Anselm of Canterbury

Western Philosophy
Medieval philosophy
Name: Anselm of Canterbury
Birth: 1033/1034 (Aosta, Burgundy)
Death: 21 April 1109 (Canterbury, England)
School/tradition: Founder of Scholasticism
Main interests: Metaphysics (incl. Theology)
Notable ideas: Ontological argument
Influences: Jesus, Aristotle
Influenced: Aquinas, Hegel

Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033 or 1034 – April 21, 1109), a widely influential medieval philosopher and theologian, held the office of Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109. Called the founder of Scholasticism, he is famous as the inventor of the ontological argument for the existence of God.


Early life

Anselm was born in the city of Aosta in the Kingdom of Burgundy. Aosta is located in the Italian Alps region of the Aosta Valley (Valle d'Aosta), near the borders with twentieth century France and Switzerland. His family was accounted noble, and owned 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, who gave the young Anselm careful religious training. At the age of fifteen he desired to enter a convent, but he could not obtain his father's consent. Disappointment brought on an apparent psychosomatic illness, and after he recovered he seems to have given up his studies for a time and lived a more carefree life. During this period his mother died, and his father's harshness became unbearable. In 1059 he left home, 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, Anselm entered Normandy. The following year, after spending some time at Avranches, he entered the abbey as a novice at the age of twenty-seven.

His years at 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 monastery had been growing in wealth and reputation, and had acquired considerable property in England. It became the duty of Anselm to visit this property occasionally. By his mildness of temper and unswerving rectitude, he so endeared himself to the English that he was looked upon as the natural successor to Lanfranc as Archbishop of Canterbury. But on the death of that great man, King William II seized the possessions and revenues of the see, and made no new appointment.

About four years later, in 1092, on the invitation of Hugh, Earl of Chester, Anselm 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 feared 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.

Archbishop of Canterbury

As the conditions of his retaining office, Anselm demanded of the king that the he should give up all the possessions of the see, accept Anselm's spiritual counsel, and acknowledge Urban as pope in opposition to the anti-pope, Clement. He only obtained a partial consent to the first of these demands, and the last involved him in a serious difficulty with the king. It was a rule of the church that the consecration of metropolitans could not be completed without their receiving the pallium from the hands of the pope. Anselm, accordingly, insisted that he must proceed to Rome to receive the pall. But William would not permit this; he had not acknowledged Urban, and he maintained his right to prevent any pope being acknowledged by an English subject without his permission. A great council of churchmen and nobles was held to settle the matter, and it advised Anselm to submit to the king. This advice failed to overcome Anselm's mild and patient firmness, and the matter was postponed. William meanwhile privately sent messengers to Rome, who acknowledged Urban and prevailed on him to send a legate to the king bearing the archiepiscopal pall. A partial reconciliation was then effected, and the matter of the pall was compromised. It was not given by the king, but was laid on the altar at Canterbury, whence Anselm took it.

Little more than a year after, fresh trouble arose with the king, and Anselm resolved to proceed to Rome and seek the counsel of his spiritual father. With great difficulty he obtained the king's permission to leave, and in October 1097 he set out for Rome. William immediately seized the revenues of the see, and retained them to his death. Anselm was received with high honour by Urban at the Siege of Capua, where Anselm is said to have garnered high praise also from the Saracen troops of Count Roger I of Sicily. At a great council held at Bari, Anselm was put forward to defend the doctrine of the procession of the Holy Ghost against the representatives of the Greek Church. But Urban was too politic to embroil himself with the king of England, and Anselm found that he could obtain no substantial result. He withdrew from Rome, and spent some time at the little village of Schiavi, where he finished his treatise on the atonement, Cur Deus homo, and then retired to Lyons. When he attempted to return to England, William would not allow him entrance.

Conflicts with King Henry I

William was killed in 1100 and his successor, Henry I, at once invited Anselm to return to England. But Henry demanded that Anselm should again receive from him in person investiture in his office of archbishop. The papal rule in this matter was plain: all homage and lay investiture were strictly prohibited. Anselm represented this to the king; but Henry would not relinquish a privilege possessed by his predecessors, and proposed that the matter should be laid before the Holy See. The answer of the pope reaffirmed the papal rule as to investiture. A second embassy was sent, with a similar result. Henry, however, remained firm, and at last, in 1103, Anselm and an envoy from the king set out for Rome. The pope, Paschal II, reaffirmed strongly the rule of investiture, and passed sentence of excommunication against all who had infringed the law, excepting King Henry.

This left matters essentially as they were, and Anselm, who had received a message forbidding him to return to England unless on the king's terms, withdrew to Lyons, where he waited to see if Paschal would not take stronger measures. At last, in 1105, he resolved himself to excommunicate Henry. His intention was made known to the king through his sister, and it seriously alarmed him, for it was a critical period in his affairs. A meeting was arranged, and a reconciliation between them effected. In 1106 Anselm crossed to England, with power from the pope to remove the sentence of excommunication from the illegally invested churchmen. In 1107 the long dispute as to investiture was finally ended by the king resigning his formal rights, and Anselm was allowed to return to England. The remaining two years of his life were spent in the duties of his archbishopric. He died on April 21, 1109. He was canonized in 1494 by Alexander VI.

