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.

Anselm on the Divine Fancy

I’ve posted before on the similarities between Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation and Anselm’s theological method of fides quarens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”). Anselmian theology strives to provide “necessary” proofs for the revealed articles of the faith, yet Anselm recognizes that, while necessary, his arguments nevertheless have a provisional character that inevitably falls short of the reality itself, always leaving more to be said. In Tolkienian terms, Anselmian theology provides arguments which are “secondary worlds” which have the “inner consistency of reality” and yet which at most approximate, and yet still elucidate and so “recover” the truth that is the primal reality of Christian belief. In doing theology this way, however, the theologian is truly sub-creative, achieving a remarkable parallel to what God himself does in the act of devising and creating the world. When God creates, he fashions a reality which, on the one hand, mirrors his own Triune “inner consistency of reality,” and yet which at the same time represents a genuinely novel, creative interpretation or improvisation of his own reality. The Anselmian theologian, in other words, is a true sub-creator because God was the first Anselmian theologian.

Corroborating this reading of Anselm is Hans urs von Balthasar’s characterization of the Anselmian corpus as “realiz[ing] in the purest form the concerns of theological aesthetics” (The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol. II Studies in Theological Styles: Clerical Styles, 213). In a passage addressing this issue of what we might call God’s own internal aesthetic, Balathasar writes how, for Anaselm, God’s creative

‘ideas’ are deduced not primarily from below, from the contingence and the degrees of worldly qualities, which are ascending degrees of perfection, indeed of reality, and which persuade (persuadet) of the existence of something most perfect and most real in their sphere, but rather from above: from the free self-expression of God, who plans and ‘imagines’ what he wills. (229)

To be precise, and as I’ve note elsewhere, Anselm does not in fact have an Augustinian doctrine of divine ideas, yet otherwise I see Balthasar as making a complementary point. The insistence, from Augustine to Aquinas, that there must exist in the divine, creative cause a real plurality of distinct ideas in order to account for the real plurality amongst God’s created effects, is, in Balthasar’s expression, to deduce the divine ideas “from below.” The irony is that, in its attempt to avoid divine demiurgy–God looking outside of himself for his creative archetypes–Augustine committed his own form of Christian ananke-ism: an inferior reality dictating the conditions on which God’s creative agency exists and operates. While retaining the language of “ideas” (which Anselm eschews), Balthasar nevertheless understands this so-called “second Augustine” (alter Augustinus) faithfully enough: God’s ideas, such as they are, are no mere secular, atheological givens, but are the result of an authentically theological process of divine free creativity, even “imagination.” God does not think his possibilities, in other words, but in Brian Leftow’s apt phrase (God and Necessity), God rather “thinks up” his possibilities. (Though using Balthasar’s spatial imagery, perhaps we should say that God thinks down his possibilities.) Balthasar continues:

And with that the category of expression (exprimere) is given its place, which will become so important for Bonaventure; and the ars divina will be less in facto esse, in the order of the universal, than in fieri, in the free discovery of essences, seen in the power of expression of the divine ‘fancy’ and located in the ‘place’ in God, where the power of generation within the divine itself is engaged in its trinitarian work.

For Balthasar’s Anselm, the process by which God knows creaturely forms is less an act of divine theoria or contemplation than it is an act of divine poiesis or making; a matter not of Augustine’s ideae divinae, but of Augustine’s ars divina. Balthasar’s reference to God’s “free discovery of essences” echoes Aquinas’s remark in De Veritatue (3.2 ad 6) that God “devises” (adinvenit) the divine ideas through his reflection on his own essence. Thus, instead of the historic vacillation between the two poles of divine intellect and will, Balthasar’s reading of Anselm allows us to see the latter as transcending and so escaping the tiresome intellectualism/voluntarism debate through the recognition of an altogether new theological category, that of the divine “fancy” or imagination. Rounding out his statement on Anselm’s significance vis-a-vis Augustine, Balthasar writes:

All this is certainly a continuation of Augustine’s trinitarian thought, but from the outset there is [in Anselm] an emphasis on God’s total freedom and therefore on the spontaneiety of his self-disclosure.

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.

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.

