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.

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