Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) was a Scholastic philosopher and clergyman, born in Aosta, NW Italy. He left Italy in 1056 and settled at the Benedictine abbey of Bec in Normandy. He moved to England to succeed Lanfranc as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093. His strong principles brought him into conflict both with William II and Henry I in England, and he was temporarily exiled by each of them. Greatly influenced by Augustine, Anselm sought ‘necessary reasons’ for religious beliefs, notably the famous ontological argument for the existence of God.^[1]^

Biographical sketch

Anselm was born in the city of Aosta in the Kingdom of Burgundy. Aosta is located in the Italian Alps region of Valle d'Aosta (Aosta Valley), near the borders with twentieth century France and Switzerland. His family was accounted noble, and was possessed of considerable property. Gundulph, his father, was by birth a Lombard, and seems to have been a man of harsh and violent temper; his mother, Ermenberga, was a prudent and virtuous woman, from whose careful religious training the young Anselm derived much benefit. At the age of fifteen he desired to enter a convent, but he could not obtain his father's consent. Disappointment brought on an illness, on his recovery from which he seems for a time to have given up his studies, and to have plunged into the gay life of the world. During this time his mother died, and his father's harshness became unbearable. In 1059 he left home, and with only one attendant crossed the Alps, and wandered through Burgundy and France. Attracted by the fame of his countryman, Lanfranc, then Prior of the Benedictine Abbey of Bec, he entered Normandy. The following year, after spending some time at Avranches, he entrered the abbey as a novice at the age of twenty-seven.

His years as abbot of Bec

Three years later, in 1063, when Lanfranc was made the abbot of Caen, Anselm was elected Prior. This office he held for fifteen years, and then, in 1078, on the death of the warrior monk Herluin, founder and first abbot of Bec, Anselm was elected abbot. Under his jurisdiction, Bec became the first seat of learning in Europe, although Anselm appears to have been less interested in attracting external students to it. It was during these quiet years at Bec that Anselm wrote his first philosophical works, the Monologion and Proslogion. These were followed by The Dialogues on Truth, Free Will, and the Fall of the Devil.

Meanwhile the convent had been growing in wealth, as well as in reputation, and had acquired considerable property in England, which it became the duty of Anselm occasionally to visit.

His move to England and the archbishopric of Canterbury

By his mildness of temper and unswerving rectitude, he so endeared himself to the English that he was looked upon and desired as the natural successor to Lanfranc as Archbishop of Canterbury. But on the death of that great man, the ruling sovereign, William II, seized the possessions and revenues of the see, and made no new appointment.

About four years after, in 1092, on the invitation of Hugh, earl of Chester, Anselm with some reluctance, for he feared to be made archbishop, crossed to England. He was detained by business for nearly four months, and when about to return, was refused permission by the king. In the following year William fell ill, and thought his death was at hand. Eager to make atonement for his sin with regard to the archbishopric, he nominated Anselm to the vacant see, and after a great struggle compelled him to accept the pastoral staff of office. After obtaining dispensation from his duties in Normandy, Anselm was consecrated in 1093.

He died on April 21 1109. He was canonized in the Roman Catholic Church in 1494 by Alexander VI and named a Doctor of the Church in 1720 by Pope Clement XI.


Anselm may, with some justice, be considered the first scholarly philosopher of Christian theology. His only great predecessor, Scotus Erigena, had more of the speculative and mystical element than is consistent with a schoolman. In Anselm, by contrast, one finds the special characteristics of scholastic theological thought: a recognition of the relationship of reason to revealed truth, and an attempt to elaborate a rational system of faith.


Anselm's constant endeavor was to render the contents of the Christian consciousness clear to reason, and to develop the intelligible truths interwoven with the Christian belief. The necessary preliminary for this is the possession of the Christian consciousness. As Anselm wrote: "Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this too I believe, that unless I first believe, I shall not understand." But after the faith is held fast, the attempt must be made to demonstrate by reason the truth of what we believe. Indeed, it is wrong not to do so: "I hold it to be a failure in duty if after we have become steadfast in our faith we do not strive to understand what we believe."

The groundwork of Anselm's theory of knowledge is contained in the tract De Veritate, in which, from the consideration of truth as in knowledge, in willing, and in things, he rises to the affirmation of an absolute truth, in which all other truth participates. This absolute truth is God himself, who is therefore the ultimate ground or principle both of things and of thought. The notion of God comes thus into the foreground of the system; before all things it is necessary that it should be made clear to reason, that it should be demonstrated to have real existence.


