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Anselm (c.1033-1109)


Ciccarelli Life Story
Theological Method
Ontological Argument


1033: Born at Aosta

1060: Takes monastic vows at Bec. Becomes prior in 1063

1078: Writes Proslogion after completing Monologion and other theological/philosophical works. Elected Abbot

1093: Elected Archbishop of Canterbury. Ongoing disputes with King over church/state relations. Continues theological writing

1098: Goes to Rome to seek Pope's advice and aid about disputes. King of England refuses to allow return, no longer recognizes him as Archbishop

1099: Council of Rome: decrees against lay investiture. Anselm works from "exile" to enforce decrees. Ongoing dispute with King, to whom he refuses homage

1106: Compromise between Pope and King of England reached, Anselm and King reconciled. Anselm returns to England


1077-79: Monologion, Proslogion

c.1080's: De Veritate, De Libero Arbitrio, De Casu Diaboli, De Grammatico

1094-5: De Incarnatione Verbe

1098: Cur Deus Homo

Life Stories (A Ciccarelli Biography)

To see a picture of St. Anselm, click here.

There is an ancient biography of Anselm written by Eadmer (d. c.1124). He knew Anselm from period 1093-1109. He began to write the biography during Anselm's life, but Anselm ordered him to destroy the "quires" (the transcript from the wax tablets). He did, but first made a copy, and renewed his writing after Anselm's death. Eadmer says that most of the first book (1033-1093) comes from Anselm's words.

1033: born at Aosta (near the border of Burgundy and Lombardy) of Gundulf & Ermenberga, who were landowners. Eadmer calls them "nobles."

Eadmer tells the following story/legend: As the boy Anselm listened to his mother tell of "one God in heaven," he (living in a mountainous area) thought this meant that God was in the mountains. He had a vision that he was to climb to the top of a mountain to God's court. He noted a woman idly reaping corn at the base of the mountain and felt angry, and wanted to accuse her before God. When he encountered God, God was very pleasant, and gave him "the whitest of bread." The next day, Anselm thought he had been in heaven and fed with the bread of God, and told others about it.

After his mother died, Anselm had conflicts with his father and left home. He attempted to cross the Alps (c.1056). Eadmer says he became almost famished, tried to sustain himself by eating snow, and then made a miraculous discovery of "bread of exceptional whiteness" in the snow and was able to complete the crossing.

c.1059: Anselm went to Bec in Normandy to study with Lanfranc, prior at Bec, brilliant theologian, and later Archbishop of Canterbury, whom Anselm greatly admired.

Anselm considered entering a monastery. He first looked for a place where he could serve and "display his knowledge," but then, realizing that he should instead humble himself, chose Bec. (Anselm felt that his own knowledge would pale before that of Lanfranc).

c.1060: Monastic profession at Bec.

c.1063: Succeeded Lanfranc as prior at Bec.

c.1077: Anselm completed Monologion, followed shortly afterward by Proslogion.

1078: Elected Abbot at Bec. Anselm begged (prostrated himself self full-length) not to be made abbot, but to no avail. He felt bound by obedience and accepted.

1079: First visit to England to visit the monastery's holdings there.

While there he visited Lanfranc who had been made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1070. He also met there his future biographer, Eadmer, a monk of Canterbury.

1092: After the death of Lanfranc, the situation of churches in England under William II worsens. Nobles request Anselm's visit.

1093: Anselm elected Archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm again grieves for lost tranquillity.

1098: Anselm traveled to Rome, staying outside the city. Completed Cur Deus Homo.

Anselm had wished to call a Council to address necessary ecclesiastical reforms (to do with the ongoing, so-called Investiture Controversy) but the King did not allow him to do this, nor to visit Rome for Papal advice (there is also a dispute over recognition of Urban as Pope). He finally determined to go to Rome, with or without permission, and was essentially "exiled" -- permitted to leave the country but not to return. The King "nullified" all of Anselm's transactions as Archbishop and confiscated his property. Once in Rome, Anselm asked the Pope to relieve him of his duties as Archbishop but the Pope refuses. Anselm attended the Council of Bari, defending Western position on the procession of the Holy Spirit.

