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.

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.”

Possibility Per Deum

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 6

Even Anselm’s Teacher, notwithstanding his efforts to develop a consistent theology of nothing, seems to lapse at moments into the very improper and conventional modes of speaking that he means to criticize and correct. We saw a related tendency in Anselm’s On Freedom of Choice where the Teacher, for example, affirmed the possibility of a univocal definition of freedom for both God and creatures, despite his defense of analogy in the Monologion; or when, having reduced the “ability” to sin as a mere liability and lack of freedom, he nevertheless described such an ability as a “power of sinning” or a “power to be a slave.” Akin to these ambivalences, in On the Fall of the Devil, after having just reduced the reality of things, prior to their existence, to a sheer nothing, the Teacher seems to imply the possibilist pre-existence of non-existing things after all when he says: “Before the world existed, it was both possible and impossible [to be]. Indeed, it was impossible for that which did not have the ability to make it exist. But it was possible for God, who had the ability to create it. Therefore, the world exists because God was able to create it before it was created, not because the world itself was able to exist before [it did exist].”[1] The Teacher’s purpose, to be sure, is merely to deny that non-existing things are possible per se, and to affirm rather that their possibility is only a possibility per Deum, yet even the latter might be taken to imply a respect in which non-existing things, prior to and apart from God’s creative activity, enjoy at least some measure of identity and hence reality for God as distinct and determinate possibilities able to be created by him. If the Teacher’s purpose had been, by contrast, to deny that non-existing things have any reality whatsoever, it would seem to be more precise and proper to say, not that such entities are both able and not able to be, but (as James Ross has put it) that they are rather neither able nor unable to be, since they aren’t anything, but nothing.[2] In maintaining that non-existing things are able to exist through God, even if not through themselves, does the Teacher not possibilistically imply that the possibilities for what God can do pre-exist his determination of what he actually will do?

The answer is “not necessarily.” We have already seen from Anselm’s teaching on the divine locutio in the Monologion that God’s archetypal knowledge of creation includes only those things God has made, is making, or will make, and excludes those supposed possibilities that will forever go unrealized. If the Teacher is to remain consistent with the actualism of Anselm’s doctrine of the divine locutio, accordingly, it would seem that his remarks about those things which are not possible per se but only per Deum would only apply to those things that God actually purposes to make real. The Teacher’s example of how the world, before it existed, was both able and not able to exist, is consistent with this interpretation, since the world of course is something God did in fact create, and was therefore pre-contained beforehand (as per Anselm’s doctrine of the divine locutio) within God’s archetypal knowledge of creation, and was therefore able to be known by him beforehand as something determinately possible for him to do. This interpretation, however, does raise a separate difficulty, which is whether, in the case of God and not-yet existing possibilities, it makes sense on Anselm’s theology to speak of something as being not possible in itself and yet possible for God. According to the divine exemplarism of the Monologion, after all, what exists within the divine locutio by which God utters both his own Word and creation is in fact identical with the divine locutio. This means that, prior to their existence, things don’t exist as themselves at all, but only as God’s utterance which is himself. Applied to the Teacher’s distinction in On the Fall of the Devil, it would seem that the reason that, prior to their existence, things do not have the possibility for existing in themselves is because, more fundamentally, they are not themselves at all, but aspects of God’s own locutio, and hence “their” possibilty for existing simply is God’s possibility for making them to exist. Thus, while the Teacher’s statement that, before the world existed, the world lacked the ability to exist but God possessed the ability to make it, doesn’t seem to present any special challenge to Anselm’s theistic actualism in general, this appears to be one area where Anselm failed to consistently work through what it means to “properly” speak of those things that, prior to their existence, it was possible for God to make.

[1] De casu 12. “Et possibile, et impossibile erat, antequam esset: et quidem in cujus potestate non erat ut esset, erat impossible; sed Deo, in cujus potestate erat ut fieret possibile erat; quia ergo Deus prius mundum potuit facere quam fieret, ideo est mundus; non quia ipse mundus prius potuit esse.”

