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  • Culture - English
  • Era - Medieval
  • Name - Anselm of Canterbury
  • Birth - ca. 1033
  • Death - April 21, 1109
  • Church tradition - Roman Catholic
  • Theology school - Scholastic
  • Influences - Aristotle, Scotus Erigena
  • Influenced - Thomas Aquinas

Anselm of Canterbury was a widely influential medieval philosopher and theologian, held the office of Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109. Called the founder of Scholasticism, he is noted as the first formulator of the ontological argument for the existence of God.


Anselm was born in the city of Aosta in the Kingdom of Burgundy. Aosta is located in the Italian Alps region of Valle d'Aosta (Aosta Valley), near the borders with twentieth century France and Switzerland. His family was accounted noble, and was possessed of considerable property. Gundulph, his father, was by birth a Lombard, and seems to have been a man of harsh and violent temper; his mother, Ermenberga, was a prudent and virtuous woman, from whose careful religious training the young Anselm derived much benefit. At the age of fifteen he desired to enter a convent, but he could not obtain his father's consent. Disappointment brought on an illness, on his recovery from which he seems for a time to have given up his studies, and to have plunged into the gay life of the world. During this time his mother died, and his father's harshness became unbearable. In 1059 he left home, and with only one attendant crossed the Alps, and wandered through Burgundy and France. Attracted by the fame of his countryman, Lanfranc, then Prior of the Benedictine Abbey of Bec, he entered Normandy. The following year, after spending some time at Avranches, he entrered the abbey as a novice at the age of twenty-seven.

Three years later, in 1063, when Lanfranc was made the abbot of Caen, Anselm was elected Prior. This office he held for fifteen years, and then, in 1078, on the death of the warrior monk Herluin, founder and first abbot of Bec, Anselm was elected abbot. Under his jurisdiction, Bec became the first seat of learning in Europe, although Anselm appears to have been less interested in attracting external students to it. It was during these quiet years at Bec that Anselm wrote his first philosophical works, the Monologion and Proslogion. These were followed by The Dialogues on Truth, Free Will, and the Fall of the Devil.

Meanwhile the convent had been growing in wealth, as well as in reputation, and had acquired considerable property in England, which it became the duty of Anselm occasionally to visit. By his mildness of temper and unswerving rectitude, he so endeared himself to the English that he was looked upon and desired as the natural successor to Lanfranc as Archbishop of Canterbury. But on the death of that great man, the ruling sovereign, William II, seized the possessions and revenues of the see, and made no new appointment. About four years after, in 1092, on the invitation of Hugh, earl of Chester, Anselm with some reluctance, for he feared to be made archbishop, crossed to England. He was detained by business for nearly four months, and when about to return, was refused permission by the king. In the following year William fell ill, and thought his death was at hand. Eager to make atonement for his sin with regard to the archbishopric, he nominated Anselm to the vacant see, and after a great struggle compelled him to accept the pastoral staff of office. After obtaining dispensation from his duties in Normandy, Anselm was consecrated in 1093. He demanded of the king, as the conditions of his retaining office, that he should give up all the possessions of the see, accept his spiritual counsel, and acknowledge Urban as pope in opposition to the anti-pope, Clement. He only obtained a partial consent to the first of these, and the last involved him in a serious difficulty with the king. It was a rule of the church that the consecration of metropolitans could not be completed without their receiving the pallium from the hands of the pope. Anselm, accordingly, insisted that he must proceed to Rome to receive the pall. But William would not permit this; he had not acknowledged Urban, and he maintained his right to prevent any pope being acknowledged by an English subject without his permission. A great council of churchmen and nobles, held to settle the matter, advised Anselm to submit to the king, but failed to overcome his mild and patient firmness. The matter was postponed, and William meanwhile privately sent messengers to Rome, who acknowledged Urban and prevailed on him to send a legate to the king bearing the archiepiscopal pall. A partial reconciliation was then effected, and the matter of the pall was compromised. It was not given by the king, but was laid on the altar at Canterbury, whence Anselm took it.

Little more than a year after, fresh trouble arose with the king, and Anselm resolved to proceed to Rome and seek the counsel of his spiritual father. With great difficulty he obtained a reluctant permission to leave, and in October 1097 he set out for Rome. William immediately seized on the revenues of the see, and retained them to his death. Anselm was received with high honour by Urban, and at a great council held at Bari, he was put forward to defend the doctrine of the procession of the Holy Ghost against the representatives of the Greek Church. But Urban was too politic to embroil himself with the king of England, and Anselm found that he could obtain no substantial result. He withdrew from Rome, and spent some time at the little village of Schiavi, where he finished his treatise on the atonement, Cur Deus homo, and then retired to Lyons. When he attempted to return to England, William would not allow him entrance.

