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St. Anselm’s Sexist Trinitarianism: in and by the Monologion

June 23, 2012

When others were calling him “Father Anselm,” the one we all know now as St. Anselm wrote something sexist.  What’s more, he wrote it in a sexist way.  That is, he wrote intentionally in such a way that, much later, past modern times, in what we have been calling “postmodern” philosophy in our day, critics might easily deconstruct his argument and his argumentation as, what they call, phallogocentricism.  All I want to do in this post is to show what Father Anselm wrote in his own words in his own way.  He does not need the Bible, he says.  All he needs is something that looks suspiciously like Aristotle’s powerful, syllogistic rationalism, or Cicero’s.  By this, he develops his Trinitarianism.  By it, he makes it sexist.  By his Monologion, Anselm starts in this way.  Notice how he tries to blame it on his brothers (my own emphases):

Certain brothers have frequently and earnestly entreated me to write out for them, in the form of a meditation, certain things which I had discussed in non-technical terms with them regarding meditating on the Divine Being and regarding certain other [themes] related to a meditation of this kind. For the writing of this meditation they prescribed—in accordance more with their own wishes than with the ease of the task or with my ability—the following format: that nothing at all in the meditation would be argued on Scriptural authority, but that in unembellished style and by unsophisticated arguments and with uncomplicated disputation rational necessity would tersely prove to be the case, and truth’s clarity would openly manifest to be the case, whatever the conclusion resulting from the distinct inquiries would declare. They also desired that I not disdain to refute simple and almost foolish objections which would occur to me.

What I’ve emphasized, above, is the very method of proof and of proving that Father Anselm purports to use.  I would get ahead of myself, or digress too quickly, if I suggested that some today still follow this Aristotelian or Cicerone-an logic to make their claims, to use logic to construct conclusions.  Whoever it is doing it, whenever, whatever century, they still follow a few similar steps.  First, the first and foremost necessary presuppositions are identified.  Second, the secondary premises are brought forward.  Finally, in conclusion, the word brings forth Truth.  So Father Anselm starts with steps like these.  For example, early on in the Monologion, he writes (with my emphases again):

Moreover, if anyone considers the natures of things, he cannot help perceiving that they are not all of equal excellence but that some of them differ by an inequality of gradation. For if anyone doubts that a horse is by nature better than a tree and that a man is more excellent than a horse, then surely this [person] ought not to be called a man. So although we cannot deny that some natures are better than others, nonetheless reason persuades us that one of them is so pre-eminent that no other nature is superior to it.

What is pre-supposed is that there are natures, that Nature inflexibly makes obvious, difference.  Difference, then, pre-supposes inequities.  Only the ignorant can avoid the perception that, in Nature, the species are different, that some are less equal than others.  Famously, in his Prologion, Father Anselm extends his argument to prove that there is a god, the God.  Here, nonetheless, he’s just beginning to establish his argument and his line of argumentation.

Late in the Monologion, he makes the argument he calls, QUOD ALTERIUS VERISSIME SIT ESSE GENITOREM ET PATREM, ALTERIUS GENITUM ET FILIUM.  Jasper Hopkins translates that as follows (with my emphases [but Hopkins’ own brackets and bracketed text to note what he infers from the Latin]):

It is most truly characteristic of the one to be begetter and father, and of the other to be begotten and son.

I would now like to infer, if I can, that the Supreme Spirit most truly is father and that the Word most truly is son. Yet, I think I ought not to by-pass [the following question]: is the appellation “father and son” or the appellation “mother and daughter” more befitting for them?, for there is no sexual distinction in the Supreme Spirit and the Word. For if the Supreme Spirit is suitably [called] father and its offspring suitably [called] son because each is spirit, then why is it not suitable, by parity of reasoning, for the one to be [called] mother and the other to be [called] daughter because each is truth and wisdom?1 Is it [preferable to call them father and son] because among those natures which have a difference of sex it is characteristic of the better sex to be father or son and of the inferior sex to be mother or daughter? Now, although this is by nature the case for many [beings], for others the reverse holds true. For example, in some species of birds the female sex is always larger and stronger, the male sex smaller and weaker. But, surely, the Supreme Spirit is more suitably called father than mother because the first and principal cause of offspring is always in the father. For if the paternal [cause] always in some way precedes the maternal cause, then it is exceedingly inappropriate for the name “mother” to be applied to that parent whom no other cause either joins or precedes for the begetting of offspring. Therefore, it is most true that the Supreme Spirit is father of its own offspring. But if a son is always more like a father than is a daughter, and if no one thing is more like another than this offspring is like the Supreme Father, it is most true that this offspring is a son, not a daughter. Therefore, just as this Spirit has the distinguishing property of most truly begetting and this offspring of most truly being begotten, so the former has the distinguishing property of being the most true begetting one and the latter of being the most true begotten one. And just as the one is the most true parent and the other the most true offspring, so the one is the most true father and the other the most true son.

