The ABCs of Anselm

Between Geneva and Milan lies a stunning valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains, containing the city of Aosta.  This tiny Italian alpine region is one of the crossroads of Europe, bordering Switzerland and France, and containing two of the most important passes from northern countries into Italy.  Today it is a bilingual place, with French and Italian both spoken.  The town of Aosta itself is a small masterpiece, situated next to the Dora Baltea river, with medieval walls and Roman ruins, the architecture a combination of French tidiness and Italian panache.  It is one of those small cities that are the glory of European civilization, bearing witness to the past, a living symbol of a unity much deeper than the present-day one made up of a combination of economic utility and anti-American sentiment.

It was here that nearly a thousand years ago St. Anselm was born (1033-1109).  At that time Europe was just emerging from a state of chaos.  The Vikings were not yet wholly converted, new tribes poured in from the east, and the Muslims had not yet ceased their depredations.  The papacy was in an abysmal state, and the Church filled with the dross of simony and clerical concubinage.  Yet for all that European civilization was unified by the weight of that deeply meaningful concept: Christendom.  Stability was coming slowly.  The Ottonians were pacifying Germany and the Capetians had established themselves around Paris.  Missionary journeys were slowly converting the east and the north.  Cluny had planted the seeds of a thoroughgoing monastic revival.  Anselm would be a key player in the European reformation, a reformation in the deepest sense of the word.

Growing up In Aosta, Anselm would have been surrounded by the memories and realities of European unity.  The remains of the Roman theater towered over the town, framing the winding path up the mountains.  The triumphal arch of Augustus, for whom the town was named, guarded the eastern approaches to the city, though now in it hung the symbol of a different triumph: an iron-wrought crucifix (which replaced an earlier miraculous image).  Anselm probably moved easily between the romance dialects spoken in the area, and surely would have come into contact with the throngs of pilgrims making their way along the Via Francigena.  As soon as the spring snows melted, swelling the Dora Baltea, the men of Christendom would stream down the passes of the little and great St. Bernard, making their way to Rome, or even perhaps to Jerusalem.  Burgundians, Normans, Irish, Germans, Saxons; the people of Christendom moved freely and mingled in peace.

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Anselm statue canterbury cathedral outsideAnselm was a scion of nobility, related to royal houses throughout Europe, a member of a society that was cosmopolitan even before the European miracle of the twelfth century.  Once again demonstrating the attractiveness of the monastic life to all classes in society, Anselm sought entrance to a Benedictine house at 15, but his father refused him permission.  Because of this he lived a listless and wandering life, not being able to fix any true direction for himself.  Though Burgundy and France Anselm travelled, purposeless, for a decade and more.

The hound of heaven did not cease its pursuit however, and once more the old vocation sounded in his ears and he found himself at Bec abbey in Normandy.  At that time it was headed by Lanfranc, a churchman from Anselm’s town and a renowned man of learning.  Anselm finally responded and professed as a novice at the advanced age of twenty seven.  The life of the cloister revolutionized the young man’s outlook, as he fixed his gaze on God and the Church.  His Benedictine foundation provided solid direction, and Anselm was found to have a brilliant mind.  If one were to characterize his theology, one could say that it was thinking at the epicenter of Christendom.  That is, while he occasionally engaged in controversial theology, his true vocation was an exploration of the depths of Christian belief at the very heart of the Church.  What would a theology look like if it simply took the truths of faith as an absolute given, and allowed that radiance to shine and illuminate our human reason?  Fides quaerens intellectum or “Faith seeking understanding” was his watchword.  Immerse yourself in the Truth of God and then liberate yourself to explore with perfect Christian freedom.

This is the way to understand his famous proofs for the existence of God and indeed much of his theology.  Anselm’s outlook is one of nearly unbounded optimism in the revelation of God, and of our rational powers to enter into it.  Once God has revealed these truths of faith, then one can investigate them rationally.  Anselm goes farther than most theologians before or since in his use of human reason.  If one accepts where he starts, i.e. a full acceptance of the truths of revelation, then his attempts rationally to establish the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the mysteries of the faith come into focus.

