Faith in Truth Seeking Understanding of Truth

Making (Up) the Truth With Anselm, part 2

As its title indicates, On Truth is at one level merely a focused study in how we use the single word truth. At another level, however, owing to the universal or transcendental nature of the concept of truth, in the course of his discussion Anselm provides perhaps the best summary of his thought in general, as the work contains many of the essential elements of his theology, metaphysics, epistemology, theory of language, philosophical anthropology, and ethics. In his Proslogion, Anselm’s “single argument” was his premise that God is something than which nothing greater can be thought, and from which everything else was seen to follow. In the present dialogue, Anselm’s “single argument,” as we might call it, is the premise that God is the Supreme Truth from which every other created truth is seen to follow.

The dialogue opens with “the Student” confessing that “we believe that God is truth” (deum veritatem esse credimus—ch. 1), and so asking his “Teacher” how this belief agrees with the fact that “we say that truth is in many other things” (veritatem in multis aliis dicimus esse).[1] Similar to the Proslogion, then, On Truth begins with an express statement of faith seeking understanding of that which is believed. Yet the Student implicitly recognizes that the question of truth is not limited to those individuals who begin with faith, for he points out that the question is also one that arises within the context of the Teacher’s own Monologion (thus clearly identifying Anselm as the Teacher, were there any doubt on the matter) and whose declared method, we may recall, was one of proceeding by “reason alone.”[2] In the Monologion, the Student rehearses, the Teacher had argued that insofar as true statements can never begin nor cease to be true, truth must therefore reside in the Supreme Truth who is eternal (Monol. 18). The question, then, is this: if Truth is uncreated in this way, how is it possible for us to say that so many created things are also true?

[1] As Travis Cooper observes, “the student clearly indicates that they maintain the first proposition–that God is truth–as a matter of belief.” Cooper, Two Medieval Accounts of Truth, 45.

[2] Thus, on the specifically eternal nature of truth, Cooper notes that for Anselm, in his Monologion, this is a “conclusion proven by argumentation from premises available to natural reason,” and notes that some commentators have gone so far as to “characterize Anselm’s method in De veritate as sola ratione.” Cooper, Two Medieval Accounts of Truth, 45 and 61, citing Jan A. Aertsen, “Fröhliche Wissenschaft: Wahrheit im Mittelalter,” in Ende und Vollendung: Eschatologische Perspektiven im Mittelalter, eds. J.A. Aertsen and Martin Pickave, Miscellanea Mediaevalia 29 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2002), 54, and Franciscus Salesius Schmitt, “Introduction to Anselm von Canterbury: De veritate,” in Anselm of Canterbury, Über die Wahrheit, trans. Schmitt (Stuttgart-Bad Canstatt: Friedrich Frommann Verlag–Günther Holzboog, 1966), 8.


Judge not lest ye be judged: Tolkien on fairy-stories

In the opening paragraph of his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien characterizes his exercise in literary criticism of this genre as itself a kind of fairy story:

“I propose to speak about fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash adventure. Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. And overbold I may be accounted, for though I have been a lover of fairy-stories since I learned to read, and have at times thought about them, I have not studied them professionally. I have been hardly more than a wandering explorer (or trespasser) in the land, full of wonder but not of information.”

Studying fairy stories properly, in other words, is itself a kind of Faërian adventure, and like such adventures, it is one that does not come without its own set of warnings: it is possible to get such stories wrong, to ask the wrong sorts of questions, or even to ask the right sorts of questions in a wrong sort of way. As in fairy stories themselves, so in the study of fairy stories, making mistakes can be dangerous, even to the point of being deadly. In the second paragraph, he continues:

“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.”