1“Spirit” is in Latin a masculine noun (“spiritus”); “truth” and “wisdom” are feminine nouns (“veritas,” “sapientia”).

Well, I nearly emphasized, with the bold font, the whole argument.  It is so very tight, and each step, each bit of logic, is part and parcel of the argument.  I’ve found most interesting the rhetorical questions, Father Anselm’s answers, and, finally, his sure conclusion.

The paternal always comes first and foremost.  God, as Father Anselm constructs Him from such logic and not from any Scripture, is the Trinity.  Last, there cannot be divine mother or nor divine daughter therein.

(As mentioned, I’ve used Jasper Hopkins‘s very interesting English translation of St. Anselm’s work.  Hopkins finds very interesting the translating of Anselm by Gertrude E. M. Anscombe.  Perhaps more should be said about their approaches in another post some day.  Until then, you may be interested in reading Anselm’s own words here at the Logic Museum, where yet another English translation is offered, side by side with his Latin.  I think all of the English translations bring across the extra-biblical [that is, the not-from-Scripture], sexist logic and sexist conclusions just fine.)

20 Comments leave one →
  1. June 23, 2012 11:57 pm

    First some terminological issues — you should really refer to him as “Anselm of Canterbury,” to distinguish him from the many other prominent Anselms (and Saint Anselms). Also, since the title “Father” only came into widespread use for priests in the nineteenth century, it is anachronistic to use it for Anselm. Indeed, even “priest” seems less appropriate than (at various points in time) the more precise titles monk, prior, abbot, or archbishop.

    Second, I want to mention that I have not read Monologion in the original, but in the 1998 anthology of English translations (which I eagerly recommend) published by Oxford and edited by Davies and Evans.

    Turning now to substantive matters: I must protest! You have attributed an opinion to Anselm that is almost certainly exactly opposite what he wrote! Let me quote from Davies and Evans:

    Anselm’s Monologion is a relfection or “meditation” on the divine essence (divina essentia), which he composed after years of teaching his monk-pupils at Bec and discussing the problems with him. He begins by postulating that there is something which is best (optimum), greatest (maximum), highest (summum). The task is to establish whether there really is any such thing and if so how we can get any idea of what is like (what its attributes are).[…]

    In the Monologion Anselm explores the ideas which lead him by pure reasoning to the doctrine of the Trinity. What he says owes a great deal to his reading of the De Trinitate of St. Augustine of Hippo.[…] His main interest, like Augustine’s was in the relationship of the persons to one another, and there he was on the firm ground of being able to argue that it was entirely likely that the creation would reflect the Creator and that God would leave footprints in the minds of the rational creatures he had made to enable them to find their way to him by contemplation of their own deepest nature.

    So, it is not fair to say that Monologion is an attempt at pure logic. Anselms entire selection of questions is supplied by the Biblical framework (for example, #8: “How to understand the creation of everything out of nothing.”)

    Turning now to #42, Anselm sets up the a claim of male superiority only to firmly and absolutely reject it (I have also added emphasis):

    If “Father and Son” because both are spirit — a noun [in Latin] of masculine gender — why not equally “Mother and Daughter” on the grounds that both are truth and wisdom — feminine nouns [in Latin]?

    Now Anselm sets up his strawman argument:

    Perhaps grounds can be found in the claim that, in natures where there is sexual differentiation, the male is the better sex and the female inferior?

    Note, in particular, that Anselm is careful to avoid claiming this about humans, but rather refers to “natures.” There is a powerful reason for this — Anselm faces the most difficult challenge of medieval theology — the problem of anthropomorphizing God. This is an especially challenging problem for Christianity, since the second person of the Trinity is a human. Anselm’s later statement will hammer home this point, that we are not talking about human sexes here:

    But while this may often be true, there are, to the contrary, some natures, some birds for example, where the female is always bigger and stronger than the male

    Now, we see what Anselm means by “better” in this particular strawman example: bigger and stronger. Many animals have distinctions among the sexes between males and females in terms of body size and strength.

