Anselm’s Devil: A Miser for Justice

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 11

The previous post in this series raised some questions about the Teacher’s notion that the devil fell by willing to abandon justice. As it turns out, what he actually means by this is not as extreme as it perhaps sounds. Reprising his propter se/propter aliud distinction he had drawn in chapter five of On Freedom of Choice 5, he admits to his Student that “[w]hen you do not will to keep a thing for its own sake [propter se] but will to desert it for its own sake,” under such a circumstance it is true that you do not wish to abandon it without first ceasing to will to keep it. But when you have a thing which you do wish to keep for its own sake, but abandon only “on account of something else [propter aliud]” which you also want, then in this case it is possible to will to abandon that something before (or indeed, without ever) ceasing to will to keep it. He illustrates the point with the following analogy:

For example, when a miser wills to keep money but prefers bread, which he cannot have unless he spends money, he wills to spend (i.e., to desert) the money before he does not will to keep it. For it is not the case that he wills to spend money because he does not will to keep it; rather, he does not will to keep it because he must spend it in order to have bread. For before he has money, he wills to have it and to keep it; and when he has it, he does not at all not will to keep it, as long as it is not necessary for him to give it up.[1]

The crucial point to note about the miser analogy is that, although the miser does indeed will to give up some of his money in order to purchase something else that he wants and needs, namely bread, the miser never stops willing to keep the money that is spent, even in the act of spending it. The psychological shift the Teacher is trying to capture, therefore, is not that of someone who catapults from the one extreme of actively willing to retain something to the other extreme of so totally despising it that he wishes to get rid of it. Instead, what seems to be in view is the much more modest and sensible shift from someone wishing to keep something at any cost to his afterward sacrificing it grudgingly in order to obtain something else viewed as more valuable or needful.[2] Such was the case, we are led to understand, with the devil who fell by willing to abandon the very justice that, ceteris paribus, he would have just as soon preferred to retain. This might be further taken to imply that the kind of cessation in the will for justice that he is arguing here to be posterior rather than prior to the will to abandon justice is no mere qualified and momentary lapse in the agent’s will for justice, but something more like a complete and total negation of the will for justice. If what we mean, in other words, by a cessation in the will for justice is not a simple misfiring or arrhythmia in the will for justice, but an across-the-board indifference or disinterest towards justice, then it would indeed seem easier to explain how this kind of cessation of will is preceded by a prior will to abandon a justice that one would otherwise prefer to keep. Consistent, therefore, with his earlier denial that freedom of choice lies in the paired abilities of sinning and not sinning, the Teacher does not view the will-to-abandon-justice as the modal mirror-image or the possibilist “other” of the will-to-retain-justice. Rather, it is the divinely given, persisting, even if ultimately over-ridden will-to-retain-justice that, paradoxically, is the prior possibility for the tolmatic will-to-abandon-justice. The tragedy of the fall of the devil is that he falls precisely while he wills the very justice that he abandons.


[1] On the Fall of the Devil 3.

[2] For these reasons I think Sweeney overstates matters when she says of the miser analogy in particular that “[w]hat the miser wills in willing to pay for the bread but not willing to be deprived of his money is not rational…,” and that the Teacher’s argument in general “states his view in the most provocative, counterintuitive way possible…” Sweeney, Anselm of Canterbury, 218. As I suggest below, this double will of the miser implies an ability to view money perspectivally: on the one hand, he views it as something desirable in itself, and on the other hand he is able to view it as a mere means of exchange for bread. By being able to view money in both ways at once, the miser is able (quite rationally) both to will to spend and will to keep his money at once. She is right about the Teacher’s position standing “in contrast to the student’s (apparently) common sense view”—indeed, as I argue below, I believe it is the Student who is correct on this point and the Teacher who is wrong—but contrary to a recurring theme in Sweeney’s analysis, I don’t see any evidence here or elsewhere that the Teacher is being deliberately or unnecessarily provocative or contrarian. His positions are frequently counter-intuitive and paradoxical, but he strikes me as always remarkably candid and matter-of-fact in his statement and defense of them.

