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No. 3173:
Saint Anselm of Canterbury

by Andy Boyd

Today, unleashing reason. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

College students who run into Saint Anselm of Canterbury often do so in an introductory philosophy course. An eleventh century Benedictine monk, Anselm sought to prove God's existence by reason alone. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls his effort "one of the most fascinating arguments for the existence of an all-perfect God." That's quite an achievement, and it's where many people's familiarity with Anselm ends. But as medieval historian Sally Vaughn points out, Anselm's historical influence was far greater.

A Recently Discovered Image Depicting Anselm as an Intellectual Giant Standing on the Shoulders of Lesser Scholars - An Image Anselm Would Certainly Have Been Uncomfortable With.
A Recently Discovered Image Depicting Anselm as an Intellectual Giant Standing on the Shoulders of Lesser Scholars - An Image Anselm Would Certainly Have Been Uncomfortable With.

Copenhagen, det Kongelige Bibliotek, GKS 182, fol. 11.

Anselm's argument wasn't just thought provoking, it was groundbreaking. Earlier arguments about God relied on the bible or Church teachings. Anselm sought to prove God's existence through reason alone - a dangerous effort that could easily have led to life-threatening claims of heresy. Yet Anselm navigated the hazardous waters "delicately but effectively," largely by embracing reason as a Godlike human ability reflecting the powers of God himself. And he further placated objectors by arguing that whatever else, "faith must precede reason."

Anselm's focus on reason opened the door for a new way of thinking; a way of thinking acclaimed by scholars and non-scholars alike. Under his leadership, the Norman abbey of Bec became the preeminent school in all of Europe. Through it the scholastic method of teaching began to develop, with its focus on rational discussion in the pursuit of truth. And as students left Bec, they carried with them the seeds of a new educational movement that would flourish to form Europe's first universities.

As a monk, Anselm had chosen a simple, ascetic life focused on service to God. But we also find a man who was an accomplished administrator. As the abbot of Bec, he was responsible for the abbey's many inhabitants, providing for their food, clothing and housing while they pursued spiritual and educational enlightenment. Such were the breadth of his talents that Anselm found himself appointed the archbishop of Canterbury, where he was thrust into an ongoing power struggle between the pope and the king of England. Anselm couldn't have desired the politics of his position, but he matched his opponents with political proficiency while always keeping focused on the faith.

The Abbey of Bec in the Normandy Region of France
The Abbey of Bec in the Normandy Region of France   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Anselm demonstrated a life-long affection for laypeople, bettering their lives by transforming their hearts. As but one example, Anselm corresponded extensively with aristocratic women, seeing them as mirrors of the Virgin Mary. He urged them to "tame their 'barbarous' husbands" and to raise their children in the faith, and in doing so he implied feminine equality - or even superiority.

Tsilkani icon of Virgin Mary (Art Museum of Georgia)
Tsilkani icon of Virgin Mary (Art Museum of Georgia)   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Statesman. Theologian. Teacher. Anselm unleashed the spirit of reason even if it was deeply intertwined with religious precepts. And he did so with the passionate conviction of a man intent not on his place in history, but in the service of those things he held most dear.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Special thanks to Professor Sally Vaughn of the University of Houston, medieval historian and expert on the life of Saint Anselm of Aosta, Bec and Canterbury. This episode was largely developed using notes and references prepared by Dr. Vaughn, and quotations in the essay are hers.

Anselm: Ontological Argument for God's Existence. From the Internet Encyclopedia for Philosophy website: Accessed May 1, 2018.

Sally Vaughn. "Anselm of Le Bec and Canterbury: Teacher by Word and Example, Following the Footprints of His Ancestors." In A Companion to the Abbey of Le Bec in the Central Middle Ages (11th-13th Centuries), edited by Benjamin Pohl and Laura Gathagan. The Netherlands: Brille, 2018.

Sally Vaughn. St. Anselm and the Handmaidens of God: A Study of Anselm's Correspondence With Women. The Netherlands: Brepols, 2002.