Anselm, Saint (1033-1109)

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Saint Anselm of Canterbury (b. 1033, Aosta, Lombardy; d. 1109, Canterbury, Kent) is generally considered to be the founder of the philosophical school of Scholasticism. He was a major figure in the intellectual life of the Middle Ages, and a major political and ecclesiastical force as well. As archbishop of Canterbury he was at the center of the lay investiture controversy in England. Saint Anselm spent the majority of his tenure as archbishop in opposition to William II (William Rufus, r. 1087-1100) and later Henry I (r. 1100-1135) because of his steadfast position on lay investiture. The reconciliation of the two positions at the Synod of Westminster (1107) was a basis for the Concordat of Worms (1122), which briefly settled the matter in Germany.

Saint Anselm is not generally remembered for those accomplishments, however. He is instead revered for his contributions to philosophy and religious study. By coupling philosophy with his religious and scriptural investigations, he refined the discipline of theology. His examination of the nature and existence of God led to the formulation of the ontological proof, an often-cited example of his work: "Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality."1  This proof is based on the Platonistic idea of an absolutely perfect being and the very fact of the idea being itself a demonstration of existence.

Despite his application of reason to matters of religion, Saint Anselm was not a believer in reason as the source of religious revelation. His theology bears the unmistakable marks of Saint Augustine in this regard. This is particularly evident in their remarks concerning the proper role of reason and faith:

Saint Augustine: For understanding is the recompense of faith. Therefore, seek not to understand so that you may believe, but believe that you may understand; for unless you believe, you will not understand.2 
Saint Anselm: For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.3 

Saint Anselm's ontological proof generated (and continues to generate) discussions that have included such thinkers as Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibnitz, Kant, and Hegel. His ideas of atonement and redemption, moreover, became a lasting part of Christian theology.

According to his work Cur Deus Homo? (Why God became man), finite man had committed sins against an infinite God. In feudal terms, wrongs against superiors called for greater punishments or compensations. Because it was impossible for man to recompense an infinite being, he was punished by eternal damnation. Only through Christ could man be put back into the right relationship with God. It was through communion with God in the human form of Christ that redemption was possible, and baptism was the first step on this road. Through such reasoned applications of philosophy to religious matters and piety, Saint Anselm paved the way for the discipline of theology and the Scholastic movement and achieved renown in medieval politics.


[1] Saint Anselm, Proslogium, in St. Anselm: Basic Writings (La Salle: Open Court Publishing, 1962), p. 8.

[2] Saint Augustine, St. Augustine:Tractates on the Gospel of John, vol. 88 of The Fathers of the Church (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1993), p. 18.

[3] Saint Anselm, Proslogium, p. 7.


Works by the Author

St. Anselm. Proslogium. Translated by Sidney Norton Deane. La Salle: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1944.


The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.

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