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13.04.12, Sweeney, Anselm of Canterbury

13.04.12, Sweeney, Anselm of Canterbury

Few figures in the history of medieval philosophy can claim the significance of Anselm of Canterbury. Even the most rudimentary survey of western thought and society will almost inevitably accord him some space, if only to ponder and play with that most arresting of metaphysical concepts: the ontological proof of the existence of God. For the modern scholar of Anselm and his oeuvre, this is both a blessing and a curse. How to think anew about a canonical figure for whom there exists over eight hundred years of reflection and debate? How to contextualize and evaluate the mind of a medieval author who comes closest to the definition of a philosopher in modern terms? These are not the questions that Eileen Sweeney has explicitly set out to address, but in providing one of the most thorough reevaluations of Anselm's thought to date, they are among the conundrums for which her enterprise yields fresh answers.

Sweeney's new book on Anselm rests on a basic, if slightly overstated, paradox of his legacy. In his arguments based on reason alone, Anselm appears to develop a model of pure and neutral rationality. From this line of inquiry comes his famous dictum, "faith seeking understanding," a sometimes misconstrued analytical precept that has nevertheless influenced debates over reason and faith in the Christian tradition for nearly a millennium. Yet in his intensely personal and passionate prayers, meditations, and letters of spiritual direction, Anselm is equally regarded as a forerunner of later experiential and emotional spirituality, a topic of renewed interest in the current study of devotional practices. [1] Seeking unity where others have been contented with dichotomy, or at any rate diversity, Sweeney addresses these tensions by offering a cumulative and comparative interpretation of Anselm's writings over time and across modern topical divides. "The thesis of this book," she writes, " is that Anselm's corpus, from his earliest prayers to last treatise, is a single project in which knowledge of self and God are inextricably linked" (7). Sweeney specifically seeks to uncover the dialectics of separation and union that run throughout his thought and that find expression in the variety of literary genres that he took up over the course of his career as monk, abbot, and archbishop. It is an ambitious project, but in many ways Sweeney is the ideal person to undertake it, having devoted many previous articles and books to issues of medieval philosophy and theology, ranging from problems of belief and action to discussions of representation and literary genre. The resulting volume is the ripened fruit of many years of thinking about Anselm and the motives for his writings.

The book wisely follows the progression of Anselm's thought and career in rough chronological fashion, so far as chronology can be firmly established. It may seem like a basic point, but this approach is itself a departure from traditional treatments by philosophers and theologians who generally privilege topical analysis over sequential progression. [2] It is also crucial to what she frequently refers to as the upward "arc" of his intellectual journey toward God, for in identifying a persistent struggle between alienation and intimacy, Sweeney adamantly resists the notion that Anselm's ideas show significant change over time. Chapter 1 lays out the narrative pattern of Anselm's prayers, since for Sweeney they establish in clearest terms the issues and trajectory found in his other works. The prayers sound the depths of human sin, but they also guide Anselm toward the point where the sins that separate him from an infinitely unreachable God are forgiven by a God whose very transcendence transforms him into an intimate struggling to overcome his own ignorance. Chapter 2 continues this theme in his letters, where Anselm achieves union by forgoing physical closeness for spiritual communion. By borrowing the language of erotic love for higher purposes, what Sweeney subversively but amusingly calls his "recruiting tool" (72), and joining it to the language of mystical union, Anselm forms a model of monastic friendship which he can then deploy to convince other monks to join their wills to his and to will, with him, one thing: union with God.

Chapters 3 and 4 focus on Anselm's logical and grammatical writings including, but not limited to, the Monologion and the Proslogion. More than merely rehearsing Anselm's well-known ontological argument, Sweeney places these works within a broader rhetorical and pedagogical context of achieving union of words with things. Just as the first movement in the prayers is the realization of one's separation from God, so in the logical works learning how words only imperfectly map onto things is the first step toward creating the chain of terms that can carry the mind up toward God. Philosophers may be disappointed to learn that no verdict is given on the structural soundness of his arguments, but to my mind this, too, is a refreshing feature of her approach.

