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.

Ceasing to Will Justice vs. Willing to Abandon It

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 10

The Teacher begins his account of this “other cause” for the angels failure to preserve their will for justice by arguing that the devil, more than merely passively failing to will to preserve justice, actually went so far as to actively will his own abandonment of justice.[1] His original justice was lost not through his carelessly dropping it, as it were, but by his intentionally throwing it away. Unsettled by this proposal, the Student attempts to clarify that the will to abandon a thing nevertheless must be preceded by a prior cessation of the will to keep that thing. The reasoning is plausible enough: before one can go about desiring to get rid of a thing, surely he must first become indifferent to the fact of whether or not he retains it. “Who does not see,” the Student asks, “that it is not the case that he [the devil] did not will to keep because he deserted but that he deserted because he did not will to keep? For to one who is keeping something, not-willing-to-keep always precedes willing-to-desert. For someone wills to desert what he has because he does not will to keep it.”[2] Given the course of previous discussions, the Student’s perplexity is appreciable. In On Freedom of Choice the Teacher had admonished him for his possibilist elevation of the ability to sin to the same modal standing within free choice as the ability not to sin; and already in On the Fall of the Devil the Teacher has had to correct him for similarly elevating creaturely non-existence to the same modal status within God’s causal power as their existence. Presumably having learned his lesson and not wanting to make the same mistake a third time, it is tempting to view the Student as now discerning an element of his own earlier errors in the Teacher’s suggestion that the devil fell by actively willing to abandon justice.[3] The angels were created not in a possibilist indifference towards, but with an active, original will for justice. If so, it seems that it would only have been possible (if it is indeed possible) for the devil to arrive at the opposite extreme of willing to abandon justice by first traversing through an intermediate phase wherein he simply failed or ceased in willing that which he was originally given a will for. If no such intermediate stage, however, is deemed necessary to render the will to abandon justice—particularly for someone who already wills justice—as something psychologically possible and accessible, then we would seem to have made an at least partial return to the Student’s earlier, rejected hypothesis that freedom of choice lies in a tension between an ability to sin and an equipotent ability not to sin.


[1] On the Fall of the Devil 3.

[2] Ibid: “Quis non videat quia non ideo non voluit tenere, quia deseruit, sed ideo deseruit, quia non voluit tenere? Semper enim tenenti prius est non velle tenere, quam velle deserere. Ideo enim vult aliquis deserere quod tenet, quia non vult tenere.”

[3] In a different context, Sweeney refers to the Student as “a quick study” who is able to use the Teacher’s own distinctions against him. Sweeney, Anselm of Canterbury, 216.

God as the possibility of non-existence

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 8 

As previous posts have argued, there is a sense for Anselm in which things do not have the possibility for not existing prior to their existence, since there is no existing subject in which such a possibility might reside. More than this, there are good reasons for doubting that, even after a thing has been brought into being, it possesses of itself the possibility for non-existence. One of the problems with the Student’s Avicennian hypostatization of non-existing possibilities, after all, was the way that it made possibility neutral with respect to existence by making it equally “towards nothing.” To say, however, that existing things have the possibility for not existing is to elevate the prospect of non-existence to the same modal status as its prospects for continuing existence. Once again we have a form of modal nihilism, the idea that a thing could have the possibility for being nothing. Thus, even the admission of existing things as having both the possibility for existing and for not existing essentially reinstates, albeit at a creaturely level, the Student’s divine dilemma of God having the option of either causing a thing to exist or causing it not to exist. The reality, however, is that the “possibility” (such as it is) that an existing thing has for not existing is not a possibility that the thing itself has at all, but is rather a possibility that God has only after he has made it. (And here we remind ourselves that a thing’s non-existence is a “possibility” that God achieves, not through an active causal agency, but through ceasing to realize the prior possibility that God has for making that thing to exist, a point I will return to momentarily.) (St. Thomas Aquinas makes precisely this point in his own discussion of God’s “power” of annihilation in, for example, his Disputed Question on the Power of God (De potentia dei).) Yet while Anselm’s Teacher fails to make this point in so clear a fashion, at the same time it may be appreciated as a more consistent application of his own teaching that, on the one hand, prior to a thing existing, its possibility for existence is not a possibility that it has at all, but is rather a possibility that belongs to God, and on the other hand, a thing’s non-existence is not something God causes but is brought about by God’s ceasing to cause it. The Teacher’s own testimony, therefore, stands against him: when a thing is annihilated, it is not re-realizing its own original and authentic potential for being nothing, but rather involves God ceasing to do that which he was able to and had been doing for himself. It is God’s creative act, in short, that is the prior possibility for both a thing’s existence and its non-existence, as the thing itself actually has the possibility for neither.