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Willing to Lie: Some Equivocations in Ch. 5 of Anselm’s “On Freedom of Choice”

Anselm’s On Freedom of Choice, part 10

Chapter five of On the Freedom of Choice introduces a discussion that will prove of particular importance for Anselm’s account of the fall of the devil in the following dialogue, but also for exposing some of the conceptual problems plaguing that account. When the Student asks how it is that a man possessed of free choice can nevertheless be led through temptation to “desert” rightness against his own will, the Teacher responds that “[n]o one deserts this uprightness except by willing to. So if ‘against one’s will’ means ‘unwillingly,’ then no one deserts uprightness against his will.”[1] Although plausible-sounding enough, this statement actually contains a significant ambiguity, for where the first sentence implies that a person abandons justice only by positively willing it, the second sentence softens this requirement to a mere denial that there be any unwillingness that justice be abandoned. The difference is subtle yet significant, for the latter does not in fact logically entail the former: it is conceivable that someone can be without any unwillingness to lose something, without that absence of unwillingness amounting thereby to a positive will that they should lose it. Lest this seem overly nitpicking, it should be noted that Anselm himself is in the history of western thought something of an authority and expert on parsing out the will in just this matter. In his unfinished Philosophical Fragments, for example, a work noted by scholars as the first major contribution to a theory of modal agency, Anselm (again in the persona of his Teacher) discriminates between four senses of will: the efficient, the approving, the concessive, and the merely permissive. In the Teacher’s above equivocation between the will to desert justice and the absence of an unwillingness that justice be deserted, accordingly, I contend that what we have is a conflation of a case of concessive or permissive will with a case of efficient or approving will. Alternatively, the Teacher might be criticized here for failing to make the very distinction we will find him and his Student taking for granted later in On the Fall of the Devil, namely the difference between an active willing of justice and the comparatively passive cessation in the will to preserve justice.

The significance of this error begins to come into focus after the Student rephrases his question by means of the following example: “If someone who lies in order not to be killed does so only willingly, then how is it that he is said to lie against his will? For just as against his will he lies, so against his will he wills to lie. And someone who against his will wills to lie, unwillingly wills to lie.” It is at this point, in response, that the Teacher draws the distinction, noted earlier, between willing a thing for its own sake (propter se) and willing a thing for the sake of something else (propter aliud). It’s an important and helpful distinction, yet the problem comes with how the Teacher applies it to the Student’s example of someone being forced to lie on pain of death:

Therefore, perhaps it can be said that the man lies both against his will and not against his will, in accordance with these different wills. Accordingly, when the man said to lie against his will because insofar as he wills the truth he does not will to lie, this statement does not contradict my claim that no one deserts uprightness-of-will against his will. For in lying, the man wills to desert uprightness for the sake of his life; and in accordance with this will he deserts uprightness not against his will but willingly. This is the will we are now discussing…

As an explanation of how a man can both will to lie and will not to lie at one and the same time, the argument is valid enough: he does not will to lie per or propter se, that is, for the sake of lying itself, but only per accidens, insofar as the act of lying has been artificially and externally imposed upon him as a condition for saving his life. The fallacy comes when the Teacher plausibly and almost imperceptibly conflates this will to lie with the will to abandon justice: “in lying, the man wills to desert uprightness for the sake of his life.” As before with the will to desert justice and the lack of unwillingness that justice be abandoned, it is not at all obvious that the former necessarily involves the latter. (Anselm will makes a related mistake, incidentally, and as we shall see later, when in Cur Deus Homo he treats Jesus’s ability to speak the words “I know him [the Father] not” as proof that Jesus therefore had the ability to lie.) Even if we assume for the sake of argument that lying in order to save one’s life is indeed a sin, and as a sin it would entail the abandonment of rightness of will, this does not mean that there was therefore a will to abandon justice itself. Someone unjustly willing to lie in order to save a life, after all, is fully compatible (at least in principle) with him doing so precisely out of a will for justice, even if, ex hypothesi, he does so mistakenly. Justice, we recall here, is a matter of willing what one ought to will, suggesting that, so long as someone feels that lying in order to save his life is something one ought to do, there is a sense in which they are doing so (even if mistakenly) in the interest of justice. Harkening back to the Teacher’s preceding equivocation between, on the one hand, an active willing to desert justice and, on the other hand, the comparatively passive absence of unwillingness that justice should be retained, we may at the very least say that it is possible for the person who lies to save his life to do so with neither a will to abandon justice nor a will to preserve it. Instead, all that is necessary for such an unjust willingness to lie to take place is that there be an absence of a will one way or the other (which would itself be a form of injustice, to be sure, just not a willed one), but only a simple failure or cessation in the will for justice.


