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  • Christian Patin

Anselm and Aquinas on the Nature and Problem of Evil

Submitted to Holy Apostles College and Seminary, Summer 2018.

St. Anselm of Canterbury was an Italian monk who lived primarily in the 11th century, during the Middle Ages. He was a prolific thinker, philosopher, theologian, and counselor. During his life, he composed such works as The Proslogion; The Monologion; On the Fall of Satan, Cur Deus Homo, or Why God Became Man, and others, including several tractates on philosophy, theology, and prayer. During his life, because of the vastness of his good works and writings, Anselm was regarded as an authority and faithful defender of the Church. This is perhaps most evident by the prefaces to his works, which consistently mention the desire of his brothers to publish his work, that it might be copied and shared with all of Christendom.[1]

Born to a Noble family, Anselm desired, in his earliest years, to study the faith, to learn philosophy and theology, and to pursue a life in service to Christ.[2] In an almost tragic turn of events, however, Anselm lost his fire for the faith when his acceptance to the Abby was denied for fear of his father's disapproval.[3] This tailspin Anselm’s Christian life seems to have played a major role in the way by which he later finds his faith anew, when he abandons his life of tepidity and retreats to study under Lanfranc.[4] At any such a rate, the heroic suffering felt by the saint no doubt lent to the remarkable quality and nature of his works.

Just over a century after the death of Anselm there was born upon that same Italian soil perhaps one of the greatest theologians and philosophers of all time—if not the greatest: St. Thomas Aquinas. In an almost uncannily similar story, Saint Thomas Aquinas, too, was drawn to the monastic life in Christ, in service to the Church. Just as Anselm was hindered in his desire for truth and discovery in light of the faith by his own flesh and blood, so also was Saint Thomas was pulled from his love for this service by his own family, having been kidnapped by his brothers and locked away in a tower that he might be prevented from “wasting” his life away in service to the Church by a monastic devotion.[5]

But what is of most interest is not merely the similarities between these two Saints' lives, nor is it the sense of devotion they shared, even if by different rules of order--Thomas being Dominican and Anselm being Benedictine; what is of most interest is in fact the ways by which these two saints develop their theology—Anselm having limited or no exposure to Aristotle,[6] and Thomas seeking to “[reconcile] Aristotle to Christ.”[7] In the spirit of further clarification—as opposed to further complication—this paper does not seek to compare, or rather to contrast, the two saints in an absolute sense, since it is true that Aquinas was indeed at odds with Anselm on some things and in congruence with him on others;[8] instead it seeks to investigate the single notion of the nature and problem of evil, since it is one of the singular points of contention, in places, between the two holy men. As such, it is within the scope of this paper only to investigate the nature and problem of evil as it is understood and developed by St. Anselm of Canterbury and St. Thomas Aquinas, and to compare and contrast these views against each other. With this distinction in mind, Saint Anselm of Canterbury is to be the first considered.

The Problem of Evil for Anselm was one of many layers. Given his almost poetic style of writing, he was able to give illustration to his problems in a way that illuminated the issue for what he thought it was. In the case of evil, Anselm sought to distinguish evil from good the way one would distinguish “real” from “not real.” Desiring to truly penetrate the concept of evil itself, Anselm wanted to strip it of any meaning, lest meaning would take away from what it truly was: nothing.

It was not merely nothing, however, that Anselm sought to prove of evil. In one of his most comprehensive analyses of evil, On the Fall of the Devil, Anselm dialogues with a student on the existence of evil and the definition of the word itself. At the question of its meaning, the saint instructs that evil is nothing more than a privation, a lack, of something good,[9] but that it does not in itself have any true existence or substantial meaning.[10] Apparently contradicting himself, however, Anselm seems to suggest almost at the same time that evil does indeed have at least a quasi- sort of existence:[11]one which does not lend itself to reality per se, but instead in the way it effects actually-existing things, such as the good. For this, Anselm offers the example of blindness, which is described as something when, in truth, it is the lack of something. But since it cannot be said of blindness that it does not exist, it must be that it exists only because the good thing—namely, sight—is lacking or destroyed.[12]

In On the Fall of Satan, Anselm unpacks the existence, or rather, the nothingness of evil in an attempt to understand the fall of Satan. For the purposes of this paper, it is significant only to note that Anselm determines himself to have discovered a working knowledge of evil which aids him in formulating the angelology which proceeds from his findings.