Willing to Lie: Some Equivocations in Ch. 5 of Anselm’s “On Freedom of Choice”

Anselm’s On Freedom of Choice, part 10

Chapter five of On the Freedom of Choice introduces a discussion that will prove of particular importance for Anselm’s account of the fall of the devil in the following dialogue, but also for exposing some of the conceptual problems plaguing that account. When the Student asks how it is that a man possessed of free choice can nevertheless be led through temptation to “desert” rightness against his own will, the Teacher responds that “[n]o one deserts this uprightness except by willing to. So if ‘against one’s will’ means ‘unwillingly,’ then no one deserts uprightness against his will.”[1] Although plausible-sounding enough, this statement actually contains a significant ambiguity, for where the first sentence implies that a person abandons justice only by positively willing it, the second sentence softens this requirement to a mere denial that there be any unwillingness that justice be abandoned. The difference is subtle yet significant, for the latter does not in fact logically entail the former: it is conceivable that someone can be without any unwillingness to lose something, without that absence of unwillingness amounting thereby to a positive will that they should lose it. Lest this seem overly nitpicking, it should be noted that Anselm himself is in the history of western thought something of an authority and expert on parsing out the will in just this matter. In his unfinished Philosophical Fragments, for example, a work noted by scholars as the first major contribution to a theory of modal agency, Anselm (again in the persona of his Teacher) discriminates between four senses of will: the efficient, the approving, the concessive, and the merely permissive. In the Teacher’s above equivocation between the will to desert justice and the absence of an unwillingness that justice be deserted, accordingly, I contend that what we have is a conflation of a case of concessive or permissive will with a case of efficient or approving will. Alternatively, the Teacher might be criticized here for failing to make the very distinction we will find him and his Student taking for granted later in On the Fall of the Devil, namely the difference between an active willing of justice and the comparatively passive cessation in the will to preserve justice.

The significance of this error begins to come into focus after the Student rephrases his question by means of the following example: “If someone who lies in order not to be killed does so only willingly, then how is it that he is said to lie against his will? For just as against his will he lies, so against his will he wills to lie. And someone who against his will wills to lie, unwillingly wills to lie.” It is at this point, in response, that the Teacher draws the distinction, noted earlier, between willing a thing for its own sake (propter se) and willing a thing for the sake of something else (propter aliud). It’s an important and helpful distinction, yet the problem comes with how the Teacher applies it to the Student’s example of someone being forced to lie on pain of death:

Therefore, perhaps it can be said that the man lies both against his will and not against his will, in accordance with these different wills. Accordingly, when the man said to lie against his will because insofar as he wills the truth he does not will to lie, this statement does not contradict my claim that no one deserts uprightness-of-will against his will. For in lying, the man wills to desert uprightness for the sake of his life; and in accordance with this will he deserts uprightness not against his will but willingly. This is the will we are now discussing…

As an explanation of how a man can both will to lie and will not to lie at one and the same time, the argument is valid enough: he does not will to lie per or propter se, that is, for the sake of lying itself, but only per accidens, insofar as the act of lying has been artificially and externally imposed upon him as a condition for saving his life. The fallacy comes when the Teacher plausibly and almost imperceptibly conflates this will to lie with the will to abandon justice: “in lying, the man wills to desert uprightness for the sake of his life.” As before with the will to desert justice and the lack of unwillingness that justice be abandoned, it is not at all obvious that the former necessarily involves the latter. (Anselm will makes a related mistake, incidentally, and as we shall see later, when in Cur Deus Homo he treats Jesus’s ability to speak the words “I know him [the Father] not” as proof that Jesus therefore had the ability to lie.) Even if we assume for the sake of argument that lying in order to save one’s life is indeed a sin, and as a sin it would entail the abandonment of rightness of will, this does not mean that there was therefore a will to abandon justice itself. Someone unjustly willing to lie in order to save a life, after all, is fully compatible (at least in principle) with him doing so precisely out of a will for justice, even if, ex hypothesi, he does so mistakenly. Justice, we recall here, is a matter of willing what one ought to will, suggesting that, so long as someone feels that lying in order to save his life is something one ought to do, there is a sense in which they are doing so (even if mistakenly) in the interest of justice. Harkening back to the Teacher’s preceding equivocation between, on the one hand, an active willing to desert justice and, on the other hand, the comparatively passive absence of unwillingness that justice should be retained, we may at the very least say that it is possible for the person who lies to save his life to do so with neither a will to abandon justice nor a will to preserve it. Instead, all that is necessary for such an unjust willingness to lie to take place is that there be an absence of a will one way or the other (which would itself be a form of injustice, to be sure, just not a willed one), but only a simple failure or cessation in the will for justice.

[1] On Freedom of Choice 5.

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.