    So what is Anselm rejecting here? He is rejecting metaphors of strength for what he will ultimately call the sex of the first and second persons of the Christian trinity. Now the easy way out here would be to appeal to anthropomorphism — Jesus in the gospels is male, his mother Mary is female, human reproduction can only occur with a male and female, and thus the first person must be a male.

    No rather, what Anselm does is play with concepts of gender here. He instead essence of “male” to be “the first and original cause of the child”:

    This, however, is certainly the reason: the first and original cause of the child is always in the father. The paternal cause always, in some sense, precedes the maternal.

    Now, we may disagree with Anselm here as a matter of biology, but Anselm did not know about the human ovum, which would only be discovered by Karl Ernst von Baer in 1827. It is clear that Anselm still believed in the metaphor of the sperm as seed (which, I might add, is still ubiquitous in language today) and instead regarded the womb with the metaphor of soil. Anselm makes it clear that he is still using the scientific understanding of his age:

    And if this is the case, it would be most inappropriate to apply the name “mother” to a parent that begets its child without any other cause either helping or preceding. The supreme spirit, therefore, is truest father of its child.

    Now Anselm still has to deal with the terminology of the second person. Here his argument is less successful and risks becoming dangerously anthropomorphic, merely suggesting that the second person resembles most it father, and a son resembles a father more than a daughter.

    So, I would argue that Anselm was not sexist for his day. Rather he explicitly stated that there was no sexual differentiation in the first person (“supreme spirit”) and the second person (“the Word”). Now that really is a proto-feminist declaration. Further, Anselm explicitly points out that we should not claim that “men are greater than women” and thus we should use male language to glorify the “supreme spirit.” Rather he claims that males are progenitors, and thus we should use males terminology to reflect that.

    I think that your entire reading of this paragraph is colored by anachronism. We are so used to thinking of males and females (for mammals) as both contributing genetically to a child that we forget that this was not the scientific understanding of Anselm’s age. Indeed, as I pointed out before, the sperm/seed metaphor is still widely used today, even though it is certainly incorrect.

    Anselm does not here make any claim for sexual superiority. In fact, he carefully argues against that. Instead, he is here using a biological metaphor (as it turns out, an incorrect biological metaphor).

    Anselm does not succeed in presenting a vision of God that avoids anthropomorphism (and I do not think that any Christian philosopher succeeds at this). But he goes much further in that direction than most writers, and this passage, in particular, has a powerful egalitarian reading.

  2. J. K. Gayle permalink
    June 24, 2012 12:38 am

    Thanks for getting the post-posting conversation started here. But let me quickly apologize in advance to say, I only have just a moment just now to respond. Nonetheless, I hope to get back here soon to reply in a way that your good points deserve.

    For now, may I just say I find one of your statements particularly amusing (and I mean that with respect): “So, I would argue that Anselm was not sexist for his day. Rather … proto-feminist ….” Maybe to be less “anachronistic” myself, I should have called Anselm of Canterbury a proto-Father of his day. 🙂 I think I was trying to limit myself to his arguments, his words, and now see I’d best contextualize them more with my own. And a “strawman” argument would be — by the very sort of arguing this particular Anselm has done – necessarily better than a “strawwoman” or a “strawtree” argument. Or do I have that backwards? 🙂 Again, my apologies I can only say this much at the moment, or did I say anything yet? I am considering every point your making, and will try my best when I’m able to respond to each. It would be wonderful if others would join us, even before I get back to the conversation.

  3. June 24, 2012 12:49 am

    My only excuse for using “strawman” is that, to the best of my knowledge the sexist form is still the most common usage in English. It even has a Wikipedia citation (although it is talking about the straw man fallacy, which is a little different.)

    It may interest you to know that when the Department of Defense developed its new programming language, the preliminary versions were called STRAWMAN, WOODENMAN, TINMAN, and IRONMAN. Finally, the language was released. It was called Ada, after Ada Lovelace née Byron, the mathematician who worked with Charles Babbage and is sometimes called “the first programmer” (also the only legitimate child of the famous poet.) So, the computer programming language suddenly changed gender.

    You may disagree such a clear acknowledgment by Anselm of Canterbury of no sexual distinction in God (even the second person of the Trinity) is a radical statement for its time. Anselm is much more open to appreciating the contributions of women individually and as a group than one would expect from his age. Condiser (Why God Became Man) #3 (which sadly, makes little effort to avoid anthropomorphism):

    For it was appropriate that, just as death entered the human race through a man’s disobedience, so life should be restored through a man’s obedience; and that, just as the sin which was the cause of our damnation originated from a woman, similarly the originator of our justification and salvation should be born of a woman.

