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.”


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