Anselm was born in the city of Aosta in 1033 in what was then the Kingdom of Burgundy (modern-day northern Italy) to a noble and propertied family. His father, Gundulph, was by birth a Lombard and seems to have been harsh and violent; his mother, Ermenberga, was prudent and virtuous and gave Anselm careful religious instruction.
At the age of fifteen, the devout young Anselm tried to become a monk but could not obtain the consent of either his father or the abbot of the local monastery. In 1059, after his mother died and his father’s harshness became unbearable, he left home, crossed the Alps and wandered through Burgundy and France. After a short time at Avranches, he entered the Benedictine Abbey of Bec in Normandy, France as a novice in 1060, where he studied under the eminent theologian and dialectician Lanfranc (c. 1005 – 1089). Just three years later, he was elected Prior to the Abbey and then, in 1078, he succeeded Lanfranc as Abbot.
During these quiet years he wrote his first and most important works of philosophy (the “Monologion”, the “Proslogion”, the “Dialogues on Truth”, “Free Will” and the “Fall of the Devil”) and, under Anselm’s jurisdiction, Bec grew in wealth and reputation, becoming one of the first seats of learning in Europe.
In 1092, at the invitation of Hugh, Earl of Chester, Anselm crossed to England where, against his will, he was offered the prestigious position of Archbishop of Canterbury. However, his tenure was not an easy one, with King William II of England constantly trying to appropriate church lands, offices and incomes, and even to have Anselm deposed. In 1097, Anselm set out for Rome in an attempt to settle some of the English King’s ecclesiastical problems, but was refused entry back into England and remained in exile until King William died in 1100, during which time he continued to write.
William’s successor, Henry I, was no easier to deal with and in 1103 Anselm again set out for Rome and was again refused re-entry back into England. It was only after King Henry was threatened with excommunication by the Pope that some reconciliation took place, and Anselm was able to once again take up his position. However, only three years later, in 1109, he died. He was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1494, and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1720.
Although Anselm wrote prodigiously throughout his life, his works are generally unsystematic tracts or dialogues on detached questions, not elaborate treatises like the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas. He makes very few references to previous thinkers in his work, and his originality and freshness has often been remarked upon. Arguably, his only major influences are St. Augustine, and to a lesser extent Boethius.
Anselm sought to understand Christian consciousness through reason, although he insisted that faith was a prerequisite, and not a result, of such understanding. In “De Veritate” he affirms the existence of an absolute truth (God) in which all other truth participates, and so, before expanding on his theories, he first needed to rationalize the existence of God.
Anselm’s philosophical proofs of God are the main contents of his “Monologion” and “Proslogion”. Following from St. Augustine, he believed that relative concepts like “good”, “great” and “just” would be meaningless without some absolute standard, and the absolute being which represents these absolute standards is what we know as God. However, Anselm was aware that this argument uses inductive reasoning from a posteriori grounds, and was dissatisfied with it.
What has become known as the Ontological Argument for the existence of God, Anselm’s attempt to prove the existence of God through a priori abstract reasoning alone, was presented in his “Proslogion”. Briefly, if (as he believed) God can be defined as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”, then God cannot be a merely abstract, intellectual notion because a God that really exists would be greater. Therefore, God’s existence is implied by the very concept of God, and to say that God does not exist is a contradiction in terms.
The argument is certainly ingenious, but has the appearance of a linguistic trick, and the same ontological argument could be used to prove the existence of any perfect thing at all. For example, Anselm‘s contemporary, the monk Gaunilo, used it to show that a perfect island must exist. Anselm’s responses to Gaunilo were long, detailed and dense, but the argument has been contentious ever since.
Anselm also authored a number of other arguments for the existence of God, based on cosmological and teleological grounds, but this was not his only contribution to Christian theology. In other works, he strove to state the rational grounds of the Christian doctrines of the creation, the Trinity, original sin, free will and atonement.
Discussing the mystery of the Trinity, for example, he started from the standpoint that human beings could not know God from Himself but only from analogy (the memory and intelligence of man represent the relation of the Father to the Son, and the relation they hold to one another symbolizes the Holy Spirit). Regarding atonement, he argued in his “Cur Deus Homo” that, because God is infinite, any wound to his honor caused by the sins of Man must also be infinite, and the only way infinite satisfaction for these sins can be granted on behalf of man is by the voluntary death of Jesus, who is both God and Man.
His works were copied and disseminated during his lifetime, and he exercised an important influence on later Scholastics, including St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, as well as on subsequent Church doctrine on various matters.