Book Review: Monologion

Anselm of Canterbury. Monologion in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works
Oxford World’s Classics, 1998.

I bought this volume recently and started making my way through the Monologion. My first real interaction with Anselm¹ was the Proslogion which I read earlier this year. Based on that document, I knew I wanted to read more of what he composed. He truly represents the speculative-affective synthesis as presented by Martin Thornton.² The idea is that there is a continuum from speculative (rational, logical, scholastic) to affective (emotional, experiential, mystical) and that Anglican Christianity brings these two poles together.

Thornton includes a chart in several of his works mapping where various figures fall on this continuum. He places Anselm in the center, which, after reading the Proslogion, I found to be misleading because he seems to not be fully speculative or affective. However, it may be more accurate not to give Anselm a dot, but to highlight the entire line, as he envelopes and integrates both into his work. It is at the same time a foundational work of the scholastic movement and yet thoroughly devotional.

With this background, I approached the Monologion. This work is longer and more on the speculative end of the spectrum. Anselm indicates in the opening that the focus of this work is to demonstrate the existence of God, arguing from reason (and not revelation). It is a rigorous read.

The argument moves along fairly straightforwardly, carefully defining and refining terms. I found the jump around chapter 30, where Anselm begins to prove the trinitarian nature of God, to be one of the weaker points of the overall argument. It truly felt like a jump as he started discussing the word proceeding from the supreme being. It quickly became obvious where he was heading, with language more biblical, while not yet explicitly quoting scripture.

In many ways, the Monologion reminds me of a more concise On the Trinity by Augustine of Hippo. Readers familiar with that work should feel at home with this one by Anselm. Anytime a writer attempts to explain the Trinity, it seems to be a draining exercise. It is difficult for us to find the language to properly describe something we don’t have direct experience with.³ Toward the end of the work, Anselm acknowledges the difficulty.

What then? Have I, in some way, brought something to light about something incomprehensible, although, in another way, gained no direct insight into it? We do often speak of lots of things without expressing them properly, i.e. in the way proper to the way they are. (p. 71)

It seems that is the best we are capable of in exploring that supreme good which is both the source of us and yet is beyond us. Anselm made a significant contribution in the history of Christian thought toward trying to grope toward it.

¹ I had encountered some of his ideas much earlier, namely his so-called ontological argument for the existence of God, but this was the first time I read his actual works instead of just discussions of his ideas.

² I would commend English Spirituality by Thornton for a fuller exposition of this idea and his tracing of it throughout the history of Christianity in England. Also, Thornton’s book Spiritual Direction, gives a good explanation of this concept.

³ We do have experience with the Trinity, of course. We pray to the Father, through the Son by the Spirit. We read about all three of them in the Scriptures, but we do not directly observe them as Trinity. We experience them individually.


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