Nov 21, 2010

Three Aspects of The Will in Anselm's Thought

Saint Anselm is best known to non-philosophers and non-theologians for the so-called "ontological argument,"  found in his second major work, the Proslogion, ch. 2 (or perhaps ch. 2-4, and all too often philosophers' distortive reconstructions of those passages). Actually, even for most philosophers who do not specialize in Medieval thought, what they know of Anselm is typically just a hazy penumbra surrounding some version of that argument.  For theologians who, for one reason or another, lack much exposure to Anselm's thought, his key work is Cur Deus Homo, and the crux of it (pun intended) is his argument explaining the necessity of the Incarnation and Atonement.

Deriving a novel argument for God's existence and producing a new treatment of central mysteries of the Christian faith are significant achievements in their own rights, befitting their author a place in pantheons of philosophy and theology.  But, there is yet more, much more, than even these in Anselm's work.  Another set of achievements are hinted at early on in Cur Deus Homo, where Anselm attempts to beg off the task his student lays upon him:
. . . .we need an analysis of ability and necessity and will and of certain other notions which are so interrelated that no one of them can be fully examined apart from the others. And so, to deal with these notions requires a separate work — one not very easy [to compose], it seems to me, but nonetheless one not altogether useless. For an ignorance of these notions produces certain difficulties which become easy [to deal with] as a result of understanding these notions.
[using, as is my wont in these blogs, Hopkins and Richardson's translations,]

The will is absolutely central to Anselm's moral philosophy, psychology, and theology (these are not readily separable projects in his work).  It is the locus, and an ontological origin, of justice and injustice for the human person and for things in the world. It has a unique power of, yet only plays a part in, determining  itself, the other parts or faculties of the soul and body, and everything else subject to the human being.  It is radically free, and yet can easily become enslaved.  In a paper several years ago, I brought this up:
Complex, even paradoxical things can be noted about the will. Simply to take a few examples, Anselm notes at various points that it is possible to will a right object, but for the wrong reason, or even to will the right object, for the right reason, but still not because one fully recognizes and wills its rightness. Provided we make and employ adequate distinctions, it is also possible to will and not will the same thing at the same time. It is possible for a will to be turned against itself, to will not to be as it is, not to will what it does will. It is possible for the will to be at the same time free, self-determining, and yet compelled, unfree, in servitude, determined by something else.
One interesting feature of the will Anselm realized is that the will actually has, or is, several different aspects.  "Will" is, to use a concept which he did not have as happily available to him as did Thomas Aquinas, an analogical term, concept, and reality.  Anselm's understanding of the will develops progressively through his works, transforming into a more and more explicit distinction between three aspects:  will as instrumentum, will as usus, and will as affectio.

The first Latin term is easily enough translated as its cognate, will-as-instrument. This is the will as the faculty of choosing.  Not just choosing, though, since desiring is another thing the will does.The will in this sense is always in the soul, though it is not always willing something in the active, conscious, deliberative sense.

The second Latin term, usus, is tempting to translate by its cognate as well: the determinate use that one makes of that instrument of willing.  The will in this sense is not always in the soul, or even there at all in the world (though all such volitions presumably exist eternally in the mind of God).  Will-as-use exists when one is willing, when one is choosing, when the will is "turning" (as Anselm discusses in De Casu Diaboli) from one object to another, preferring.  For this reason, he contrasts will-as-use to will-as-instrument as being multiple in opposition to the unity of the will-as-instrument.

Two points are worth highlighting at this juncture.  First, it is significant in my view that Anselm does not treat the will-as-use as merely a mode of the will-as-instrument.  It is not as if the first exists as a substance or power of a substance, a sort of perfectly neutral tool, and then only subsequently finds itself used, determinate volitions arising thereby.

Second, it is also significant Anselm does not start making this sort of distinction in his earliest works where he talks about the will, for instance near the end of the Monologion where he argues that:
the rational creature ought to devote his entire ability and his entire will to [the end of] remembering, understanding, and loving the Supreme Good [the Latin term Hopkins and Richardson translate as "will" in this passage is actually "velle", not "voluntas," but it is difficult to come up with a more satisfactory rendering]
Another example of an earlier text where Anselm might have made such a distinction is the De Veritate, where he defines justice as "uprightness (rectitudo)-of-will kept for its own sake."  In fact, reading that and other earlier texts through the hermeneutic lens provided by his later distinction, all three senses of will can be glimpsed at work in his examples and doctrines.

So, when does Anselm actually introduce his first main distinction between will-as-instrument and will-as-use?  It is in the middle dialogue of a triology, the De Libertate Arbitrii. But the question is really about not only when but also why, and the answer is that it helps him make sense of and explain how the will can be powerful enough to resist temptation and yet in actuality succumb to it, through its own choice.  The will-as-instrument remains what it is throughout this experience and its effects.  The tempted person's will retains its strength as a will.  And yet, in the moment or interval of wavering or weakening, the person does not will to use that strength, and they choose to value something more highly, to prefer that tempting object, to what they ought rather to choose.  The will-as-use can be strong or weak, rightly or wrongly directed or self-directing.  And, its choices are fateful, conditioning the concrete possibilities for further and future acts of will.

The third Latin term, affectio, is not as easy to translate well.  There is a cognate, "affection," which bears suggestive and often fruitful connotations.  In thinking about this, we do assuredly need to keep in mind structures of affectivity, for in Anselm's moral anthropology they are schemas and shapes of the will.  That aforementioned paper of mine reflects an ambivalence about best word choice:
Will-as-instrument, like other instruments, e.g., reason, or sight, has “its aptitudes” (aptitudines suas), which can be called affectiones, a term we can translate as “affections,” “inclinations,” or perhaps “dispositions.”
I opted for "inclinations" in that paper, but waver sometimes towards "dispositions," or even "lasting dispositions."  Likely, no English term adequately captures the richness of affectio in the contexts Anselm uses it, thinking and talking about the will, any more than any English (or French, or German, or even Latin) term can do justice to the multisemic Greek term logos.

Rather than worrying about precisely which English word to substitute here, it's better to focus on what the significance of Anselm's introduction of this third sense of will.  It permits him to call attention to and discuss something that any astute phenomenology of moral life turned towards the will realizes:  We are creatures at least in part of our own choices, carried through, sometimes beset by, dispositions which our good or bad choices have played their parts in forming, shaping, vectoring, intensifying or weakening, opposing or indulging.  And, when we choose, it is not simply what we think and set in front of ourselves that determines (or rather which we choose to let determine), but also what we feel, what habitual dispositions of action, attitude, and emotion we move through and which pass through us.  In our real moral lives, we also establish lasting but modifiable orderings of preferences, within which all good and evils that matter to us can be and are in fact placed, from the pleasure of running one's hand over a lover's skin to the joy of untangling a mystery whether profane or divine, from the arduous but ultimately rewarding tasks involved in progressively developing self-knowledge and mastery (for Anselm, through humility) to the simple demands of life, from what one needs or desires to those desires and needs of others and the value or disvalues implicit in relationship and community with them.

One of the most important fruits of this is -- or rather can and ought to be -- a further realization:  By the time we become aware of the complexity of the structuring of the human will, we are already engaged, in situation, and in many cases, already damaged in our wills, the substances of our persons veined through with poorly formed wills-as-disposition, bent away from their integral pattern, their debere, the how they ought to be.  Grasping this condition and deciding to do something about it (or, more truthfully) to find one's way back to what lends the will some of its lost power to do something about this state), again and again, step by step, is one avenues of impulse towards the monastic discipline and life.