Anselm of Canterbury, Saint

Anselm of Canterbury, Saint
(ca. 1033–1109)
   Saint Anselm of Canterbury is often called the first scholastic. That is, he is considered by many to be the first medieval Christian theologian to apply philosophical argument in the classical sense to spiritual matters. In his Proslogion, he calls this “faith seeking understanding”—he never believed that one should use reason to decide what to believe, but rather that one should believe first and then seek to find rational explanation. He was a successful abbot, a political figure embroiled in the controversies of his time, and most important, a profoundly influential thinker and writer who influenced the course of philosophical and theological discussion for generations.
   Anselm was born to noble parents in Piedmont around 1033. After some youthful trauma, the nature of which we do not know, he traveled to France in 1059 seeking to further his education, and entered the newly founded monastery at Bec in Normandy.Here he quickly became the protégé of the prior lanfranc, later archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm became a monk in 1060 and rose quickly in the order, becoming prior in three years’ time. By 1078 he was abbot of Bec, and under his leadership Bec developed into a very successful monastic school.
   The Norman aristocracy, of course, had conquered England while Anselm was at Bec, and in 1093 his reputation was such that he was asked to become archbishop of Canterbury. At first Anselm refused, giving the excuse that he was too old to assume the position, though it is likely he saw the appointment as politically precarious and foresaw difficulties in dealing with the Norman king of England, William Rufus.
   If that was the case, his anxiety was well grounded. Quarreling with the king over whether he as archbishop owed his loyalty first to the pope or the king and over who had the right to appoint bishops (an act called “investiture”), Anselm left England in 1097 for Rome, wishing to give up the see of Canterbury. Pope Urban II, however, refused to allow him to do so.
   While in exile, Anselm demonstrated and enhanced his widespread reputation by taking a leading role in the Church Council at Bafri in 1098, the main purpose of which was to explore reconciliation with the Greek church, which had separated from the western church just a few decades before. Urban had asked Anselm to be the chief apologist for the western church at the council. One item on the council’s agenda was the excommunication of William Rufus, a process that Anselm was able to defer to a later date.
   Still archbishop of Canterbury but still in exile at Laon in 1100,Anselm received word ofWilliam’s death in a hunting accident on August 2.William’s brother Henry, now the new king, asked Anselm to return. However, when Anselm refused to take an oath of allegiance to Henry, he was again obliged to leave England for another three years of exile. This problem of investiture was a difficult one at that time: In 1073 Pope Gregory VII had outlawed lay investiture (that is, investiture by secular authorities rather than the church), but had encountered stiff opposition from the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV. Finally in 1107, Anselm and the English Henry agreed to a compromise in which the king gave up the right of investiture as long as Anselm allowed bishops to swear homage to the king in secular matters. Anselm returned to Canterbury, where he died in 1109.
   Anselm’s best-known texts include the Monologion, a work intended as a theodicy or justification of God, in which he argues that all good things have their origin in God; and the better-known Proslogion. It is in the latter text that he makes his famous “ontological argument” for the existence of God: I have a concept in my head, the argument goes, of a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. Such a being must exist of necessity, Anselm argues, because something that exists in reality is greater than something that exists only in the mind, and if the being in question did not exist, then anything that exists would be greater, and this is a logical contradiction. This argument was revived in the 17th century by Descartes, and has been debated ever since Anselm first made it. Anselm had written the latter two texts at Bec, but perhaps even more influential was his treatise Cur deus homo, or Why God Became a Man, written during his exile in 1098. In it Anselm explains that God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ was necessary as a part of God’s plan for the atonement for human sin. Dissatisfied with the earlier “Devil’s Rights” theory of atonement current in the earlier Middle Ages, which said that the Devil had rights to human beings because of the Fall and thus had to be paid off to release his claim, Anselm offered a new “satisfaction” theory of atonement. In Anselm’s version God’s justice required satisfaction from sin that man was responsible for making. But human beings were not able to make adequate satisfaction to meet the demands of justice—only God himself could do so. Since man must satisfy justice but only God was able to, it was necessary for God to become man and sacrifice himself. The argument can be seen influencing a number of medieval texts, perhaps most impressively in the “HARROWING OF HELL” sequence in Passus 18 of PIERS PLOWMAN, as well as other texts in which Christ and the Devil debate about their relative rights to human souls. Anselm’s written texts show a profound knowledge of the church fathers, especially AUGUSTINE— he was called “Augustine redivivus.”He also shows a familiarity with Aristotelian logic, probably derived secondhand through BOETHIUS. His work ushered in a whole new age of rational debate among Christian theologians, a debate that was to include such thinkers as Peter ABELARD, Albertus Magnus, Thomas AQUINAS and William of OCKHAM, and to dominate Christian theology in the high Middle Ages.
   ■ Evans, G. R. Anselm. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1989.
   ■ Hopkins, Jasper. A Companion to the Study of St. Anselm. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972.
   ■ Hopkins, Jasper, and Herbert Richardson, trans. Complete Philosophical and Theological Treatises of Anselm of Canterbury. Minneapolis: A.J. Banning Press, 2000.
   ■ Southern, R.W. Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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