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.”


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