Saint Anselm of Canterbury
Anselm was one of the most important Christian thinkers of the eleventh century. In fact, he is often referred to as the Scholastic Doctor, since his approach to philosophical and theological matters represents and contributed to early medieval Christian Scholasticism.
Anselm is most famous in philosophy for having discovered and articulated the “ontological argument,” and in theology for his doctrine of the atonement. However, his work extends to many other important philosophical and theological matters, including:
- Understanding the aspects and the unity of the divine nature
- The extent of our possible knowledge and understanding of the divine nature
- The complex nature of the will and its involvement in free choice
- The interworkings of human willing and action and divine grace
- The natures of truth and justice; the natures and origins of virtues and vices
- The nature of evil as negation or privation
- The condition and implications of original sin
In the course of his work and thought, Anselm deployed argumentation that was only indirectly dependent on Sacred Scripture, Christian doctrine and tradition. He developed sophisticated analyses of the language used in discussion and investigation of philosophical and theological issues. In doing so, he stressed the importance of focusing on the meaning of the terms rather than allowing oneself to be misled by the verbal forms.
Anselm was born in 1033 in Aosta, Italy, a border town of the kingdom of Burgundy. In his adolescence, he decided that there was no better life than the monastic one. He sought to become a monk, but was refused by the abbot of the local monastery.
Leaving his birthplace as a young man, he headed north across the Alps to France, eventually arriving at Bec in Normandy. There he studied under the eminent theologian and dialectician Lanfranc.
Years at Bec
At the monastery of Bec, Anselm devoted himself to scholarship, and found his childhood attraction to the monastic life reawakening. Unable to decide between becoming a monk, becoming a hermit or living off his inheritance and giving alms to the poor, he put the decision in the hands of Lanfranc and Maurilius, the Archbishop of Rouen. They decided Anselm should enter monastic life at Bec, which he did in 1060.
In 1063, after Lanfranc left Bec for Caen, Anselm was chosen to be prior. In addition to instructing the monks, he carried on rigorous spiritual exercises, which would play a great role in his philosophical and theological development. He became particularly well known for the range and depth of his insight into human nature, virtues and vices, the practice of moral and religious life and his intense devotions and asceticism.
In 1070, Anselm began to write, particularly prayers and meditations, which he sent to monastic friends and to noblewomen for use in their own private devotions. He also engaged in a great deal of correspondence, leaving behind numerous letters. Eventually, his teaching and thinking culminated in a set of treatises and dialogues.
In 1077, he produced the Monologion, and in 1078 the Proslogion. Eventually, Anselm was elected abbot of the monastery. While still at Bec, Anselm wrote the De Veritate (On Truth), De Libertate Arbitrii (On Freedom of Choice), De Casu Diaboli (On the Fall of the Devil), and De Grammatico.
Anselm traveled to England in 1092, where Lanfranc had previously been Archbishop of Canterbury. The Episcopal seat had been kept vacant so King William Rufus could collect its income, and Anselm was proposed as the new bishop, a prospect neither the king nor Anselm desired. Eventually, the king fell ill, changed his mind in fear of his demise and nominated Anselm to become bishop. Anselm attempted to argue his unfitness for the post, but eventually accepted.
His tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury was marked by conflict over numerous issues with King William Rufus, who attempted to appropriate church lands, offices and incomes and even to have Anselm deposed. Anselm had to go into exile and travel to Rome to plead the case of the English church to the Pope, who affirmed Anselm’s position and refused his request to be relieved of his office.
While in exile, Anselm continued his many writings, including Cur Deus Homo, Epistolae de Incarnatione Verbi (On the Incarnation of the Word), De Conceptu Virginali et de Originali Peccato (On the Virgin Conception and on Original Sin), De Processione Spiritus Sancti (On the Proceeding of the Holy Spirit) 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).
Upon returning to England after William Rufus’s death, conflict eventually ensued between the archbishop and the new king, Henry I, requiring Anselm once again to travel to Rome. When judgment was made by Pope Paschal II in Anselm’s favor, the king forbade him to return to England, but eventually reconciliation took place.
Anselm died on April 21, 1109, leaving behind several pupils and friends of some importance, among them Eadmer, Anselm’s biographer, and the theologian Gilbert Crispin. He was canonised by the Roman Catholic Church in 1494 by Pope Alexander VI, and declared a doctor of the Roman Catholic Church in 1720. Today, Anselm is most well known for his Proslogion proof for the existence of God. April 21 is now celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church, much of the Anglican community and in the Lutheran Church as Saint Anselm Day.
Taken with permission from Sadler G, St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
To learn more about Saint Anselm, visit the Institute for Saint Anselm Studies of Saint Anselm College.