Order and Rightness in the thought of Anselm of Canterbury

In a theological age conscious of the damage inflicted by sin upon human reason, Anselm of Canterbury emerges as one of its greatest champions. Though his maintenance of the primacy of faith never wavered, his project was one of using the tool of reason to expound faith, and he was bold in his use of it. As Anselm writes in his Proslogion, ‘I believe so that I may understand.’ It is Anselm’s desire to impose reasoned argument onto theology that prompts his investigation, and subsequent understanding, of God’s nature, of Christology, soteriology, and truth. Even a cursory glance at Anselm’s hypotheses reveals that what underpins the entirety of his doctrine, is an adherence to the notion of ‘fittingness’- understanding God, the universe and our place in it through the lens of ‘appropriateness.’ In this essay, I will endeavour to engage with Anselm’s concept of fittingness in relation to sister concepts such as order, rightness and justice, and seek to sustain the line of argument that these principles underwrite Anselm’s entire theological system; it is through this idea of divine order that Anselm defines God- what his nature must be like in order to comply, or fit, with the universal structure God has himself created- and even imposes limits upon God stemming from this same concern for the maintenance of order. In addition, Anselm’s fixation with rightness in relation to universal order marks out his characterization of truth and of justice within God’s creation. This has dramatic implications for Anselm’s soteriological doctrine- his understanding of the fall of man and, in turn, his understanding of redemption as most fittingly brought about through the incarnation. Furthermore, Anselm’s appropriateness concept provides the backbone for his theory of the immaculate conception and the need for a pure, untarnished birth to restore harmony through redemption.

Undergirding Anselm’s entire theological system is a broad belief in the harmony and God-given order of the universe, a concept Anselm refers to as rectitudo. McGrath offers a useful definition: ‘the basic meaning of rectitudo is the divine ordering of the universe, which has its origin in the divine will, and which is itself a reflection of the divine will. [1]’ God orders the universe according to perfect beauty and structure, hence its existing as a reflection of God’s own perfect being. As Southern writes, ‘perfect power, perfect justice, perfect order, perfect beauty: the combination of these qualities in the highest degree constitutes the perfection of the universe in reflecting the divine nature.[2]’ God created the universe to be perfectly good, and it must, for Anselm, remain such, in accordance with God’s designation of the world as good in Genesis: ‘God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.’ Man’s existing in a state of perpetual blessedness is part of the overall purpose of the creation and so, as Anselm writes, …it is only by Man’s achieving this blessedness that God’s word in creation could remain inviolable, and the end for which the universe was created could be achieved. There could be no going back on God’s Word: He had spoken on each of the six days of Creation and seen that all was good: He had ordained the end- Man’s blessedness; and that end must be achieved. [3]

The idea of rectitudo gives rise to Anselm’s conception of Justice which is, as Deme notes, ‘unquestionably one of the dominant concepts of Anselm’s Christology.[4]’ The notion has moral order as its basis and works in terms of the restoration of disorder, a system of payment and retribution for the causers of this disarray. The order of the universe turns or exists around this idea of give and take as the building blocks for harmony. Deme, I think, defines Justice clearly by referring to it as ‘done if one renders to the other what one owes, and, in the same way, to be just means to fulfil one’s duty of rendering to oneself or to the other that what is required in a given relationship.[5]’ The use of language such as ‘owe’ and ‘duty’ in Deme’s definition, however, does potentially make it sound as if Anselm’s concept of Justice is tantamount to our human concept of justice; though this is one aspect of his meaning, Justice more widely refers to moral rectitude. McGrath makes this distinction by talking of ‘supreme justice[6]’ and ‘strict justice’, the former referring to God’s regulation of himself in conformity with moral order, and the latter referring to the regulation of man’s actions, both representing equal parts in Anselm’s understanding of Justice.

Anselm’s definition of truth also stems from this idea of universal rectitude; indeed, the two concepts are so closely entwined, they are almost synonymous. Where justice represents moral rectitude, truth (veritas) can be understood as its counterpart, metaphysical rectitude.[7] As McGrath defines it, ‘anything which is as it ought to be is true, and anything which is true is as it ought to be.[8]’ Things that are true are true because they accord with God’s idea of them. Relative to the rectitudo concept, we derive the related notion of ‘fittingness’. According to Anselm, an action or occurrence is ‘fitting’ if the occurrence could have not happened, or could have happened in an alternative way, but does happen and happens in the way it does, because any other way would go against God’s honour and majesty through going against his universal order and systematization of his creation. Hopkins helpfully makes the distinction between the concept of fittingness and that of necessary reasons. The latter, he explains, ‘can happen in one and only one way because anything else would be inconsistent with the system of basic truths about God’s nature and will.[9]’ When Anselm talks of unfittingness, however, it is not synonymous with inconsistency or logical impossibility. Rather, an unfitting action happens out of compliance to God’s universal order as opposed to out of logical necessity.