A Different Cause

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 9 

Leading up to their discussion of the problem of the fall of the devil, we have thus far seen Anselm’s Student and Teacher develop two competing theologies of nothing. On the one hand is the Student’s theistic possibilism which, by holding God as the univocal cause of both the being and non-being of things, effectively and nihilistically obliterated the difference between created being and an hypothesized created non-being. On the other hand is the theistic actualism of the Teacher’s recognizing only God’s causality of those things which actually do exist, thereby subordinating the possibility of a thing’s non-being as something presupposing its prior, actual existence. Yet despite his intent to speak “properly” of God’s agency relative to the non-existence of things, we saw how the Teacher himself struggled to carry through consistently his own theological metaphysics and semantics of non-being. As it will be my purpose to show in this section, it is a similar ambiguity that plagues the Teacher’s account of how and why the devil fell.

Following chapter one’s ground-laying discussion of how God causes, not the non-being, but only their being, chapter two resumes the discussion of the non-perseverance of the fallen angels, and in chapter three the Teacher explains how it was that the angels who fell were genuinely offered by God—but on account of their own failure of will, did not receive from him—the gift of persevering in their will for justice. More than this, the angels who rebelled were not only offered the perseverance in willing justice, but they were even given the will for such perseverance. The reason they did not ultimately receive the gift of perseverance itself, accordingly, is that they did not persevere in their will for persevering in the will for justice. To avoid the ensuing infinite regress, however, the Teacher recommends that, when it is asked why the fallen angels did not persevere in willing justice, “some other explanation [alia causa] regarding this failure of will” ought to be given instead.[1] It is this strategy, as we shall see, of attributing the will’s failure to preserve justice to an alia causa, to some other, positive cause, that comprises the heart of Anselm’s solution to the problem of the fall of the devil.

[1] On the Fall of the Devil 3: “alia causa reddenda est, unde scilicet contigerit defectus illius voluntatis, quam quia non perseverasti velle voluntatem.”

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.”

Adam’s Other Spare Rib

What would have happened had Eve sinned but Adam hadn’t? Would the whole human race still have perished? According to Anselm, the answer is “No.”

For God could have made another woman from Adam, in whom he had created the seed of all human beings; and by that other woman made from Adam, God’s purpose would have been fulfilled. (On the Virginal Conception, and On Original Sin ch. 9)

While Anselm does not go so far as to say that Adam’s second wife would have been taken from one of Adam’s other ribs (though this is surely more likely than not), he does assume that she would have been taken from Adam just as Eve had been. This is because, as I argued Anselm implies in Cur Deus Homo, to be human one must be taken from Adam. As the first human being, Adam was not merely an instance of a type in the divine mind, but was the very type itself. This means that to be human, one must be descended from Adam. To have the essence of humanity is not merely formal, but is genealogical.

Necessity of the Incarnation in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë

Tolkien really was an astute theologian, my latest example of which is the following, theologically suggestive passage from his creation-myth, the Ainulindalë. In it, Tolkien may be interpreted as pointing in the direction of a theistic actualism, the thesis that God creates his own possibilities rather than creating from a set of possibilities already given to or for him. After the world of Eä was created, it is recorded that some of the angelic Ainur

took leave of Ilúvatar and descended into it. But this condition Ilúvatar made, or it is the necessity of their love, that their power should thenceforward be contained and bounded in the World, to be within it for ever, until it is complete, so that  they are its life and it is theirs. And therefore they are named the Valar, the Powers of the World.

When the Ainur choose to enter into this world, they have to take upon themselves something of its own nature. Consistent with the literary mode of myth, however, Tolkien is deliberately ambiguous as to the source of this “necessity of the (Ainur’s) incarnation.” Is it because Ilúvatar, for inscrutable reasons of his own, simply and autocratically stipulated physical embodiment as a condition for the Ainur’s habitation within Eä (i.e., divine-command theory, theological voluntarism)? Or was the origin of this necessity something more immanent and intrinsic to the natural order, the “way things are”? The answer, of course, is both: Ilúvatar is the sovereign Creator of the natural order, including its possibilities and necessities, and as such he has made it a necessity of Ainuric love that should they choose to enter the world that he has made, they must kenotically take upon themselves its limitations and conditions. In this Tolkien arrives at much the same conclusion St. Anselm does with regard to Christ’s Incarnation in Cur Deus Homo, namely that in order for God to save the human race, it was necessary that he himself become a man, and yet this necessity was not a constraint imposed upon God from the outside, but was a condition he laid upon both creation and himself in making creation to be what it is.

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.