Augustine, the possibility of Anselm

(The Monologion‘s Theology of the Possible, part 3)

Yesterday’s post touched on the role that such conditions as friendship, conversation, and community played in motivating and shaping Anselm’s thought. Even more to the point is Anselm’s testimony in his prologue that, upon reviewing the argument of the Monologion, he was unable to find anything in the work “inconsistent with the writings of the Catholic Fathers—especially with Blessed Augustine’s writings.” If true, the harmony between his conclusions and those of his theological forebears could hardly have been the work of accident or afterthought, but only made possible by a faculty of reason that had first been trained in the school of Scripture, the fathers of the Church, and St. Augustine in particular.[1] Consistent with this is Anselm’s declaration that in the present work he has also sought to avoid teaching anything new, and his invitation to the reader who might suspect otherwise to “first look carefully at the books of On the Trinity by the aforementioned teacher, viz., Augustine, and then let him judge my work in the light of these books.”[2] It is Augustine, as Anselm virtually admits, who has made his own insights, such as they are, to be possible.[3] In the Monologion, then, the proper use of reason within theology is clearly not to stand in judgment of those things taught in Scripture or tradition, but consistent with Anselm’s later expression of “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum), reason’s role is instead to demonstrate after the fact the rational necessity or coherence—the “ratio fidei,” as he will term it—of those things already or otherwise received by faith.[4]

[1] On Anselm’s debt to Scripture in his reasoning, see, for example, Southern, Saint Anselm, 69-70.

[2] On the influence of Augustine’s On the Trinity on Anselm’s Monologion, see Asiedu, From Augustine to Anselm and Gersh, “Anselm of Canterbury.”

[3] As Southern writes: “the seeds of nearly everything [Anselm] said are to be found in Augustine—but they are seeds, not flowers. Anselm was not a writer of florilegia: his flowers are always his own… Just as he never uses the Bible to provide texts to prove his conclusions, but only to provide a starting point for his meditations, or a premonition of his conclusions, so it is with Augustine. He absorbed Augustine as he had absorbed the Bible: he made them both an integral part of his experience… He looked on himself as an explorer of territory opened up by the Bible and by its great expositer, Augustine. They provided the maps to the country over which he had to find his way under their guidance. He never challenged anything he found in them; but they left him free to find new experiences of the truths they contained, perhaps new proofs of their truth, certainly new ways of expressing their truth.” Ibid., 72-3.

[4] In Sweeney’s striking image of Anselm’s frame of mind, “Thus the discontent, the restlessness, and drive towards understanding is not from reason as the serpent whispering in faith’s ear but from within faith itself.” Sweeney, Anselm of Canterbury, 123. For Anselm as much for his later disciple Nicholas of Cusa, it is true that, in Dermot Moran’s words, “in faith all understandable things are enfolded, whereas in knowledge they are unfolded.” Moran, “Nicholas of Cusa and Modern Philosophy,” 185, citing Cusa, De docta ignorantiae 3.11.244.


Friendship, conversation, and the possibility of theology

(The Monologion‘s Theology of the Possible, part 2)