Chapter 5 explores the relationship between Anselm's method of linguistic analysis and the problems of truth and the will in De veritate, De libertate arbitrii, and De casu diaboli, a trilogy of dialogues that he deliberately intended to be published in that order. Sidestepping the issue of their dating, a thorny question for many, Sweeney instead focuses on their connection to each other through their dialogical form, their topics, and their relationship to Scripture. The subject of these works is not God per se, but rather the world of finitude and becoming. Yet what is carried forward from his earlier writings, while foreshadowing his later ones, is the search for linguistic integrity in which clear formulations of necessary truths come out in equally impenetrable paradoxes. Thus, for example, Anselm argues there are evils that are something and evils that are nothing. It is both possible and impossible for the world to come to be. Some things both ought to be and ought not to be. Viewing the Anselmian corpus holistically allows Sweeney to make some of her most deft comparative observations. The topics of these dialogues are not narrow or sectarian but universal and philosophical in the sense that they are concerned with the most basic questions of human and finite existence. They are just as theological as Cur Deus homo and just as argumentative as the Proslogion because they are fundamentally about assessing, questioning, and defending the Christian narrative in the pedagogical company of his students. The close attention to the literary form of the dialogue further allows Sweeney to build the case that these early works foreshadow a proto- scholastic approach to language and logic, a point she returns to in the seventh chapter.

Chapter 6 takes up the culminating point in the Christian narrative, the Incarnation, which Anselm treats following his earlier writings on the creation and the fall. Once again, three texts form the basis for this discussion: Cur Deus homo, De incarnatione verbi, and De conceptu virginali. At nearly one hundred pages, this chapter provides a detailed, if somewhat labored, examination of the internal arguments of the works and, more significantly, of how they relate to the upward "arc" of his philosophical journey. Sweeney argues, as others have before, that they mark an important transition from an intensely intimate setting and audience in the monastery to a more public engagement with the language, debates, and polemics of the outside world. Where she differs is in her contention that Anselm takes those public debates and makes them intimate and internal, thus reflecting continuity rather than rupture in the personal and unremitting dialectics of union and separation.

Chapter 7, subtitled "From Meditatio to Disputatio," connects the intimate world of Anselm's meditative spirituality to the more boldly argumentative methods of later scholastic authors, independently arriving at conclusions very similar to ones reached by this reviewer. [3] Here, however, the focus is on the final works of Anselm's career. While the drama of the classical form of the dialogue has all been suppressed in De processione, a more defensive posture and in a certain sense more disputational tone emerges as he publicly addresses the conflict with the Greek church and articulates a decisive defense of the Latin view on the procession of the Holy Spirit. De concordia returns to questions of free choice and the fall that he had addressed in his earlier dialogues, but now he has moved from being in dialogue with his students to being in dialogue with Scripture, a dialogue in which Scripture is conceived more as a series of propositions capable of contradicting each other, "in the mode of a sic et non" (329). While other commentators have ascribed the greater quantity of Scriptural passages in these works to its increasing importance to Anselm over time, Sweeney instead (and I believe rightly) stresses the way in which Scripture is integrated into these works. "This is true in terms of the questions they take up, the literary form in which their arguments are placed, and the way in which they take up Scripture as party to those debates" (367). Viewing the Anselmian corpus in one vast sweep also allows Sweeney to come full circle in her argument concerning continuity. As she persuasively shows, the scholastic method adopted in Anselm's later works nevertheless still evinces features of his earlier writings: extraordinary and relentless facility with language and argument, with paradox and distinction, and with the construction and analysis of analogies and metaphors.

There are some important limitations to this book. Historians will regret that Anselm's relations with the world around him (his teacher Lanfranc, his students, his correspondents) remain largely sidelined from the discussion, orbiting rather than impacting his intellectual development. Similarly, Sweeney's unshakable commitment to going no farther than Anselm's corpus constrains the reach of some of her most potent suggestions. For instance, discussion of Anselm's "public" and of his proto-scholasticism are stated rather than demonstrated and many of her statements about shifting attitudes toward learning are assumed rather than explored. In this sense, Sweeney's fresh new look at the mind of Anselm reveals both the advantages and the limitations of this particular form of intellectual history.



1. See, for instance, Rachel Fulton Brown, "Three-in-One: Making God in Twelfth-Century, Liturgy, Theology, and Devotion," in Thomas F. X. Noble and John Van Engen, eds., European Transformations: The Long Twelfth Century (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012), pp. 468-98.

2. But see Anthony Kenny, Medieval Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), who offers an exquisitely lucid combination of both approaches.

3. Alex J. Novikoff, "Anselm, Dialogue, and the Rise of Scholastic Disputation," Speculum 86, 2 (2011): 387-418.