    That’s certainly not an egalitarian statement, but it is a far cry from the rantings of other medieval philosophers (e.g., Aquinas) against women.

  4. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    June 24, 2012 12:55 am

    This prayer of Anselm would not be widely acceptable today,

    Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you:
    you are gentle with us as a mother with her children;
    Often you weep over our sins and our pride:
    tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgment.
    You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds:
    in sickness you nurse us,
    and with pure milk you feed us.
    Jesus, by your dying we are born to new life:
    by your anguish and labour we come forth in joy.
    Despair turns to hope through your sweet goodness:
    through your gentleness we find comfort in fear.
    Your warmth gives life to the dead:
    your touch makes sinners righteous.
    Lord Jesus, in your mercy heal us:
    in your love and tenderness remake us.
    In your compassion bring grace and forgiveness:
    for the beauty of heaven may your love prepare us.
    … St. Anselm (1033-1109), The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer, Charles C. Hefling, Cynthia L. Shattuck, eds., Oxford University Press US, 2006, p. 457

  5. June 24, 2012 8:11 am

    Anselm’s prayers read to me so very, very differently from his arguments, as he so carefully puts them forth in the the Proslogion and in the Monologion. In the latter, Anselm writes distinctively, making sharp distinctions in Latin, in language, and in Nature, the difference between the mutually exclusive categories of mother and father.

    Anselm writes: “aut alter eorum erit pater eius, alter mater, aut uterque pater sive mater est” and “Non est igitur alter pater eius, alter mater.” In Theophrastus’s translators’ English, these sentences (from 55) are rendered as follows: “Furthermore, if it is their child, either one of them will be the father and the other the mother, or both are fathers (or both mothers). All of which would seem to be incompatible with the truth…. So one cannot be mother and the other father. In the second place, who ever heard of anything having two mothers or two fathers?” Now, here Anselm is making a different point than the one I’m making here. He is trying to show how difficult it is to decide (apart from the Scriptures and relying only on the logic available) whether God the Father and God the Son are properly related to Love, and which comes from which, and so forth. I’m hoping at this point to suspect that, in the Monologion, Anselm’s Latin and his logic are classing the nouns as mutually exclusive semantically, as self-evidently hierarchical with Father over mother, Son over daughter (with the species of birds needing just a little attention since the female bird might seem markedly different).

    So, back to the prayer(s). Do you have the one you quote here in Latin? I get frustrated because I want to read Anselm’s Meditations in Latin and haven’t yet found them in anything but sometimes stiff and stilted and other times popularized English translations. Anselm’s prayers speak of an epistemology of humility. It’s in them that we find his famous preference for “faith” to “knowledge” (or perhaps “faith” for “knowing”). From Meditation 21, here’s the prayer of Anselm I appreciate most (and just an excerpt, as translated by one “M. R.” in London, and published in 1872):

    And then say, O my whole heart, say at once to God, ‘I seek Thy Face; Thy Face, O Lord, will I still seek.’

    Now, therefore, O Lord my God, teach Thou my heart where and how to seek Thee; when and how to find Thee. If Thou art not here, O Lord, whither shall I go to seek Thee? But if Thou art everywhere, why do I not see Thee here? No; for in truth Thou inhabitest the inapproachable light. But where is the inapproachable light? Or how shall I approach the inapproachable? Or who will lead me into it, that I may see Thee in it? And then, what are the tokens by which I am to seek Thee, what the aspect by which I am to know Thee? O Lord my God, I have never seen Thee, and, I know not what Thou art like.

    O what, most high God, what is this far-off exile of Thine to do? What is Thy servant to do, anxious from love of Thee, and far banished from Thy Presence? He yearns to behold Thee, and Thy Face is too far off from him; he longs to approach Thee, and Thy dwelling-place is inapproachable; he desires to find Thee, but knows not the place of Thy rest; and strives to seek Thee, but cannot tell what Thy Face is like.

    O Lord, Thou art my God and my Lord, and I have never seen Thee. Thou hast made and re-made me, and all the blessings that I have are of Thy giving; and as yet I do not know Thee. I was created to behold Thee, and as yet I have not attained to the object of my creation. O sad estate of man! for man has foregone that for which he was created. O hard, O cruel lot! What, alas, did he lose, and what did he find? What went, and what remained? He lost the beatitude for which he was created, and he found the misery for which he was never made; that went without which no happiness is, and that remained which of itself is merest misery. And then he ate the bread of sorrows, and knew it not.