The previous post introduced Anselm’s Monologion with its method of investigating those things believed about God, not through an appeal to Scripture or any other authority, but through “reason alone” (sola ratione). Yet the rational method of the Monologion should not be confused for a modern, methodological rationalism. For our purposes, the latter error might be defined as the possibilistic presumption of a pure, presupposition-less reason, capable of discovering—independently and in advance of all that God has actually made or revealed in creation, Scripture, or tradition—those doctrinal possibilities (if any) to which faith might afterwards be allowed to give assent. On the contrary, Anselm’s Monologion, literally a “speaking to oneself,” while representing a form of rational, theological soliloquy, is nevertheless no isolated inquiry of a presumptuously self-starting, autonomous reason. The first indication and illustration of this, ironically enough, may be seen in the fact that, as Eileen Sweeney has astutely pointed out, Anselm only “undertakes this [rational] method of reflection not on his own initiative,” but on the insistence and direction of his religious cohorts at Bec.[1] In more than one sense, it is the peculiar community in which Anselm existed that made the Monologion for him possible. In his later dialogue on the necessity of the Incarnation, Cur Deus Homo, Anselm captures something of the intellectual debt he felt he owed to his conversations with others when, after professing his insufficiency for the task, he represents his friend and interlocutor Boso as encouraging him thus: “You ought not so much to have this fear as you ought to remember that in a discussion of some problem it often happens that God discloses what at first was hidden.”[2] For Anselm, theological discourse—whether in the form of real-time, informal conversation with friends, or in the later reconstructions of a carefully composed treatise or dialogue—involves far more than the communication of ideas or arguments one already holds to be, but is often itself the means for further theological invention or “discovery.” In David Moss’s summary of the role friendship played in opening up and so making possible Anselm’s own theoretical insights, “[t] he scene of friendship then unfolds, as it were, the hermeneutical path of intelligibility and meaning—as an encounter with Otherness—and this it does as passion and in passion—as, one could say, bidding, appeal, request, supplication, thanksgiving, and precisely not in the fulfilment of any prior transcendental conditions.”[3] In this we have just one small example of the many ways in which Anselm’s thought and writings owe their origins and hence possibility to the very real, extra-rational circumstances of monastic and spiritual friendship, discipline, and devotion in which he lived and moved and had his being.[4] If Anselm came to realize, as we shall see later, that what is ultimately metaphysically possible, even for God, is a function and consequence of what God himself has already made actual, paralleling this insight was his own awareness of the extent to which his rational thought received its possibility from the very real, concrete conditions lying outside of his own self and reason.

[1] Sweeney, Anselm of Canterbury, 117.

[2] Cur Deus Homo 1.1.

[3] Moss, “St. Anselm, Theoria, and the Convolution of Sense,” 136.

[4] For a discussion of the necessity for Anselm of not only faith (about which more anon), but also spiritual experience, humility, obedience, and discipline for proper reasoning about divine things, see Visser and Williams, Anselm, 20.

Monologion: Anselm’s rational necessities

(The Monologion’s Theology of the Possible, part 1)

Anselm’s first major theological work, the Monologion, is also the first in importance for laying the foundation of his theology of divine possibility. Composed in 1076 at the behest of some of his fellow monks at the abbey at Bec, the Monologion contains Anselm’s lengthiest reflection on the doctrine of God proper, addressing questions of his existence, his principal attributes, and finally even his triune nature. What his brothers had specifically asked him for was a model “meditation” (meditatio) on what Christians believe about the divine essence (divinitatis essentiae), yet the work was intended to be no ordinary religious or spiritual exercise, as they forbade him to support any of his views on God through an appeal to Scripture or any other authority. Instead, and in keeping with Anselm’s own established practice, they required that he found all his claims about the divine nature only on what “rational necessity” (rationis necessitas) and the very “clarity of the truth” (veritatis claritas) could show to be the case. In the opening chapter of the work, Anselm describes the strategy as one of proceeding “by reason alone” (sola ratione), and goes so far as to conjecture that even a willing unbeliever—someone of average intelligence but otherwise ignorant of what Christians believe about God—could persuade himself of the validity of his arguments. Clearly, the very first possibility taken for granted in the Monologion is its assumption of the rational explicability and defensibility of those truths about God otherwise held by faith.

Stoicism’s linguistic metaphysics

In a post from a month or so ago on “Augustine’s linguistic turn,” I wrote about the positive influence Stoicism exerted on Augustine’s philosophy of language. This and a follow-up post are an attempt to develop further, first, some relevant features of Stoic metaphysics and ontology and, following that, how their metaphysics was mirrored in their philosophy of language.