[1] On Freedom of Choice 5.

God as the First Secularist

Some day I hope to write a book on why God was the first atheist (and why, as a consequence, the problem with unbelieving atheism is that it is inadequately atheistic). Brian Leftow in God and Necessity (Oxford UP, 2012) touches on the kind of reasoning I have in mind in an argument that might be taken to suggest that God was also the first “secularist.”

That there is something non-divine is a secular truth. That possibly there is something non-divine is a secular modal truth. It appears that God’s nature is sufficient to make it true, or at least to guarantee the production of a truth-maker for it (as in Leibniz). If that is right, then as God necessarily has His nature, this modal truth is itself necessary, and its necessity stems from God’s nature. (275)

Any non-divine truth on Leftow’s definition is a “secular” truth. Ironically, Leftow’s central purpose in his book is to give these secular truths as radical a theological origin as he can: God “thinks up” or invents the secular truths about the nature or content of his creatures rather than discovering or having them given to him, whether inside or outside of the divine nature. The secular is secular because God invents it as such, setting it free, as it were, in its non-divine secularity. For Leftow, however, what is not a secular truth is the very possibility of secularism itself, for the possibility God has of creating something other than himself is itself a “divine” truth, i.e., a possibility that God doesn’t “think up” but has a necessary consequence of his nature.

If my earlier ruminations on Anselm are correct, however, such that before God created there was not God and nothing, but only God, and that the very difference between creaturely existence and creaturely non-existence is of divine and even inter-Trinitarian invention, then it raises the question not only as to whether God invents the possibilities that creatures are able to be, but whether the very possibility of creaturehood, that is, of there being something other than God, is something that God also “thinks up” in and with his act of creation. On this conjecture, God might turn out to be an even greater “secularist” than Leftow allows, for in addition to the non-divine truths of creaturely kinds and essences, God would also be the cause of the (now) non-divine and hence secular truth of there possibly being something other than God, regardless of what kind of thing that it is.

Ceasing to Will Justice vs. Willing to Abandon It

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 10

The Teacher begins his account of this “other cause” for the angels failure to preserve their will for justice by arguing that the devil, more than merely passively failing to will to preserve justice, actually went so far as to actively will his own abandonment of justice.[1] His original justice was lost not through his carelessly dropping it, as it were, but by his intentionally throwing it away. Unsettled by this proposal, the Student attempts to clarify that the will to abandon a thing nevertheless must be preceded by a prior cessation of the will to keep that thing. The reasoning is plausible enough: before one can go about desiring to get rid of a thing, surely he must first become indifferent to the fact of whether or not he retains it. “Who does not see,” the Student asks, “that it is not the case that he [the devil] did not will to keep because he deserted but that he deserted because he did not will to keep? For to one who is keeping something, not-willing-to-keep always precedes willing-to-desert. For someone wills to desert what he has because he does not will to keep it.”[2] Given the course of previous discussions, the Student’s perplexity is appreciable. In On Freedom of Choice the Teacher had admonished him for his possibilist elevation of the ability to sin to the same modal standing within free choice as the ability not to sin; and already in On the Fall of the Devil the Teacher has had to correct him for similarly elevating creaturely non-existence to the same modal status within God’s causal power as their existence. Presumably having learned his lesson and not wanting to make the same mistake a third time, it is tempting to view the Student as now discerning an element of his own earlier errors in the Teacher’s suggestion that the devil fell by actively willing to abandon justice.[3] The angels were created not in a possibilist indifference towards, but with an active, original will for justice. If so, it seems that it would only have been possible (if it is indeed possible) for the devil to arrive at the opposite extreme of willing to abandon justice by first traversing through an intermediate phase wherein he simply failed or ceased in willing that which he was originally given a will for. If no such intermediate stage, however, is deemed necessary to render the will to abandon justice—particularly for someone who already wills justice—as something psychologically possible and accessible, then we would seem to have made an at least partial return to the Student’s earlier, rejected hypothesis that freedom of choice lies in a tension between an ability to sin and an equipotent ability not to sin.


