Apr 212019
 

Today is the feast day of Anselm of Canterbury, also called Anselm of Aosta (Anselmo d’Aosta) after his birthplace and Anselm of Bec (Anselme du Bec) after his monastery. He was a Benedictine monk, abbot, philosopher and theologian of the Catholic church, who held the office of archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109 after serving in other capacities in monasteries in continental Europe. Beginning in Bec, Anselm composed dialogues and treatises with a rational and philosophical approach, sometimes causing him to be credited as the founder of Scholasticism (a dubious claim). Despite his lack of recognition in this field in his own time, Anselm is now famed as the originator of the ontological argument for the existence of God and of the satisfaction theory of atonement. He was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by a bull of Pope Clement XI in 1720.

As archbishop of Canterbury, he defended the church’s interests in England amid the Investiture Controversy (a long, involved wrangle between Anselm and English kings about his ability to be archbishop). For his resistance to the English kings William II and Henry I, he was exiled twice: once from 1097 to 1100 and then from 1105 to 1107. While in exile, he helped guide the Greek bishops of southern Italy to adopt Roman rites at the Council of Bari. He worked for the primacy of Canterbury over the bishops of York and Wales but, though at his death he appeared to have been successful, Pope Paschal II later reversed himself and restored York’s independence.

Anselm’s works are considered philosophical as well as theological since they endeavor to render Christian tenets of faith, traditionally taken as a revealed truth, as a rational system. Anselm also studiously analyzed the language used in his subjects, carefully distinguishing the meaning of the terms employed from the verbal forms, which he found at times wholly inadequate. His worldview was broadly Neoplatonic, as it was reconciled with Christianity in the works of St Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius, with his understanding of Aristotelian logic gathered from the works of Boethius. He or the thinkers in northern France who followed him—including Abelard, William of Conches, and Gilbert of Poitiers—inaugurated one of the most brilliant periods of Western philosophy, innovating logic, semantics, ethics, metaphysics, and other areas of philosophical theology.

Anselm held that faith necessarily precedes reason, but that reason can expand upon faith: “And I do not seek to understand that I may believe but believe that I might understand. For this too I believe since, unless I first believe, I shall not understand”. This is possibly drawn from Tractate XXIX of St Augustine’s Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John. Regarding John 7:14–18, Augustine counseled “Do not seek to understand in order to believe but believe that thou may understand”. Anselm rephrased the idea repeatedly and his aptest motto might come from the original title of the Proslogion, “faith seeking understanding”, which broadened to “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God”. Once faith is acquired and held fast, however, he argued an attempt must be made to demonstrate its truth by means of reason. I’ll say amen to that

I recently read a blog about making a three course meal to celebrate the feast of Anselm, the first course an Italian antipasto celebrating his birth in Italy, the second course, a French roast to celebrate his time as abbot in Normandy, and the third, an English apple cake for his Canterbury days. This is ludicrously anachronistic (not to mention the fact that the antipasto had ingredients indigenous to North America). Italian, French, and English cuisines were not bounded categories in the Middle Ages. It is quite likely that Anselm ate much the same food in his birthplace as in the places he traveled. This would have been especially true of Normandy and England in the days when England was a province of Normandy, where Anselm served under the same king in both places. Rather, I will speak of lampreys (a sardonic choice given that Anselm’s