one could say the argument’s ‘salvation’) that the argument in question applies only to God and as such it is a singular case, unless of course “someone should find for me something existing either in reality or solely in thought, besides ‘that than which a greater cannot be thought,’ to which the schematic framework [conexionem] of my argument could rightly be adapted [aptare valeat], I will find and give him this lost island, nevermore to be lost.”

Of course the ontological argument isn’t necessarily resolved and will be objected to later by Thomas Aquinas and by Immanuel Kant, who gave it its name. Kant will assert its failure based on the premise that existence is not a predicate, yet perfections, as in God, must be predicates therefore existence is not a predicate thus God doesn’t necessarily exist. This too has been refuted on the premise of existence, predicated or not, as well as the notion of a necessary existence, and, it can go round and round, as it has through to Hegel. Yet, in spite of necessary contention, one could say that Anselm of Canterbury’s argument for the existence of God is necessarily true, through the logic of his premise (Proslogion) based on the attributes of his supreme Being (Monologion).

The reputation of the Anselm of Canterbury brought him to Canterbury, where he was made Archbishop in 1093 following the death of Lanfranc. The appointment was made by King William II of England who waited four years to make the actual appointment in order to purge its coffers. Anselm of Canterbury reluctantly accepted the position, as he was concerned with the ethical viability of the King; his reluctance was sadly substantiated and he would be exiled while in Rome in 1097. Henry I succeeded William II in 1100 and asked for the Archbishop’s return. Unfortunately, Henry I was as adamant as William II in maintaining governing power over the Church and Anselm of Canterbury was exiled again for five years, 1103-1107. Even though his time as Archbishop was tumultuous, he remained a prolific writer and thinker producing many works such as the treatises Epistolae de Incarnatione Verbi (On the Incarnation of the Word) (1094), Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man) (1095-98), De Conceptu Virginali et de Originali Peccato (On the Virgin Conception and on Original Sin) (1099), De Processione Spiritus Sancti (On the Proceeding of the Holy Spirit) (1102), and De Concordia Praescientia et Praedestinationis et Gratiae Dei cum Libero Arbitrio (On the Harmony of the Foreknowledge, the Predestination, and the Grace of God with Free Choice) (1107-08).

These later texts were primarily more theological than philosophical, though the two were historically intertwined for him as they were for his influential predecessors, Augustine of Hippo and Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius. As in his well-known treatise, Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man), where he puts forth an entirely rational argument for Atonement, which he had been requested to expound upon. Essentially, only one that is both of the divine and of man could incur the sacrifice that would have the power to annul the disrespect to God’s eternal goodness and the eternal damnation of man’s sin.

For it was fitting that, just as death entered into the human race by man’s disobedience, so should life be restored by man’s obedience. And, that, just as the sin that was the cause of our damnation had its beginning from woman, so the author of our justice and salvation should be born from woman. And, that the devil conquered man through persuading him to taste from the tree, should be conquered by man through the passion he endured on the tree.

In the end, what can be taken from Anselm of Canterbury’s dense and profound logic and reason is not simply his commitment to faith, or his commitment to faith through understanding, but as well in his commitment to faith in reason. And due to his remarkable ability and understanding of reason and his devout faith, Anselm of Canterbury became one of the most prominent theologians of his time with lasting effects. His commitment to faith and understanding such faith through careful and measured scholarship is why he is so often regarded as the founder of Scholasticism and why he has effected so many philosophers through the ages, from Descartes to Hegel. He was canonized in 1494 and made a Doctor of the Church by Pope Clement XI in 1720.

Anselm of Canterbury was an Italian Philosopher, Theologian (1033 – April 21, 1109)