[1] On the Fall of the Devil 3.

[2] Ibid: “Quis non videat quia non ideo non voluit tenere, quia deseruit, sed ideo deseruit, quia non voluit tenere? Semper enim tenenti prius est non velle tenere, quam velle deserere. Ideo enim vult aliquis deserere quod tenet, quia non vult tenere.”

[3] In a different context, Sweeney refers to the Student as “a quick study” who is able to use the Teacher’s own distinctions against him. Sweeney, Anselm of Canterbury, 216.

A Different Cause

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 9 

Leading up to their discussion of the problem of the fall of the devil, we have thus far seen Anselm’s Student and Teacher develop two competing theologies of nothing. On the one hand is the Student’s theistic possibilism which, by holding God as the univocal cause of both the being and non-being of things, effectively and nihilistically obliterated the difference between created being and an hypothesized created non-being. On the other hand is the theistic actualism of the Teacher’s recognizing only God’s causality of those things which actually do exist, thereby subordinating the possibility of a thing’s non-being as something presupposing its prior, actual existence. Yet despite his intent to speak “properly” of God’s agency relative to the non-existence of things, we saw how the Teacher himself struggled to carry through consistently his own theological metaphysics and semantics of non-being. As it will be my purpose to show in this section, it is a similar ambiguity that plagues the Teacher’s account of how and why the devil fell.

Following chapter one’s ground-laying discussion of how God causes, not the non-being, but only their being, chapter two resumes the discussion of the non-perseverance of the fallen angels, and in chapter three the Teacher explains how it was that the angels who fell were genuinely offered by God—but on account of their own failure of will, did not receive from him—the gift of persevering in their will for justice. More than this, the angels who rebelled were not only offered the perseverance in willing justice, but they were even given the will for such perseverance. The reason they did not ultimately receive the gift of perseverance itself, accordingly, is that they did not persevere in their will for persevering in the will for justice. To avoid the ensuing infinite regress, however, the Teacher recommends that, when it is asked why the fallen angels did not persevere in willing justice, “some other explanation [alia causa] regarding this failure of will” ought to be given instead.[1] It is this strategy, as we shall see, of attributing the will’s failure to preserve justice to an alia causa, to some other, positive cause, that comprises the heart of Anselm’s solution to the problem of the fall of the devil.


[1] On the Fall of the Devil 3: “alia causa reddenda est, unde scilicet contigerit defectus illius voluntatis, quam quia non perseverasti velle voluntatem.”

