Transcript: 206. Eileen Sweeney on Anselm

Anselm expert Eileen Sweeney discusses his approach to philosophy and the devotional aspect of his works.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.


Peter Adamson: We're going to be talking about Anselm, one of the most important early medieval philosophers. Maybe you could begin by just reminding the listener who Anselm was and why he's important. 

Eileen Sweeney: So Anselm was a Benedictine monk of the 11th century. He was also Archbishop of Canterbury. He was the writer of many, many important philosophical arguments, proofs for the existence of God, accounts of free choice, also an important political figure. He had at least two important tussles with the King of England trying to assert power over the church, and he went into exile twice. So he was an active person as well as a speculative thinker. 

Peter Adamson: You already mentioned obliquely the most famous thing about him, which is something I mentioned in the last episode, which is his famous ontological argument for the existence of God. With Anselm, I always think that maybe more than any other thinker in the entire history of philosophy, he's someone who's reduced to just one argument, and it's really only a page or two. 

Eileen Sweeney: Right. 

Peter Adamson: It's not even a long argument. And so there's an obvious worry that this is being ripped out of the context in which he offered the argument. And in fact, this context is something you've done work on and written a book about. So could you tell us something about that context? What was he trying to achieve in his philosophical works? And in fact, which kinds of works did he write, and what's the sort of flavor of them?

Eileen Sweeney: Anselm's works cover a huge range from what we would think of as works in spirituality, prayers, and meditations, to works that seem purely philosophical, really in our sense, that are composed of very tight logical arguments that can even be formalized according to modern rules. The work for which Anselm is most famous, his ontological argument, is taken from the Proslogion, which is a combination of all of those things, that there are prayers, there are meditations, and there are lots of arguments. The very succinct ontological argument, the fact that it can be taken out and is so short, is I think one of the reasons for its popularity. But if we put not just the ontological argument back into the Proslogion, but the Proslogion in the context of all of Anselm's work, I think a more full picture of what the point of the argument was and why it was important to him becomes clear. So that Anselm's earliest writings were actually devotional prayers. And Anselm may be reduced to the ontological argument in philosophical circles, but in spirituality circles, he also has a very important place as developing a form of prayer that is highly emotional, imaginative, and personal. And a lot of the trends that we now think of as being developed in the 12th and 13th century, especially in the spirituality of women, actually begin with Anselm. So those prayers are an original contribution. Then the next set of works in chronological order, are the two long meditations and arguments on the nature of God, the first one, the Monologion, which is concerned not just with God and the God of the philosophers, we might say, but also God as Trinity. And the Proslogion, which covers that same ground. They're also a set of works, a trilogy of dialogues, which I think are some of the most interesting of Anselm's works on truth and free choice and sin. And I think together they constitute a kind of philosophical anthropology on Anselm's part, so that he's worked on the nature of God and now he's working on what it is to be human, to be a creature of God. And then there are a set of works I put together that I think of as going together on the incarnation. Anselm is also reduced to one of his arguments in the discipline of theology. He wrote a book called Cur Deus Homo, Why God Became Man, and Anselm is known, mostly infamously, for giving an argument about why it is that God became man, that describes Jesus as paying a kind of debt back to God for having been dishonored. And this argument has been criticized for giving God the kind of construction of being a feudal lord, and also for putting, some have argued, a kind of violence at the center of the story of salvation. I think that's not quite what Anselm was up to, but it does show the degree to which he was willing to try to submit to reason deep and hard questions about why it is that this all-powerful, all-good God that Anselm thought God was would become human in this particular form and suffer and be killed. 

Peter Adamson: How innovative is it that he combines the devotional material, for example, prayers, with more discursive philosophical material? I think about possible precursors in, say, Boethius. So Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy has these poems, and then the dialogue sections with Lady Philosophy. Augustine obviously has very complicated literary constructions in his work, and Anselm's taking his cue from Augustine in a lot of respects. But are there other early medieval authors who write works like the Monologion and the Proslogion, for example? 

