Anselm's Similitude: The Monk as a Coin

One of my favorite similitudes of Saint Anselm, found in the De Similitudinibus/ De humanibus moribus, likens a monk to a coin (denarius).  It turns out not to be an entirely novel metaphor spun out of Anselm 's so fruitful imagination and capacities for developing apt analogies -- the twentieth chapter of John Cassian's First Conference with Abbot Moses (a text well known to monks like Anselm) records a structurally similar analogy to a coin.

In that text, however, it is "thoughts  which arise in our hearts" which are to be tested for their qualities, each examined for its "origin and cause and author."  We are to assay the metal, to discern whether it is genuine gold, or just a copper denarius covered over with gold.  We are also to determine whether it bears the image of the right king, rather than an usurper.  And, we are to test whether it carries the proper heft, or whether it is under weight.

Anselm transposes the metaphor metonymically from the thoughts of the person to the person him or herself, producing a somewhat new similitude.  The three qualities of purity, weight, and bearing the proper mark are incorporated, but take on new meanings, which Anselm explores as he works out the analogy.  One interesting difference is that in Cassian's trope, the pure coin is a gold one, not the copper denarius, while Anselm's pure coin is precisely that.  A later chapter takes up and further develops the coin likeness, and so I include its translation here as well.

De Similitudinibus, Chapter 90. A similitude between a monk and a denarius
Again, we should see from something similar, what should be in a perfect monk. There are three things in any good denarius, that should be in any good monk. For indeed a good denarius should be of pure copper, weigh the right amount, and be marked by a legitimate mint. But if one of these should be lacking, it would not be able to serve as money. For, in order for it to serve as money, it has to have these three things together.

And, the monk also has to have these, in order to be deemed truly a monk. For indeed, his purity of metal is his obedience. For no impurity of disobedience, but only obedience should be in him. And, his right weight is the stability of his intention [propositi]. For he should not be easily wended away from that which he received, but persevere as stable to the end. His mint-mark is the monastic habit and the tonsure, in front and back, and similar things. For just as a denarius is distinguished by the mint-mark, which comes from a certain region, likewise the monk is distinguished by these things, which belong to a certain order.

But that monk who now is so old he cannot bend forward and backwards is alike to that denarius whose mint-mark great age has now effaced. But he who has not yet taken on the monk's habit and thus does not have the name of "monk," is alike to a blank coin not yet having a mint-mark, and for this reason cannot yet serve as money. Just as one who wishes to gather together a treasury loves this sort of blank coin just as much as one having a mint-mark, so God, who desires to lay all of up in the heavenly treasury, lays up just as much a person like this as he does a person who wears the monk's habit.

But if one should appear to wear the monk's habit, but [be] of impure copper, i.e. be disobedient, God will never lay him up in the heavenly treasury, just as he seeks to lay up no false denarius in his treasury. But if one should appear to be obedient, even if he sins because of some human weakness, nevertheless God will not reject him, if he straightaway repents. For a false denarius differs from an unusable [invalido] one, just as a false monk differs from a weak one. The unusable one has less weight than it should, but that which it does have is made of pure copper. The false one though, claims just as much as the good one to bear the mint-mark, but within it is hidden falsity with respect to copper. And likewise the false monk wears the same habit as the good one, but the falsity of disobedience is hidden within him.

The weak but obedient one, even though he should not lack such stability as not to fall, nevertheless retains purity of obedience. For indeed, he soon repents for having failed; what is given to him as precept, he does with pure obedience. The false monk, therefore, is rejected from the heavenly treasury, but the weak one is laid up there for his measure of effort. It is thus of no benefit for one to wear the exterior habit of a monk, if he does not strive to have the interior one.

95. A likeness between monasticism and fire.
Indeed, a false denarius seems to be good for the most part. But, if it is put into the fire, right away it is proven to be false. And, for the most part in secular life, a person badly formed in their moral dispositions [male morigeratus] will seem to be of good moral dispositions. But if he is made a monk, and then afterwards reproached regularly for measured faults, soon enough he is proven not to be what he appeared. For he appeared to be humble and patient, but is soon discovered to be proud and impatient.

And if one were to impute this to his Rule [ordini], this would be as if a coin said to the fire: "You made me false." For it did not make him false, but rather showed what he was. And likewise then, the Rule did not make a person one badly comporting themselves in their moral dispositions, but rather openly showed that he was this way. Thus, let him not accuse the Rule, but himself, and let him change perverse moral dispositions into good ones. For unless he appears to be of good moral dispositions, the good things he does externally will count for very little.