Political vs. Theological Origins of Anselm’s Modal Agency

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 4

In the previous post I made the claim that Anselm’s theory of agent modality, viewed by some scholars as the first in the field, has a specifically theological origin. Nuel Belnap, Michael Perloff, and Ming Xu, in their Facing the Future: Agents and Choices in our Indeterminate World, give a different account, implying that the origins of Anselm’s theory of agency may have had a political (and hence secular) source of inspiration. As they recount:

the archbishop was deeply involved in controversy with the tyrant William Rufus and later his brother Henry in regard to the matters of lay investiture and clerical homage; he vigorously opposed the former. These controversies were heavily freighted with the concepts of promising and commitment and agentive powers. In order to make clear that his authority in matters spiritual was not at the pleasure of the king, Anselm refused to accept the papal pallium from the hands of William Rufus. Partly in consequence, the archbishop was in effect exiled by the king. Anselm’s brief notes on the modal logic of agency were, we think, composed during this bitter exile. (Facing the Future 18-19)

This political reading of the influences on Anselm’s modal logic of agency is intriguing and may have something to it, yet there can be no doubt that the actual textual antecedents to his general modal logic agency are his discussions of divine agency in particular. For Anselm, just as it is faith that makes possible understanding, so it his theological reflections on the nature of divine possibility that opens up the “possibility” of a theory of human possibility.

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