While the conclusion of Anselm was indeed that evil is nothing, and that it possessed for itself “not something,” it is all the more interesting that he insists on such a difficult way to that realization. At what could be considered the zenith of this approach to the nature of evil, Anselm shows that good is what truly exists, and that it is a positive, and that evil is that which is truly non-existent, and that is a negative. In this way, Anselm demonstrates that to say, “he did nothing” is the same as, “he did evil.”[13] It can be further surmised, however, that to say, “he did evil,” which is a positive, is the same as saying, “he did nothing good.” In this way, it seems that Anselm successfully shows that evil, even in an apparently existent phrase, is necessarily negative, which is to say that it is nothing.

What can be found of Anselm’s treatment of the Problem of Evil is somewhat sparse by comparison to the work he has done on the nature of evil. It is, however, treated well enough in his Proslogion for our use within this paper. In it, Anselm seeks to understand his faith by reason; hence his original title, “Faith Seeking Understanding.” It is interesting that his work in the Proslogion precedes that of On the Fall of Satan, because the theology in On the Fall of Satan seems to precede that of the Proslogion, at least in terms of the theology of evil.

In any case, St. Anselm relatively briefly deals with evil in the Proslogion not by directly addressing evil itself, but rather by reflecting on the qualities proper to God himself: that he is merciful, that he is impassible, that he is just, and that he is good. There is something to be said for the importance of this reality: that Anselm would neglect to give evil a pride of place in his work, since evil is indeed nothing worth dissecting, and that anything that might be considered of evil might be more properly considered as a privation of the good. It is all the more sensible, then, given the work done with On the Fall of Satan, that Anselm investigates God’s treatment of the wicked, rather than whether the wicked is existent; that Anselm investigates the nature of God’s mercy, rather than his capacity to feel mercy toward his suffering people. By this treatment of evil, Anselm strips evil of its authority and places it rightly with God.

So, in treating of God’s mercy in the sight of apparent evil, Anselm argues that it is humanity which suffers from a condition of poor perspective. To Anselm, God is not moved by mercy in the way we are; God is not moved by mercy at all. In fact, Anselm argues that God is “merciful in relation to us but not in relation to” himself.[14] Evil, for Anselm, is not something which God is moved to eradicate; rather, it seems, evil is something which is dealt with by the very truth of God, the ultimate good and the opposite of evil. Therefore, it is not by compassion that God defeats evil, but by his very existence, which is ceaseless and unchanging.

The treatment of the wicked and of the just is similarly dealt with. Anselm argues that humans predisposed to feel God’s mercy, and, it seems, equally predisposed to desire his justice. It is incorrect, the saint would say, to believe that God acts in any just way in favor of the just, but that we necessarily benefit from the perfect justice who is God. In a reverse manner than with mercy, God is “just in relation to [himself] but not in relation to us.”[15] In simpler terms, it is suggested that to consider evil, which is considered synonymous with injustice and mercilessness, is to miss the point: for Anselm, it is the unavoidable goodness, mercy, and justice of God that answers evil, precisely by forbidding it to exist in any real sense.

St. Thomas Aquinas, then, treats of evil in a more direct and intentional way. His Summa Theologica, his greatest life’s work, considers to an extensive degree the aspects and problems of evil in light of his contemporary challenges, as well as those challenges made by earlier doctors of the Church. For Aquinas, evil is not merely something that does not exist. Instead, evil is not a being nor a good, but indeed exists in things as a privation of that good.[16] And this is necessarily so, since evil is indeed apparent, and since good things may come about from evil, which is what Augustine means when he says that “evil exists only in good.”[17]

Aquinas views the reality of evil as something which bolsters the human experience and makes real the power of God. In an almost stark opposition to Anselm, Aquinas makes his case for the reality of evil, especially in cases of lacking a good—this is contrary to the though of Anselm, who had posited that evil cannot exists chiefly because it is nothing more than a privation of good. This privation, argues Thomas, is precisely what gives it existence and substance; it is not in violation of reason, he says, to say that two contraries can coexists, and these contraries can be a good and the privation of yet another good, which is called an evil.[18]

While Anselm treats relatively lightly of the Problem of Evil itself, mainly focusing on the qualities of God which address the problem, St. Thomas treats of the Problem of Evil with impossible detail. He dedicates Question 49 of his first part of the Summa to the cause of evil, focusing solely on the relationship between God and evil, especially whether God is responsible to, or for, evil, and from whence evil came.