Eileen Sweeney: While I can't think of anybody important between Boethius and Anselm, I do think it's important to know that from Augustine to Boethius to Anselm, and even after Anselm, there is a much greater sort of interdisciplinary tradition in the sense that people who wrote speculative philosophical texts were engaged theologians and also wrote literary works of various kinds, whether they were prayers or poems. I think the contrast in Anselm between those two elements comes out more strongly because the nature of his arguments are more austere, more clearly logical in our sense, than say, Augustine's more rhetorical arguments, and also that his spirituality is more, we might say, emotionally overwrought. He describes very high highs and low lows in terms of what he has found as a kind of source of tremendous joy or what he hasn't quite figured out as sort of making him fall all the way back into the depths. 

Peter Adamson: So actually what we have in Anselm is maybe an exaggerated contrast between these two sides, the devotional being juxtaposed with the kind of discourse where it's tempting to pick out sentences as premises in an argument and even number them, which of course is what people always do with the ontological argument. 

Eileen Sweeney: That's right, but I think it's important to remember that that contrast is more for us than it would have been at the time. I think the historian Richard Southern makes a very good point when he argues that Anselm's arguments are really the outgrowths of a monastic project of meditation that is thinking long and hard and deeply about what might be a verse of scripture, but in Anselm's case it might be a particular proposition. Does God exist? Is God good? What does it mean for God to be just? And so the long thoughtfulness on that has emotional consequences in terms of what I can know, what I desire to know, what I can't quite reach, but also intellectual ones because he really is engaging reason to further the project of the desire of faith, not as something that is opposed to it. 

Peter Adamson: Obviously then a kind of objective in any global interpretation of Anselm would be to bring together these two sides of his authorship, and you've just indicated one direction for doing that because you could think that, as it were, his mental life is expressed in both the prayers and the arguments, let's say. But do you think that in addition to that, there's something that a philosophical reader will miss out on if, as I would imagine a lot of philosophical readers do, they just skip over the prayers or if they just jump to the kind of argument bits? I mean, maybe not only the ontological argument. I mean, obviously you should read more than that, but you can imagine someone who just skips the prayers and goes straight to the arguments. Do you think that they will actually misunderstand the arguments in some sense if they do that? 

Eileen Sweeney: I think they will miss something important about the arguments because there is, I think, a sense in which Anselm's arguments can be thought of as successful. That is, not everyone will say they're perfectly valid, but that they're strong philosophical arguments which are respectable enough to make people want to engage with them as arguments in that way. But there's an important sense in which Anselm thinks that all of his arguments, and this is in some ways true for the arguments about the nature of God as it is for trying to grasp the nature of humanity or creaturehood, also in some sense always fall short of their object. And so that sense of what the possibilities are for reason to do for us, to take us toward what it is that we desire to understand, for Anselm always has that sort of double edge to it. And I think we'll misunderstand. We will think that he thought he accomplished more than he thought he could, that the thing was proved and he's done. Or we will think that it's all just a kind of poetic sort of reflection on the unknowableness of God. And I think it's very important to try to understand that for Anselm, it's neither the one nor the other, but both at the same time. 

Peter Adamson: And that Augustinian slogan, faith seeking understanding, which we really associate with Anselm very strongly, is presumably to be understood in light of that context that's being provided by the devotional material. Is that right? 

Eileen Sweeney: I think that's right. And I think that for me, one of the most important things about that faith seeking understanding slogan is that it's the expression of the “ing” part of the seeking. That is, it's the desire to move from what Anselm believes and wants deeply to understand. So he wants to make fully present or more present to his understanding so that he can grasp it more clearly, love God more, orient his whole life toward God in a more important and significant way through that process of understanding. I also think that Anselm wants to push the limits of that faith seeking understanding in a very extreme way. That is, he tries very hard to begin his arguments by assuming as little as possible, if you will, in terms of the proposition. When he starts with God as that than which none greater can be conceived, that concept is in a way completely empty. There's no content to it. He hasn't told us anything in particular. He has assumed no particular character of God, but assumed simply a kind of stretch of the understanding towards what we can possibly understand. And that sort of notion that he wants so badly to understand what he believes, that he is willing to take it back to the very beginning, to the most bare bones in order to make that stretch as long as possible and with as much direction and fervor as possible. 