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.”

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.

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.”

Anselm’s Scriptural Actualism

In Anselm of Canterbury and the Desire for the Word, Eileen C. Sweeney ingeniously suggests that, for all their abstract and speculative subject matter, Anselm’s trilogy of dialogues–On Truth, On Freedom of Choice, and On the Fall of the Devil–actually track the first three major stages of biblical history: creation, the creation of man, and the fall.

The topics of the three dialogues correspond to the first three crucial points of the Christian salvation narrative. De veritate is a consideration of the possibility of created being, of many truths in relation to the one truth. De libertate arbitrii is a consideration of Eden, the finite will as free, having righteousness and able to keep it. De casu is a consideration of the possibility of the fall, of finite being as free but able to will what it ought not. Those views are adumbrated in scripture in narrative form, as a story stretched out over time. Anselm explores these notions of created being and finite will by shifting from scripture’s “horizontal” mode to a “vertical” one. His task, in other words, is the logical derivation of the ese moments and the incoherence of their contraries. The dialogues argue for these moments as logical possibilities… as logically coherent and necessary possibilities.

     In this sense, these works are no less “theological” than Cur Deus homo in the sense that they are no less tied up with the specifically Christian account of the human condition.  (240)

In Anselm’s trilogy of dialogues, in other words, we have a modal commentary of sorts on the first three chapters of Genesis, all of which, of course, prepares for Anselm’s later modal account in Cur Deus Homo on the possibility/necessity of the two events at the heart of the salvation story, the Incarnation and Atonement of Christ.

A couple of additional thoughts in response. The first is how this positions Anselm’s trilogy on truth, freedom, and the fall as not distinct from, but just another chapter in, his overarching project of fides quaerens intellectum, of “faith seeking understanding.” The second is how, in keeping with this, these dialogues may be seen to apply what I have argued previously to be Anselm’s methodological actualism, his recognition, that is, of Scripture as the divine, authoritative, and prior actuality that, when received by faith, afterwards opens up to reason and hence “makes possible” the theological and philosophical investigation of those realities contained in that prior revelation. If so, then there is a very real sense in which even Anselm’s (seemingly) a-Scriptural dialogues on truth, freedom, and the fall are not as speculative and unmoored as they may appear, but represent so many efforts at wrestling and coming to terms with a specifically and concretely Scriptural content.

Something as the possibility of nothing.

