Seeking understanding and love

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Saint Anselm of Canterbury — was the outstanding Christian philosopher and theologian of the eleventh century. Anselm was born in near Aosta, in those days a Burgundian town on the frontier with Lombardy. Little is known of his early life. He left home at twenty-three, and after three years of apparently aimless travelling through Burgundy and France, he came to Normandy in Lanfranc was a scholar and teacher of wide reputation, and under his leadership the school at Bec had become an important center of learning, especially in dialectic.

In Anselm entered the abbey as a novice. His intellectual and spiritual gifts brought him rapid advancement, and when Lanfranc was appointed abbot of Caen in , Anselm was elected to succeed him as prior. He was elected abbot in upon the death of Herluin, the founder and first abbot of Bec. His works while at Bec include the Monologion —76 , the Proslogion —78 , and his four philosophical dialogues: De grammatico probably —60, though the dating of this work is much disputed , and De veritate , De libertate arbitrii , and De casu diaboli — In Anselm was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury.

Anselm was understandably reluctant to undertake the primacy of the Church of England under a ruler as ruthless and venal as William, and his tenure as Archbishop proved to be as turbulent and vexatious as he must have feared. William was intent on maintaining royal authority over ecclesiastical affairs and would not be dictated to by Archbishop or Pope or anyone else.

When William was killed in , his successor, Henry I, invited Anselm to return to his see. But Henry was as intent as William had been on maintaining royal jurisdiction over the Church, and Anselm found himself in exile again from to Despite these distractions and troubles, Anselm continued to write. His works as Archbishop of Canterbury include the Epistola de Incarnatione Verbi , Cur Deus Homo —98 , De conceptu virginali , De processione Spiritus Sancti , the Epistola de sacrificio azymi et fermentati —7 , De sacramentis ecclesiae —7 , and De concordia —8.

Anselm died on 21 April He was canonized in and named a Doctor of the Church in This motto lends itself to at least two misunderstandings. First, many philosophers have taken it to mean that Anselm hopes to replace faith with understanding.

The theistic proofs are then interpreted as the means by which we come to have philosophical insight into things we ly believed solely on testimony. But Anselm is not hoping to replace faith with understanding. Faith for Anselm is more a volitional state than an epistemic state: it is love for God and a drive to act as God wills. For the abbreviations used in references, see the Bibliography below. Hence, they argue, the theistic arguments proposed by faith seeking understanding are not really meant to convince unbelievers; they are intended solely for the edification of those who already believe.

For although the theistic proofs are borne of an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of the beloved, the proofs themselves are intended to be convincing even to unbelievers. Thus Anselm opens the Monologion with these words:. Having clarified what Anselm takes himself to be doing in his theistic proofs, we can now examine the proofs themselves. In the first chapter of the Monologion Anselm argues that there must be some one thing that is supremely good, through which all good things have their goodness. For whenever we say that different things are F in different degrees, we must understand them as being F through F -ness; F -ness itself is the same in each of them.

Now we speak of things as being good in different degrees. So by the principle just stated, these things must be good through some one thing. Clearly that thing is itself a great good, since it is the source of the goodness of all other things. Moreover, that thing is good through itself ; after all, if all good things are good through that thing, it follows trivially that that thing, being good, is good through itself. Things that are good through another i.

In chapter 2 he applies the principle of chapter 1 in order to derive again the conclusion that there is something supremely great. In chapter 3 Anselm argues that all existing things exist through some one thing. Every existing thing, he begins, exists either through something or through nothing.

But of course nothing exists through nothing, so every existing thing exists through something. There is, then, either some one thing through which all existing things exist, or there is more than one such thing. If there is more than one, either i they all exist through some one thing, or ii each of them exists through itself, or iii they exist through each other.

So ii collapses into i , and there is some one thing through which all things exist. That one thing, of course, exists through itself, and so it is greater than all the other things. For example, a horse is better than wood, and a human being is more excellent than a horse. The only question is how many beings occupy that highest level of all. Is there just one, or are there more than one? Suppose there are more than one. By hypothesis, they must all be equals.

If they are equals, they are equals through the same thing. That thing is either identical with them or distinct from them. If it is identical with them, then they are not in fact many, but one, since they are all identical with some one thing. On the other hand, if that thing is distinct from them, then they do not occupy the highest level after all.

Instead, that thing is greater than they are. Either way, there can be only one being occupying the highest level of all. He then goes on in chapters 5—65 to derive the attributes that must belong to the being who fits this description. Looking back on the sixty-five chapters of complicated argument in the Monologion , Anselm found himself wishing for a simpler way to establish all the conclusions he wanted to prove.

