Life and Works of Anselm of Canterbury

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Anselm of Canterbury ( 1033 – 1109)

Anselm, also known as Anselmo d’Aosta, is described by Chambers Biographical Dictionary as a scholastic philosopher and archbishop of Canterbury. Indeed a title accorded to him, according to the Internet Dictionary of Philosophy, was the Scholastic Doctor. Born in Italy, of a noble family, his mother saw that he had a religious upbringing and he left that country, firstly for Burgundy and then for the Benedictine abbey of Normandy in 1056.I t seems, after being refused by a local monastery, because of fear of his father’s wrath, he was attracted by Lanfranc, a fellow countryman and at that time Prior at Bec He had wanted to join the abbey earlier, but his father prevented him and for a while he led a somewhat wild life. He finally became a monk in 1060 after much thought as to what he should do and consultations with Lanfranc and with the Archbishop of Rouen At Bec he eventually became prior and abbot. At first there were some murmurings at his youth, but he soon won his brothers over and under his leadership the abbey became a great center of learning. He was not a disciplinarian as according to his biographer he considered excessive severity to be a bad thing. In the prologue to Monologian he explains that the is writing down his ideas because the brothers asked his to write down the things that they had discussed and he says something very similar in ‘Cur Deus Homo’ motive again in the Cur Deus Homo: “I have often and most earnestly been asked by many, in speech and in writing, to commit in writing to posterity reasonable answers I am accustomed to give to those asking about a certain questions of faith’. His biographer Eadmer, quoted by the Internet  Dictionary of Philosophy, wrote:

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Being continually given up to God and to spiritual exercises, he attained

such a height of divine speculation that he was able by God’s help to see

 into and unravel many most obscure and previously insoluble questions.

At the time religious arguments tended to be settled mainly by looking only at scripture, but although Anselm did quote from the Bible he had great faith in rational thinking as a means of growing in faith and understanding.

The abbey owned property in England so he made several trips there. He proved to be popular and  in 1093 he moved to Canterbury, England to replace another former Bec monk, Lanfranc, as Archbishop of Canterbury. This was after a period of several months in which the post remained vacant until he was invited over by the Earl of Chester .He soon came to loggerheads with both William II and his successor Henry I, and both kings forced him into exile. In the case of William the king over exercised his authority over the church, seizing church property and claiming its revenues. He also shocked the church with his loose moral sense. The problem was caused by Anselm’s adherence to strong principles. H e insisted that the king listen to his spiritual advice and also that he acknowledge Urban II as pope, for there were at that time two claimants for the position. This latter caused problems, because at that time he would have been required to travel to Rome, before his consecration and the king forbade this. Eventually a legate arrived with archiepiscopal pall, and this was laid upon the alter at Canterbury from where Anselm took it up. In October 1097 Anselm did set off for Rome and the king immedately acted, seizing church revenues and retaining them for the rest of his life. When his younger brother Henry succeeded him in 1100 he invited Anselm to return. However Henry wanted to persoannly invest Anselm as archbishop, a preceedure that was forbidden to a lay person. Anselm was forbidden the kingdom and retreated to Lyon after Pope Pascal II upheld this rule, and excommunicated those who broke the rule, except Henry. Anselm finally returned to  take up his duties for the last two years of his life.

Anselm was much influenced by Augustine, as were many churchmen of his day, but Anselm was never satisfied merely to reproduce Augustine’s ideas and his reasoning that God gives everyone an innate belief in Himself, but that bad people suppressed this. Anselm wanted firm reasons for Christian belief and at the same time believed that faith was a necessary basis for mental speculation about God.

I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may

understand. For this too I believe, that unless I first believe, I shall

not understand. ( quoted  page 378, The Lion Handbook of Christian Belief.

The Handbook of Christian Belief credits him with being the ‘first truly great theologian of the medieval west’. At that time all scholars were also churchmen and there thinking was always against the background of those who had gone before  – from the Greek philosophers, the Biblical prophets and the early fathers of the church.

Although it forms only a very small of his work, Anselm is famous for first proposing the ontological argument ( from the Greek for ‘being’) for the existence of God i.e. he argues that if we can reason that God exists, then God exists.   His starting premise was that there must be a being greater than which cannot be conceived. That such a being exists in reality exists in human thought. H e went on to say that God must be necessary and that therefore God exists.( Chambers Dictionary of Belief and Religions, page 382.) an dif he is the greatest of beings this precludes any idea of imperfection, corruption and deception. This type of argument, which he laid out in his Proslogian III and IV is often criticized because it is built upon nothing but what is contained within it i.e. it is abstract logic. But Anselm really wanted people to work out for themselves who God was. He told them to seek him in private and say:-

 I seek your face; your face, Lord, will I seek. And come now, Lord my

God, teach my heart where and how it may seek you, where and how it

 may seek you where and how it may find you.’ – Anselm, Proslogion, chapter 1.

One of the acts of his reign as Archbishop was the final bringing in of the Irish Celtic Christians under the leadership of the Church of Rome. He also attempted to ensure clerical celibacy and suppressing the slave trade, for he obtained legislation in England forbidding the sale of humans. He encouraged regular synods to discuss ways in which the church needed to change. He, according to Kemerling, in 1107 was instrumental in securing the Westminster Agreement which gave the church at least partial freedom from state control. Hi s greatest work is considered to be ‘Cur Deus Homo? i.e. Why did God become man. In it he argued that man’s sin has built up a debt that can never be repaid in human terms. Christ’s death was worthy enough to wipe it out. God the Father therefore makes salvation available on account of the merits of Christ’s action. This is known as a satisfaction theory of the atonement. The gospels speak of Christ dying for us, but it was Anselm who thought of this in terms of merits and rewards. His work was influential both with his contemporaries and indeed his ideas are still debated and worthy of study.

He was canonized in 1492 by Pope Alexander IV and was created a doctor of the church in 1720 by Pope Clement XI.


Anselm, Proslogian, Chapter 1 , quoted in The History of Christianity, page 254

Dowley, T. organizing editor, A Lion Handbook, the History of Christianity, Lion Publishing, Hertfordshire, 1980

English, D. et al (editors)  The Lion Handbook of Christian Belief, Lion Publishing, Hertfordshire, 1992

Goring,E. Chambers Dictionary of Belief and Religions, Chambers , Edinburgh, 1992

Magnussen, M. editor) Chambers Biographical Dictionary, Chambers, Edinburgh, 1990

Electronic Sources

Anselm of Canterbury, The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, found at retrieved 3rd November 2007

Kemerling,G. Anselm of Canterbury found at  retrieved 3rd November 2007

St Anselm, Confessor, found at retrieved 3rd November 2007

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