Aug 21, 2011

Catching Up With Anselm the Christian Philosopher

I'm still in the midst of writing another Anselm-themed post which will appear later this week (or next week), dealing with justice, mercy, and our (often inadequate) images of the divine -- but I found myself, instead of reading through those texts most germane to such purposes and topics, following once again down the paths, seemingly so straightforward and sunlit, but occasionally and admittedly to me obscure, of the beginning five chapters of Anselm's first treatise, the Monologion.  This text, in our times relatively little known and studied (except by Anselm scholars, philosophers of religion, or historians of medieval thought), is both programmatically and exemplarily emblematic of the Anselmian project of fides quaerens intellectum, "faith seeking understanding" -- although some better Anselm scholars than myself have argued that an equally important and characteristic contribution by Anselm is his well-worked-out conception of justice as rectitudo voluntatis propter se servata, "rectitude of will kept for its own sake".

Rereading and ruminating upon these chapters, mulling through them, actively dialoging with their assertions and arguments -- using them as they were designed, by Anselm's own lights -- got me thinking both about Anselm's moral theory (the broad and multifarious topic about which I'm currently -- with painful, though perhaps not painstaking, slowness -- researching and writing a book) and about the "problem" of Christian philosophy (as it is often put, concealing a tangled an wideranging number of problems, issues, historical phenomena, debates. . . ).  I noticed a confluence of these two sets of concerns.

First though, an admission of something that used to worry me considerably, but which now I've more or less made peace with.  Some may mark this as a sign of being a poor philosopher, that is, of someone who is simply not good at his own craft or discipline of philosophy, and perhaps in some sense it is.  Reading through a  passage, a text, a chain of interconnected concepts, distinctions, and  argumentation, I find myself sometimes more readily convinced of the value (even if only partial) of the phenomenon, the complex connections, the paths of inquiry, the musings and speculations which an author proffers in their prose -- and sometimes I find myself less readily convinced, not necessarily because I am more critically acute, more skeptically astute, better armed against suppositions I need not grant.  Often, it is  matter of dullness, an inability to read and think as attentively -- and for that, ought an author be blamed?

Well, perhaps if their basic stance is the governing ideal both historically apotheothesized in the Enlightenment and perennially epitomized ever-anew in naivete, that everything ought to be clear as day to every unprejudiced mind once the work of clearing away obstacles, getting down to the basic facts and principles every reasonable soul must grant -- then, yes, they're to be held to those standards (which turn out to be illusory and impossible, unless you allow a lot of wiggle room and fudging).

If philosophy is understood less in terms of a finished system of thought, expressed -- even reducible to -- a set of propositions, arranged in some logical manner and then judged in part and whole solely from such a standpoint -- less in those terms and more in terms of the forms of activity, the ways of intellectual comportment, the orientation of life and progressive acquisition of, not so much truths as mere true statements, but more truths as expressions which can cohere and shed light on each other, ground practical comportments, decisions, commitments that when lived out faithfully then open further vistas, up-to-then unsuspected opportunities, additional possibilities for truth-grasping -- well, if you understand philosophy as something along those lines, then the less than entire constancy, even consistency, to one's assessments of the thoughts of Anselm (or Hegel, or Plato, or. . . ) becomes more understandable.

Machiavelli, we are told -- who had a day-job -- routinely engaged in a scene-setting routine before he attempted to commune with the ancients whose wisdom he wanted to acquire, weigh, assay, and improve upon:  he would get out of his work clothes, put on his robes, and then enter his study to read, reflect, dialogue with the voices and thoughts held within the labyrinthine linguistic structures of his library's volumes.  I have found that my understanding -- not just my intellectual grasp of simply what is being said, but my more sapiential (and at times admittedly affective and imaginative) aggregative collation and correlative assessment of all those things that have been said, my capacity for following an author where he leads, for seeing what he sets forth, for holding together the different insights and doctrines together long enough to hear whether they mutually harmonize, order, augment, discord, or destroy, or nullify -- my own abilities as a philosopher are at times up to the challenges an author imposes, and other times not -- the fault, failure, or deficiency residing on the side of the reader rather than the writer.

