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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