Peter Adamson: Okay, in that case it sounds like when he says, I'm doing faith seeking understanding here, faith doesn't mean here are some propositions I'm helping myself to and assuming them to be true. Obviously, he doesn't assume that God exists before the ontological argument starts. I guess that some people sometimes think there's something fishy about assuming that God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. But it sounds like you don't think that anything substantive is being assumed there. It's not like that's the faith component and then the argument is the understanding component. So it's more like the faith component is the entire conception of the project as a spiritual journey towards God. 

Eileen Sweeney: I think that's very well said. I think that is what the faith component is. It's the nature of the entire project. Now, it's true that some of us might say, well, look, you can't just assume this notion of that than which none greater can be conceived. But I think that for Anselm, that is a kind of basic rational conception of what God would be if there were one worthy of the name. And he sees that in sources as distinct as Seneca and the Psalms and so forth that it comes from various sources. But I think he thinks of it as fairly basic, fairly formal about the minimum idea you can start from that doesn't actually assume anything about particular content or about the existence of something that corresponds with that particular content. 

Peter Adamson: You've said before that Anselm doesn't think that we can use reason to know God fully. And that makes me wonder what the purpose of an argument like the ontological argument would be, or even more generally, all the arguments he offers in his philosophical works. Because presumably he doesn't think that the ordinary believer who hasn't read his works or other philosophical works is lacking faith, because he starts with faith. So isn't there in a way almost an objection one could make to Anselm here? Like you're not providing us with anything we needed. You're just kind of going on through these rational arguments to supposedly get us closer to God, but you admit that God can't be grasped with reason anyway. So I guess maybe one way of asking the question is why not stick with faith? 

Eileen Sweeney: Well, it's never really possible to stick with faith. I mean, Augustine figured that out. Because as soon as I articulate what it is that I believe, I've already engaged reason in the process. So that there already is in some kind of statement, some set of commitments, there is already some content there that is being understood or assumed to be understood in some way. And so once we realize that, there's nothing like a pure faith, just like there's nothing like pure reason either, in the sense that we assume something like the rules of language, a certain level of rationality Anselm assumes a kind of possibility of ordering things in terms of better and worse. There are various kinds of minimal requirements for discourse. I think of these as a little bit like Aristotle's notion of what's required, or the kind of faith that's required in the principle of non-contradiction. You can't prove it. You can doubt it if you want, but you will contradict yourself in the very doubting of it. 

Peter Adamson: Does that mean then that everyone's committed to some kind of articulated set of beliefs about God just by virtue of being a Christian, let's say, and then there will be various degrees to which they've actually thought through what those beliefs consist in or imply? But it still seems to me that, I mean, I wonder what Anselm would say is the improvement in his situation by having gone through the rational arguments. I mean, if he had just started by trying to love God without trying to understand him any better, would he be a worse Christian? Would his soul be in a worse state? Would he merit less in the way of salvation? I mean, what's the payoff of doing these argumentative procedures? 

Eileen Sweeney: Anselm seems to think, I mean, there would be two answers here. One, kind of what I would think about the point of these things are and the way Anselm thought of them in his own spiritual life and the way in which he thought that they would be useful to his fellow monks. Because in this sense, Anselm was a pretty strong elitist. That is, he thought that the highest kind of life was the monastic life, no questions asked, and that the monastic life was the project of thinking, meditating, stretching the mind toward God at every moment in every possible way. So doing that activity is the same as doing the monastic activity, saying the office. It's another way of engaging in that same project. So in that sense, it's an essential part of the monastic life, and finding a new form of expression for that, meditation for that, desire for and connection to God is a crucial and essential part of his life. I think that in terms of where we are, and I think this is true for Anselm too, that is, it's true that if the distance between us and God is infinite, even if Anselm moves me a certain distance, there's still an infinite distance still left. And so I suppose that's the point of the why bother question. Anselm has a strong emotional argument for this, or an emotional stance about this, and what he has to say is that the crucial sort of spiritual task is to rouse the soul towards love of God, to make this the sort of live and open question, to move you toward that. And so he thinks that the outcome of the arguments, in fact, has the byproduct of increasing desire, of making me direct myself and love God more dearly, want that end more dearly. At the end of the Proslogion, he quotes a line from Psalms about, let tears be my meat day and night. And it seems that he hasn't got anything but tears, but the tears are the substance, that is, the greater and greater desire, the greater and greater movement toward that, toward God, with greater and greater desire and understanding. That is the spiritual project of the monastic life.

