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Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape.

Richard Southern's portrait of Anselm's life and thought is set in the landscape of what he describes as "one of the most momentous periods of change in European history, comparable to the centuries of the Reformation or the Industrial Revolution" (4).

Part 1 takes readers from Anselm's birth in Aosta in 1033 to his search for direction in life, a search that led him to Bec and to Lanfranc at a time when the monastery was engaged in intense intellectual and political activity. Lanfranc's influence on his monastic and intellectual life is set forth, as well as the growing differences in thought and spirituality between them. Part 2 presents Anselm's Prayers and Meditations. These, his most immediately influential writings, made him an important figure in medieval spirituality. They introduced into devotion a new kind of individual intense feeling, albeit with Anselm's typically rigorous underpinning. They also prepared the way for two of his greatest works, the Monologion and Proslogion. Anselm's letters in this period reveal his surprisingly new, passionate approach to friendship, which he valued as an exalted development of monastic life.

Part 3 opens with an important analysis of the historical and personal context of the Cur Deus homo, and of the work itself. It seems likely that it was at least partially occasioned by objections of Jewish scholars who maintained that God's becoming human and suffering indignities would be irreconcilable with God's supreme dignity and honor. It was written when Anselm was already Archbishop of Canterbury. Nearly a third of S.'s book deals with Anselm's often difficult and even stormy role as archbishop, especially in his struggles for the liberty of the Church, in particular of the monastic community and archepiscopal see of Canterbury. S. portrays Anselm as a brilliant monastic person unable to grasp the profound changes going on in society and the Church. Part 4 examines the influence of Anselm in relation to his earliest theological disciples, the collectors of his words and letters, and his most important disciple, Eadmer, author of the Life. A substantial appendix seeks to unravel the thorny problems concerning the history of Anselm's letters. S.'s great knowledge of manuscripts and problems of codicology offer valuable insights unavailable to those who confine themselves to reading Anselm's texts. A useful index of topics and persons completes the work.

Although stating that he looks at Anselm's works primarily as a historian and so at their context and form without detailed analysis, S. does in fact give insights into their content that can guide or challenge readers of the works. It is often by particular insights that he is most helpful, since he assumes on the reader's part a rather full knowledge of the text and arguments of those among Anselm's works that he discusses. Although the book would be less helpful for those lacking this knowledge, it can still provide them with cautions against some fanciful interpretations.

The work is especially valuable for showing Anselm's development in thought and action. S. should convince students of Anselm that his works cannot be read as if they are an undifferentiated whole unrelated to various periods of his life and development. The presentation of the relations between the Monologion and Proslogion and of both of these to his monastic life and spirituality should remind contemporary philosophers that they neglect these relations at the price of misunderstanding the whole. The study of Anselm's prayers and meditations should also enlighten those interested in medieval spirituality.

Although S.'s work is a contextual biography and not a detailed analysis of each of Anselm's works, it is somewhat surprising that he should devote some seventy pages to Anselm's influence through "the harvest of friends and disciples" and only mention by name several important works that became authoritative and influential later in the twelfth century and afterwards. The many pages devoted to Eadmer might have been put in an appendix so as to allow room for discussion of, e.g., the De processione Spiritus Sancti, a key medieval work for Latins in their discussion with the Greeks. Among many important points seen as authoritative later, Anselm stresses that unity within God prevails "wherever any opposition of relation does not stand in the way"; this phrase, frequently quoted later, even by the Council of Florence, contributed (unfortunately, some would say) to a certain less personalized spirituality in relation to the trinitarian persons. His argument that the Holy Spirit would not be distinct from the Son unless the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Son was a key piece in the Latin defence of the filioque.

Again, the De conceptu virginali et de peccato originali includes Anselm's very important new view of original sin, a view later adopted by some theologians, including Aquinas. Setting aside the dominant Augustinian view that original sin consists in disordered concupiscence, Anselm sees original sin as a disorder of the will, the deprivation of rectitude or right order of the will to God, with the other disorders only consequent upon this fundamental lack. This marked a fundamental shift in theology and spirituality, a contribution that would have been well worth noting.

Contrasting Anselm with Abelard, S. states that Abelard and Grosseteste "later interpreted Anselm's argument in the Cur Deus homo in ways that greatly enlarged its human potentialities. But, for Anselm, the only enlargement was in the sovereignty of God: human nature contributed nothing to its redemption" (453). Since S., of course, accepts the role of the human in Christ, he must be thinking of the role of other humans in redemption. But Anselm himself indicates the need of our human activity if Christ's work is to have its effect: "Sacred Scripture," he says, "teaches us everywhere how we are to approach so great a grace in order to share in it and how we are to live under its influence"; there are other similar muted but real indications in the work of the need for a human subjective response. Further, Abelard emphasizes the sovereignty of God in redemption by insisting that the subjective response of love to Christ's display of divine love can be ours only under the graced movement of the Holy Spirit. Thus the contrast S. makes on this point is less than he makes it out to be.

These remarks aside, it is impossible to do justice here to the fascinating details given by S. or to his opinions on many issues. If the work is occasionally repetitious or overly extended in areas that particularly interest S., it still delights because it is written with such clarity, elegance, and with the assurance of someone who, like Anselm himself, has long meditated on his subject and come to his own conclusions. In view of so many fine insights, we are fortunate in having a concluding chapter giving S.'s own excellent summary and assessment of Anselm. S. rejects the usual tag about Anselm: he was neither the last of the Fathers (his methods, more Platonic and Cartesian in spirit, were not theirs) nor was he the first of the scholastics (he did not work from or use authoritative statements to pose questions or seek answers); rather, he developed his theology independently, using careful analysis of works and concepts more than dialectic and avoiding the give-and-take of scholastic disputation. While frankly indicating the limitations of the person he so evidently respects and cherishes, S. is able to show the positive aspect even of the qualities that sometimes led to failures. Much more, he is able to bring out in convincing fashion the holiness, genius, and extraordinary accomplishments of this fascinating and saintly monk, theologian, and archbishop.
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Author:Principe, Walter H.
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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