It seems that, throughout Anselm’s works, this idea of fittingness in relation to universal harmony acts as Anselm’s north star; all other doctrine falls into place, pivoting on this idea of universal order which remains constant. Anselm even finds himself using the concept to define God and his limits. God’s characteristics are necessary for the maintenance of his nature; to change them in any way would be unfitting. As McGrath observes, ‘God’s attributes are essential to his being, and are not merely accidents which he can change at will…Anselm’s important theological insight concerning the divine attributes is that they must co-exist within the limiting conditions that they impose on each other. [10]’ It seems, then, that because of the order which God created as reflective of his own harmonious nature, God is bound to act in particular ways, to act appropriate to the limits of his nature- in redeeming man, for example. For Anselm, God can be seen to be just because he acts in conformity to the general order, he acts in a way which is appropriate to his nature as the highest good; Anselm writes in the Proslogion that ‘You are just not because you give us our due, but because you do what befits you as the supreme good. Thus, then, without inconsistency just do you punish and justly do you pardon. [11]’ If God acts justly, he acts justly in a twofold way- justly towards mankind and justly in acting in accordance with his own nature as just- he has to be just to be just ! It is important to note that, for Anselm, the maintenance of God’s nature relies on his rectifying any disturbances to the moral order he has created, he is the summa iustitia, bound by his own nature to restore the moral rectitude of the created order…[12]’ Justice must be restored because anything unjust is inconsistent with God’s nature. This restoration of order is also essential for the maintenance of God’s nature as an omnipotent being (which needs to be maintained as it is one of his essential characteristics which cannot be compromised). Hence, God must maintain order in order to comply with his own nature; Southern sets the argument out as follows[13]: 1) God’s purpose in the creation of Man and the universe has been frustrated 2) But it is impossible that the purpose of an omnipotent Being should be frustrated. 3) Therefore, a means of redemption must exist. Although this argument is referring specifically to the need for God’s redemption of man to restore order, an idea I have not yet come to expound, it succeeds in demonstrating more broadly the overall mechanism of the universe- something occurs which causes disorder which, in turn, causes inconsistency in God’s nature, and therefore requires fixing, because it is fitting that God’s nature remain consistent. The entire system hinges on order, harmony and fittingness.

So far, I have attempted to offer an account of Anselm’s theory of universal order and how this underpins concepts such as justice and truth, as well as Anselm’s conception of God and his limits, in the universal scheme of things. I will now move on to assess how these concepts fit together in the soteriological picture which Anselm offers.

Anselm argues that man was created in a state of iustitia originalis; the way that God had ordered creation was to have man’s will as submitted entirely to God: ‘All the will of a rational creature ought to be subject to the will of God. [14]’ At the fall, Adam and Eve disturbed the moral rectitude of the universe by dishonoring God and withholding from submitting their rational will to him. Anselm uses the word ‘honour’ in order to designate what creatures owe to God in order to maintain harmony, ‘the complex of service and worship which the whole Creation…owes to the creator, and which preserves everything in its due place. [15]’ Anselm writes that ‘Someone who does not render to God this honor due to him is taking away from God what is his, and dishonoring God, and this is what it is to sin. [16]’ Following this dishonoring, man could now no longer submit his rational will to God and thus human nature fell into a state of Iniustitia, which represents the essence of the original sin passed down through humanity through the human seed. Humankind, once in a state of eternal blessedness, in their rightful place in the universal order of things, is now fallen. God cannot simply forgive man with a simple act of mercy because ‘it would destroy the beauty of the universe, and in doing this would degrade God the Creator, Man the creature, and the whole creation. [17]’ Because of the ‘restrictions’ imposed upon God by his nature, God must act in a way appropriate or fitting in relation to the general order of things. But he must rectify things; as Deme observes, ‘God cannot let himself be exposed to an act of injustice nor can he let himself become a victim; if he did not re-create the perfect justice of the universe according to its original beauty and order, he would legitimize the greatest injustice of which he would then inevitably become an organic and active part. [18]’God has a two-fold re-ordering to bring about- ‘the sinner has taken what is God’s: God takes what is Man’s- his blessedness[19]’, but the restoration of order requires that blessedness be restored to some extent. Therefore, God must take blessedness away and then rectify the damage which is a consequence. Anselm also maintains that the rectification of humanity is required to restore order in heaven; God has to make up for the number of angels which fell, and redeemed humans can make up the numbers of angelic worshipers of God.

