Causing Nothing

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 1

If the modal problem at the center of On Freedom of Choice is the question of what it is that makes free will possible, Anselm’s companion dialogue, On the Fall of the Devil (De casu diaboli), undertakes an examination of how, using their freedom of choice, the primal sin of the rebelling angels was possible. In the course of doing so, moreover, Anselm sketches what might be described as two competing “theologies of nothing,” corresponding to the antithesis we have been tracing between theistic possibilism on the one hand and theistic actualism on the other. In this series of posts I will be investigating these two alternative accounts of the possibility of nothing before turning to see how they each make an appearance within Anselm’s account of how the fall of Satan was made possible.

On the Fall of the Devil opens with the Student inquiring whether the angels’ perseverance in original justice or rectitude of will was itself a gift of God. Answering in the affirmative, the Teacher makes the general metaphysical observation that whatever being a creature has, including the state of the will’s continuing uprightness, must come from God as the source of all existence. From this the Student mistakenly infers that God therefore must not only be the cause of the being of those things which do exist, but also of the non-being of those things which don’t. He asks:

Or who causes-not-to-be whatever is not except Him who causes-to-be all that is. Likewise, if there is something only because God causes it, then it follows that what-is-not is not because He does not cause it. Therefore, just as those things which exist have from Him their being something, so those things which do not exist, or which pass from being to not-being, seem to have from Him their being nothing.[1]

Although an erroneous interpretation of the Teacher’s statement that God is the source of all existence, the Student’s statement is no unrealistic caricature on Anselm’s part, as it actually captures some important elements of the teaching of his immediate predecessor, the Muslim philosopher Avicenna (980-1037).  According to Avicenna, who was under the direct influence of the Neoplatonist Plotinus (204-270), God eternally and necessarily emanates down through a hierarchical series of ten intelligences that culminate in the Agent Intellect in which all possible creaturely essences are contained.[2] As early a critic as St. Thomas Aquinas recognized, this means that creaturely essences contain within themselves their own possibility both for being and for non-being.[3] In his discussion of the resulting “nihilism” of Avicenna, Conor Cunningham writes:

The potential for non-being was prevalent to such an extent that every essence was said to have a positive orientation to non-being… For Avicenna, everything with a quiddity is caused. It is for this reason that everything with the exception of the necessary Being has quiddity, and these quiddities are possible through themselves: ‘To such quiddities being does not accrue except extrinsically’. As a result, we can agree with Gilson that essences are measured by their lack of existence. Indeed, they are this lack of existence.[4]

As possibles in themselves, these creaturely essences are, in Gerard Smith’s apt phrase, “God’s data, given to, not by Him,”[5] meaning that, as Cunningham continues, God gives to each of these essences only “its to-be but not its to-be-able-to-be,” its existence, that is, but not its possibility for existence.[6] A further consequence of this teaching is Avicenna’s famous doctrine that existence is a mere accident which extrinsically accrues to a given essence at the behest of the divine will: “existence has shifted from existentiality to an essential realm,” which means that the real difference between being and non-being has been reduced to a “difference of essence; this essence rather than that essence.”[7] Additional corrolaries to the Avicennian doctrine is the latter’s de-theologizing of metaphysics by making being rather than God the proper subject of the science of first philosophy, a teaching that some scholars have identified as a precursor to Duns Scotus’s doctrine of univocity.[8]


[1] De casu 1. “Aut quis facit non esse, quidquid non est; nisi ille qui facit esse, omne quod est? Item si non est aliquid, nisi ideo quia Deus facit; necesse est ut quod non est ideirco non sit, quia ipse non facit. Sicut ergo illa quae sunt, ab illo habent esse aliquid; ita quae non sunt, vel quae de esse transeunt ad non esse, videntur ab eodem ipso habere esse nihil.”

[2] Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 9.

[3] Aquinas, De Potentia 5.3, cited in Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 11.

[4] Ibid., 11.

[5] Gerard Smith, “Avicenna and the Possibles,” New Scholasticism, no. 17 (1943), 347, cited in Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 11.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 10.

[8] Ibid.

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