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.

Saint of the Week: St Thomas Aquinas

St Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico, San Marco Priory, Florence
St Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico, San Marco Priory, Florence

Happy Feast of St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)! I find myself surprised that I did not write about him when the Weekly Saints category was active, although he does come up a few times elsewhere, most especially ‘Pange, Lingua‘ and ‘Aquinas vs modern historical-critical Bible study‘. St Thomas is worth getting to know, especially these days with a Thomist resurgence in Roman Catholic theology and philosophy, epitomised by a Catholic friend whose response to my eagerness over a Victorian exposition of the 39 Articles said, ‘We have St Thomas for that’.

St Thomas Aquinas was born into a wealthy family of lesser nobility in the Lazio region of Italy. As the younger son in the family, he was destined for life the cloisters, like his uncle, abbot of Montecassino (St Benedict’s [saint of the week here and here] monastery in Campania). He was sent to Montecassino at age 5, where he was instructed in theology and philosophy. His family’s dream was that he would ascend to the abbacy in his uncle’s footsteps.

At age 19, however, he rebelled against his family’s wishes and chose instead to join the fairly new Order of Preachers — the Dominicans. Benedictine monasticism was a prestigious affair — long-established and wealthy, the Order had many monasteries that were major landowners throughout Europe. Indeed, so wealthy were Benedictines that they never stopped getting in trouble for it! See, e.g., this excerpt from St Bernard’s (saint of the week here) excoriation of Cluniac Benedictines a century earlier.

Dominicans, on the other hand, were only a few decades old. Honorius III’s approval of St Dominic’s (saint of the week here) order was only fully approved in 1216. Dominicans are a mendicant order of friars like Franciscans. This means that they beg for food to survive. They live in priories, not cloistered monasteries, and consort with rabble and mobs. They do sordid, public pious acts like public preaching or debating heretics. They were also in on the ground floor at the start of the Inquisition, and this didn’t make them especially popular — as St Peter Martyr of Verona (d. 1252) found out the hard way.

Dominicans are not prestigious in the 13th century, anyway.

Thomas, with his background in philosophy and love of God, joined anyway.

Dominicans are, as it turns out, unafraid of philosophy.

In 1245, Thomas went to Paris to study — at the time, Dominican philosopher Albertus Magnus was active there. Three years later, Thomas followed Albertus to Cologne where, an apprentice professor, he taught Old Testament. 1252 saw him back in Paris studying to become a Master in theology. At this time, he continued lecturing on the Bible and also wrote his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, one of the standard theological texts and tasks of the age. Besides this and his biblical commentaries, Thomas wrote his work De ente et essentia for his fellow Parisian Dominicans.

1256 saw Thomas’ appointment as regent master in theology at Paris and promptly launched a defence of the mendicant orders. He held this post until 1259, writing several of his philosophical and theological works, as well as beginning the Summa Contra Gentiles.

In 1260 at Naples he was made general preacher in that province, and 1261 had him teaching poor Dominican friars in Orvieto who could not afford an education such as he had acquired. I like this about him and the Dominicans, in fact. Anyway, at Orvieto is when he put together the Catena Aurea, a patristic catena commentary on the Gospels (listed under ‘Biblical Commentaries’ here). He also produced the liturgy for the new feast of Corpus Christi at this time.

1265 he was called to Rome by Clement IV to serve as papal theologian. He also served as a teacher at the newly-founded studium provinciale at Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill, which was a training institute for Dominicans of the Roman province in higher levels of philosophy and theology. Amongst the various theological works he wrote during his time at Santa Sabina, St Thomas began the Summa Theologiae while he was there.

This, of course, is his most well-known writing and his greatest achievement.

The Summa Theologiae is a meticulously constructed text of theology and philosophy that systematically treats almost every subject of Chrisitan theology. Because God made all things, the theology of the Summa ends up producing a philosophy for understanding almost the entire world. Like all of St Thomas’ works, it is deeply steeped in Aristotelian ideas and methods, but also richly informed by Scripture and the Fathers. Not necessarily an easy read, it can be richly rewarding. Sadly, St Thomas was unable to complete his task despite working on it for so many years.

From 1268-1272 he was in Paris again, teaching. This time, in his sights were Averroist philosophers who had taken up an extreme version of Aristotelianism that he felt was incompatible with the Christian faith. His quarrels at this time also brought him into conflict with the Franciscan theologians St Bonaventure (saint of the week here), John Peckham, and William of Baglione — this last one slandering him as, in fact, an Averroist. Many disputations were thus created during this second regency in Paris.

His final phase of activity was from 1272 until his death, when he moved to Naples and established a studium generale — a general training institute for the whole Dominican order.

In 1273, everything changed for this prolific writer and philosopher-theologian. I quote The Catholic Encyclopedia:

On one occasion, at Naples in 1273, after he had completed his treatise on the Eucharist, three of the brethren saw him lifted in ecstasy, and they heard a voice proceeding from the crucifix on the altar, saying “Thou hast written well of me, Thomas; what reward wilt thou have?” Thomas replied, “None other than Thyself, Lord” (Prümmer, op. cit., p. 38). Similar declarations are said to have been made at Orvieto and at Paris.

On 6 December, 1273, he laid aside his pen and would write no more. That day he experienced an unusually long ecstasy during Mass; what was revealed to him we can only surmise from his reply to Father Reginald, who urged him to continue his writings: “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value” (modica, Prümmer, op. cit., p. 43). The “Summa theologica” had been completed only as far as the ninetieth question of the third part (De partibus poenitentiae).

He went to sleep in the Lord on 7 March, 1274.