William was killed in 1100 and his successor, Henry I, at once invited Anselm to return to England. But Henry demanded that he should again receive from him in person investiture in his office of archbishop, thus making the dignity entirely dependent on the royal authority. Now, the papal rule in the matter was plain; all homage and lay investiture were strictly prohibited. Anselm represented this to the king; but Henry would not relinquish a privilege possessed by his predecessors, and proposed that the matter should be laid before the Holy See. The answer of the pope reaffirmed the law as to investiture. A second embassy was sent, with a similar result. Henry, however, remained firm, and at last, in 1103, Anselm and an envoy from the king set out for Rome. The pope, Paschal, reaffirmed strongly the rule of investiture, and passed sentence of excommunication against all who had infringed the law, except Henry. Practically this left matters as they were, and Anselm, who had received a message forbidding him to return to England unless on the king's terms, withdrew to Lyons, where he waited to see if Paschal would not take stronger measures. At last, in 1105, he resolved himself to excommunicate Henry. His intention was made known to the king through his sister, and it seriously alarmed him, for it was a critical period in his affairs. A meeting was arranged, and a reconciliation between them effected. In 1106 Anselm crossed to England, with power from the pope to remove the sentence of excommunication from the illegally invested churchmen. In 1107 the long dispute as to investiture was finally ended by the king resigning his formal rights, and Anselm was allowed to return to England. The remaining two years of his life were spent in the duties of his archbishopric. He died on April 21 1109. He was canonized in 1494 by Alexander VI and named a Doctor of the Church in 1720.


Anselm may, with some justice, be considered the first scholastic philosopher and theologian. His only great predecessor, Scotus Erigena, had more of the speculative and mystical element than is consistent with a schoolman; but in Anselm are found that recognition of the relation of reason to revealed truth, and that attempt to elaborate a rational system of faith, which form the special characteristics of scholastic thought. His constant endeavour is to render the contents of the Christian consciousness clear to reason, and to develop the intelligible truths interwoven with the Christian belief. The necessary preliminary for this is the possession of the Christian consciousness. "He who does not believe will not experience; and he who has not experienced will not understand."

That faith must precede knowledge is reiterated by him. "Negue enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam. Nam et hoc credo, quia, nisi credidero, non intelligam." ("Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this too I believe, that unless I first believe, I shall not understand.") But after the faith is held fast, the attempt must be made to demonstrate by reason the truth of what we believe. It is wrong not to do so. "Negligentiae mihi esse videtur, si, postquam confirmati sumus in fide, non studemus quod credimus, intelligere." ("I hold it to be a failure in duty if after we have become steadfast in the faith we do not strive to understand what we believe.") To such an extent does he carry this demand for rational explanation that, at times, it seems as if he claimed for unassisted intelligence the power of penetrating even to the mysteries of the Christian faith. On the whole, however, the qualified statement is his real view; merely rational proofs are always, he affirms, to be tested by Scripture. (Cur Deus homo, i. 2 and 38; De Fide Trin. 2.) The groundwork of his theory of knowledge is contained in the tract De Veritate, in which, from the consideration of truth as in knowledge, in willing, and in things, he rises to the affirmation of an absolute truth, in which all other truth participates. This absolute truth is God himself, who is therefore the ultimate ground or principle both of things and of thought. The notion of God comes thus into the foreground of the system; before all things it is necessary that it should be made clear to reason, that it should be demonstrated to have real existence. This demonstration is the substance of the Monologion and Proslogion. In the first of these the proof rests on the ordinary grounds of realism, and coincides to some extent with the earlier theory of Augustine, though it is carried out with singular boldness and fulness. Things, he says, are called good in a variety of ways and degrees; this would be impossible if there were not some absolute standard, some good in itself, in which all relative goods participate. Similarly with such predicates as great, just; they involve a certain greatness and justice. The very existence of things is impossible without some one Being, by whom they are. This absolute Being, this goodness, justice, greatness, is God. Anselm was not thoroughly satisfied with this reasoning; it started from a posteriori grounds, and contained several converging lines of proof. He desired to have some one short demonstration. Such a demonstration he presented in the Proslogion; it is his celebrated ontological proof. God is that being than whom none greater can be conceived. Now, if that than which nothing greater can be conceived existed only in the intellect, it would not be the absolutely greatest, for we could add to it existence in reality. It follows, then, that the being than whom nothing greater can be conceived, i.e. God, necessarily has real existence. This reasoning, in which Anselm partially anticipated the Cartesian philosophers, has rarely seemed satisfactory. It was opposed at the time by the monk Gaunilo, in his Liber pro Insipiente, on the ground that we cannot pass from idea to reality. The same criticism is made by several of the later schoolmen, among others by Aquinas, and is in substance what Kant advances against all ontological proof. Anselm replied to the objections of Gaunilo in his Liber Apologeticus.

The existence of God being thus held proved, he proceeds to state the rational grounds of the Christian doctrines of creation and of the Trinity. With reference to this last, he says we cannot know God from himself, but only after the analogy of his creatures; and the special analogy used is the self-consciousness of man, its peculiar double nature, with the necessary elements, memory and intelligence, representing the relation of the Father to the Son. The mutual love of these two, proceeding from the relation they hold to one another, symbolizes the Holy Spirit. The further theological doctrines of man, original sin, free will, are developed, partly in the Monologion, partly in other mixed treatises.

