Father of the Scholastics

By Matt McKeown

Can a philosopher greater than St. Anselm
be conceived?

St. Anselm of Canterbury is one of the pivotal figures in the history of European thought. That great Medieval edifice, Scholasticism, was inaugurated by him; nearly every Christian tradition in the West bears the Scholastic stamp. Moreover, his work on epistemology and metaphysics set the stage for massive developments in philosophy. Arguments he set forth remain contentious subjects of debate and analysis to this day.

Anselm himself was born in 1033 in Burgundy, a realm lying along the modern borders of Italy, Switzerland, and France. He traveled to the abbey of Bec in Normandy, where he was eventually appointed the prior of the community. Under his care, Bec flourished as a seat of learning, and his wisdom and patience as a disciplinarian earned him an excellent reputation.

During this period, Anselm composed the Monologion and the Proslogion, two of his most significant works. Both embodied what he called fides quærens intellectum, or “faith seeking understanding.” This outlook lay at the root of the Scholastic method: faith was taken as a given, and logical reasoning and analysis were then used to understand the “data” faith presented to us. Because a conclusion was already defined, this allowed the thinker to focus on the argument itself, to test its strength or weakness, to substitute one argument for another. The excitement of Scholastic dialectic lay not in finding out what a person’s answer to a question was—nobody was holding their breath over whether this writer thought God existed—but in seeing how they got there.

The Proslogion in particular set forth one of St. Anselm’s most influential and lasting ideas: the ontological argument for the existence of God. In brief, he reasoned as follows: by definition, God is a being than which none greater can be imagined. But if God does not exist, then we can imagine something greater—namely, a God that does exist—which is a contradiction. Therefore, God exists.

God often works more by the life of the illiterate seeking the things that are God's, than by the ability of the learned seeking the things that are their own.

This sounds incredibly silly to many readers, and did even at the time; but many others, including professional logicians, have found it convincing. (This is in part due to certain logical niceties in the argument which, unfortunately, we have no space here to review.) At bottom, the ontological argument poses the question of whether “necessary existence” is a coherent idea, which is a far more deceitful thing than it sounds like. St. Thomas Aquinas, who was quite as devout as St. Anselm, rejected the ontological argument, on the basis that the human mind cannot know the essence of God. On the other hand, the modern mathematician Kurt Gödel found the ontological argument highly compelling, and even formulated his own version of it.

In the late 1090s, during his reign at Canterbury, Anselm produced another major work of theology. The dialogue Cur Deus Homo or “Why God Became Man” expounded, as the answer to the title question, that God became man in Christ in order to act as our substitute. (This partly contrasted with earlier theories, which viewed the redemption as Christ ransoming mankind from captivity to Satan.)

Explaining the doctrine of the Incarnation in philosophical terms was nothing new; St. Athanasius had done much the same thing in the fourth century. Nor was the idea of substitution an innovation in itself. But Anselm discussed the nature of this substitution with greater precision than before. Christ’s death, as the ultimate act of obedience, rendered to God the honor which mankind had failed to give him by sinning. But, because Christ was himself God and had become man, “going out of his way” to honor God the Father, and furthermore because Christ had no need of reward, he was able to extend his own reward to mankind. This laid the groundwork for the later doctrines of the Protestant Reformers, who interpreted the substitution not as one of winning reward, but enduring punishment for man.

At the time, St. Anselm was known better for supporting the reforms of Pope Gregory VII than for his intellectual achievements. This was a phase of a larger dispute called the Investiture Controversy, which raged throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries and threatened to ruin several Popes, Holy Roman Emperors, and lesser prelates and kings. In 1093, despite bitter disputes with the English crown, Anselm was made Archbishop of Canterbury. These disputes did not cease; twice before the saint’s death, the king exiled Anselm from his own archdiocese for his implacable support of the Gregorian reforms. At last, in 1109, having triumphed over the opposition of the king, the saint died just before Easter. He said on his deathbed that he was content, except that he had one more book he had been hoping to write.


Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.

If you liked this post, try one of our other author profiles, from Aesop to Voltaire to Kafka. Or take a look at this “Great Conversation” post on the idea of history.

Published on 7th December, 2020.

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