1099: Anselm attended the Council of Rome at which the major issues were investiture and clergy homage. Anselm then returned to Lyon and was allowed to exercise his episcopal function from there, in exile.

Anselm continued to be embroiled in the investiture controversy, attempting to enforce the decrees of the Council of Rome. He would later refuse, for instance, to pay homage to Henry II when he succeeded William II, and he threatened bishops receiving lay investiture with excommunication. (See ODCC.)

1099: Death of Urban II. Succeeded by Paschal II.

1100: Death of William II, succeeded by Henry I.

Continued disputes between Anselm/Paschal and Henry. Anselm made a vain attempt to visit Rome on Henry's behalf to see if Paschal will "relax" his decrees; so he remains in exile, obedient to the papal decrees.

c.1106: Anselm reinvested by Henry; they are reconciled at Bec.

This was the result of Paschal and Henry's compromise, apparently without Anselm's knowledge: the King gained a right to "homage for temporalities before consecration" in return for giving up all rights to lay investiture. (See ODCC.)

1106: Anselm returns to England

1109: Death of Anselm

Devotional Habits, religious speculation, the story of the transparent walls

Eadmer writes that when Anselm became prior, he felt he had more "liberty" to serve God, and gave up "worldly affairs." He became noted as devout, as one who practiced strict spiritual discipline, and first became known outside of Bec when some of his prayers and meditations were published. Eadmer writes,

It is in the course of this spiritual practice that Anselm reached such a height of divine speculation, that he was able by God's help to see into and unravel many most obscure and previously insoluble questions about the divinity of God and about our faith, and to prove by plain arguments that what he said was firm and catholic truth. (1.7)

Believing that everything in Scripture must be true, he nonetheless felt much was "obscure," and this was what he wanted to clarify "with the eye of reason." One night before Matins he was in his bed puzzling about how the prophets could know both past & future. As he stared at the wall, he could suddenly see right through it to the church where the monks were preparing for the office, and saw one of them ring the bell for matins. Then Anselm understood

that it was a very small thing for God to show to the prophets in the spirit the things which would come to pass, since God had allowed him to see with his bodily eyes through so many obstacles the things which then were happening. (1.7)

As Prior

Anselm was apparently a good prior, trying to teach others "by his own good example," and "both father and mother to sick and sound alike." He was particularly attentive to the youth being educated in the monastery, feeling that they were most impressionable, and were best served through sympathy and gentleness, moderate discipline and a fair amount of freedom. When they were older, he felt they could take the "stronger medicine" of a more disciplined spiritual life. Eadmer later comments that after Anselm became Abbot he would relax the rule at times rather than have it become "burdensome," and that Anselm regarded this as an example of putting the welfare of others before one's own will.

Anselm also began to feel too busy, wishing he could return to a more tranquil life of devotion and study. He asked the Archbishop to relieve him of his duties as prior, but the Archbishop refused, telling him that he'll no doubt be promoted soon anyway. This didn’t encourage Anselm.

Monologion and Proslogion

The dating of Monologion and Proslogion is uncertain. Eadmer has a chapter (1.19) on books written by Anselm, but as throughout his biography, dating cannot be ascertained with certainty.

Eadmer gives an account of the origination of the Proslogion that Southern feels is valuable and probably from Anselm himself. I summarize it here.