He is one of the greatest theologians of all time, certainly of the mediaeval world. My first-year undergraduate philosopher teacher was surprised and delighted when he encountered such quality philosophy in the Middle Ages (chronological snob that he was). His influence extends everywhere, and whatever he says is worth being very careful over before you reject it. He was also a tireless Christian, seeking to educate his fellow friars in the ways of God’s truth and help others out of the paths of error.

Would we were all so committed to the paths of Christ’s truth.

His works are available in English here.

The Spirituality of Gothic Architecture: Look Waay Up!

Portal to Basilique St. Clotilde, Paris (my photo)G K Chesterton, that famous penner of pithy wit, once remarked that some moderns were saying that Gothic architecture, with its towers and spires, was naught but a collection of phallic symbols. He challenged his opponents to build an upside-down cathedral. It’s impossible. Gothic architecture, he maintained, looks the way it does because that’s the most practical way to build a tall building – wide at the base, and skinny at the top.

Furthermore, may I add, the height is not there to make you think of penises. I’m sure this will come as a shock to many of my readers. But it is true! The height is there to draw your eyes heavenwards. To lift your gaze up and up and up. The sky is the heavens, and throughout the New Testament, the rule of God is referred to as the Kingdom of the Heavens. This metaphor is therefore actualised for us by the architecture of Gothic churches and cathedrals.

The Parthenon (by me)

Gothic architecture, you see, is designed to draw your eyes upwards. This is what I have always been told, at least. I have also been told that it is in contrast to Classical architecture and the Romanesque edifices that follow. Classical architecture, so beautifully achieved in the Parthenon or the Arch of Constantine, is an achievement of balance, of poise, of precise, human order.

Gothic architecture is also balanced. But you don’t look at it and say, ‘How geometrically precise!’ Indeed, take a look at Notre Dame de Paris, one of the most famous Gothic buildings on earth. You look at it and you say, ‘Wow, there’s a lot going on!’ And then, inevitably, you end up looking at those high towers with their loud bells between which Philippe Petit once walked on a tightrope.

Notre Dame de Paris (by me)

I’ve been told that it’s a result of the points on the arches. The viewer can’t help but keep moving the eyes upwards. I don’t know if any of this is true. All I can say is that it happens to me every time I visit a Gothic cathedral.

South Transpet, Notre Dame (by me)

Take, for example, Notre Dame again. I was recently there during Mass for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I spent my time walking through the arcades and ambulatory. The columns are your usual compounded columns of Gothic architecture. And I couldn’t help looking up. I even have the video to prove it. The eyes rise up and up until they hit the ribs and the arches and the groin vaults. It’s not their fault. Blame Pierre de Montreuil.

Once a Gothic church has stolen your eyes, it takes them on journeys of its own choosing. In Milan, you find the pillars topped by sculptures of saints and martyrs. The faithful are ever with you. At Notre Dame, you find Corinthian capitals (a bit of a yawn after the amazing Romanesque capitals in the crypt of St. Denis, that include a guy hitting the devil with a stick.

But you also find rose windows. As mentioned in the previous post, rose windows are part of the achievement in Gothic architecture in making space for light to transform the liturgical space. The first of Notre Dame’s rose windows that I saw, in the south transept, is known as the Rose du Midi. In the centre of this window is Christ as depicted in Revelation, a sword protruding from his mouth.

The Rose du Midi, Notre Dame (by me)

Images of the New Testament stories fill the rest of this rose window as well as 16 prophets who have the four evangelists resting on their shoulders.

Your eyes have been drawn upwards, and what do you find? You find Christ, his judgement, and his kingdom. He is the Light, symbolised in the physical light streaming through the rose window that illuminates the icon of the King of the Universe in the centre of this window.

The central reality of the mystical theology of the whole Middle Ages, from before Pseudo-Dionysius to the early modern Carmelites Sts. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, is the ascent to and discovery of God. Having encountered Christ, the contemplative can have a union with him, can contemplate the reality of the Holy Trinity, something that the fourth-century mystical master Evagrius argues is the height of Christian living.

We have, whether by simply being created matter or through the Fall, gone away from God (exitus). It is now time to return to Him (reditus). Our spiritual eyes must ever stray upwards, up to infinity and beyond, into the starry heights. Somewhere out there, for the mediaeval believer, God was animating the Primum Mobile, and everything was moving and existing out of love for the Divine – this is the central reality of Dante’s Divine Comedy and the heart of Cistercian spirituality as demonstrated in the works of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (Saint of the Week here) – authors who frame the world of Gothic cathedrals (read this on their relationship).

Stained Glass of Notre Dame (by me)

Another theologian of the Gothic world was St. Thomas Aquinas. As mentioned before, Aquinas emphasised the theme of exitus-reditus in his Summa Theologiae. We are to return to God, the true source of all of our happiness and real joy. This is to be done through moral living, through following law, through studying Scripture. And at some point, Aquinas had a mystical experience whilst celebrating the Eucharist. After this, he never wrote another word of the Summa. Many take this fact as a pointer to the direction our own spiritual gaze must go – we are to turn our sights away from the earthbound reason of intellect and transform our nous, our soul, through spiritual insight and contemplation of the divine.

I, personally, believe there is room for both approaches, for the reasonable and the contemplative, for the apophatic and the cataphatic. And there is room for both visions of exitus-reditus in the cathedrals of Europe. We come to these majestic Gothic cathedrals and look up, up, up. There we can perceive the carvings and the architecture, we can perceive the images of the stained glass. Yet to see stained glass clearly, there must be the darkness around us. And often, a rose window is too far away to discern properly. We are in the presence of truth but unable to properly conceive it.

So, very often, with God.

And, like inconceivable Gothic stained glass, God is beautiful above all.