To restore the harmony of the created order, God must receive an offering which exceeds the crime committed by humanity. No member of the human race can restore the blessedness which they have lost or make up for the past disobedience because they cannot do enough to compensate (each person already owes everything they can give and more than that). The issue is that only God can offer sufficient satisfaction but he shouldn’t because the debt is not his to pay. Therefore, in order to resolve the issue, a God-man must make the offering. For Anselm, the incarnation represents the most fitting way for redemption to occur. The offering which Christ makes on the cross exceeds anything which humanity could give, and is great enough to make up for all the sins of the world combined. Humanity must still participate in Christ’s offering but Jesus pays the ultimate price. Anselm makes use of a feudal analogy in order to demonstrate the mechanism of the crucifixion- he illustrates an image of a society within which every member has committed a capital crime, except one. The innocent man offers himself as a sacrifice in order to make up for the sins of the rest of society and secure their salvation. The King pardons the society on the condition that they come to court on the day of the man’s death. Likewise, humanity can share in the salvation brought by Christ as long as they participate in his sacrifice through faith and the sacraments. Jesus’ death is the most fitting method for redemption since his sacrifice is non-necessary; as Hopkins writes, ‘Jesus freely underwent death on man’s behalf, so that His death honors rather than reproaches God.[20]’

Aside from being the most fitting method for redemption, the incarnation is also executed in the most fitting way possible through the immaculate conception. Jesus needed both to be a member of the Adamic race whilst simultaneously remaining free from sin; the virgin birth was a miraculous event as opposed to a ‘natural’ or ‘voluntary’ one and, thus if the propagation of a man from a virgin is not voluntary or natural but miraculous, like that which brought forth a woman from a man alone, and like the creation of man from clay, it is clear that it cannot submit to the laws and merits of that propagation which nature and the will- although separately- work.[21] Mary was also free of sin, redeemed by the future loss of her son.[22] The redeemer was not, therefore conceived in sin. In addition, it is, according to Anselm, suitably fitting that Jesus be born of a woman, since it was female kind through which sin entered the human race- ‘it is extremely appropriate that, just as the sin of mankind and the cause of our damnation originated from a woman, correspondingly the medicine of sin and the cause of salvation should be born of a woman. [23]’

In conclusion, it seems that, for Anselm, many of the major areas of consideration in theology- Christology, soteriology, the nature of God, and morality- are entirely grounded in the idea of universal order and the achievement of fittingness therein. Not only do Anselm’s conceptions of justice and of truth stem from the notion of rectitude in the created order, but his understanding of God’s nature and limits has its basis in this idea of fittingness and harmony. These fundamental building blocks are utilized in the Anselmian system in order to generate a theological framework upon which his Christology and soteriology rests. The maintenance of universal harmony is what binds Anselm’s theology together in a tightly-knit structure; his understanding of man’s sinfulness, the necessity for redemption and the mechanism of this redemption germinates directly from his fixation with fittingness, order and rightness.

[1] McGrath, A. E., ‘Rectitude: The Moral Foundation of Anselm of Canterbury’s Soteriology’, The Downside Review, 99:336 (1981)

[2] Southern, R. W., Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)

[3] Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo, Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. and trans. by B. Davies and G. R. Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[4] Deme, D., The Christology of Anselm of Canterbury (Kent: Ashgate, 2003)

[5] ibid.

[6] McGrath, A. E., ‘Rectitude: The Moral Foundation of Anselm of Canterbury’s Soteriology’, The Downside Review, 99:336 (1981)

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid.

[9] Hopkins, J., A Companion to the Study of St. Anselm (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972)

[10] McGrath, A. E., ‘Rectitude: The Moral Foundation of Anselm of Canterbury’s Soteriology’, The Downside Review, 99:336 (1981)

[11] Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, 10.