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 3 

Consistent, then, with the Student’s overall possibilism, while God causes the non-being of things in the same way as he causes them to exist, the possibility of a thing’s non-being, of its being nothing, is itself a given for God. God’s creative power may be responsible for a thing being nothing, but he is not on that account God over its nothingness, its primitive, a-theological ability to be nothing. The possibility of a thing’s non-being is as much a brute fact of God’s existence and experience as is its possibility to exist. In contrast with this is the very different theology of nothing represented in the Teacher’s denial that God makes or causes things to not exist. He corrects his pupil’s starting premise by explaining that, although we do sometimes speak of someone “causing” a thing not to be when he has only not exercised his power to cause it to be, in such cases causality is improperly rather than properly attributed to the agent in question. Here we can see Anselm sowing the seeds of the much more developed semantics and logic of modal agency he would begin to formulate in his later, unfinished Philosophical Fragments, a work we will consider in a subsequent chapter but which has been identified by scholars as the earliest explict examination in the history of philosophy of a theory of modal agency.[1] For the present, it is enough for us to observe the specifically theological occasion and context in which the question of modal agency first occurs in Anselm’s writings. As the Teacher summarizes his position, “In this [improper] mode God is said to cause many things which He does not cause.”[3] He goes on to explain that even when God destroys a thing, its annihilation is not a case of God causing it to no longer be, but rather of his ceasing to cause it to be: “when He ceases to conserve what He has created, then that thing which existed returns to not-being, not because He causes it not to be but because He ceases to cause it to be.”[4] For the Teacher, bringing it about that a thing does not exist is a different kind of activity than bringing about its existence, and therefore, we may be led to infer, a different kind of possibility. The existence and non-existence of a thing are not two opposite but otherwise comparable outcomes that stand in an equivalent relationship to God in the lottery of the divine will. The (non-)event of a thing ceasing to be is obviously privative, and the reality it is privative of is the original initiative God undertook to bring the thing into existence in the first place. A thing’s non-existence, accordingly, is not an absolute possibility that stands in the same potential causal relationship to God as the possibility of its existence does, but is a possibility that is relative to and conditioned upon the thing actually existing in the first place. It is the possibility of a thing actually existing, in other words, that is the prior possibility of it then being able not to exist. It is only in and through causing a thing to exist that God also makes it possible for his ceasing to cause that thing to exist. Such a cessation, then, does not involve an additional action, but the interruption of his otherwise ongoing action of preserving the thing in its existence. In the place of the Student’s possibilism, accordingly—which nihilistically collapsed this analogical distinction between divine action and inaction into a univocal equivalence between causing being and causing non-being—the Teacher substitutes a theistic actualism according to which it is only what God does that in turns makes possible and intelligible what God is then “able” not to do. The non-being of what now exists, therefore, is not an absolute possibility with which God must eternally reckon, a fourth member of a divine Quadrinity, as it were. Before creation, in other words, there was not God and nothing, the one who is Being on the one hand and his supposed opposite of non-being on the other. There was only God, and that was all. The possibility of a thing not existing, consequently, does not pre-exist that thing at all, for the very possibility of non-existence is itself post-existence. A thing’s non-being is not its alien “other,” for the possibility of non-being is only con-created in and through the creation of those things that God has made real. Here we get our first instance of a theme that will be explored much more fully in Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, namely the respect in which what God has already done or accomplished with respect to creation determines the parameters and meaning and hence possibility for any “subsequent” (from both a temporal and a logical point of view) divine action.


[1] Belnap, Perloff, and Xu, for example, attribute to Anselm (whom they anachronistically identify as a Dominican) the “earliest modal logic of agency of which we have learned.” Facing the Future: Agents and Choices in Our Indeterminist World, 18. See also Knuuttila, “Anselm on Modality,” 125, and articles by D. Walton, Eileen Serene, and Sarah Uckelman.

[3]De casu 1. “Hoc modo Deus dicitur multa facere quae non facit…”

[4] “Cum ipse desinit servare quod fecit; non ideo id, quod erat, redit in non esse, quia ipse facit non esse; sed quia cessat facere esse.”

