In honour of Anselm’s Feast, my review of The Major Works

The Major WorksThe Major Works by Anselm of Canterbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Contents of the volume are listed at the end of my review.

Most people probably read this book either for the Proslogion or Cur Deus Homo. I bought it for both, but with a bit more interest in the latter. I discovered, however, that I prefer the Monologion to the Proslogion. The ontological argument may be one of Anselm’s most original contributions to philosophy, but I find it less convincing than the cosmological argument, and he has many very interesting arguments to make and things to say elsewhere throughout this volume.

This book is well worth any reader’s time and attention. Translated by a team of scholars, it was edited by Brian Davies and G R Evans (credited as Gillian). You can read my review of Evans’ Law and Theology in the Middle Ages on Goodreads. Different translators take different tacks, so Anselm’s voice is not uniform throughout. One choice I found particularly repellent was the over-use of the adverbial just, especially in an author who so frequently uses the Latin adjective iustus. The introductory material is very helpful, but every text is introduced individually in the general introduction at the beginning, so you may forget the introduction to a text by the time you reach.

The treatises are arranged in chronological order, which I like, as an intellectual historian. You can thus see Anselm’s thought over time.

Any of these treatises is a valuable experience in learning how to think. I found ‘On Truth’ particularly challenging as I worked through with the Student what the Teacher had to say on the subject. If you want to learn how to think, this book is a good place to start if you actually take your time and work at it. Some may think, ‘Why read a treatise about truth? Don’t I know what truth is, anyway?’ Well, do you?

As far as the theology goes, even if you not a Christian or a theist, or if you are a Christian who rejects, say, satisfaction theory in the atonement, these works are worth your time, not just because they are an exercise in the rigour of thought and the training of the mind but because Anselm is a major theological figure with a powerful legacy. We cannot simply ignore him if we disagree with him.

Read this book. It not an easy read, but it is a worthwhile one.

Contents

Letter to Lanfranc
Monologion
Proslogion
Pro Insipiente by Gaunilo and the Reply to Gaunilo
De Grammatico
On Truth
On Free Will
On the Fall of the Devil
On the Incarnation of the Word
Why God Became Man
On the Virgin Conception and Original Sin
On the Procession of the Holy Spirit
De Concordia
Philosophical Fragments

View all my reviews

How God can do anything, but is incapable of doing evil

Image of an Archbishop from Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 (12th c)

In On the Fall of the Devil, St Anselm discusses the proper and improper uses of the concepts of willing and ability. And, as my recent post about justice mentions, Anselm also discusses the concept of evil/injustice as non-being. Properly speaking, a book cannot be written by Anselm, for a book has no will and does nothing. However, properly speaking, Anselm can write a book, have both will and ability to write. This is what we mean about using words properly in such contexts — what is their more precise denotation, rather than how we commonly use words to communicate and to woo women.

Anselm is not wooing women.

Taking as foundational for St Anselm’s discussions of God, we must have the rigorous intellectual and meditative work of the Monologion and Proslogion. God is not only that than which a greater cannot be thought. God is also the best, the perfect, the most just, the eternal. God is not merely just the way we may say that a court’s verdict is just. God is justice Himself. God is wisdom Himself.

God is being itself.

God, in his perfection, tends always towards goodness, truth, beauty, being.

If He did not, He would not be God.

This is a major component of the classic definition of God.

In On the Fall of the Devil, Anselm writes:

This [the discussion of speaking properly and improperly] is the origin our saying that God cannot do anything that is contradictory or perverse because God is so powerful in justice and beatitude, indeed, since beatitude and justice do not differ in him, but are one good, he is so omnipotent in simple goodness that no reality is capable of harming the highest good. That is why God cannot corrupt or lie. Very well, that which does not exist does not of itself have a capacity to exist, but if something else is capable of making it be, in that sense it can exist — by the capacity of the other. (Trans. Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. Davies & Evans)

To do evil is not capacity but incapacity. People, angels and humans, only do evil out of an incapacity to do good. God, in his plenitude of goodness, will never fall into evil because he will never fail. By his very nature, God is omnipotent. Evil itself bespeaks weakness.

Thus, God cannot will evil, because that statement itself is not spoken properly. No one, properly speaking, wills evil, since evil is a lack.

Justice, righteousness, law

Image of an Archbishop from Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 (12th c)

My current direction of research is focussed upon Latin canon law, turning between its origins in the fifth century and its manuscripts around 1100 in Durham. One of the trains of thought I find myself moving down every once in a while is the integration of canon law with wider knowledge, specifically as an element of theology.

To that end, the following passage from St Anselm of Canterbury is worth pondering:

S. So what is the evil that makes them bad and the good that makes them good?

T. We should hold that justice is the good whereby they are good or just, both angels and men, and that whereby the will itself is called his and just; and injustice is the evil that is only a privation is the good, and makes angels and men bad and makes their will bad. So we should say that injustice is nothing but the privation of justice. As long as the will originally given to a rational nature is simultaneously oriented to its rectitude by the same act with which God gives it, thus not only inclined to rectitude, but created right, that is, oriented to what it ought to do, as long as, I say, the will remains in that rectitude that we call truth or justice, it was just. But when it distanced itself from what it ought and turned itself against it, it did not remain in the original rectitude in which it was created. And when it abandoned it, it list something great, and acquired in exchange only the privation of justice we call injustice and that has no positive being. –On the Fall of the Devil, ch. 9 (trans. in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. B. Davies and G. Evans, p. 206).

The word justice here is, of course, iustitia. In other contexts, we would translate iustitia as righteousness and iustus as righteous rather than just. We see here also rectitude, which is a matter of order. In Law and Theology in the Middle Ages, G. R. Evans discusses the fact that rectitudo is about the right ordering of human relationships in light of the wider cosmos.

Canon law is the law of the church, and it is about the ordering of our human relationships rightly in line with divine principles as derived from Scripture and tradition (the Fathers, the councils, the popes). At a theoretical level, then, the canons of the church are not mere ‘dead’ regulations as perhaps people view them today. Rather, they are seen as manifestations of how we can live in accordance with divine rectitude.

In the Anselmian passage above, the more we live in line with rectitude, the more we live according to justice/righteousness, and the more we are just/righteous. In a way, this is the whole of practical theology, isn’t it? The whole of ethics? If we live justly, then we become just. Righteousness. The ius, the law, helps us do so.

But we have not remained in our ‘original rectitude’, and so we often fall into unjust living contrary to rectitude and justice and are thus bad. How we get out of this so that we can live according to justice is the subject of Cur Deus Homo.

My final thoughts are that this is a reminder of the integrated mindset of the patristic and medieval thinker. We are just because we live justly. While they would probably agree with the phrase simul iustus et peccator, they would be confused by the absolute division between us becoming just by grace and us demonstrating that we are just by our actions, a division often asserted by Protestants.

God makes us just. We thus live justly. By living in accord with justice, we become just. It is an integrated matrix of the whole. God works in us as we work ourselves. In the Greek tradition, it is called synergeia. And I, for one, am not sure that it is any worse than sixteenth-century theological maxims. It may even be better…