Anselm’s most famous argument for the existence of God, later dubbed the “ontological argument,” is so powerful and enduring that it acts as a dividing line for all later philosophers.  Those who accept it tend to be Platonic idealists such as the medieval Augustinians and, later, Descartes and Leibniz.  Those who oppose it tend towards Aristotelianism, most famously Thomas Aquinas.  It is a seductive and penetrating proof, which lays bare the epistemological presuppositions of those who engage it.  But one must always remember that it is couched in the language of a monastic meditation, made for those who already move in the medium of divine revelation, those at the very heart of the Church: the Christian monks.

He wrote many other brilliant works, such as Cur Deus homo? on the necessity of the Incarnation, a work which too many have unfavorably compared to that of St. Athanasius.  A close reading will reveal their complementarity, rather than the facile attempts to divide “eastern” and “western” approaches, or set up a disjunction between “patristic” and “medieval” accounts of the redemption.  When Anselm’s theology is presented shorn of the eleventh century examples drawn from his contemporary society, it is a stunning monument of the development of the tradition in continuity with the Fathers.

Anselm did not long remain in the cloister, for his brilliance won him many admirers  He first became prior, then later abbot, of Bec, attracting brilliant scholars to his side like moths to a flame.  His fame had passed beyond the walls of the monastery.  By the 1090s he had emerged as the successor of his old friend Lanfranc, to the primatial see of Canterbury in England.  There he tilted on behalf of the liberty of the Church for the rest of his career, for the royalty of England knew no greater sport in the middle ages than hewing away at her rights.

Anselm was one of the staunchest of the second generation of Gregorian reformers, with his vision of a purified Church, in complete control of its own affairs.  It was a vision that clashed with the centralizing successors of William the Conqueror.  For his robust defense of the faith he was twice driven into exile.  Even this proved profitable for Anselm. The man born into the “unity of Europe” could find friends and a home wherever he went: in Sicily where he was received with honor by the Pope, in Bari where he defended the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son against those recently lost to schism, in Lyons and Bec where he maintained the dignity of his Church and see against the depredations of the English monarchy.

Dying in 1109, Anselm had become one of the fathers of the scholastic movement and one of the most brilliant theologians in Christian history, while at the same time being a faithful monk and man of deep prayer and a stalwart pastor defending the rights of the Church.  He was also the prototype of the man of Christendom, moving easily from Aosta, to Bec, to Canterbury.  Comfortable in any corner of Europe he was a living witness of that deep unity which bound Europe together, a unity successively wounded by nominalism, by the Reformation, by the Revolutions, and by the horrors of the twentieth century.  Anselm is a living reminder of what the Unity of Europe really was.  He is also an indicator for those of us who inhabit colleges and universities what can really come ex corde Ecclesiae.  He presages the later orders who combine action and contemplation.  He gives and example of sanctity and brilliance together, and that simplicity of life does not contradict the honor of God and His Church.

Friedrich Nietzsche mocked the man who lived with “his horizon restricted as that of a resident of an Alpine valley.”  It was Anselm’s acceptance of that restriction that enabled him to cross the passes with confidence, and to repose safely in the bosom of the Church wherever he went.  Chesterton, as so often happens, provides the riposte to Nietzsche:

Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased. (Orthodoxy, c. 9)

For Anselm was a man with boundaries, and from those boundaries he became a man with a solid identity.  Within the playground of God he roamed more freely than nearly anyone else in the history of Christianity, for Anselm knew that within those confines lay the very essence of the freedom conferred by God on humanity.

Editor’s note: The image of St. Anselm in the text is taken from the exterior wall of Canterbury Cathedral.


  • Donald S. Prudlo

    Donald S. Prudlo is Chair and Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa. His specialty is saints and sainthood in the Christian tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).

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