Political vs. Theological Origins of Anselm’s Modal Agency

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 4

In the previous post I made the claim that Anselm’s theory of agent modality, viewed by some scholars as the first in the field, has a specifically theological origin. Nuel Belnap, Michael Perloff, and Ming Xu, in their Facing the Future: Agents and Choices in our Indeterminate World, give a different account, implying that the origins of Anselm’s theory of agency may have had a political (and hence secular) source of inspiration. As they recount:

the archbishop was deeply involved in controversy with the tyrant William Rufus and later his brother Henry in regard to the matters of lay investiture and clerical homage; he vigorously opposed the former. These controversies were heavily freighted with the concepts of promising and commitment and agentive powers. In order to make clear that his authority in matters spiritual was not at the pleasure of the king, Anselm refused to accept the papal pallium from the hands of William Rufus. Partly in consequence, the archbishop was in effect exiled by the king. Anselm’s brief notes on the modal logic of agency were, we think, composed during this bitter exile. (Facing the Future 18-19)

This political reading of the influences on Anselm’s modal logic of agency is intriguing and may have something to it, yet there can be no doubt that the actual textual antecedents to his general modal logic agency are his discussions of divine agency in particular. For Anselm, just as it is faith that makes possible understanding, so it his theological reflections on the nature of divine possibility that opens up the “possibility” of a theory of human possibility.

The Nihilism of Theistic Possibilism

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 2

Although Anselm did not have any knowledge of Avicenna, the similarities between the Student’s statement that God causes the non-being of non-existing things on the one hand and the implications of the Avicennian doctrine of creaturely essences on the other, reveal the extent of Anselm’s intuitive grasp of the extremes to which such theistic possibilism can tend. Consistent with his opening thesis in On Freedom of Choice that the latter power involves the ability to sin and not to sin, the above passage has the Student characterizing God’s own freedom in terms of an ability both to cause things to be and to cause things not to be. Such a scheme encourages us to picture God as being perpetually presented with an exhaustive array of infinite possibilities, each one of which incessantly demands the attention of a divine “yea” or “nay,” of metaphysical election or reprobation. Flattening and democritizing the difference between divine action and inaction relative to a given possibility, accordingly, is the operation of an even more primitive and universal phenomenon of God’s will casting a univocal vote up or down on every bill of possibility brought to the floor of divine contemplation. Ironically, far from this theological voluntarism displacing the necessitarianism of the Neoplatonic emanationist scheme, it actually recapitulates it: instead of the One who is “beyond being” processing through all the lower orders of reality, we have a divine Chooser who, beyond being and non-being, ineluctably emanates all possibilities from himself, albeit with the (now largely insignificant) difference that he decides which handful of possibilities he will make real and which ones he will make unreal. Yet a further consequence of this modal and metaphysical “double-predestination” is that the very basis for privileging one divine response to a given possibility as “action” and demoting its opposite response to the state of “inaction,” is essentially eliminated or rendered arbitrary. If every possibility, after all, requires not only a positive act of divine choice, but of divine causality, to make it either to exist or not to exist, then there is a very real sense in which every possibility in fact receives actualization one way or another. Possibility, in other words, is no longer exclusively possibility towards existence, but is equally (in Cunningham’s phrase) “towards nothing,” as the possibility for being is now superseded by a prior, meta-possibility things have for either existing or not existing, a meta-modality that is entirely ambivalent towards existence. The result is a kind of modal nihilism according to which the world that actually exists really has no special ontological status whatsoever, being the mere photo-negative of the much more abundant realm of everything else that God causes not to exist. As has been suggested, however, privileging one modality by calling it “existence” and its opposite as “non-existence” is hereby exposed as entirely arbitrary and prejudicial: from the vantage point of those things divinely elected to the land of non-being, it is presumably this world that lacks existence. At the beginning of On Freedom of Choice, the Student had characterized free will as operating between two alternatives construed in the negative terms of sinning and not sinning. In much the same way, the Student’s possibilism-cum-nihilism here permits us to similarly revalue God’s choices as taking place between a positive, active causing things to not exist, and a comparatively negative, passive causing them to fail to not exist (in Christ, everything is “Nay and Amen.”). While God consigns some possibilities to the perturbations and anguish of being, we might as well say, others he blesses with the beatific repose and sabbath of non-being.