    Ah, the general anguish of mankind, the universal wailing of the sons of Adam! Our first father had bread to the full, and we cry out for hunger. He abounded, and we are beggars: he so happy in having, so sad in foregoing; we so unhappy in our need, so miserable in our craving! And yet we remain empty.

    In contrast to his argumentative, rationalistic, logical certitude elsewihere, here in such prayers is agnosticism and dependency and agony and expressed hunger! (And yet the male language predominates throughout. “Jesus, like a mother” in his praying is so very refreshing, so very different from what we find in Anselm’s arguments.)

  6. June 24, 2012 8:57 am

    The astute philosopher, C. Z. Elgin, in her Between the Absolute and the Arbitrary), notes our common epistemology, our tendencies toward anachronistic language to appropriate knowledge from the past into our own present. She says:

    Aristotle, of course, was not named “Aristotle”; the name he went by had a different pronunciation and a different spelling. So the claim that our use continues the chain that began with his being baptized “Aristotle” needs refinement. Then there is the worry that chains that originate in a single stipulation may later diverge. In that case a term has two different reference classes despite its link to a single introducing event…. Ambiguity occurs because correction… allows for alternative continuations of the causal chain…. Each continues the chain, but the two uses of the word… are not coextensive. Nor do we always succeed in referring to what our predecessors did, even when we intend to do so.

    Phyllis A. Bird seems, rightly, much more tentative (in her book Missing Persons and Mistaken Identities: Women and Gender in Ancient Israel, when she writes:

    “I am not certain that the translator is even obliged to make the modern reader understand what is overheard.”

    After your comments, I feel the need to back up and to assume a good bit more humble position.

    Well, who knows when men started calling each other Father in Anselm’s Christianity if ever at all? How differently through the ages Matthew 23:9 has been used, and abused. My only excuse for the opener to my post is that I was trying to play with language, to start in by startling us readers with the fact, in received and extant texts, Anselm grappled with the language of Father, as a title.

    I do not want to get into the arguments surrounding Anselm’s homosexuality, how some today look back to read his typical epistolary address to his friends: “Dilecto Dilectori.” But I will confess that when I wrote my post, I was thinking of this very controversy, these questions, as I noted how Anselm “blames” his writing of the Monologion on his brothers.

    (Now, let’s deal with “strawman.” I have no problem whatsoever with anyone’s use of the English word today. OED has this early citation:

    “1594 T. Bowes tr. P. de la Primaudaye French Acad. II. 567 A scarre-crowe to make them afraide, as wee vse to deale with little children and with birdes by puppets and strawe-men.”

    and the American Heritage Dictionary allows these uses today:


    A person who is set up as a cover or front for a questionable enterprise.
    An argument or opponent set up so as to be easily refuted or defeated.
    A bundle of straw made into the likeness of a man and often used as a scarecrow.”

    In the context of your initial comment, I have no problem with your use of this word. But Anselm and Derrida could remark that these sorts of words, in argument, do “construct” and reveal a hard line that deserves stopping to look back as one moves forward in conversation. straw man might not be equal to straw person, and why wouldn’t that be relevant?)

    What I was suggesting is that Anselm’s Latin is much more Aristotelian in that it locks up into little tight and necessary and unambiguous boxes the classes “pater” and “mater” and puts, as Natural, the one over the other. This is what he does in his argument, not as Suzanne shows, in his own prayers.

    So it’s his argument, and his method of arguing, that Derrida and Cixous would find sexist. But phallogocentrism is itself a “construct,” a post-reading, a reading back, a suspicion of power, and yet still an anachronism then.

    Let me make no claims that my reading here is the only one, the correct one. I do like your idea of reading Anselm in his Latin. I did say late in my post (albeit in parentheses) that the English translation makes a whole lot of significance. Tracking these meanings, the interpretations and the readings, has import, I’m sure.

    Back to his argument. I think it is logic. I think Anselm is putting on a rhetorical show. I believe he is showing, he believes, absolutely what Scriptural authority need not show. I understand that he, like Aristotle did, looks to nature and to biology. Yes, your absolutely right that Anselm’s biology was limited. So was Aristotle’s when he wrote of females. Their logic about the binary male/female was dependent on their observations in nature about “female.” Is Anselm really saying the Trinity is non-hierarchical? Without sex? Well, of course he’s saying God has no analogy, that he’s first, that all comes from Him. But everything in nature, deriving from God, makes God for Anselm justifiably a Father and a Son. (Yes, in his prayer, “Jesus, like a mother” there’s a departure, but not so in the Monologion).