God as the possibility of non-existence

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 8 

As previous posts have argued, there is a sense for Anselm in which things do not have the possibility for not existing prior to their existence, since there is no existing subject in which such a possibility might reside. More than this, there are good reasons for doubting that, even after a thing has been brought into being, it possesses of itself the possibility for non-existence. One of the problems with the Student’s Avicennian hypostatization of non-existing possibilities, after all, was the way that it made possibility neutral with respect to existence by making it equally “towards nothing.” To say, however, that existing things have the possibility for not existing is to elevate the prospect of non-existence to the same modal status as its prospects for continuing existence. Once again we have a form of modal nihilism, the idea that a thing could have the possibility for being nothing. Thus, even the admission of existing things as having both the possibility for existing and for not existing essentially reinstates, albeit at a creaturely level, the Student’s divine dilemma of God having the option of either causing a thing to exist or causing it not to exist. The reality, however, is that the “possibility” (such as it is) that an existing thing has for not existing is not a possibility that the thing itself has at all, but is rather a possibility that God has only after he has made it. (And here we remind ourselves that a thing’s non-existence is a “possibility” that God achieves, not through an active causal agency, but through ceasing to realize the prior possibility that God has for making that thing to exist, a point I will return to momentarily.) (St. Thomas Aquinas makes precisely this point in his own discussion of God’s “power” of annihilation in, for example, his Disputed Question on the Power of God (De potentia dei).) Yet while Anselm’s Teacher fails to make this point in so clear a fashion, at the same time it may be appreciated as a more consistent application of his own teaching that, on the one hand, prior to a thing existing, its possibility for existence is not a possibility that it has at all, but is rather a possibility that belongs to God, and on the other hand, a thing’s non-existence is not something God causes but is brought about by God’s ceasing to cause it. The Teacher’s own testimony, therefore, stands against him: when a thing is annihilated, it is not re-realizing its own original and authentic potential for being nothing, but rather involves God ceasing to do that which he was able to and had been doing for himself. It is God’s creative act, in short, that is the prior possibility for both a thing’s existence and its non-existence, as the thing itself actually has the possibility for neither.

An Autonomy of Nothing

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 7

A related ambiguity, only now on the flip-side of creation, may be observed in the Teacher’s characterization of God’s act of annihilation. We have seen how, for the Teacher, God does not cause a thing’s non-existence but its non-existence results from God ceasing to cause it to exist. I interpreted this earlier to mean that the very possibility of a thing’s non-existence is consequent to and conditioned upon God first making a thing to exist. Contrary to this order of priority, however, is the Teacher’s account of God’s act of annihilation in terms of his allowing a thing to regain the nothingness that it had prior to its existence: “For when as though angered, God removes being by destroying something, not-being is not from Him. But when He reclaims as His own what He had bestowed, then that thing which was created by Him, and by Him was being conserved in existence, returns unto not-being, which it had not from Him but from itself before it was created.”[1] As we have seen, the Teacher will go on to argue that, prior to a thing existing, it does not have the possibility to exist, as the possibility for its existence resides exclusively in God, but neither, on the other hand, does it have prior to its existence the possibility not to exist, since this possibility only comes into being along with the thing itself. Yet in the passage above we find the Teacher suggesting that non-being—and from this we may infer the possibility for non-being—are indeed had or possessed (habebat) by things prior to their existence after all. The Teacher further stresses that the non-being that things have prior to their creation is not from God but from the things themselves (non ab illo, sed a se). A little later, the Teacher emphasizes that the non-being that things return to in their annihilation is not from God: “since the Supreme Good is the Supreme Being, it follows that every good thing is a being and every being a good thing. Therefore, nothing and not-being are not goods, even as they are not beings. And so nothing and not-being are not from Him from whom comes only good and being.”[2] Although things cease to exist only when God ceases to create them, the Teacher wants to avoid at all costs the suggestion that God is on that account therefore the cause of their non-existence. He accomplishes this, in the end, by crediting the thing itself as the original, and hence as the eventual, possessor of its own non-being. Thus, much as the Student had made the possibility of a thing’s non-existence a given, datum, or fact for God by requiring that he cause the non-being of everything that he does not choose to create, so now we find the Teacher granting the non-existence of things a similar measure of independence and hence autonomy from God, albeit it is now the autonomy of nothing. As with the Student, then, so with the Teacher we witness the possibilist admission of a pre-creation reality of things invariably devolving into a nihilism understood (in Cunningham’s diagnosis) as the surreptitious effort to have nothing as though it were something.


[1] De casu 1. “Nam et cum quasi iratus destruendo aliquid aufert esse, non est ab illo non esse; sed illo tollente, velut suum, quod praestiterat, quod ab eo factum servabatur ut esset, redit in non esse, quod non ab illo, sed a se, antequam fieret, habebat.”

[2] Ibid: “quoniam summum bonum est summa essentia, consequens est ut omne bonum sit essentia et omnis essentia bonum. Nihil ergo et non esse, sicut non est essentia, ita non est bonum. Nihil itaque et non esse, non est ab illo, a quo non est nisi bonum et essentia.”