[2] Ross, Thought and World. Brian Leftow makes the same point about non-existing properties before applying it to what would have been the case had God not thought up those creatures which he actually created. Suppose, he says, “there is no such property as being a zog. I do not take being a zog to refer, obviously, but I will use it as if it did. There being no such property, it is not possible or impossible that something be a zog, i.e., have a property which neither is possible nor is impossible because it does not exist to bear either modality. As I see it, if God does not think up elephants, being an elephant no more names a property than being a zog now does. There are then no facts about elephants—not even that God has not thought them up.” Leftow, God and Necessity, 151.

The Nothingness of Non-Existing Possibles

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 5

Thus far in Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil we have seen how a possibilist view of God as causing things either to exist or not to exist leads to a nihilistic conflation of existence and non-existence as two opposed yet ontically equivalent and legitimate “effects” of divine action. The alternative to this account of God actively causing things to not exist is one in which God merely “permits” things to not exist by ceasing to preserve them in their existence, a view that, as has been said, actually succeeds in making God more sovereign over non-being as it recognizes the possibility of a thing’s non-being only as a derivative, con-created effect of those things God chooses to bring into being. In On the Fall of the Devil, however, they are not merely the possibilities things have for not existing that presuppose God’s act of creation, inasmuch as even those originary, positive acts of divine making themselves only become determinate possibilities, and therefore proper objects of divine action, in and through God’s actual act (or at least intention) of creation. The Teacher may hint at something like this when he comments: “But if you consider existing things: when they pass to not-being, God does not cause them not to be. For not only does no other being [essentia] exist except by His creating, but also a being cannot at all remain what it was made except by His conserving.”[1] In saying that “no other essentia exists by His creating,” the Teacher may mean nothing more than that every actually existing individual thing only has being by God’s creative agency. Even so, it remains true enough for Anselm that neither are there any intelligible essences except of those things that God actually creates.[2] In the Monologion, it will be recalled, Anselm had expressly denied that the divine locutio, God’s active and never merely contemplative archetypal knowledge of creation, includes those “things” that do not ever actually exist: “For there can be no word [or image] of that which neither did exist, does exist, nor will exist.”[3] If so, it would indeed seem to be the case that neither are there any created essences, even for God, except for those actually brought into being by God’s creative act. Anselm’s most explicit statement of such theistic actualism in On the Fall of the Devil occurs in an exchange over whether the angels received the first motion of their wills directly from God, or whether they were able to first move their own wills into motion on their own. From his premise that, if the angels were at one time actually willing something, then prior to that moment they must have had the possibility for willing something, the Student possibilistically opines that “if, regarding whatever is so able to be that it already is, it at some time was not, then it was able to be before [it was]. For if it had not been able [to be], it would never have been.”[4] Before something can exist, in short, it must be possible for that thing to exist, regardless of whether or not it ever actually does exist. The Teacher refutes this by getting the Student to acknowledge that, on the contrary, “what is nothing has nothing at all and hence has no ability, and without any ability is altogether unable.”[5] The Teacher could hardly be more emphatic: the non-existing possibles hypothesized by the Student are literally nothing (nihil), have nothing (habet nihil), are utterly powerless (nullam habet potestatem), and hence can do or be nothing (sine potestate omnino nihil potest). In contrast to those things that actually exist, unrealized possibilities don’t even have the possibility of non-existing, for they aren’t anything. In this sense the very notion of non-existing possibles is a contradiction: if they don’t exist, then there is no they to even have the ability of not existing. In this stress on the utter nothingness of non-existing possibilities, finally, we have the antithesis of the modal nihilism affirmed by the Student at the beginning of the dialogue, which effectively rendered what God has made to be real as the mere photo-negative of everything else God has caused not to be. Against this hollowing out of being into an inverted form of non-being, the Teacher’s uncompromising alternative is to reduce instead the non-existing possibilities supposed by the Student to a literal nothing. The choices Anselm presents us with in On the Fall of the Devil, accordingly, are between a theistic possibilism that collapses those things which are real into a kind of nothing, and a theistic actualism that recognizes unreal possibilities for the nothings that they are.

[1] “At si consideres ea quae sunt, cum transeunt ad non esse, ipse facit ea non esse. Quoniam namque non solum non est aliqua alia essentia, nisi illo faciente; sed nec aliquatenus manere potest, quod facta est, nisi eodem ipso servante.”

[2] On the range of meanings of essentia in Anselm’s writings, see Thomas Williams’s glossary in Anselm: Basic Writings, 418.

[3] Monologion 32.