First, St. Thomas investigates whether evil can be caused by goodness. For him, good is certainly the cause of evil, since only good can have being, and only being can generate cause.[19] But since goodness itself is not what causes evil, it is necessarily the being which possesses goodness which generates the causative evil. Rather than treating of evil as some non-existent force against which good fights, as Anselm suggested, St. Thomas freely admits that good must be the cause of evil.

But the greater question arises of whether God, the supreme good, is responsible, or could be responsible for such an evil. In Article 2 of the same question, Aquinas effortlessly obliges. Since evil is the result of a defect in the good, Aquinas says, it cannot be that God is the generator of any evil, since he possesses no defect, only perfection.[20] This argument places the fault and blame of evil in the hands of humanity, the only other being with inherent goodness which exercises a will and an intellect. In doing this, Aquinas sets up his answer to the problem of evil, that evil is not the responsibility of God, since he had no part in creating evil.

While other thinkers have dealt, in even greater detail, with the value of suffering, the reason for evil, and why God has chosen to respond to it in the way that he has, It is essential first and foremost that evil itself be explained.

St. Anslem of Canterbury was a leading thinker of his time. Despite his trials and difficulties, he suffered heroically for the sake of the kingdom. The contribution he made on the nature of evil helped to lay the foreground for philosophy dealing with evil in the coming ages. The timeliness of his work allowed for an organic development of theology which led to a fuller understanding of the place of evil in the world. This understanding is, I believe, what enabled St. Thomas Aquinas to more correctly formulate an idea on the nature and problem of evil. It is clear in his writings that Aquinas was moved and inspired by Anselm’s example, such as that of the reality of evil in the state of blindness.[21]

So even in the corrections made my Thomas Aquinas against Anselm’s own ideas, there is a visible connection and appreciation for the work done by his spiritual predecessor, such that he honors and observes the command of Sacred Scripture to “convince…in patience and in teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2, RSV), that they might not lose sight their objective to instruct and to learn. Not only in the conclusions drawn by St. Thomas Aquinas do we see such differences between him and Anselm, but also differences of style, and in manners of speaking, which lend to richer treasuries of theological and philosophical writings. In treating of both saints’ works, it is clear that their contemporaries were correct to flock to them for direction and answers, and why even the royalty of their respective eras held them in the highest esteem.[22]

[1] Cf. his letter to Archbishop Lanfranc in Anselm of Canterbury, Brian Davies, and Gillian Rosemary Evans, The Major Works (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 3-4.

[2] Rev. Alban Butler, as cited in “St Anselm, Confessor, Archbishop of Canterbury—(A.D. 1109),” at EWTN, at

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas (San Bernardino: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017), 25.

[6] Anselm, The Major Works, xx.

[7] Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, 8.

[8] Anselm, The Major Works, xxii; see also Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, 34.

[9] Anselm, The Major Works, On the Fall of the Devil, 207.

[10] Anselm, The Major Works, On the Fall of the Devil, 208 and 210.

[11] Ibid., 207-210.

[12] Ibid., 209.

[13] Ibid., 210.

[14] Anselm, Proslogion (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2001), 11.

[15] Anselm, Proslogion, 13.

[16] On that evil is not a good nor a being, see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (Lander: The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2012), Prima Pars, Q. 48, A. 1; on that evil exists in things, see Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Prima Pars, Q. 48, A. 2.

[17] Augustine, as cited by Aquinas, S. Th., Prima Pars, Q. 48, A. 2, emphasis omitted.

[18] Aquinas, S. Th., Prima Pars, Q. 48, A. 3.

[19] Aquinas, S. Th., Prima Pars, Q. 49, A. 1.

[20] Aquinas, S. Th., Prima Pars, Q. 49, A. 2.

[21] Aquinas, S. Th., Prima Pars, Q. 48, A. 3.

[22] Cf. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, 42, and Rev. Alban Butler, as cited in “St Anselm, Confessor, Archbishop of Canterbury—(A.D. 1109),” at EWTN, at

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