Causing Nothing

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 1

If the modal problem at the center of On Freedom of Choice is the question of what it is that makes free will possible, Anselm’s companion dialogue, On the Fall of the Devil (De casu diaboli), undertakes an examination of how, using their freedom of choice, the primal sin of the rebelling angels was possible. In the course of doing so, moreover, Anselm sketches what might be described as two competing “theologies of nothing,” corresponding to the antithesis we have been tracing between theistic possibilism on the one hand and theistic actualism on the other. In this series of posts I will be investigating these two alternative accounts of the possibility of nothing before turning to see how they each make an appearance within Anselm’s account of how the fall of Satan was made possible.

On the Fall of the Devil opens with the Student inquiring whether the angels’ perseverance in original justice or rectitude of will was itself a gift of God. Answering in the affirmative, the Teacher makes the general metaphysical observation that whatever being a creature has, including the state of the will’s continuing uprightness, must come from God as the source of all existence. From this the Student mistakenly infers that God therefore must not only be the cause of the being of those things which do exist, but also of the non-being of those things which don’t. He asks:

Or who causes-not-to-be whatever is not except Him who causes-to-be all that is. Likewise, if there is something only because God causes it, then it follows that what-is-not is not because He does not cause it. Therefore, just as those things which exist have from Him their being something, so those things which do not exist, or which pass from being to not-being, seem to have from Him their being nothing.[1]

Although an erroneous interpretation of the Teacher’s statement that God is the source of all existence, the Student’s statement is no unrealistic caricature on Anselm’s part, as it actually captures some important elements of the teaching of his immediate predecessor, the Muslim philosopher Avicenna (980-1037).  According to Avicenna, who was under the direct influence of the Neoplatonist Plotinus (204-270), God eternally and necessarily emanates down through a hierarchical series of ten intelligences that culminate in the Agent Intellect in which all possible creaturely essences are contained.[2] As early a critic as St. Thomas Aquinas recognized, this means that creaturely essences contain within themselves their own possibility both for being and for non-being.[3] In his discussion of the resulting “nihilism” of Avicenna, Conor Cunningham writes:

The potential for non-being was prevalent to such an extent that every essence was said to have a positive orientation to non-being… For Avicenna, everything with a quiddity is caused. It is for this reason that everything with the exception of the necessary Being has quiddity, and these quiddities are possible through themselves: ‘To such quiddities being does not accrue except extrinsically’. As a result, we can agree with Gilson that essences are measured by their lack of existence. Indeed, they are this lack of existence.[4]

As possibles in themselves, these creaturely essences are, in Gerard Smith’s apt phrase, “God’s data, given to, not by Him,”[5] meaning that, as Cunningham continues, God gives to each of these essences only “its to-be but not its to-be-able-to-be,” its existence, that is, but not its possibility for existence.[6] A further consequence of this teaching is Avicenna’s famous doctrine that existence is a mere accident which extrinsically accrues to a given essence at the behest of the divine will: “existence has shifted from existentiality to an essential realm,” which means that the real difference between being and non-being has been reduced to a “difference of essence; this essence rather than that essence.”[7] Additional corrolaries to the Avicennian doctrine is the latter’s de-theologizing of metaphysics by making being rather than God the proper subject of the science of first philosophy, a teaching that some scholars have identified as a precursor to Duns Scotus’s doctrine of univocity.[8]


[1] De casu 1. “Aut quis facit non esse, quidquid non est; nisi ille qui facit esse, omne quod est? Item si non est aliquid, nisi ideo quia Deus facit; necesse est ut quod non est ideirco non sit, quia ipse non facit. Sicut ergo illa quae sunt, ab illo habent esse aliquid; ita quae non sunt, vel quae de esse transeunt ad non esse, videntur ab eodem ipso habere esse nihil.”

[2] Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 9.

[3] Aquinas, De Potentia 5.3, cited in Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 11.

[4] Ibid., 11.

[5] Gerard Smith, “Avicenna and the Possibles,” New Scholasticism, no. 17 (1943), 347, cited in Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 11.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 10.