Finally, in his greatest work, Cur Deus homo, he undertakes to make plain, even to infidels, the rational necessity of the Christian mystery of the atonement. The theory rests on three positions: that satisfaction is necessary on account of God's honour and justice; that such satisfaction can be given only by the peculiar personality of the God-man; that such satisfaction is really given by the voluntary death of this infinitely valuable person. The demonstration is, in brief, this: All the actions of men are due to the furtherance of God's glory; if, then, there be sin, i. e. if God's honour be wounded, man of himself can give no satisfaction. But the justice of God demands satisfaction; and as an insult to infinite honour is in itself infinite, the satisfaction must be infinite, i. e. it must outweigh all that is not God. Such a penalty can only be paid by God himself, and, as a penalty for man, must be paid under the form of man. Satisfaction is only possible through the God-man. Now this God-man, as sinless, is exempt from the punishment of sin; His passion is therefore voluntary, not given as due. The merit of it is therefore infinite; God's justice is thus appeased, and His mercy may extend to man. See main article: Satisfaction theory of the atonement

This theory has exercised immense influence on the form of church doctrine. It is certainly an advance on the older patristic theory, in so far as it substitutes for a contest between God and Satan, a contest between the goodness and justice of God; but it puts the whole relation on a merely legal footing, gives it no ethical bearing, and neglects altogether the consciousness of the individual to be redeemed. In this respect it contrasts unfavourably with the later theory of Abelard.

Philosophers perhaps think of Anselm primarily as the author of the ontological argument for the existence of God. However, the term ontological was first applied to such arguments by Kant, and it is the subject of debate whether Anselm's argument is an ontological argument at all. Anselm also authored a number of other arguments for the existence of God, based on cosmological and teleological grounds.

Anselm's speculations did not receive, in the middle ages, the respect and attention justly their due. This was probably due to their unsystematic character, for they are generally tracts or dialogues on detached questions, not elaborate treatises like the great works of Albert, Aquinas, and Erigena. They have, however, a freshness and philosophical vigour, which more than makes up for their want of system, and which raises them far above the level of most scholastic writings.

Major Works

Monologion (1076)
Proslogion (1077–1078)
Cur Deus Homo (1098)

Other works

De grammatico (1075–1085)
De veritate (1080–1085)
De libertate arbitrii (1080–1085)
De casu diaboli (1085–1090)
De Epistola de incarnatione verbi (1092 1st version ; 1094 final version)
De conceptu virginali et originali peccato (1099–1100)
Meditatio redemptionis humanae (1099–1100)
De processione spiritus sancti (1102)
Epistolae de sacramentis (Epistola de sacrificio azymi et fermentati and Epistola de sacramentis ecclesiae) (1106–1107)
De concordia praescientiae et praedestinationis et gratiae dei cum libero arbitrio (1107–1108)
  • Note: This article incorporates text from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, which is in the public domain.


The main sources for the history of St. Anselm and his times are Eadmer's Vita Anselmi and his Historia Novorum, edited by M. Rule in <i>Rolls Series</i> (London, 1884); the best modern work is by Père Ragey, Histoire de Saint Anselme (Paris, 1890), and Saint Anselme professeur (Paris, 1890). Other appreciations are by A. Mohler, Anselm Erzbischof von Canterbury (Regensburg, 1839; Eng. trans. by H. Rymer, London, 1842); F. R. Hasse, Anselm von Canterbury (2 vols., Leipzig, 1842-1853); C. de Rémusat, S. Anseime de Cantorbéry (Paris, 1853, new ed. 1868); R. W. Church, St. Anselm, first published in Sunday Library (London, 1870; often reprinted); Martin Rule, Life and Times of St. Anselm (London, 1883).

The best edition of St. Anselm's complete works is that of Dom Gerberon (Paris, 1675); reprinted with many notes in 1712; incorporated by J. Migne in his Patrologia Latina, tomi clviii.-clix. (Paris. 1853-1854). Migne's reprint contains many errors. The Cur Deus homo may be best studied in the editions published by D. Nutt (London, 1885) and by Griffith (1898). The Mariale, or poems in honour of the Blessed Virgin, has been carefully edited by P. Ragey (Tournai, 1885); the Monologion and Proslogion, by C. E. Ubaghs (Louvain, 1854; Eng. trans. by S. N. Deane, Chicago, 1903); the Meditationes, many of which are wrongly attributed to Anselm, have been frequently reprinted, and were included in Methuen's Library of Devotion (London, 1903).

The best criticism of Anselm's philosophical works is by J. M. Rigg (London, 1896), and Domet de Verges (Grands Philosophes series, Paris, 1901). For a complete bibliography, see A. Vacant's Dictionnaire de théologie.

External links

Theopedia-logo This page uses content from Theopedia, which favors a Calvinistic/Reform POV. The original article was at Anselm. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with the Religion-wiki, the text of Theopedia is under [Creative Commons 3.0 license]

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