It is of course all the more complicated when there is a mixture in an author's work of things that are puzzling, paradoxical, demanding, but right and things that are wrong, mistaken or unwarranted assumptions, infelicities of expression or articulation, contradictions that remain contradictions even when thought through.  It is also somewhat harder with someone like Anselm who wrote in ways and through genres that remain rather incompletely comprehensive in comparison to those of a Thomas Aquinas, an Immanuel Kant, a Georg Hegel -- true, aiming at consistency and even at an adequately systematic treatment of certain topics, attaining considerable depths by exploring difficult metaphysical and moral problems and realities through progressively more and more profound examinations -- nevertheless there remain glaring (even admittedly so) gaps in Anselm's discussions of many topics, problems, and issues, places where one would have liked to been able to cajole or compel him into speaking in greater length and breadth, to have pointed out and asked about interrelated topics, especially insightful distinctions made but not fully drawn out.

The Monologion is a remarkable work for many reasons, not the least of which is that while it is written as a "sort of example of meditation" for his fellow monks -- who not only keep pestering Anselm to tackle the task of setting down in writing the matters, reasonings, discussions, and lines of thought he brought to them in his oral teaching, but impose upon him conditions of both style and procedure -- meditation about "the being of the divinity and upon other matters interconnected with a meditation of such a sort," he proceeds into this multifaceted intellectual activity demanding -- as he will say in another work explicitly titled as a meditation -- that the reader
arouse your mind, remember . . . contemplate . . . Consider anew . . . spend time in meditating upon. . . delight in reflecting upon. . . . Shake off your disinclination, constrain yourself, strive with your mind toward this end.

Chew by thinking, suck by understanding, swallow by loving and rejoicing. Rejoice in chewing, be glad in sucking, delight in swallowing.
Despite all of these practical, affective, committed, even one might say, devotional dimensions informing his intellectual activity, how does Anselm proceed?  In what would strike even the staunch secularist as an eminently philosophical manner -- at least in his way of proceeding, his deliberate decision not to cite Scripture, invoke authority, or even refer to earlier Christian thinkers, his equally deliberate starting from available (though analyzed) experiences and generally agreed-upon notions, moving forward through reasoning -- even, as his brother Benedictines demand, "not disdaining to respond to simple-minded, and even foolish, objections that might occur to me." 

We see something similar at work even in some of his treatises where Anselm or his interlocutor (a number of his works are dialogues) brings up a passage from Scripture, a teaching of Christian doctrine elaborated within the life and thought of the Church by earlier Fathers, Doctors, or Saints -- it's very rare that you can say -- or see -- that Anselm uses Scripture to answer, let alone close, a philosophical question.  Even when the Christian revelation furnishes starting points, it does not do so by providing principles, axioms, unshakable and unquestionable premises -- rather the opposite.  The refrain is, "so what does this mean?" "Could it mean. . . ?"  "But then . . ."

In short, whether in metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language, (what we now call) philosophy of religion, moral philosophy, or philosophical anthropology (the study of human nature), Anselm works as a Christian philosopher -- as a philosopher, attempting to make as full sense as possible of matters, of significant realities that concern and tend to puzzle us,  through means that are in theory accessible to anyone, i.e that stem from our human nature, including the full scope and exercise of the faculty of reason.

True, he knows by faith that ours is a fallen, damaged, human nature, often and easily led astray, requiring some aid and guidance in order for its capacities to be restored, supported, brought to their fullness and fulfilled functioning.  Does he rely upon the doctrine of original sin as a stop-gap, however, or as spur to thinking things further, to deepening problematics, to raising additional concerns and questions?

When Anselm meditates on, delves into, dialogically questions and speculates about the ratio fidei, the "deeper rationale" for the "matters of the faith" (as a particularly felicitous rendering would give it), he does not set his commitments and convictions entirely aside -- it is hard to see how one genuinely living the Benedictine spirituality in community could, let alone a monk who specifically devoted himself to "understanding the rational basis for monastic life" -- but he does not simply move into the higher (if you're a typical Christian) or nonsense (if you're a typical secularist) realm of theology.  It's true for instance that he thinks that the image of God is in some way imprinted upon our souls, indeed that the rational human mind is the closest approach among created things to the eternal dynamism of the Trinity -- but he uses the rational human mind, through argumentation, introspection, reflection upon experience, and incorporation of ideas and insights from previous thinkers, to acquire and understand that philosophical attainment.

I've written at considerable length elsewhere about the various conceptions of Christian philosophy (and there are a number of them -- there's nothing simple about that issue) and even specifically about Anselm's place in its pantheon, so I'll confine myself here to mentioning that one common understanding of Christian philosophy was that it included cases where the Christian revelation (or doctrine, or way of life, or experience, or  . . . ) provides to the philosopher (who is both faithfully Christian and earnestly philosopher) new ideas, new conceptions of things, new positions on matters -- and then the philosopher attempts to prove or demonstrate or perhaps provide some probable argument, at the very least demonstrate the possibility or intelligibility, using reason -- hoping to lead to what he or she knows by grace of faith.