[8] Ibid.

Nothingness as Post-Existence

A couple of weeks ago I posted on how God’s act of creation is so radical, so basic, so ultimate, that more than merely bringing existence into being from nothing, it is actually responsible for bringing into being for the the very first time the very opposition between being and non-being itself, and in that sense might be said to involve the very invention of “nothing.” Before God created, there was no “thing,” not even “nothing.” Not only is creatio ex nihilo, but nihil ex creatione. 

Rereading his On the Fall of the Devil, I find that Anselm says much the same thing. In response to the Student’s query as to how the word nothing can have any signification if what it signifies is indeed nothing, the Teacher replies:

It is agreed that as far as its signification goes, the word ‘nothing’ is in no way different from ‘not-something.’ And nothing is more obvious than this: ‘not-something’ by its signification requires that every thing, whatsoever, and anything that is something, is to be excluded from the understanding, and that no thing at all or what is in any way something is to be included in the understanding. But since there is no way to signify the exclusion of something except by signifying the very thing whose exclusion is signified–for no one understand what ‘not-human’ signifies except by understanding what a human is–the expression ‘not-something’ must signify something precisely by eliminating that which is something. On the other hand, by excluding everything that is something, it signifies no essence that it requires to be included in the hearer’s understanding. Therefore, the expression ‘not-something’ does not signify any thing or that which is something. (De casu diaboli 11, Williams trans.)

Nothingness, therefore, is a post-existence, and hence post-creational, phenomenon. Before God creates, there is not God and nothing: there is only God. Nothingness is con-created (and hence con-signified, as Anselm’s Teacher observes) along with the somethingness that is creation, which means that God invents nothing in and with what he creates. As Conor Cunningham puts it in the passage I cited in the previous post, the difference between being and non-being is preceded by the intra-Trinitarian differences that constitute the Godhead. Put differently, God’s act of creation is so powerful that it brings into being the possibility of its own opposite, nothing. Anselm’s near contemporary Peter Damian says in his letter On Divine Omnipotence that “God has not yet learned to make nothing.” What he means is that God doesn’t make things that don’t in fact exist, something Anselm agrees with. But there is a another sense in which nothing is exactly what God makes, by virtue of making something. In terms of our modal theism, finally, we see that it is not an empty nothing that is the prior possibility of there then being an actual something (possibilism), but it is God’s creation of an actual something that makes nothing possible.

Tolkien’s Answer to Anselm on Why the Devil Fell

I’ve been commenting recently on the parallels between Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (“Why God Became Man”) and Tolkien’s Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth. Another set of texts deserving of comparison is Tolkien’s account of the rebellion of Melkor in the Ainulindalë and Anselm’s De Casu Diaboli (“On the Fall of the Devil”). According to “the Teacher” in Anselm’s dialogue, the devil fell because “he willed something that he did not have and that he ought not to have willed then, as Eve willed to be like a god before God willed it.” When he is asked by “the Student” what this “something” was that the “good angels justly renounced, thereby achieving perfection, and that the bad angels, by unjustly desiring, fell,” the Teacher pleads ignorance: “I do not know what it could have been, but whatever it was, it is sufficient to know that it was something that could have increased their greatness….”

In his Ainulindalë, Tolkien similarly portrays the devil as falling through his desire for something he (in Anselm’s words)  “did not have and that he ought not to have willed.” Yet instead of the Teacher’s confession of ignorance, Tolkien gives a very specific answer to the Student’s question, an answer, moreover, that is all Tolkien’s own. According to the Ainulindalë, the “something” that the devil desired and yet fell in pursuing was the “Imperishable Flame,” that is, the creative power of Ilúvatar by means of which he aspired to “bring into Being things of his own.”