As an interpretation of the Augustinian Verbum, the Anselmian locutio represents a somewhat radical and revisionist take on this otherwise traditional creed. For in stressing the specifically linguistic side of the Augustinian Verbum, Anselm’s locutio helped resolve yet another deficiency in Augustine’s intellectual legacy, namely what John Milbank has identified as a certain “linguistic rationalism” inherited by Augustine from his classical philosophical sources and which he then bequeathed to his medieval successors. At the heart of this linguistic rationalism was the classic “semantic triangle” of word-idea-referent—words reflect ideas and ideas reflect reality—and which Milbank faults for its promotion of an “instrumentalist view of the relation of language to thought, a strict distinction between ‘sign’ and ‘thing’, and a general denial of any sort of ‘essential’ relation between sign and thing signified.”[1] Among ancient and medieval thinkers, only the Stoics saw fit to significantly revise the semantic triangle, and while Augustine derived many of his views on language from the Stoics, some of their more important contributions to the subject were insufficiently adopted and appreciated by him. The differences between their respective approaches, as we shall see, will provide us with yet another instructive perspective for evaluating the theological innovations of Anselm’s divine locutio. The first thing to note about the Stoics’ philosophy of language is its close parallel to their more general philosophy of being. According to Marcia Colish, the primary concern of Stoic metaphysics was “to overcome the dualism between mind and matter taught by other Greek philosophical schools. The Stoics achieve this goal by identifying mind and matter with each other and with God… [E]verything that acts is a body. There is a continuum between mind and body. They are completely translatable into each other; they are simply two ways of viewing the content within the continuum.”[2] What this means for the Stoics’ ontology is that they are not the transcendent, abstract, extrinsic, and ideal entities of Plato’s ideas which determine the being of things, but consistent with their doctrine of a wholly immanent and animating divine logos, “bodies themselves possess their own inner rationale for their existence, extension, and activity. It is their inner tonos [tension] which accounts for their operations…”[3] Of particular importance here is the famous Stoic doctrine of the logoi spermatikoi, or “seminal reasons,” according to which the divine logos does not govern things at a distance, but has been sewn into the material “soil” of existing things, encoding all the possibilities of not only normal processes of genesis and growth, but also exceptional and otherwise inexplicable departures from the usual course of nature as well.[4] “All things,” as Colish puts it, “are thus related to the cosmic pneuma and to each other,”[5] making for a less substantivist and possibilist, and more relational and actualist ontology according to which the possibility of what things can be and can do is determined not by an abstract ideal realm that is otherwise indifferent to its material imitations, but rather by a providential orchestration and synchronization of each particular thing with everything else that co-exists with it.

[1] Milbank, Word Made Strange, 84.

[2] Colish, Stoic Tradition, 23.

[3] Ibid., 26. See also Milbank, Word Made Strange, 89.

[4] Colish, Stoic Tradition, 32.

[5] Ibid., 27.

Why every creature causes ex nihilo

In both his theory and his art, Tolkien probed the metaphysical and artistic possibilities–and also the limits–of finite, creaturely making. As I’ve noted here before, one traditional limit Tolkien took for granted, one that he shared, for example, with St. Thomas Aquinas, is the fact that only God has the power to create ex nihilo. We can sub-create, but only God can create. While St. Anselm would doubtlessly concur with this tradition on the essentials, there is nevertheless a sense for him in which God’s rational creatures–and really every creaturely cause–is responsible for making “ex nihilo.” In his explanation of the meaning of God’s making things “from nothing,” Anselm argues by analogy from the way creatures themselves bring things into being “from nothing”:

when we observe a man of very meager means who has been elevated by a second man to great wealth or honor, we say “The second man made the first man from nothing,” or “The first man was made from nothing by the second man.” That is, the first man, who formerly was regarded as nothing, is now esteemed as truly something because of the making of the second man. (Monol. 8, Hopkins trans.)

When a benefactor brings a man from obscurity into a state of wealth or honor, he makes him to be something from nothing, not, to be sure, and as Aquinas might have put it, from nothing absolutely considered, but from a particular kind of nothing, from being nothing in a specific respect (namely with respect to wealth or status). And such is the case, we might say, with every cause: in bringing into being their effects, they cause to be those things which formerly were not. It is from these limited instances of making-from-nothing, finally, that Anselm reasons to the meaning of God’s own act of creating from nothing, in his case, not the limited nothings with which we are familiar, but from the absolute non-being that, admittedly, God alone has the power to overcome. (Aquinas, incidentally, reasons in a similar fashion for the conclusion that God creates ex nihilo in the Summa: every causal “emanation” presupposes the absence of that which is emanated; thus man is emanated from what is non-man, and something white can only emanate from that which was formerly non-white; as God’s act of creation involves the “emanation” of being itself, creation must be from its opposite, namely non-being or nothing–ST 1.45.1.) Instead of the binary logic of an intractable dualism, accordingly, in which divine making–which alone is from nothing–is defined in ontic opposition to creaturely making–which is always from something and never from nothing, what Anselm here indicates is an analogical relationship according to which God creates ex nihilo, and we to varying degrees participate in his creative activity by bringing about that which is from that which it formerly was not. God’s creating ex nihilo is not so much the othering limit to our own making as it is the possibility and source of our own making ex nihilo.