Peter Adamson: Something I think is interesting there is that on the one hand, you make it sound like this is something that Anselm is doing for himself as an expression of his own desire to reach God, but on the other hand, there's an audience, and the audience is fellow monks, maybe not so much us, but we can perhaps put ourselves in the place of one of his intended readers. And I wonder whether there's a difference there, because what Anselm is doing for the fellow monks, who would actually have been lower-ranking monks than him, right? So what he's offering them is perhaps also some kind of spiritual guidance in the form of arguments. And I wonder if there's maybe a tension there, because it's one thing to do a kind of meditative procedure for the benefit of one's own soul. It's another to say, well, I've already done this, and now I'm going to write it out for you. Right? It reminds me a little bit of something people talk about with Aristotle sometimes, that his scientific works are somewhere in between an exploration of nature, so that the writing is actually an exploring, and a representation or report of the exploration he's already done for the benefit of the students. And I wonder which of those you think Anselm is doing. Is it more like he's exploring and trying to reach God as he writes, or is it more like that's happened off the page, and he's handing you a text that tells you what happened? 

Eileen Sweeney: I think it's somewhere between those two. He tells a story in the preface of the Proslogion about how he struggled and struggled to come up with this argument. I don't know if you know the preface, and he says, and then he couldn't get it, he couldn't get it, and then it came to him almost involuntarily. And then he wrote it down, and the text disappeared, and he had to write it again. So there's this sense of him participating in this process and wanting to give the reader a sense that they are participating in the process of Anselm seeking. It's not a closed operation. The other thing is he wrote an interesting preface to his prayers, where he invites the reader to meditate on them in different pieces, slowly, to participate in the process rather than to read them as objective finished works, as a kind of observer. It's clear that he wants us to experience and participate in the process along with him. 

Peter Adamson: I'm wondering what lessons we should take from all this as we go forward and read other works of medieval philosophy. I mean, coming down the pipe, we've got high scholasticism a little closer to what I'll be covering soon. We've got works by people like Abelard and other logicians in his time period, which really are very oriented towards rigorous argument. If you think about, say, Aquinas picking up the Summa or a text like that, it's really just argument, argument, argument. You don't get this juxtaposition of devotional literature with discursive, rational persuasion the way that Anselm does. I'm wondering whether you think Anselm is just atypical among medieval philosophers in this respect, or whether there's a more general lesson that we need to take from this and bear in mind as we go on through the subsequent centuries. 

Eileen Sweeney: I think there's some of both of those aspects. That is, that Anselm either stands at the end of an era in a monastic tradition where these kinds of speculative explorations really fit within a monastic spiritual context, and that they fit pretty seamlessly into that context. It's clear that, say, by the time we're getting to Abelard, that that unity of form, that Anselm can do the same, all of that stuff within the same form, doesn't happen by the time we get to Abelard. That is, he writes fairly polemical theological treatises, but there are also hymns and poetry that Abelard writes, but there's a little more separation between those genres. On the other hand, depending on the thinker, I think that we do have to be a little more attuned to the aspects of spirituality that are there even, I would say, in something like the Summa Theologiae. That is, I think that Aquinas's rhetorical structuring of those questions, his placement of scriptural quotes in certain kinds of ways, do have a kind of spiritual resonance to them that maybe we don't catch anymore because we're thinking of them as proof texts or something else. That is, I don't want to launch into an account of Aquinas now, but I think there are elements in at least some of the authors going forward. It becomes more difficult by the time, or less likely that you'll find this sort of thing by the time we reach a more thorough division between the arts faculty and the theological faculty. But it comes back in someone like Bonaventure, who writes his commentaries on Peter Lombard, but also writes works that have much more of this kind of mixed feel that would be at home on a shelf next to some of Anselm's works. 


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