[12] McGrath, A. E., ‘Rectitude: The Moral Foundation of Anselm of Canterbury’s Soteriology’, The Downside Review, 99:336 (1981)

[13] Southern, R. W., Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)

[14] Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo, Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. and trans. by B. Davies and G. R. Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[15] Southern, R. W., Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)

[16] Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo, Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. and trans. by B. Davies and G. R. Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[17] Southern, R. W., Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)

[18] Deme, D., The Christology of Anselm of Canterbury (Kent: Ashgate, 2003)

[19] Southern, R. W., Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)

[20] Hopkins, J., A Companion to the Study of St. Anselm (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972)

[21] Anselm of Canterbury, On the Virgin conception and Original Sin, Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. and trans. by B. Davies and G. R. Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[22] Hopkins, J., A Companion to the Study of St. Anselm (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972)

[23] Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo, Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. and trans. by B. Davies and G. R. Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Debating Anselm’s Ontological Argument: From Kant to Contemporary Scholars

Although faith is a major component of Christianity, Christians and Atheists alike can see the benefit of trying to prove the existence of God from a philosophical viewpoint. The accuracy of the transmission of New Testament text can easily be proven by studying ancient history, writings, and codicology, however proving the existence of God has led to less decisive results. Among the main arguments are the Ontological argument, the teleological argument, and the cosmological argument. For the purposes of time, this paper will focus solely on the Ontological Argument. Anselm’s Ontological Argument for the existence of God has been questioned because of his claim that existence is a great-making property, however it remains one of the most influential and arguments for the existence of God to this day.

In order to understand Saint Anselm’s argument, one must first examine the way in which he differentiates existence in the understanding as opposed to existence in reality. In chapter two of his argument he writes that it is “…one thing for a thing to stand in relation to our understanding; it is another thing for us to understand that it really exists” (D4, Anselm). He then goes on to use the example of how a painting only exists in an artist’s understanding before it is created and then exists in reality. Anselm argues that in this way existence is a great-making property, and that in relation to the example the painting in reality would be superior to the painting in the understanding. Anselm begins his Ontological Argument is built on the fact that God can be defined as “a being that than which a greater cannot be conceived” (D5, Anselm). He is clever to begin his argument in this way, because it is a noncontroversial statement that even the most hostile Atheist would concede is true. From this premise, Anselm goes on to assume that this God exists only in the understanding, which again is not a point of contention for Atheists. However, his argument becomes susceptible to criticism when he makes the claim that because existence is a great-making property, and therefore a God who exists in reality would be greater than God who only exists in the understanding. Therefore, since God is a being such that no greater being can be conceived, God must exist in reality rather than only in the understanding. If God is indeed the greatest possible being, as defined earlier in the argument, then by definition he must exist since existence is a great-making property. However, as Phillip A. Peccorino points out “The argument is not that ‘If you believe that god exists then god exists’. That would be too ridiculous to ask anyone to accept that if you believe that X exists and is real then X exists and is real” (Peccorino). Rather the argument proves “what must be thought about the GCB given how the GCB was defined and not whether the GCB actually exists” (Peccorino). Anselm provides a logical argument for the existence of God from a philosophical standpoint, however like all arguments for the existence of God the Ontological argument is subject to criticism. Soon after the publication of Anselm’s argument, Gaunilo critiqued the Ontological argument by writing and publishing On Behalf of the Fool, to which Anselm authored his Reply. Gaunilo replaces God in Anselm’s argument with a “Lost Island”, claiming that the Ontological Argument can be used to prove the existence of anything, regardless of its existence. He writes “…if I accepted this argument, I do not know whom I would regard as the greater fool, me for accepting it or him for supposing that he had proved the existence of this island with any kind of certainty” (D9, Gaunilo). While Gaunilo appears to provide a compelling criticism of Anselm’s Argument, instead of providing a philosophically sound response, Anselm treats his critique like a joke and simply writes that he would “…give it to him as something that he should never lose again” (D10, Anselm). While many scholars conclude that Anselm did not actually answer Gaunilo because he did not take his argument seriously, the question remains whether he did not provide a satisfactory answer because he did not have one. Professor T.J. Mawson provides an objection like Guanilo’s in his book, titled Belief in God: An Introduction to Philosophy of Religion. He writes “It’s easier to spot that something has gone wrong with the Ontological Argument than it is to describe what has gone wrong with it” (126, Mawson). He writes this because as Guanilo points out, given existence as a great-making property, that the argument is logically sound and makes sense. However, because it can be applied in cases such as Gaunilo’s Island, it is faulty since the island in question does not actually exist. Mawson elaborates that “…similar sorts of arguments would also work is sometimes called the ‘Overload Objection’” (127, Mawson). Since according to Anselm God is the greatest being, an argument proving his existence should not be applicable to other things, as a God so superior to everything needs a unique argument. While this is a strong objection to Anselm’s argument, the Ontological Argument is an a priori argument which is not meant to be applied to anything other than the existence of God. In his book, God, Jay Wood writes “…it is not grounded in everyday experience but arises from reflection alone” (50, Wood). In this way, Anselm’s argument is not based on observable characteristics of the physical world, but rather is a rational argument relying on logic as its premise. Additionally, Wood also writes “…it turns on complex reflections about the nature of necessity and the possibility of a necessarily existing being” (52, Wood). Here Wood highlights an entirely different way of framing Anselm’s Ontological argument, focusing on the idea of necessity rather than existence as a great-making property. Since much of the criticism of the Ontological Argument focuses on whether or not existence is a great making property, framing Anselm’s argument in a different light lends him more credibility and challenges the objections to his argument. Another objection to Anselm’s Ontological Argument is provided by author Jordan Jeff in his book, Philosophy of Religion: Key Thinkers. In his book, he accuses Anselm of question-begging, writing that “justified acceptance of Premise 1 presupposes justified acceptance of the conclusion of the argument” (26, Jeff). While it may appear that he is accusing Anselm of arguing that people must believe God exists because the Bible says so, as many ill-informed Christians have, he goes on to develop a deeper objection. After a lengthy examination of existence in the understanding and in reality, Jeff concludes that objects in reality are not necessarily identical to objects in the understanding. He writes ‘…for how could it be that the understanding is perfectly impervious to false conceptions of actually existing objects, and yet at the same time a sucker for incoherent conceptions of objects that do not actually exist” (27, Jeff). Here Jeff provides a compelling argument that thing in the understanding can have contradictory qualities, however it is not possible for such a thing to exist in reality, and it will therefore be different than in the understanding. While this is a strong criticism of Anselm’s argument it fails to take into account that if God, by definition, is the greatest conceivable being, then he would be capable of doing whatever he wants, certainly including existing in both the understanding and reality. It is possible that God is so far superior to humanity that what may be perceived as contradictory traits are actually made possible by God, as he is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. Additionally, while it is possible for an object to be different in reality than in the understanding, it is also plausible, and often assumed that the object will be the same in both the understanding and in reality. Although the criticisms of modern philosophers cast significant doubt upon the validity of Anselm’s argument, perhaps the most compelling objections are evident in the writings of philosopher Immanuel Kant. In his writing, Kant argues that existence is not a predicate, therefore tearing down the essential element of the Ontological Argument. He writes that “…a characterizing predicate is one that is added to the concept of the subject and fills it out. So it mustn’t be already contained in that concept” (G18, Kant). Here he means that in order for something to be a predicate it must add new information to what is already given about a subject. For example, when describing a dress one may characterize it by saying that it is pink, with flowers, has long sleeves, buttons up from the back…etc. All these qualities or traits of the dress would be considered predicates. However, if one were to say that the aforementioned dress exists, this statement would not add any new information about the dress, but rather would affirm what was already implied and assumed. Therefore, existence is not a predicate as it does not provide any new information. If this is true then Anselm’s argument appears to crumble, as it is based on the assumption that existence is both a predicate and a great-making property. Proponents of Anselm’s argument may yet defend it by saying that existence must be addressed in the Ontological Argument, as Anselm is specifically discussing existence in the understanding in relation to existence in reality. One may claim that in the context of the argument existence can be used as a predicate since it is not assumed that God exists, but is rather a conclusion which Anselm is trying to reach logically. However, this is a weak reply as existence still does not add more information about God, and is not therefore by definition a predicate.