This demonstration is the substance of his works Monologion and Proslogion. In the first of these the proof rests on the ordinary grounds of realism, and coincides to some extent with the earlier theory of Augustine, though it is carried out with singular boldness and fulness. Things, he says, are called good in a variety of ways and degrees; this would be impossible if there were not some absolute standard, some good in itself, in which all relative goods participate. Similarly with such predicates as great, just; they involve a certain greatness and justice. The very existence of things is impossible without some one Being, by whom they come to exist. This absolute Being, this goodness, justice, greatness, is God.

Anselm was not thoroughly satisfied with this reasoning; it started from a posteriori grounds, and contained several converging lines of proof. He desired to have some one short demonstration. Such a demonstration he presented in his Proslogion; this is his celebrated proof of the existence of God, sometimes referred to anachronistically as the ontological proof - a term first applied to the arguments of 17th and 18th century rationalists by Kant.

Anselm's argument proceeds to demonstrate the existence of God as follows: I can think that than which a greater cannot be thought. Now, if that than which a greater cannot be thought existed only in the intellect, it would not be that than which a greater cannot be thought, since it can be thought to exist in reality which is greater. It follows, then, that that than which a greater cannot be thought exists in reality. The bulk of the Proslogion is taken up with Anselm's attempt to establish the identity of that than which a greater cannot be thought with God, and thus to establish that God exists in reality.

Anselm's reasoning has been the subject of controversy since he first 'published' it in the 1070s. It was opposed at the time by the monk Gaunilo, in his Liber pro Insipiente, on the ground that we cannot pass from idea to reality. The same criticism is made by several of the later schoolmen, among others by Aquinas, and is in substance what Kant advances against all ontological proof. It should be noted that there is no evidence that either Aquinas or Kant read the Proslogion. Anselm replied to the objections of his contemporary, Gaunilo, in his Responsio.

Anselm also authored a number of other arguments for the existence of God, based on cosmological and teleological grounds.

Further works

The existence of God being thus held proved, Anselm proceeded to state the rational grounds of the Christian doctrines of creation and of the Trinity. With reference to the Trinity, he says we cannot know God from himself, but only after the analogy of his creatures. The special analogy used is the self-consciousness of man. The peculiar double nature of consciousness, memory and intelligence, represent the relation of the Father to the Son. The mutual love of these two, proceeding from the relation they hold to one another, symbolizes the Holy Spirit. The further theological doctrines of man, such as original sin and free will, are developed in the Monologion and other mixed treatises.

Finally, in Anselm's greatest work, Cur Deus Homo ("Why did God become Man?"), he undertook to make plain, even to infidels, the rational necessity of the Christian mystery of the atonement. The theory rests on three positions: that satisfaction is necessary on account of God's honor and justice; that such satisfaction can be given only by the peculiar personality of the God-man Jesus; that such satisfaction is really given by the voluntary death of this infinitely valuable person. The demonstration is, in brief, this. All the actions of men are due to the furtherance of God's glory; if, then, there be sin, i.e. if God's honour be wounded, man of himself can give no satisfaction. But the justice of God demands satisfaction; and as an insult to infinite honour is in itself infinite, the satisfaction must be infinite, i.e. it must outweigh all that is not God. Such a penalty can only be paid by God himself, and, as a penalty for man, must be paid under the form of man. Satisfaction is only possible through the God-man. Now this God-man, as sinless, is exempt from the punishment of sin; His passion is therefore voluntary, not given as due. The merit of it is therefore infinite; God's justice is thus appeased, and His mercy may extend to man. This theory has exercised immense influence on church doctrine, providing the basis for the Roman Catholic concept of the treasury of merit. It is certainly an advance on the older patristic theory, in so far as it substitutes for a contest between God and Satan, a contest between the goodness and justice of God. However, it can be said that Anselm puts the whole issue on a merely legal footing, giving it no ethical bearing, and neglects altogether the consciousness of the individual to be redeemed. In this respect it contrasts unfavorably with the later moral influence theory of Peter Abélard.

Major Works

Monologion (1076) Proslogion (1077–1078) Cur Deus Homo (1098)

Other works

De grammatico (1075–1085) De veritate (1080–1085) De libertate arbitrii (1080–1085) De casu diaboli (1085–1090) De Epistola de incarnatione verbi (1092 1st version ; 1094 final version) De conceptu virginali et originali peccato (1099–1100) Meditatio redemptionis humanae (1099–1100) De processione spiritus sancti (1102) Epistolae de sacramentis (Epistola de sacrificio azymi et fermentati and Epistola de sacramentis ecclesiae) (1106–1107) De concordia praescientiae et praedestinationis et gratiae dei cum libero arbitrio (1107–1108)


  1. ? This article includes text from The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, s.v. Anselm, (public domain).