Apparently, after writing the Monologion, Anselm decided to prove "by one single and short argument the things which are believed and preached about God." He struggled with this, was so preoccupied he had trouble eating, sleeping, and paying attention to the Office. He even thought it might therefore be a temptation of the devil, but he was not able to put aside the idea. Then suddenly one night during matins the grace of God illuminated his heart, the whole matter became clear to his mind, and a great joy and exultation filled his inmost being. He then immediately wrote this down on tablets and gave it to one of the monks. It disappeared, however, and he re-wrote it, this time putting it next to his own bed. The next morning, the tablets were scattered on the floor and Anselm recovered the work by piecing them together. This time, however, he ordered it copied onto parchment immediately.


Eadmer records Anselm as saying that "all time is wasted which is not devoted either to profitable studies or necessary business," and says he not only lived up to this ideal, but was almost over-zealous in "cultivating all virtues" for himself. But he was mild with others. Eadmer says he had "a horror of sin."

Sources for this report:

Southern, R.W., ed. and trans. Life of Saint Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, by Eadmer. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.

Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 1983 ed. S.v. "Investiture Controversy."

Theological Method

Fides Quaerens Intellectum: a theological method in which confident faith seeks intellectual understanding of itself.

Remoto Christo: a theological method in which belief in Christ's efficacy is hypothetically suspended in order to see if it can be established by intellectual argumentation.

Anselm’s theological method may be described with the phrase "fides quaerens intellectum," which means faith seeking understanding of itself. This approach is fully in accord with the theological sensibilities of Augustine, who had said "Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand." In Anslem’s passion to apply all of his heart and mind and soul and strength to the worship and adoration of God, the quest for understanding was consuming. Perhaps this is most evident in Proslogion, which is written in an attitude of prayer. In Cur Deus Homo?, furthermore, Anselm adopted a "remoto Christo" method by which he assumed for the sake of argument that the knowledge and benefits of Christ’s salvation are not known to him in order to determine whether the necessity for a God-Man can be determined through reason. Importantly, this is not to be understood as an apologetic attempt to justify Christian faith but rather as an instance of fides quaerens intellectum.

The Ontological Argument of Proslogion II-IV

Anselm is most famous for his so-called Ontological Argument, found in Proslogion II-IV. This argument has a four step large-scale structure extending through all three chapters. Then Proslogion II itself has a smaller-scale four-step logical structure in the form of a reductio ad absurdum argument. It is important to note, however, the the logical structure of Anselm’s argument has been a source of much debate over the centuries and again in recent decades. The aim here is to present what I think Anselm most likely thought je was up to.

The strategy of the ontological argument is to discover knowledge of God through reflection on the nature of thought itself, apart from any information about the world. The four large-scale steps are as follows:

  1. We can understand the phrase "that than which nothing greater can be thought" (which may be abbreviated as "X").
  2. If X exists in the understanding, then it must exist in reality, for that is greater. (Prologion II).
  3. If X exists at all, then it must exist necessarily, for that is greater. (Proslogion III).
  4. X is God (Proslogion IV).

The four small-scale steps of Proslogion II (the same logic applies to the argument of Proslogion III) are as follows:

  1. Let X be "that than which nothing greater can be thought"
  2. Suppose that X does not exist.
  3. An existent X is greater than a non-existent X.
  4. Contradiction: A non-existent X (step 2) cannot be that than which nothing greater can be conceived because a greater can in fact be conceived, namely, an existent X (step 2). Therefore, X exists (the assumption in step 1 was mistaken after all).

The ontological argument has frequently been criticized and debates rage about whether the criticisms apply only to some forms of the argument or to all forms, including Anselm’s. The general intuition of its critics seems to be that this form of argument is sneaking something illegitimate into the argument. Judging from the disagreements of critics, however, it is hard to be precise about what that illegitimate something is. Kant’s criticism of the ontological argument (he knew it from Leibniz) was that it supposes, mistakenly, that existence can be a property of an object. On the contrary, Kant argued, the idea of a non-existent $100 is identical to the idea of an existent $100, so existence makes no contribution to the conception of $100. But properties or attributes of objects do modify the conception of the object, so existence cannot be a property or an attribute of $100, or anything else.

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