[4] De casu 12. “quidquid ita potest esse ut iam sit, si aliquando non fuit, potuit prius esse. Si enim non potuisset, nunquam esset.”

[5] “Putas quia quod nihil est, omnio nihil habet; et ideo nullam habet potestatem, et sine potestate omnino nihil potest.”

Anselm’s Scriptural Actualism

In Anselm of Canterbury and the Desire for the Word, Eileen C. Sweeney ingeniously suggests that, for all their abstract and speculative subject matter, Anselm’s trilogy of dialogues–On Truth, On Freedom of Choice, and On the Fall of the Devil–actually track the first three major stages of biblical history: creation, the creation of man, and the fall.

The topics of the three dialogues correspond to the first three crucial points of the Christian salvation narrative. De veritate is a consideration of the possibility of created being, of many truths in relation to the one truth. De libertate arbitrii is a consideration of Eden, the finite will as free, having righteousness and able to keep it. De casu is a consideration of the possibility of the fall, of finite being as free but able to will what it ought not. Those views are adumbrated in scripture in narrative form, as a story stretched out over time. Anselm explores these notions of created being and finite will by shifting from scripture’s “horizontal” mode to a “vertical” one. His task, in other words, is the logical derivation of the ese moments and the incoherence of their contraries. The dialogues argue for these moments as logical possibilities… as logically coherent and necessary possibilities.

     In this sense, these works are no less “theological” than Cur Deus homo in the sense that they are no less tied up with the specifically Christian account of the human condition.  (240)

In Anselm’s trilogy of dialogues, in other words, we have a modal commentary of sorts on the first three chapters of Genesis, all of which, of course, prepares for Anselm’s later modal account in Cur Deus Homo on the possibility/necessity of the two events at the heart of the salvation story, the Incarnation and Atonement of Christ.

A couple of additional thoughts in response. The first is how this positions Anselm’s trilogy on truth, freedom, and the fall as not distinct from, but just another chapter in, his overarching project of fides quaerens intellectum, of “faith seeking understanding.” The second is how, in keeping with this, these dialogues may be seen to apply what I have argued previously to be Anselm’s methodological actualism, his recognition, that is, of Scripture as the divine, authoritative, and prior actuality that, when received by faith, afterwards opens up to reason and hence “makes possible” the theological and philosophical investigation of those realities contained in that prior revelation. If so, then there is a very real sense in which even Anselm’s (seemingly) a-Scriptural dialogues on truth, freedom, and the fall are not as speculative and unmoored as they may appear, but represent so many efforts at wrestling and coming to terms with a specifically and concretely Scriptural content.

Sub-Creativity as a Perfect-Being Property

I have argued previously on this blog that divine making, like Tolkien’s account of human making, does not involve God merely “choosing” from an already given and delineated domain of possibilities so much as it involves him creatively inventing or “imagining” those possibilities in the first place. Though there are differences between his position and my own, Brian Leftow in his God and Necessity (Oxford UP, 2012) similarly argues from a combination of perfect-being theology and the “perfection” of human creativity to argue that God must be the creator and conservator of not just concrete but also abstract objects: 

There are also perfect-being reasons to hold (GAO) [the claim that God creates and conserves all abstract objects outside Him]. We ourselves may cause some abstract to exist: if I breed puppies, perhaps I cause there to be new sets of puppies, new doghood tropes, even a new Aristotelian universal for a new sub-kind of dog. If we do this, being able to cause some sorts of abstracta is part of what gives us value as agents: it is good to cause a child to be healthy, and if being healthy consists in bearing a health-trope, it is good precisely to be able to cause this trope to exist. It would be a defect in God if He could not manage what we ourselves can manage and there were no explanation of this from some other divine perfection (as, for example, we appeal to God’s character to explain the fact that though we manage to do wrong, He cannot). Perfect-being theology denies that God has defects, and it does not seem that some other perfection would explain an inability to cause new tropes to exist…. God’s perfection in this respect may consist partly in ability to do a great deal more of it than we can… If (GAO) is true, God has power over the existence of the abstract as well as the concrete, including anything necessary and abstract. (65)

In summary, if it is a sub-creative perfection that we are able to invent “new form” (as Tolkien puts it in “On Fairy-Stories”), and if God is the perfect-being, possessing all perfections in an eminent and infinite manner, then God must be a perfect (sub)Creator.