As he tells us in the preface to the Proslogion , he wanted to find. Is it possible to convince the fool that he is wrong? It is. But whatever is understood exists in the understanding, just as the plan of a painting he has yet to execute already exists in the understanding of the painter.

So that than which a greater cannot be thought exists in the understanding. But if it exists in the understanding, it must also exist in reality. For it is greater to exist in reality than to exist merely in the understanding. Therefore, if that than which a greater can be thought existed only in the understanding, it would be possible to think of something greater than it namely, that same being existing in reality as well.

It follows, then, that if that than which a greater cannot be thought existed only in the understanding, it would not be that than which a greater cannot be thought; and that, obviously, is a contradiction. So that than which a greater cannot be thought must exist in reality, not merely in the understanding.

Surely, though, it is absurd to suppose that the greatest conceivable island actually exists in reality. Gaunilo had understood the argument in the way I stated it above. Anselm understood it quite differently. In particular, Anselm insists that the original argument did not rely on any general principle to the effect that a thing is greater when it exists in reality than when it exists only in the understanding.

Correctly understood, Anselm says, the argument of the Proslogion can be summarized as follows:. Anselm defends 1 by showing how we can form a conception of that than which a greater cannot be thought on the basis of our experience and understanding of those things than which a greater can be thought.

For example,. Once we have formed this idea of that than which a greater cannot be thought, Anselm says, we can see that such a being has features that cannot belong to a possible but non-existent object — or, in other words, that 2 is true. For example, a being that is capable of non-existence is less great than a being that exists necessarily.

If that than which a greater cannot be thought does not exist, it is obviously capable of non-existence; and if it is capable of non-existence, then even if it were to exist, it would not be that than which a greater cannot be thought after all. So if that than which a greater cannot be thought can be thought — that is, if it is a possible being — it actually exists. This reading of the argument of the Proslogion is developed at length in Visser and Williams , chapter 5. If the argument of chapter 2 proved only the existence of God, leaving the divine attributes to be established piecemeal as in the Monologion , Anselm would consider the Proslogion a failure.

But in fact the concept of that than which nothing greater can be thought turns out to be marvelously fertile. God must, for example, be omnipotent. For if he were not, we could conceive of a being greater than he. But God is that than which no greater can be thought, so he must be omnipotent. Similarly, God must be just, self-existent, invulnerable to suffering, merciful, timelessly eternal, non-physical, non-composite, and so forth.

For if he lacked any of these qualities, he would be less than the greatest conceivable being, which is impossible. The ontological argument thus works as a sort of divine-attribute-generating machine. Admittedly, though, the appearance of theoretical simplicity is somewhat misleading. That is, the ontological argument tells us that God has whatever characteristics it is better or greater to have than to lack, but it does not tell us which characteristics those are.

We must have some independent way of identifying them before we can plug them into the ontological argument and generate a full-blown conception of the divine nature. Anselm identifies these characteristics in part by appeal to intuitions about value, in part by independent argument. According to the doctrine of divine impassibility, God is invulnerable to suffering. Nothing can act upon him; he is in no way passive. He therefore does not feel emotions, since emotions are states that one undergoes rather than actions one performs. His intuitions about value are shaped by the Platonic-Augustinian tradition of which he was a part.

Augustine took from the Platonists the idea that the really real things, the greatest and best of beings, are stable, uniform, and unchanging. He says in On Free Choice of the Will 2. For Anselm, then, it is obvious that a being who is in no way passive, who cannot experience anything of which he is not himself the origin, is better and greater than any being who can be acted upon by something outside himself. So God, being that than which nothing greater can be thought, is wholly active; he is impassible. Notice that Augustine also found it obvious that the eternal is better than the temporal.

It is a shifting and shadowy reflection of the really real. As later Platonists, including Augustine, develop this idea, temporal beings have their existence piecemeal; they exist only in this tiny sliver of a now, which is constantly flowing away from them and passing into nothingness. An eternal being, by contrast, is to use my earlier description stable, uniform, and unchanging. What it has, it always has; what it is, it always is; what it does, it always does.

So it seems intuitively obvious to Anselm that if God is to be that than which nothing greater can be thought, he must be eternal. That is, he must be not merely everlasting, but outside time altogether. In addition to this strong intuitive consideration, Anselm at least hints at a further argument for the claim that it is better to be eternal than temporal. His idea seems to be that if God were in time or in a place , he would be bound by certain constraints inherent in the nature of time or place.

His discussion in Monologion 22 makes the problem clear:. So at least part of the reason for holding that God is timeless is that the nature of time would impose constraints upon God, and of course it is better to be subject to no external constraints. The other part of the reason, though, is that if God were in place or time he would have parts.

But what is so bad about having parts? This question brings us naturally to the doctrine of divine simplicity, which is simply the doctrine that God has no parts of any kind.

Seeking understanding and love

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