"Dilecto dilectori"

Many of Anselm's letters contained passionate expressions of attachment and affection, and were typically addressed dilecto dilectori, sometimes translated as "beloved lover". These letters were written to monks, male relatives, and others. This has led to some debate among academics about Anselm’s sexuality. There is wide agreement that Anselm was personally committed to the monastic ideal of celibacy, but some (Brian P. McGuire, John Boswell, others) have characterized his passionate writings as expressions of a homosexual orientation. Others (Richard Southern, Glenn Olsen, others) describe them as representing a "wholly spiritual" affection, "nourished by an incorporeal ideal." (Southern).


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: "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam. Nam et hoc credo, quia, nisi credidero, non intelligam." ("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: "Negligentiae mihi esse videtur, si, postquam confirmati sumus in fide, non studemus quod credimus, intelligere." ("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 existenced 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.

There have been numerous recent attempts to address Anselm's argument, one such is a putative refutation by Haight and Haight.

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 theory of Peter Abélard.


In the middle ages, Anselm's writings did not receive the respect and attention they deserved. This was probably due to their unsystematic character, for they are generally tracts or dialogues on detached questions, not elaborate treatises like the great works of Aquinas, Albert of Aix, and Erigena. They have, however, a freshness and philosophical vigor which more than makes up for their want of system, and which raises them far above the level of most scholastic writings.

The anniversary of his death on 21 April is celebrated in the Catholic Church as Anselm's memorial day. Anselm was proclaimed as a Doctor of the Church in 1720 by Pope Clement XI. Eight hundred years after his death, on 21 April 1909, Pope Pius X issued an encyclical Communion Rerum praising Anselm and his ecclestical career and his writings.


The main primary sources for the history of St. Anselm and his times are Eadmer's Vita Anselmi and his Historia Novorum.

References listed in the 1911 Britannica article:

  • Eadmer's Vita Anselmi and his Historia Novorum, edited by Martin Rule in Rolls Series (London, 1884)
  • Philibert Ragey, Histoire de Saint Anselme (Paris, 1890), and Saint Anselme professeur (Paris, 1890)
  • Johann Adam Möhler, Anselm Erzbischof von Canterbury (Regensburg, 1839; Eng. trans. by Henry Rymer, London, 1842)
  • Friedrich Rudolf Hasse, Anselm von Canterbury (2 vols., Leipzig, 1842-1853)
  • C. de Rémusat, S. Anselme de Cantorbéry (Paris, 1853, new ed. 1868)
  • R. W. Church, St. Anselm, first published in Sunday Library (London, 1870; often reprinted)
  • Martin Rule, Life and Times of St. Anselm (London, 1883).
  • Dom Gerberon S. Anselmi opera omnia, necnon Eadmeri monachi Cantuar. Historia Novorum et alia opuscula Paris, (1675); edition of Anselms's works; reprinted with many notes in 1712; incorporated by J. Migne in his Patrologia Latina, tomi clviii.-clix. (Paris. 1853-1854). Migne's reprint contains many errors.
  • The Cur Deus homo in the editions published by D. Nutt (London, 1885) and by Griffith Farran Browne (1891).
  • The Mariale, or poems in honour of the Blessed Virgin, has been carefully edited by Philibert Ragey (Tournai, 1885)
  • The Monologion and Proslogion, edited by C. E. Ubaghs (Louvain, 1854; Eng. trans. by S. N. Deane, Chicago, 1903)
  • The Meditationes, many of which are wrongly attributed to Anselm, have been frequently reprinted, and were included in Methuen's Library of Devotion (London, 1903).
  • Among the important historical criticisms of Anselm's philosophical works are those by J. M. Rigg, St. Anselm of Canterbury: A Chapter in the History of Religion (London, 1896), and Saint Anselme by Edmond Charles Eugène Domet de Vorges, (Grands Philosophes series, Paris, 1901).
  • Bibliography in A. Vacant's Dictionnaire de théologie.

Current references:

  • There is a recent Critical Edition of Anselms's works by F. S. Schmitt (1961)
  • The Proslogion has been translated by M. J. Charlesworth with an introduction and commentary (OUP, 1965, reprinted by University of Notre Dame Press, 1979)
  • Southern, Richard W. (1992). St. Anselm : A Portrait in a Landscape. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521438187.
  • Butler, Alban; edited by Burns, Paul (1999). Butler's Lives of the Saints: April; New Full Edition. Liturgical Press. ISBN 0814623808.


Preceded by:
Archbishop of Canterbury
Succeeded by:
Ralph d'Escures
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

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