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Anselm on Immortality and Love: Reading Monologion 68–70
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Yearn for everlasting life with holy

desire. rule of saint benedict


Benedictine monk and Abbot of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury and Doctor of the Church, maker of luminous proofs and heartfelt prayers, intrepid dialectician and poet of holy desire: the life and many-sided achievements of St. Anselm (1033–1109) have been written about so often, and written about so well, that one despairs of saying anything new about them. In this article, however, I shall examine an important aspect of Anselm’s thought that has been unduly neglected by historians of medieval philosophy as well as by philosophers of religion. Yet my topic is nothing outrageously esoteric or quaintly arcane—quite the contrary, in fact. Far from being the exclusive property of academic specialists, the aspect of Anselm’s thought we shall explore in the following pages should be of interest to anyone who has ever pondered the meaning of eternal life or recited the Apostles’ Creed.


Toward the end of the Monologion, in seven remarkably rich sections that commentators have passed over in silence, Anselm explores the subject of immortality from a purely philosophical perspective, without appealing to the truths of Revelation or invoking the authority of Scripture.1 That Anselm takes a purely philosophical approach to the subject of immortality in this, his first book, should not surprise us; after all, the Monologion was written at the request of his Benedictine brethren at Bec, who specifically asked him to compose a meditation in which truths about God and related matters were established by means of reason alone:

Some of my brethren have often and earnestly asked me to write down, as a kind of model meditation, some of the things I have said, in everyday language, on the subject of meditating upon the essence of the divine; and on some other subjects bound up with such meditation. They specified (on the basis more of their wishes than of the task’s feasibility or my capacity) the following form for this written meditation: nothing whatsoever to be argued on the basis of the authority of Scripture, but the constraints of reason concisely to prove, and the clarity of truth clearly to show, in the plain style, with everyday arguments, and down-to-earth dialectic, the conclusions of distinct investigations. They even wanted me not to disdain to meet the down-to-earth or even downright silly, objections that I would come up against.2

In Sections 68–70 Anselm uses “everyday arguments, and down-to-earth dialectic” to defend the thesis that the human soul that strives to love God will (a) live forever and (b) enjoy supreme happiness without end after death. For simplicity’s sake, I shall refer to this double-barreled proposition as the Immortality Thesis; and I shall try to explain as clearly and as carefully as I can why Anselm thinks that this thesis is credible independent of revelation. This is no easy task, as we shall see, since Monologion 68–70 contains many intricate arguments, some of which were constructed to fit inside others in the manner of Russian nesting dolls. My goal in what follows, therefore, is threefold: to identify and analyze Anselm’s arguments and subarguments, to explore the logical relations among them, and to elucidate their thematic content and significance. And if my interpretation of Sections 68–70 is fundamentally correct, Anselm has much to teach us about what matters most: the purpose of human existence, how we are to live, what we are to love, where happiness is to be found, and—last but not least—what awaits us when we have shuffled off this mortal coil.


Before we can examine the philosophical arguments Anselm offers in support of the Immortality Thesis, however, a question about our formulation of that thesis needs to be addressed.

The Immortality Thesis, we have noted, can be represented as the conjunction of two subtheses, (a) and (b). According to (a), the soul that loves the supreme essence will live forever; according to (b), the soul that loves the supreme essence will enjoy supreme happiness without end after death. No doubt the reader will already have perceived, however, that...

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