St. Anselm: Man of Premises

Tomorrow is the feast day of Anselm of Canterbury, saint and Doctor of the Church, born circa 1033 and died April 21, 1109.

He is most famous for two related things: his ontological “proof” of God’s existence, and the premise behind most of his thinking, which was also his motto: Fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”).

His famous proof, if you believe it is one, was included in in the second chapter of his best-known book, the Proslogium. Here it is in his own summary: “Therefore, if that than which nothing greater can be conceived [i.e., God] exists in the understanding alone, the very being than which nothing greater can be conceived is one than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence there is no doubt that there exists a being than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.”

And may that Being than which nothing greater can be conceived forgive me for so terse a summary, but what Anselm means is this: Anybody will acknowledge (whether or not he believes in God) that God is (would be) greater than anything, greater than everything. This being the case, God’s existence is proved, because God cannot be greater (greatest, really), in the mind if He is not also so in reality. (I’m really not doing Anselm any favors here, but I’m already running out of words with so much more to say about the man.)

Anyway, Thomas Aquinas would reject the argument, essentially because it’s tautological: Faith (belief in God as the premise) precedes the understanding of the proof. It is the proof. Aquinas, as anybody who has read any of the Summa Theologiae knows, worked the other way around.

We might say that Anselm was offering to believers yet another confirmation of why belief is both sensible and inevitable. But you’re unlikely to encounter many people who say: “Yeah, it was Anselm’s ontological argument that first brought me to Christ.” To many Anselm’s schema is too clever by half – a mere word game, although elegant in its way.


Aquinas, who lived nearly 200 years after Anselm, became a Doctor of the Church 134 years before Anselm. And given the Angelic Doctor’s dismissal of the ontological argument, it’s almost surprising that the Magnificent Doctor received the recognition he did – in 1720 from Pope Clement XI.

But the philosophical part of Anselm’s thinking was only one reason for both his “doctorate” and his sainthood, although exactly when he was canonized is unclear. It was one of his successors at Canterbury, Thomas Becket, who first got the drums beating, and Anselm’s memorial began being celebrated in the Canterbury Cathedral while Becket still lived, but it was probably Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI) who actually solemnized his elevation to sainthood, in or around 1494.

Becket surely saw a kindred soul in Anselm, since both men were “troublesome priests” to the English kings they served.

Anselm was often at loggerheads with (and exiled by) King William II – the immediate successor to William the Conqueror – known as William Rufus, either because of his red hair, or because his face was so often flushed in fits of rage. The main point of contention between the archbishop-philosopher and his king was the separation of Church and State, although in its early medieval context, i.e., which will rule the other? It is probably true that both men believed in a union of Church and State, but always seeing the other as the lesser half of the alliance.

This matter (in the question of who should name bishops) came before a meeting of the clergy and the nobility, and, curiously, the clergy present took the king’s side and the nobles Anselm’s. (Don’t let anybody convince you the English Reformation was a shot out of the blue – it had centuries-old antecedents.) As the nineteenth-century historian Philip Schaff wrote (in History of the Christian Church), when Anselm became archbishop: “He foresaw a hard struggle. He compared himself to an old and feeble sheep, and the king to a young, wild bull. Thus yoked, he was to draw the plough of the [Catholic] Church of England, with the prospect of being torn to pieces by the ferocity of the bull.”

Anselm was, in the best sense of the phrase (the one Henry VIII would make perverse) a defender of the faith. And this was the subject of an encyclical by Pope St. Pius X, Communium Rerum, on the saint’s feast in 1909. The Holy Father mentions neither the ontological proof nor Fides quaerens intellectum. It’s Anselm’s defense of the Church’s role in public life that mattered to Pio Decimo.

He lists the popes (Gregory VII, Urban II, Paschal II) who corresponded with Anselm and held him in high esteem. “And yet,” Pius writes, “Anselm in his own eyes was but a despicable and unknown good-for-nothing, a man of no parts, sinful in his life.” But Anselm is praiseworthy not only because of his humility, but also because he bravely championed ecclesiastical rights against the power of secular governance.

The pope’s praise of Anselm as a model churchman (and loyal servant of popes) was written not long after a great earthquake had rocked Messina, Sicily (7.1 on the Richter Scale), followed by a tsunami, destroying most of the city, and killing 70,000. Pius had filled the Apostolic Palace with refugees, even as the Italian government provided little in the way of aid. How, Pius wondered, can any sensible Christian not see the Church as more exemplary than the State?

Pius sees Anselm as a comrade in arms in the ongoing battle against error – in the 20th century it was the war against modernism – which he and his predecessors (Pius IX and Leo XIII especially) seemed never to vanquish despite their many warnings to the faithful.

Sancte Anselme, ora pro nobis.


*Image: St. Anselm by George Glover, mid 17th century [National Portrait Gallery, London]

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.