For Tolkien, clearly, even the study of fairy stories is a serious business, as he effectively denies one the ability to approach them in a dry, objective, or disinterested light. More than a mere object of literary study, fairy stories are for Tolkien a fundamental reflection of what it means to be human, and if this is so, then they are also a fundamental reflection of all that humans do, including what they do in their capacity as literary critics, even of fairy stories. The literary evaluation of fairy stories, accordingly, is an evaluation of that genre which, to Tolkien’s mind, is ultimately about the evaluation (and enchantment!) of ourselves. For this reason, he issues his readers a caution that they take care, for when it comes to the kingdom of Faërie, like the kingdom of Heaven, “with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”

Making (Up) the Truth With Anselm

Making (Up) the Truth With Anselm, part 1

In his first two major works, the Monologion and the Proslogion, Anselm had explored all that is possible for reason—at first with the implicit, then with the explicit, direction of faith—to know about God as the beginning and possibility of all existence. With this theological foundation so firmly laid, Anselm turns his attention in his next group of writings, a trilogy of dialogues On Truth (De veritate), On Freedom of Choice (De libertate arbitrii), and On the Fall of the Devil (De casu diaboli), to a similarly faith-inspired yet rational examination of some of the principal possibilities of God’s work of creation. In a passage summarizing well Anselm’s simultaneously scriptural yet philosophical and even specifically modal interests and purpose of these works, Eileen Sweeney writes how “[t]he 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… The dialogues argue for these moments as logical possibilities, or rather, first as impossibilities, then as logically coherent and necessary possibilities.”[1]

In this series of posts, we will consider the first of Anselm’s three dialogues, On Truth, analyzing and interpreting it, once more, principally in terms of the wider theistic actualism we have been tracing throughout Anselm’s works. In keeping with the latter, we will see how, much as God, for Anselm, is the creator of his own possibilities, so he is therefore also the creator of his own truth. More than this, as I shall argue, is the limited yet not insignificant respect in which Anselm allows human beings, having been made in the image of this truth-making God, a role in (sub-)creating their own truth as they go about, not merely passively knowing, but actively speaking, willing, doing, and in general making the truth that God has made us to make.

[1] Sweeney, Anselm of Canterbury, 240.

Tolkien class for high schoolers

If you know a high school student who’d be interested in taking either a semester or year-long, online Tolkien course, beginning this fall, I’m offering one through the good folks at Roman Roads Media. (College credit is also available for juniors and seniors through New Saint Andrews College.) Check it out here:

Aragorn vs. Saruman

Aragorn the Libertarian King: “[O]nly of your free will would I have you come, for you will find both toil and greater fear, and maybe worse.” And a little later: “for I go on a path appointed. But those who follow me do so of their free will; and if they wish now to remain and ride with the Rohirrim, they may do so. But I shall take the Paths of the Dead, alone, if needs be.” (“Passing of the Grey Company”)

Saruman, Keeper of the Common Good: “[O]ur time is at hand: the world of Men, which we must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.” (“Council of Elrond”)

Saruman’s philosophy of war

Saruman to Éomer: “To every man his part. Valour in arms is yours, and you win high honour thereby. Slay whom your lord names as enemies, and be content. Meddle not in policies which you do not understand.”  –“The Voice of Saruman,” Two Towers 

Christ’s Harrowing of Hell in “Fog on the Barrow-Downs”

Tom Bombadil’s rescue of the hobbits from the Barrow-wights contains a great image (and somewhat humorous interpretation) of a classic scene in Christian history and theology, Christ’s “harrowing of hell” of his saints (as well as of the future resurrection of the dead):

There was a loud rumbling sound, as of stones rolling and falling, and suddenly light streamed in, real light, the plain light of day. A low door-like opening appeared at the end of the chamber beyond Frodo’s feet; and there was Tom’s head (hat, feather, and all) framed against the light of the sun rising red behind him. The light fell upon the floor, and upon the faces of the three hobbits lying beside Frodo. They did not stir, but the sickly hue had left them. They looked now as if they were only very deeply asleep.

Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight!

Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,

Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!

Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty!

Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness,

Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.

At these words there was a cry and part of the inner end of the chamber fell in with a crash. Then there was a long trailing shriek, fading away into an unguessable distance; and after that silence.

‘Come, friend Frodo!’ said Tom. ‘Let us get out on to clean grass! You must help me bear them.’