What does Christianity contribute to the practice of philosophy, in Christian philosophy? That's one of the central questions, and again, multiple answers have been given, including those stressing Christianity's role of fertilizing philosophy by providing new starting points, new challenges, new impulses, new topics, new experiences, new emphases.  I think one answer that has not been given enough and has not been given enough thought is that Christianity provides some further determinacy, framework, coherence of purpose and organizational ordering  to concepts, possibilities, lines of reasoning that would otherwise remain too abstract.  And, that seems to be somewhat the case in reading Monologion ch 1-5, particularly Anselm's reasoning in ch. 1.

It has a promising start in having us think about the diverse plurality of goods which we acknowledge and desire.  Why do we desire them as good?  Why do we regard them as good?  Are they simply good each one in-itself, through being what it is?  Or are they good because of . . .  something?  Through something, Anjselm asks?  If all one had of the Monologion were ch. 1-5 (perhyaps you could even thrown in some additional chapters), it would reduce to another incarnation of Platonist metaphysics.  There's some good by which, through which, all other things that are good are good, an essence of goodness in which they partake.  And that good running through all the other goods, present in them or in their makeup in some mysterious manner, would be the greatest good, for it makes the others good. 

True, ch. 2 adds the notion of greatness to this.  The supreme good is also the supreme greatness, and through it all things that are great have the relative greatness which they possess.  Anselm is quick to specify that greatness in this sense does not mean magnitude, but being better or excellent, possessing value as we would say these days.  And ch. 3 adds another feature to this supreme thing: being the supreme being, having its being from itself rather than another, being through itself rather than owing to anything else.  It exists or it is most of all,  Anselm says, in a manner challenging to grasp or even entirely counter-intuitive to many modern philosophers.  Ch. 4 explicitly introduces the notion of gradations or levels of being, and the picture starts to come together more clearly, more coherently, and -- it really shouldn't be much of surprise -- this supreme goodness, greatness, and being comes more and more to look like the God of Christian theology, trinitarian theology, as one continues along the meditation's chain of argumentation. 

Is Anselm actually saying in ch. 1 that God is the supreme goodness through which all good things are good?  Yes, indeed he is -- but what does that mean?  How is he saying it?  What does he take it to mean?  What -- assuming he's correct -- could we understand by that seeming reduction of God to something like a Platonic form ontologically underlying a quality?  Or must we develop a more complex, more adequate conception of this goodness that makes other things good, one more coherently conceptualized in relation with the other divine attributes and the relations with created things developed further along, deeper in the thicket, higher in the gradually revealed or built structure of the Monologion (and, of course, in the other treatises and works)? 

As we learn in ch. 1, Aristotle was far from the only person to realize that good is spoken of (and exists as such) in many ways -- multiple types of goodness that while they can be traced out further (as Anselm does there in terms of usefulness and excellence or intrinsic goodness -- he provides more complex categorizations in later works) nevertheless do not entirely reduce to one same and single thing.  Anselm's so-quick passage in argument from multiple goods whose goodnesses can be thought out, explained in terms of other, broader, more basic kinds of goodness -- from this plurality of at first heterogeneous but then comparable and relatable goods to a single supreme good through which all good thing have the goodness of the sort they possess -- that argument, considered as a stand alone, let alone as the fulcrum or foundation for all the further arguments in ch.2-5 and through the rest of the work -- that argument seems strangely weak, a leap on Anselm's part, deeply unsatisfying. You wonder how he possibly conceived of that chapter as possibly meeting objections that could be raised by opponents, even interlocutors.

I suspect that the argument in ch. 1 may not in fact be intended to stand on its own.  In some masonry, later stones provide structure and balance required for earlier stones to remain in place, their forces distributed, incorporated into the larger unity.  In some music and literature, only after the composition develops can the earlier, simpler-seeming parts be judiciously assessed, because now understood.  It seems unlikely, incongruous that something like that to not be taking place.  In Anselm's Christian philosophy, as the process of reasoning goes on, becomes more specific, attempts to conform more to the concealed contours of Christian doctrine, assertions and objects originally seeming incoherent, poorly thought out, ineptly argued, begin to take on a greater determinacy, like features and terrain assuming and then displaying features in improving light.  

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