Divine Ideas: God looking at himself looking at creation

One of Anselm’s argument for the utter unity of the divine locutio centers on its status as the supreme truth and likeness, not of the creatures that are spoken through it, but of the divine being by which it is spoken (Monol. 31).[1] Anselm recognizes that, whereas the words we humans mentally speak are the very likeness and image of the extra-mental objects which are conceived through those mental words, the divine locutio cannot be a likeness or image of those things spoken through it, for otherwise the locutio would not be truly consubstantial with the divine being itself. Rather, they are the created things conceived and spoken by the divine locutio that are the likeness and image of it. For the divine locutio to be the supreme truth, it must be perfectly conformed to what supremely and unchangeably exists, namely the divine essence, and this means that that the locutio must be supremely one and unchanging.

Contained in this argument (whether consciously or not) is an implied critique of Augustine’s divine ideas, inasmuch as the latter’s plurality was argued to be necessary in order to account for the plurality of forms found amongst creatures. For Augustine, God must have a different divine idea by which he makes a horse from the idea he uses to make a man, for a horse is different from a man. From the Anselmian perspective, however, this is effectively to make the divine ideas as exemplar causes in the image and likeness of their created effects. Although Augustine argues that it would be irreligious to suppose that God (after the fashion of Plato’s demiurge) looks outside of himself for his plan for creation, there is a sense in which what Augustine has really done is merely relocate or specify the precise vantage point from which God does precisely that: the divine ideas, in short, are God’s looking at himself looking at his (possible) creatures. Given these contortions, it is little wonder that in the fourteenth century William of Ockham, wielding his razor (and in the name of Augustine) would seek to cut through the Augustinian knot by re-interpreting God’s ideas as simply God looking at his creatures. Once again, Anselm endeavors to avoid such later consequences of the Augustinian teaching by more perfectly affirming the divine locutio’s identity as the supreme truth, image, and likeness of the divine essence itself.

[1] Visser and Williams, Anselm, 125.

Divine Thinking is a Divine Speaking

G.R. Evans comments at some length on how, for Anselm, divine thinking is a kind of divine speaking:

Anselm introduces [in Monologion 10] the idea of ‘talking’ (locutio). In succeeding chapters we often find thinking and and speaking apparently being used interchangeably… One passage in particular, in Monologion 63, suggests a close association in Anselm’s mind between talking and thinking… ‘For when the Supreme Spirit “speaks” in this way, it is the same same as when he perceives by thought, just as the “speaking” of our own minds is nothing but the act of reviewing our thinking.’… Here, it seems, thinking is envisaged as something more than a still activity, in which we simly contemplate the object of thought; and locutio, too, involves some sort of movement, a reviewing of thought, a process perhaps of bringing it into focus. The exact sense is by no means clear, but there can be no doubt about the clsoeness of association between the two in Anselm’s mind. When God expresses himself by speaking his thought, he creates: ‘So that I may consider, if I can, his speaking, through which all things were made’ (ut de eius locutione, per quam facta sunt omnia); ‘There is one Word, throug hwhich all things were made’ (est unum verbum, per quod facta sunt omnia). It is plain enough, then, that thinking and  talking are closely allied activities for Anselm and almost always when he mentions either activity in the Monologion, he considers both their human and their divine application. What he has to say about ‘thinking’ about God will tell us a good deal about his view of the problem of ‘talking’ about God… (Evans, Anselm on Talking About God, 23-4)