Anselm of Canterbury


Brief Life Sketch

Anselm was born somewhere between April 1033 and April 1034, in Upper Bergundy somewhere near the town of Aosta. Thus, he is sometimes referred to as Anselm of Aosta. His father Gundulf was a Lombard nobleman and his mother, Ermenberga, was likely the granddaughter of Conrad the Peaceful.1 It is claimed that Gundulf was far too generous with his wealth, which causes some problems for his family.2 Anselm was a devout young man, likely owing to his mother's influence, who was a devoted Christian. As a result of his pious upbringing, he sought to enter a monastery at the age of fifteen but was rejected when his father refused to grant his permission.3 Anselm became despondent and fell ill soon after, but recovered quickly and pursued the studies expected of him. Following the death of his mother due to complications of childbirth, his father became severely strict regarding religion. So much so that he joined a cloistered community, leaving behind Anselm and his family. Anselm, now twenty-three years old, journeyed for the next three years throughout Bergundy and France, eventually visiting Normandy in 1059.

Following his father's death, he approached the Archbishop of Rouen for guidance on his spiritual life, as Anselm still felt a call to the monastic life. At the age of twenty-seven, Anselm entered a Benedictine monastery as a novice. It is here, at the monastery of Bec, that Anselm developed his passion for literature.4 Within a year he had written the first of his works, De Grammatico, examining paradoxes connected to Latin language through the study of syllogisms. Undoubtedly, this contributed to the development of his apologetics as his monastic career continued. He would subsequently write prolifically on various philosophical and theological topics, producing such works as Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man), De Libertate Arbitrii (On Free Will), De Casu Diaboli (The Fall of Satan), and many more. In 1078 Anselm was elected to be abbot of the monastery and consecrated such on February 22, 1079. The next years in Anselm's life were turbulent. The various political forces around Anselm imposed themselves on him, but by 1093 he had been consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury. He was exiled twice, opposing royal claims to primacy over the papacy in the kingdom.5 By 1107 the controversy had abated, and Anselm dedicated the last years of his life to his ministry as archbishop. He died on Holy Wednesday, April 21, 1109.6

Anselm's Ontological Argument

God is, we believe, that which no greater can be thought. Even the fool understands those words when he hears them, and so it must be conceded that that 'something than which nothing greater can be thought' exists at least in his mind. But it is not the same to exist in the mind and actually to exist. A painter planning a picture has it in his mind, but it does not exist until he has painted it. That which exists in reality as well as in thought is obviously greater than that which exists only in the mind. If God existed only in the mind, it would be possible to conceive of a greater than he, who existed in reality as well, and then that which we have defined as 'That than which nothing greater can be thought' would not be 'That than which nothing greater can be thought'...Anselm draws the conclusion that 'That than which nothing greater can be thought' must therefore exist in reality.7

Anselm set forth his ontological argument in his Proslogion II, and it, along with several variations of it, has become an important philosophical tool for apologists. Critics of the argument will suggest that it is possible to conceive of something that is purely imagination and does not exist outside the mind. However, what this objection fails to take into account is that the argument is specific to an infinitely perfect being and to apply it to anything finite is to misunderstand the argument altogether. Applying this, for example, to the conception of an Orc from the Lord of the Rings would be an error, since the nature of the Orc is finite and, logically speaking, it cannot exist in reality. That is, it cannot exist outside the mind. Likewise, one may be capable of conceiving of any of the myriad of pagan gods believed to have existed on Mt. Olympus in antiquity, with their classical Greek dress, human frailties, etc., yet they cannot exist outside the mind as they cannot exist in reality, which reason shows. In their nature they are finite and thus are not the infinitely perfect being greater than which nothing can be conceived. When we speak of God in scriptural terms, we are speaking of the maximal being, the infinite one Who has no equal or superior. This is the basis for the ontological argument. If we state Anselm's argument as a syllogism8 it would look as follows:

  1. God means “That which nothing greater can be conceived”.

  2. The idea of God is not contradictory.

  3. That which can be thought of as not existing (a contingent being) is not as great as 'That which nothing greater can be thought' (the necessary being).

  4. Therefore, to think of God as possibly not existing (contingent) is not to think of 'That which nothing greater can be thought'. It is a contradiction to think of that maximal being as non-existent.

  5. Therefore, God exists.

Prayer of Saint Anselm

O Lord my God, teach my heart this day, where and how to find you. You have made me and re-made me, and you have bestowed on me all the good things I possess, and still, I do not know you. I have not yet done that for which I was made. Teach me to seek you, for I cannot seek you unless you teach me, or find you unless you show yourself to me. Let me seek you in my desire; let me desire you in my seeking. Let me find you by loving you; let me love you when I find you. Amen.9

1Conrad the First (925 AD-October 19, 993) King of Bergundy from 937 until his death, called “the Peaceful”.

2Rule, Martin, The Life and Times of Saint Anselm, Vol.1 (1883) pp. 7-8,London: Kegan, Paul, Trench & Co.

3Church, R.W., Saint Anselm, (1870) p. 14, London: MacMillan

4Ibid, p. 47

5Evans, G.R. Anselm, (2002) p. 21, London: Continuum

6British Library online, entry on Anselm

7Ibid. p.51

8Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online

9The Complete Works of Anselm (2019) Patristic Publishing


  • The Complete Works of Saint Anselm of Canterbury, 2019 Patristic Publishing

  • G.R. Evans, Anselm ,2022 London Continuum

  • Richard William Church, Saint Anselm, 1870, London; MacMillan

  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online, entry on Anselm of Canterbury

  • British Library online, entry on Anselm of Canterbury

  • Martin Rule, The Life and Times of Saint Anselm Vol. 1 (1883) London: Keagan, Paul, Trench & Co.