St. Anselm of Canterbury

The Italian prelate St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) was a theologian, Doctor of the Church, and archbishop of Canterbury. He was one of the great thinkers of the Middle Ages.

The 11th century witnessed a dramatic change in European history, the impact of which has been compared to that of the Protestant Reformation or the industrial revolution. Extraordinary economic expansion was accompanied by growth in political institutions and cultural life, especially in Italy and northern France. Anselm spent most of his life in these two countries, and he was involved in many of the cultural changes that took place.

Anselm was born at Aosta in the Italian Alps. His family was noble and seems to have been related to the house of Savoy, the leading territorial magnates of the region. But Anselm's parents no longer possessed political or social prominence, and the family's economic resources were declining.

After the death of his mother about 1056, Anselm argued with his father and left Aosta forever. He traveled across the Alps and contacted his mother's relatives in the kingdom of Burgundy. After a period of study in Burgundy and northern France, he went to the monastery of Bec in Normandy to study under its prior, Lanfranc, a leading teacher in northern Europe.

In 1060 Anselm entered the monastic life at Bec. His proficiency in learning was such that 3 years later, on the occasion of Lanfranc's departure from Bec in order to become abbot of St. Stephen's in Caen, Anselm was appointed prior of Bec and head of the monastic school.

Prior and Abbot of Bec

The office of prior did not initially alter Anselm's love for solitude and meditation. In spite of his teaching activity, little is known of Anselm during his first 10 years at Bec. After 1070, however, he became more active, and the demand from his students to write down some of his teachings resulted in the writing of several works of major import.

The first of these works was the Monologion (ca. 1077), a treatise which examines the existence and nature of God. In particular, two arguments are used. In order to make a comparative judgment (that one thing is better than another), it is necessary to have a superlative (the best against which everything else can be judged). For Anselm, God is that highest good. Anselm also used the argument of contingency—that is, everything must come into existence through the agency of something prior. It is thus necessary to posit a first cause or being on which everything else depends, for if there were nothing on which it depended, it could not exist. That first cause, for Anselm, is God.

The arguments used in the Monologion can be found in previous writers, especially in St. Augustine, on whose work Anselm based most of his thought. The structure and method, however, are new, and Anselm seemed motivated to construct an argument that was rational and could convince the non-Christian.

More revolutionary in nature was the work which Anselm entitled Proslogion (ca. 1078). It was the result of a "discovery" of a definition of God, and the ontological argument based upon the definition seemed to Anselm (and to many later philosophers) to be convincing by its very logical simplicity. Anselm's biographer, Eadmer, later described the discovery: "Behold, one night during Matins, the grace of God shone in his heart and the matter became clear to his understanding, filling his whole being with immense joy and jubilation."

The discovery of Anselm was a definition of God that was anticipated in part by Augustine and Seneca; namely, God was that being a greater than which could not be conceived. Using that definition as the basic content of anyone's idea of God, Anselm went on to argue that such a being necessarily existed not only as an idea in the mind but also in external reality. The Proslogion was widely circulated and brought Anselm immediate fame among his contemporaries and succeeding generations. Although attacked in his own time and in later centuries, Anselm's ontological argument greatly influenced the course of philosophical and theological thought.

In 1078 Anselm was elected abbot of Bec, a position he held until 1093. In spite of the demands of the office, Anselm found time to complete several works on philosophy and theology. Among them were his philosophical works on grammar and truth and his theological treatises on free will and the devil. While these works are significant in the thought and development of Anselm, they did not make as great an impression on his contemporaries or later generations as did his earlier works.

From 1090 to 1093 Anselm was drawn into two controversies that changed his career. One was over the understanding of the Incarnation of Christ and the doctrine of the Atonement. Beginning in 1092, Anselm wrote two letters on this subject, and the ideas contained therein eventually bore fruit in a lengthy study entitled Cur Deus Homo. Although anticipated in part by earlier theologians, such as Tertullian, Anselm wrote the first work to deal so extensively with the Incarnation, and his method of presentation, as well as the precision of his ideas, makes this work one of the most influential in the history of theology.

The other conflict that influenced Anselm in this period was the political and ecclesiastical situation in England. Lanfranc had become archbishop of Canterbury in 1070. After his death in 1089, King William Rufus allowed the position to remain vacant to avoid creating a strong ecclesiastical opponent and to appropriate Church revenues. The King wished to avoid accepting an archbishop who would oppose royal control of the English Church. Illness and fear of eternal retribution, however, finally caused him to appoint a successor to Lanfranc, and to that post he called Anselm. In spite of Anselm's initial reluctance, he was consecrated archbishop of Canterbury on Dec. 4, 1093.

The Archbishop

Anselm's advocacy of Church reform and the recognition of Urban II as the rightful pope precipitated a conflict with the King. To gain support, Anselm convened a council of bishops and noblemen at Rockingham in 1095, but the indecisive results of that council and the growing animosity of the King forced Anselm to flee England in 1097.

Anselm went to central and southern Italy, where he remained for several years as a close associate of the papacy. After the death of William Rufus in 1100, his brother and successor, Henry I, summoned Anselm back to England. The problem of lay investiture and Henry's demand that Anselm renew his oath of feudal homage to the English king brought the two men into conflict. The opposition of the King soon forced Anselm to journey once more to Rome, and Anselm remained away from England until 1106. A compromise was finally worked out whereby the King gave up the right of investiture in return for a guarantee that Anselm would consecrate all candidates for episcopal and monastic office who had already been appointed by the King and had taken the oath of homage.

On the basis of this agreement, Anselm returned to England as archbishop and remained there for the last 3 years of his life. He found time to return to his writing, and completed works on the Sacraments and on the foreknowledge of God. His work was carried on after his death in 1109 by his students at Bec and Canterbury.

Further Reading on St. Anselm of Canterbury

The best study of the life and works of Anselm is R.W. Southern, Saint Anselm and His Biographer: A Study of Monastic Life and Thought, 1059-c. 1130 (1963), which includes an excellent study of the background and implications of Cur Deus Homo. Older but still useful works are R.W. Church, Saint Anselm (1870); Martin Rule, The Life and Times of St. Anselm (2 vols., 1883); and J. Clayton, Saint Anselm: A Critical Biography (1933).

A general survey of the various interpretations of Cur Deus Homo is John McIntyre, St. Anselm and His Critics: A Reinterpretation of the Cur Deus Homo (1954). Among the many studies of the meaning and importance of the ontological argument for God's existence as expressed in the Proslogion, the most significant are Karl Barth, Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum: Anselm's Proof of the Existence of God in the Context of His Theological Scheme, translated by I.W. Robertson (1960); Charles Hartshorne, Anselm's Discovery: A ReExamination of the Ontological Proof for God's Existence (1965); and John Hick, ed., The Many-Faced Argument: Recent Studies on the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God (1967).

Additional Biography Sources

Evans, G. R. (Gillian Rosemary), Anselm, London: Geoffrey Chapman; Wilton, CT.: Morehouse-Barlow, 1989.

Evans, G. R. (Gillian Rosemary), Anselm and a new generation, Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Jaspers, Karl, Anselm and Nicholas of Cus, New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1974, 1966.

Southern R. W. (Richard William), Saint Anselm: a portrait in a landscape, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Vaughn, Sally N., Anselm of Bec and Robert of Meulan: the innocence of the dove and the wisdom of the serpent, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Ward, Benedicta, Anselm of Canterbury, a monastic scholar: an expanded version of a paper given to the Anselm Society, St. Augustine's College, Canterbury, in May 1973, Oxford: S.L.G. Press, 1977.