While Anselm’s Ontological Argument has been very influential in regard to philosophy of religion, ultimately, it is not a decisive argument. The only way to be certain about the existence of something is to be able to see and test it. Additionally, if God exists and is therefore inherently great, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, it would be logical that he is so far superior to mankind that humans cannot possibly understand him or prove his existence. Additionally, there would be no reason for faith, a central element of Christianity, if one were able to decisively prove the existence of God. In this way, Anselm’s Ontological Argument and similar arguments are valuable because they point people to God and provide evidence for his existence, however it is not possible to prove the existence of God from a purely philosophical standpoint.

Works Cited

Anselm, Sidney Norton. Deane, and Gaunilo. St. Anselm: Proslogium ; Monologium ; an Appendix In Behalf of the Fool by Gaunilon ; and Cur Deus Homo. La Salle, IL: Open Court Pub., 1958. Print. Jordan, Jeff. Philosophy of Religion: The Key Thinkers. Continuum, 2011. Continuum Key Thinkers. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.cui.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk &AN=347313&site=ehost-live. Mawson, T. J. Belief in God : An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. Clarendon Press, 2005. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.cui.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk &AN=186624&site=ehost-live. Peccorino, Phillip A. “Chapter 3: Philosophy of Religion.” The Ontological Argument. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2017 Wood, W. Jay. God. MQUP, 2014. Central Problems of Philosophy. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.cui.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk &AN=846522&site=ehost-live.