Saturday, April 21, 2012

It's that Time of Year Again: St. Anselm!

For those who are unaware, every April 21st I try to mark the feast of this great Doctor of the Church by studying something of his. Why? Quite simply because I consider it no mere coincidence that I successfully defended my thesis on the 900th anniversary of the death of this great theologian. I know I owe him a great debt of gratitude through Jesus Christ Our Lord.

This year, over the last few days I read his treatise, On the Fall of the Devil, as well as a few chapters from the biography, St. Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape by the great Medievalist, R. W. Southern.

First Southern.

I had read the first hundred or so pages of this biography last summer and found it pretty enjoyable. He is an historian, rather than a theologian, with all the pluses and minuses that connotes. It is a sympathetic and good text, but it is written according to the dictates of the historians, rather than the theologians - hard to specify what I mean. Since I studied in both disciplines I am particularly aware of the diverging idiosyncrasies that these two disciplines bring to their writings. Not a big deal, but something. I find the layout of the book a little confusing and counter-intuitive, and he is long-winded at times. Nevertheless, he is an excellent scholar, and these are nitpickey criticisms. I read a section on his involvement in the 'Investiture Controversy' today as well as of his connection to the Trinitarian heresy of Roscelin, which prompted two of his writings, most notably, his treatise On the Incarnation of the Word.

There is a wonderful passage in this book where a council is being held in Rome. One of the main issues is the fight between Anselm and his king, Henry II. The bishop who is speaking - yelling, rather - is going on and on about how awful such things are and would not stop, so the pope had to silence him with a loud word. Not, I think, how papal conferences are conducted these days!

Lastly, On the Fall of the Devil.

You don't get many more provocative titles for treatises. Yet Anselm was a master of provocative titles - namely his famous, Cur Deus Homo - Why God became Man.

This was an extremely interesting read, and, I would warn, verbally complicated work, not for the neophyte or for a sleepy-before-bed read.

My interest in it is related to my specialization in the doctrine of grace, of which free will is the natural concomitant. I look at it almost as a futurist, since I focus on the genesis of this doctrine in the works of St. Augustine, which predate this one by about 600 years.

Perhaps my favourite part was chs. 12-14, where he distinguishes between the will to good per se and the will to good as distinguished by certain objects. He says we can't do anything with the former alone, and so actually doing good or evil requires knowledge, and this leads us to the subject of justice. Of course, even prior to this distinction, or concomitant with it, is the distinction between the love of the useful and the will to be happy, on the one hand, and the love of the good, on the other. The useful is good, and it is prior to the moral good. It is in all things, really, whereas the love of the moral good (justice) is only in men and angels.

If you want to know how St. Anselm answers this interesting question, jump ahead to chapter 23 (there are 28 in all - about 38 pages in the version I have). Here he begins by asserting that the devil did not know that God would punish him, although he did know his act was a sin that could be punished. He says the devil does not know, because if he knew then he would be doing that which is against the nature of all creatures: to do that which is against the useful. And he rejects that the devil sinned because he was enraged by learning about the ostensible injustice of God becoming man.

In the end Anselm simply says that the devil sinned because he had free will. And we cannot speak of any other cause. He denies any proximate attraction toward the sin. He seems to suggest, however, when he compares the bad angel with the good one, that a certain trust in God was what distinguished them... but that may not be the case.

In sum, if you read this treatise you will learn a lot and find it very interesting. Whether you will find his answer satisfying might depend upon whether you understand it or not. I know I will continue to think about it in the days ahead to see if I understand it...

Praise to You, O Christ, for St. Anselm. May I be Your instrument as he was!

File:Canterbury Cathedral - Portal Nave Cross-spire.jpeg

St. Anselm's Cathedral as Archbishop of Canterbury. It is an ancient church, but has been significantly reworked over time, including the significant work that was done around Anselm's time.

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