    So let’s go to where we agree more: “that Anselm was not sexist for his day.” I say, Yes to that, and No. I want to be more agnostic. It would take a lot of work to establish this relative fact. For now, for this post, I find Anselm’s argument, his words to suggest he used sexist logic to construct — without Scripture — his theology of the Trinity.

  7. June 24, 2012 1:43 pm

    By the 1920s, it became obvious that nearly everything written about logic before Gottlob Frege was defective. Consider, for example, the Greek work which was the most widely used textbook of all time, Euclid’s Elements. Let us start with the first Proposition:

    To construct an equilateral triangle on a given finite straight line.

    Let AB be the given finite straight line.

    It is required to construct an equilateral triangle on the straight line AB.

    Describe the circle BCD with center A and radius AB. Again describe the circle ACE with center B and radius BA. Join the straight lines CA and CB from the point C at which the circles cut one another to the points A and B.

    Wait! Stop! Euclid left out a step here. He never proved that the circles “cut one another.” Why must the circles intersect? (It turns out that they must intersect, but Euclid has not proven it).

    Similarly, the writing of all the ancient and medieval philosophers are full of logical errors that seem painfully obvious to us today. One of the major themes of Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is mocking that sort of logic. Consider Alice’s meeting with the Cheshire Cat, when the Cat attempt to prove to Alice that he is mad:

    “To begin with,” said the Cat, “a dog’s not mad. You grant that?”

    “I suppose so,” said Alice.

    “Well, then,” the Cat went on, “you see a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.”

    Anselm of Canterbury’s reasoning (and for that matter Aristotle’s reasoning) is full of errors, that we can spot easily now. They are of interest to us still because of the concepts that they propose, and the observations they make. Thus, we are interested in the Platonic Theory of Forms because it is an original and perhaps true depiction of the universe; but we do not turn to the Republic for the final statement of the Theory of Forms; if we want to understand what such a theory really looks like, I would advise reading Quine instead of Plato.

    In the excerpt you presented, Anselm commits logical error after logical error. Why do we need to find the best analogy (man or woman) for God in the first place? Now, to forgive Anselm a bit, he has a very difficult task — to try to make sense the Christian doctrine of the Trinity within the framework of monotheism. (Anselm is not, in my opinion, successful at this task.)

    Anselm is best known for a single argument he advances in the sequel to the Proslogion, the ontological argument. Now, this is a powerful idea, but as Anselm presents it, it is almost nonsensical.

    Well then, Lord, You who give understanding to faith, grant me that I may understand, as much as You see fit, that You exist as we believe You to exist, and that You are what we believe You to be. Now we believe that You are something than which nothing greater can be thought. Or can it be that a thing of such nature does not exist, since “the Fool has said in his heart, there is no God” [Ps. 13:1, 52:1]? But surely, when this same Fool hears what I am speaking about, namely, “something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought”, he understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his mind, even if he does not understand that it actually exists. For it is one thing for an object to exist in the mind, and another thing to understand that an object actually exists. Thus, when a painter plans beforehand what he is going to execute, he has [the picture] in his mind, but he does not yet think that it actually exists because he has not yet executed it. However, when he has actually painted it, then he both had it in his mind and understands that it exists because he has now made it. Even the Fool, then, is forced to agree that something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought exists in the mind, since he understands this when he hears it, and whatever is understood is in the mind. And surely that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought cannot exist in the mind alone. For if it exists solely in the mind, it can be thought to exist in reality also, which is greater. If then that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought exists in the mind alone, this same that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought is that-than-which-a-greater-can-be thought.

    This is simultaneously brilliant and ridiculous. It brilliantly connects with another powerful idea (the Theory of Forms) and it a prescient discovery in what would ultimately come be to called the philosophy of logic. But on its face, it cannot possibly be correct (or else, as Gaunilo of Marmoutiers argued in Anselm’s time, in Pro Insipiente (“On behalf of the Fool”), one can use the same argument to prove that a perfect island exists; and later Kant and Hume both further took apart Anselm’s argument.

    But we still study Anselm. Why? Not because his argument is correct — it most certainly is not. Yet, it raises powerful questions of what happens when we express an idea and it is understood — it seems as if something exists that both of us perceive.

    I understand your annoyance at the smug literary style of medieval philosophers. (You admire Aristophanes’s The Clouds, as do I, and I suspect that you will find the Alice novels to be as acute a criticism of philosophy as Aristophanes was.) But where I have difficulty following you is when you suggest “It is so very tight, and each step, each bit of logic, is part and parcel of the argument.” I look at the same work and see Swiss cheese. Major modern philosophers (say from Kant forward) no longer are tied down by medieval forms of thought. By the time of Russell and Wittgenstein, philosophers are closely attending to logic.

  8. June 25, 2012 2:33 pm

    Thank you for the wonderful comment, Theophrastus. I love your critique of Euclid, your inclusion of Carroll’s Alice (and the mention of Aristophanes’s Clouds), and your compelling case that Anselm’s best argument ever (i.e., which he makes by his Prologion) is “most certainly” not correct.

    Smugness of literary style is always annoying, to me, and yet it’s the inadequacies of the intention of logic that is more troublesome. It’s more troublesome not only because it can be as full of holes as Swiss cheese (as Aristotle establishes it or Anselm attempts it) but also because it leads to sexist dogma. Yes, it leads followers to dogma that’s flawed by and that further reinforces what F. A. Wright calls prejudice and what may rightly be called gynophobia or misogyny. I don’t think postmodernists and feminists such as Cixous and Derrida really very much regard the quality of the logic so much as the effect of its construct.

    I do find Anselm’s meditations and his prayers to be far from annoying. They, in some ways, entirely deconstruct what I see as the sexism of his logic elsewhere. Thanks for saying that I “suggest ‘It is so very tight, and each step, each bit of logic, is part and parcel of the argument’.” You are right. And please know I am not wanting to be difficult or absolutely to paint Anselm, or even his sort of would-be logic, with too broad a brush. The tightness he attempts with his argument contrasts greatly with the humility and the openness of his prayers. I would dare suggest that Russell would in some ways more appreciate the prayers than the reasonings of Anselm.

  9. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    June 25, 2012 3:13 pm

    I am having difficulty with the suggestion that logical arguments are associated with misogyny. Certainly they have been. However, there are large swaths of Christians who reject logical arguments in favour of treating women as equals, and reinforce unquestioning belief in a fixed text to keep women in limited roles. Some of these people would say that it might be more logical to treat women as equals but they can’t because God says they can’t. This shuts down all discussion whatsoever. It really is just a case of knuckle under or go to hell. No logic involved.

    On the other hand, there are many impassioned but logical treatises on the liberation of women. These are discounted as worldly logic by those who reject them.

  10. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    June 25, 2012 3:24 pm

    This line of reasoning is found here in John Piper’s most recent sermons to women,

    “The root meaning of holy is probably to cut or separate. A holy thing is cut off from and separated from something else and is devoted to something else,” he explained.

    From what can you separate God to make Him holy? Piper asked. The very god-ness of God means that He is separate from all that is not God. There is an infinite qualitative difference between Creator and creature. God is one of a kind and therefore has infinite value.

    “God is infinitely valuable,” he stressed. “I can’t think of anything that would have a greater impact on your life than for you to believe that.

    “The most important value in the universe is not you and not your family and not 7 billion human beings and not billions upon billions of galaxies. We are as nothing a drop in the bucket compared to the value of God. The main problem in the world is the failure to feel that.”

    Piper also noted that God is not holy because He keeps the rules; He wrote the rules. God is not holy because He keeps the law. The law is holy because it reveals God. “God is absolute.”

    To me this is a dissasociation between what we as humans would judge to be lawful and good, and the nature of God. So, it doesn’t matter if our human laws say that people should be treated as equals, it only matters if you can find a verse in the Bible that shuts someone down.

  11. June 25, 2012 4:48 pm

    Don’t give up hope, JK. In many areas, Aristotle has fallen into disuse. After all, no one turns to Aristotle’s Περί ουρανού (“On the Heavens”) for understanding astronomy or cosmology today.

    Well, almost no one.

    Not to go all “Whig Interpretation of History” on you, but knowledge advances. Err, make that … mostly advances. Sometimes.

  12. June 25, 2012 6:10 pm

    I am having difficulty with the suggestion that logical arguments are associated with misogyny.

    Suzanne, Thanks for this candor (and for pointing to other “line[s] of reasoning” [i.e., John Piper’s]).

    Theophrastus, LOL. I hope no one stops reading Aristotle, especially in his Greek. There’s so much we all owe to him, right or wrong. I think he is right about “memory,” and its importance.

    So, back to his line of thinking, astute readers of Aristotle such as Anne Carson, see the hate and the fear of females in how Aristotle writes about them. Should I give a few examples?

    Or if we really want to spend an afternoon on a thorough review of Aristotle’s “logical” misogyny, then I’d recommend the nearly 600 page volume, The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution 750 Bc-Ad 1250 by Sister Prudence Allen. On page 121, Allen gives a few of Aristotle’s gynophobic conclusions before she discusses why and how they must be associated with his logical arguments:

    1. The male is separated from the female, since it is something better and more divine in that it is the principle of movement for generated things, while the female serves as their matter.

    2. A woman is as it were an infertile male.

    3. The female is as it were a deformed male.

    4. The male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled.

    In these statements the superior valuation of man over woman is explicitly stated. However, it is also present in the theory of contraries and in other aspects of Aristotle’s thought about sex identity. Aristotle stands out from his predecessors in that he gave a complete rationale for his theory of sex polarity. He developed reasons and arguments for the philosophically significant differentiation of the sexes and for the superiority of man over woman. Therefore, he is correctly identified as the founder of the sex polarity position. . . . [H]e also laid the groundwork for another theory of sex identity in his philosophy of definition.

  13. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    June 25, 2012 6:16 pm

    I am quite familiar with Aristotle’s misogyny. Of course, logic can be used against women. But hasn’t it equally been used in aid of women. I resist the male:logic, female:emotion dichotomy.

  14. June 25, 2012 6:26 pm

    “I resist the male:logic, female:emotion dichotomy.”

    Well put, Suzanne! Me too! It’s a bit of a conundrum for feminists, who so resist something in order to “oppose” that very something in such a binary way. Carol Poster, for example, asserts “Aristotle has not, and in my opinion, should not be appropriated for feminist rhetoric.” She can’t stand the fact of his binary (man, not man), but she appropriates such a thing (feminist rhetoric, not feminist rhetoric) to oppose him. Doesn’t resistance somewhat imply “dichotomy”?

    To me, the best feminists don’t entirely reject the binary or logic (at any stage of its development). Rather, they – as do Derrida and Cixous – deconstruct the binary constructs but go further with and without logic to prove that women are inherently not unequal to men. Logic is only one tool in the box, but it can be phallogocentric whether Aristotle or Carol Poster so against him uses it.

  15. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    June 25, 2012 6:57 pm

    At this point, it is not that some use exegesis to limit women, but rather that their exegesis is so sloppy. I ask myself what it is about these people, mostly men, but some women, who claim that their lives are dedicated to truth, and they don’t even have the least concern about accuracy.

    So it is their lack of rigorous argumentation that irritates me. They act as if articles on women are not even worthy of spellcheck or editing. “Oh, it is just a woman’s issue, let’s not check the facts – they don’t matter – because women are receivers only – not capable of the generation of ideas – and surely not capable of critiquing what I write off the top of my head.”

    This is the insult, that women are not EVEN worthy of logic. One does not need to use logic to put women down, just spurt nonsense, that is good enough. That is what I get from the exegesis I read on women’s passages. I would welcome a little logic.

  16. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    June 25, 2012 7:04 pm

    On the other hand, I don’t think that one can use exegesis to defend the equal treatment of women. I don’t think that accurate exegesis would solve everything. The sloppy exegesis tells me that women are not respected and thought of as worthy of accuracy. But accurate exegesis would not solve the problem.

  17. June 25, 2012 7:25 pm

    There is an entire literature devoted to talking about the difference between male brains and female brains. Like this, this, this, this, or this.

    So, it comes to a surprise to many people to discover that it is all pseudo-science. The best current scientific data indicates that men and women do not have different types of brains.

    Similarly, thanks to the aggressive efforts of Deborah Tannen and others to market books, many are convinced that men and women speak different languages. Simple observation could disprove this (one notices that men and women co-exist in modern Western society), but just as Aristotle could not be bothered to actually count teeth before asserting women had fewer of them than men, we are more swayed by television talk show appearances than actual scientific data.

    The myths are extremely powerful, and their sway is a dramatic demonstration of the lack of rigor of our times. (But then again, a majority of surveyed people believe that heavy objects fall faster than shorter ones, or that seasons result from the elliptical orbit of the earth)

    (Incidentally, every single book I mentioned in this post was by a woman.)


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