Principles of Catholic Morality IV: Anselm on freedom and justice

St. Anselm of Canterbury was arguably the most creative philosopher/theologian of the Middle Ages.  With him, we see arise a new way of conceptualizing morality and the relationship between God and man that would profoundly influence both Western Christendom and the Western Civilization that followed it.

Augustine had accepted the classical teleological/eudaimonian idea of the good life but transformed it by identifying man’s end as loving God with complete devotion and obedience.  Morality is still determined by man’s inner telos, but this telos is reconceptualized.  Anslem begins with a different set of problems related to the freedom of the will.  We often hear that the reason sin happens is because we have free will and can choose good or evil.  Is this the essence of freedom, being able to choose to do either good or evil?  If so, it would seem that God and the blessed souls in heaven are not free, because their wills are unperturbably fixed on the good.  Anselm finds this conclusion absurd, so he looks for a better definition of freedom.  Freedom refers only to the freedom to do good.  Of course, an unfree being, a robot say, may do good in the course of automatically following its programming, but a free being is different in that it can will to do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing.  According to Anselm, the will has two dispositions.  The first is the affection for one’s own good, the desire to be happy and to perfect one’s own nature.  This is the natural desire that Augustine and Aquinas take as their starting point.  Anselm claims that free beings have another inclination, the affection for justice, whereby a free being can appreciate the intrinsic value of good things and can will justice for its own sake.  For the blessed souls in heaven, the two inclinations are in perfect harmony, but to our weakened, fallen intellects, they may seem to conflict.  We then have the power of choosing either, and thus the power to sin.  Once we do sin, though, Anselm thinks we lose our freedom and become slaves of sin.  Only God can restore our righteousness.  Thus, his complete definition of freedom is the power to maintain righteousness (when one already has it) for its own sake.

In setting nature and freedom in opposition, Anselm was introducing something new which was to have profound ramifications for Western thought.  It’s easy to see how modernity has taken the distinction to antinomian excess, demolishing the natural law in the name of “freedom”.  For Anselm, though, it is our freedom–our ability to hear the claims of objective goodness–that makes the natural law binding on us as a moral obligation rather than as blind instinct.  Unlike Kant, Anselm didn’t base ethics on pure reason; like his fellow Christians, he thought it was ontologically grounded.  The difference was that he grounded natural law in the ontology of the object, rather than the subject.  For example, I am to love God primarily because He is the sort of Being who deserves to be loved, rather than because I am the sort of being that should be loving God.  The two perspectives are compatible, but they are unmistakeably different.  Anselm believed that we live in a world with beings whose objective goodness demands the acknowledgement of our will.  Not only that, but the cosmos as a whole has, as he put it in Cur Deus Homo, an “order and beauty” that comes from each being assuming its proper place.  There is no greater offense against the order and beauty of the universe than for a creature to, by sin, place its own will above that of the Creator.

Anselm’s change of emphasis from self-perfection to justice carried over to his theology, and the Eastern Orthodox have never forgiven him for it.  His distinctly Western sense of sin and justice has a real nobility to it, though.  No theologian has better appreciated the “weight of sin”.  All sins offend against God, and since God is infinitely good, to dishonor Him is an infinite offense.  Not only that, but we would have no way to repay our offenses against God, even if they were finite.  If we were to offer Him all we have, this would have been His due anyway, even if we had not sinned.  Nor can God simply forgive our sins without recompense, because He is a just God; if men could get away with sin without justice being done to them, that would gravely disturb the order and beauty of the universe, and a just God will not allow that.  The recompense for sin must come from man, but only God can pay an infinite debt.  Therefore, God became man.  The demands of justice that God places on Himself are met, while mercy beyond imagining is offered to mortal men.

Although important, Anselm’s solution to the problems of freedom and justice is incomplete as it stands.  His explanation of why we can justly share in Christ’s merits needs work.  He claims that sin destroys righteousness, including the love of justice, and that only a supernatural divine gift can restore it, but he doesn’t explain why this should be the case.  The will’s other inclination certainly doesn’t disappear after a single snub.  What’s missing is a clearer understanding of the difference between nature and grace.  Anselm has moved too far away from Augustine, and he needs some of the latter’s insights.  One might say that the task of reconciling Augustine with Aristotle went to Aquinas, while the task of reconciling Augustine with Anselm went to Scotus.

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