Now, I used to assume that Melkor’s desire for Iluvatar’s own creative power was an act of blatant hubris and self-idolatry–the grasping after a power and dignity that Melkor would have–or at least should have–known to be proper and hence exclusive to Iluvatar alone. As Tolkien’s narrator (somewhat understatedly) put its, Melkor “found not the Fire, for it is with Ilúvatar.” Reading the Ainulindale in light of Anselm’s De Casu, however, I think a more subtle and sophisticated take on Melkor’s fall is possible. Although Anselm’s Teacher doesn’t know what it was that the devil and his cohort unjustly sought, he does believe that it was something that was ultimately necessary for the angel’s happiness, such that their eventual attainment of it would have indeed “increased their greatness.” The irony is that, by unjustly seeking their happiness before the proper time, the evil angels lost the very thing they sought, while the good angels, by remaining content with justice in the absence of their full happiness, were rewarded for their justice with the happiness they did not seek.

I suggest it is much the same story that Tolkien has to tell us in the Ainulindale. While Melkor’s purpose of discovering in the Void and wielding for himself the Flame Imperishable was certainly misguided and confused (to say the least), the ultimate objective of his quest, namely the external realization of those things imagined in his mind, was something Iluvatar presumably had planned from the very beginning. As we are told on almost the first page of the Ainulindale, the consummation of all things “after the end of days” would take the form of the “themes of Iluvatar” being at last

played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Iluvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.

The eschatology (doctrine of last things) of Tolkien’s protology (doctrine of the first things), in other words, is the expectation that Iluvatar will one day lend his own creative power to the thoughts and imaginations of his creatures’ minds, bringing them into existence exactly (or at least nearly exactly) as they were conceived. The Ainur themselves are, of course, treated to a small foretaste of this consummation “after the end of days” within the Ainulindale itself when Iluvatar first gives the Vision to their Music, and then gives an otherwise unformed Eä (the “World that Is”) to their Vision. It is this same eschatological hope, of course, that Tolkien portrays in Leaf by Niggle when, in the scene I commented on a few days ago, Niggle in his post-purgatorial but pre-paradaisical state discovers the real-world version of the tree he had been painting. It’s the same hope, moreover, that Tolkien holds out to the pre-converted Lewis in his poem “Mythopoeia” when he writes: “In Paradise they look no more awry; / and though they make anew, they make no lie. / Be sure they still will make, not being dead, / and poets shall have flames upon their head, / and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall: / there each shall choose for ever from the All.” For Tolkien, in sum, the fulfillment of the sub-creative nature and desire is (and can be) nothing less than the real-world existence of our sub-created imaginings.

Reading the account of Melkor’s initial fall in light of the foregoing, accordingly, it is possible  to see the latter’s desire for the Flame Imperishable, at least at first, as nothing more than a confused and impatient desire for an otherwise creaturely good and divinely intended destiny. In the words of Anselm’s Teacher, “Then he willed something that he did not have and that he ought not to have willed at that time” (De Casu ch. 4). In the Ainulindale, in conclusion, we are treated to a display of Anselmian poetic justice with a distinctively Tolkienian and hence sub-creational and eschatological twist: what Melkor rebelliously sought, he lost, and what the faithful Ainur did not seek, they gain (cp. Romans 9:30). As I have said, in the place of Anselm’s uncertainty as to what that “happiness” was that the rebellious angels preferred over the “justice” of remaining content with what God had provisionally given them, Tolkien posits his own peculiar idea of an innate sub-creative desire to see the realization of those products of sub-created wonder. And instead of Anselm’s faithful angels, who immediately receive and are ever-after “confirmed” in this unknown happiness as a reward for their obedience, Tolkien’s fictional account of the fall of the devil has the angels more fully participating in–in the words of St. Peter, “desiring  to look into” (1 Pet. 1:12)–the drama of Man’s history. (Alternatively, one could, I suppose, locate the entirety of Tolkien’s “angelological epic” in that interval–infinitesimally momentary for an angel, for all we know–between the obedience of Anselm’s angels and their subsequent confirmation.) To repeat the relevant lines from the Ainulindale,

Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright…