Philosophy Theology

St. Anselm “On Truth”

“Since we believe that God is truth…” is the famous opening of St. Anselm’s treatise on truth (De Veritate).  Anselm was an 11th century Catholic philosopher and cleric in England, and one of the cross-pollinated Catholic thinkers whom Anglicans, at least historically, liked to claim as their own.  As such, he is a canonized saint in both Catholicism and Anglicanism.  Anselm was a pioneer in theology and philosophy in the early medieval world, his ProslogionMonologion, and Cur Deus Homo are still widely read canonical texts of medieval philosophy, of which his Proslogion is probably most famous for the “ontological proof of God’s existence.”  Cur Deus Homo is perhaps more widely known in theological circles (“Why God became Man”).  However, his shorter dialogue De Veritate, “On Truth,” is also a seminal text of epistemology and epistemological theology.

1.

The statement that Anselm’s student opens with “since we believe God is truth” is fundamental to understand when dealing with Christianity; it is also the means by which the dialogue unfolds – an inquisitive Christian student asking his Christian teacher (Anselm) questions over the nature of truth and knowledge.  Contrary to the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the so-called “New Atheist” crowd, Christianity is a truth-centered system of thought that has implications for how we live our lives.  “Faith” is the axiomatic foundation from which all other things flow.  This is basic epistemology 101; without a foundation we have nothing to go by.  For Christianity to maintain its claims that truth exists, and that we can know truth, God is essential to Christianity – for without God there can be no truth in the Christian system since Christianity links Truth with God.  Hence, the statement that “God is truth” is the axiomatic foundation of Christianity whereby we can know things.

(One can read into the historical fact that God = Truth in Christianity as to why, in our supposed “post-Christian” culture, epistemological relativism and sophistry has returned in force, and why the “New Atheists” are basically Christians, for all intents and purposes, having subsumed Christianity’s metaphysical and epistemological (and ethical) systems while simply replacing “God is truth” with “science is truth”.)

That “Supreme Truth” (e.g. God) has “no beginning or end” is the result of Christianity’s cosmology of creation.  Whereas Pagan philosophy had maintained that the earth always was, Christianity, through Genesis, maintained the opposite – the earth was created (as was, therefore, time and space).  However, the logical conundrum that this leads us to is this: if there was a time when time was not, and if truth is eternal, then where does truth emanate from?  The answer is one of two possible propositions: a) there is no truth since truth is a relative byproduct of time (and therefore no God), or b) truth exists outside of time and space.  Christianity, of course, has to opt for the second.  Since God is eternal and unchanging truth, and since the world has a beginning, truth has no beginning or end – it is a simple proposition really (God has no beginning – this is a longstanding Christian argument, but also rooted in Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover”).  This is why God is understood as existing outside of time and space; God is transcendent precisely because Truth has to be transcendent in order for Truth to always exist.  Christianity is a foundationalist epistemology: truth exists, we can be certain truth exists, and we can come to know the truth.

(We can know truth, additionally, because we are not “blank slates” per Locke – instead Christianity follows Plato that we have innate ideas; or innate understandings, of truth which is located in the soul (the rational part of the human mind) which, because it comes from God, therefore has a knowledge of God – which is to say has a knowledge of that Supreme Truth.  Part of the “spiritual exercise” of Christianity is the “Mind’s road to God” or the “soul’s ascent to God” whereby the soul/mind of the person attempts to come into communion with God – in coming into communion with God one attains the truth and the truth conquers all things according to traditional forms of Christianity.)

Anselm’s student, although understanding that God is truth, seeks to know how we can know truth.  Simply saying that Truth exists is simple.  But the concern of Anselm becomes how can we know the truth?

2 & 3.

Anselm, admittedly, follows Augustine’s epistemology which was largely a combination of Plato and Aristotle.  Anselm’s second argument, which is the signifying argument, is just a rehashed and Christianized argument from Aristotle’s claim that to speak falsely of something that is, is to speak falsely of it, and to speak truly of that which is, is to speak truly of it.  This presumes, of course, that there is a nature.  By speaking truly of nature one speaks truly of that which is.  To speak falsely of nature is to speak falsely of that which is.  The only way to speak truly of that which is or to speak falsely of that which is means the signified object or matter in question has a nature which is – from which we can speak truthfully or falsely about it.

In continuing onward, Anselm also claims that thought can be true.  This reflects his inheritance to Plato (and the Platonic elements of Augustine).  One can think correctly about something precisely because there is both a nature and an awareness (innate idea) of that nature which comes from the soul.  As Anselm states, rational thought, or some other foundation for thought, is true when it thinks properly of that which is.  Thought is false when it thinks improperly of that which is.

Thus we see the twin components of Christian epistemology already established by Anselm: thought (rationalism) and speech (empiricism/senses).  He explores this unity of rationalism and empiricism in the rest of the dialogue.

6.

Contrary, again, to what many people think, Christianity’s pluralistic or hylomorphic epistemology does not reject “empiricism.”  (And neither does Christianity reject “rationalism.”)  Because Christianity, primarily through Augustine, had synthesized Plato and Aristotle, Christianity’s epistemology can be understood as a form of phenomenological realism or transcendental realism; which is to say that innate ideas, which come from one’s soul, can be confirmed through the senses (or experience in the world).  In fact, this experiential element to epistemology is more reliable than pure thought.  As Anselm covered in proposition three, you can think falsely of something.  However, if you have experienced something you can think more accurately or acutely of your experience.

The sixth proposition of De Veritate is widely recognized as important to the development of empiricist epistemology (and Anselm being English is also seen as a reason why English philosophy, when it abandoned foundationalist Christianity, nevertheless could not abandon the empiricist side of Christianity which was so firmly grounded in English intellectual thought).  In fact, the famous argument in this section, where the student proposes that the senses can deceive us, is another famous concern of the Enlightenment empiricists against the rationalists where the rationalists charge that senses can be deceptive.  Anselm rejects this proposition.  For Anselm, the senses are always true – the problem is in interpretation or as he calls it, judgment.

This may seem hard to follow for some modern readers.  One must remember that Anselm is a Christian and believes what I have just hitherto explained, truth is both experiential and rational; epistemology in Christianity is not a zero-sum conflict.  The two go together.  Therefore, improper thought (which Anselm addressed in proposition three) can lead to a false conclusion.  Following this logic one can improperly think (or judge) about what he has experienced.  Thus, the fault is not in the senses but in the rational process.

For a quick lesson in etymology, opinione in Latin, which is where we get the word “opinion,” means judgement.  One makes a judgement based on the senses.  That judgement can be correct or incorrect, but if incorrect, as Anselm notes, the nexus of that falsity is in judgment not the senses.  Thus we have the dichotomy between true and false judgment (true and false “opinion”) rather than true or false sensation.  This is where the mind takes primacy after the experience – the mind must properly interpret what was experienced.  In the end, then, we can understand that mind takes primacy in Anselm’s epistemology.

7.

Unlike the Whig epistemological tradition, Christianity maintains that truth has been accessible in every time and place.  This does not mean that people have always known the truth.  However, people in the past, present, and therefore the future, can (and have) known the truth.  This is the binding and eternal communion to borrow a theological concept.  This is also why Christianity (at least in its Catholic variation) has always looked fondly at Greek and Roman philosophy in particularly.  The Greeks and Romans, especially the Platonists and Aristotelians in Greece, and the Roman Stoics (moreover than the Greek Stoics) possessed and had acquired a lot of truth; therefore Christians saw no problem with “borrowing” from Greek and Roman philosophy.  If truth exists in all being, and since Christianity is a system of thought and action which is “in the business of truth,” than – contrary to certain Protestant claims – there is no “un-Christian” appropriation of other truth.  Truth belongs to all.

Truth exists in all being precisely because Truth created all things.  Again, we see how Christianity’s cosmology leads to necessary commitments in thought and epistemology.  So if God, which is Supreme Truth, creates, then all things possess truth since they come from God.

8 & 9.

Proposition eight is a long discourse on language.  This is another reflection of Anselm’s inheritance and debt to Aristotle.  This discourse concerns itself with “ought” and “ought not,” and “to be able” and “not to be able.”  Christianity is more than just a system of thought; it is also a system of action and engagement.  This treatment also deals with the question of anthropology and human action and how it is related to epistemology.

This leads into proposition nine where Anselm addresses how actions show their truth or falseness.  “Therefore, by his action more than by his word he would be telling you about which herbs were edible.”  The idea that “actions speak louder than words” is also a legacy of Christianity; because actions do speak louder than words.  Again, this is a result of Christianity’s hylomorphic epistemology where action confirms innate ideas in the phenomenological world.  This returns us to “ought” and “ought not,” for example, when Anselm brings up whether one ought or ought not to lie.  Lying is an action moreover than just a thought.

The basic take-away in these propositions is how epistemology influences action.  We act in accord to how we think.  Therefore, if one is to act “rightly” or “properly,” one must have proper thought and understanding.  This is very similar to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics with regard to Aristotelian action theory.

11.

Returning to the question of “what is truth,” Anselm finally defines truth as “rightness.”  Right speech.  Right action.  Right thought, etc. is what truth is.  As Anselm asks his student, “cannot reason understand and apprehend the straightness of material objects seperably from the objects?”  The student responds in the affirmative and Anselm then fully defines truth as “rightness perceptible only to the mind.”  (Again, this is why mind takes primacy in Anselm’s epistemology; and ultimately why mind takes primacy in Christian epistemology.)

Thus we see that hylomorphic epistemology at play yet again.  Perception (empiricism) and mind (rationalism) united together and working together to reach the truth.  From right perception from the mind we can then speak rightly about what we are observing, or feeling, etc.  It is also important to see how, again contrary to ill-informed and illiterate ‘critics’ of Christianity, Christianity’s epistemology gives much stock to reason and rationality.  (In fact, part of Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity was that it was far too rational for also claiming to be a “religion.”)  In fact, supposed “non-Christians” who place much stock in reasoning and rationality as being able to arrive at “truth” highlight, despite their ignorance, how deeply Christian epistemology has penetrated Western culture.

The twelfth proposition deals with justice.  I am skipping over that since this post squarely deals with epistemology.  Though the discourse on justice is worth reading; I will return at some other time to address and explain Anselm’s discourse on justice.

13.

The final proposition is that truth is one in all things.  As Anselm famously closes:

Truth is improperly said to be “of this thing” or “of that thing.” For truth does not have its being in or from or through the things in which it is said to be. But when these things are in accordance with truth, which is always present to things which are as they ought to be, then we say “the truth of this thing” or “the truth of that thing” (for example, “the truth of the will” or “the truth of action”). Similarly, we say “the time of this thing” or “the time of that thing,” although there is one and the same time for all things which exist together at the same time. And if this thing did not exist or if that thing did not exist, time would nonetheless remain the same; for we say “the time of this thing” or “the time of that thing” not because time is in these things but because these things are in time. Now, when considered in itself, time is not called the time of anything; but when we consider things which are in time, we say “the time of this thing” or “the time of that thing.” Similarly, Supreme Truth, existing in and of itself, is not the truth of anything; but when something accords with Supreme Truth, then we speak of the truth, or rightness, of that thing.

In Sum:

Anselm’s dialogue on truth is one of the most important dialogues of the medieval world and of medieval philosophy.  It highlights, very succinctly, the Christian epistemological tradition which combined empiricism and rationalism together as one – which reflects Christianity’s broader metaphysical commitments to pluralism.  It also highlights, for those who know Plato and Aristotle well, the combined influence of Plato (rationalism) and Aristotle (empiricism) upon Christian systematic thought.  Thus, humans can think properly but also experience properly; experience should lead to proper thought (or judgement).  Truth as “rightness” “perceived by the mind” should highlight the debt to both rationalist and empiricist traditions – perception (empiricism) and mind (rationalism) which leads to “right action” (Aristotle’s virtue theory) which stems from right thought (Plato’s Forms).

Additionally the statement that “God is truth” highlights what “God” really is as opposed to the caricatures of God.  We also see why God is essential to Christianity via Christianity’s epistemology: if God is Supreme Truth and Christianity is concerned with coming to know the truth and living in accord with the truth (“to live in communion with God”), then God needs to exist for there to be truth and for us to come to know and participate in and with the truth in the Christian tradition.

Lastly, I hope we can see how even supposedly “atheistic” or “scientific” and “empiricist” traditions and schools of thought really are, as most philosophers (especially the likes of Slavoj Zizek) are aware, really just variations of (and on) Christianity when all said and done.  In the end Christianity’s epistemological tradition can be understood as phenomenological realism (Augustinian position) or transcendental realism (Anselmian to Thomistic position).

2 comments

  1. I think being a Christian or following any religion is looked down on in these times (especially in the western world), which is a shame because I believe believing or following a certain religion gets people to think and ultimately gives people a better understanding of life (if interpreted in the theological/philosophical sense.)

    I could be wrong but in my opinion “the death of God” is sad as the vast majority of humans are going to evolve to living life without thinking/reasoning about anything.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ironically, Nietzsche thought the same thing. When he spoke of the “death of God” it wasn’t celebratory; it was a remark about how the serious life of moral fortitude, virtue, and struggle was aided by belief in God and that modern man, in his want to indulge in emptiness and hedonism, had to kill God to achieve the modern vision of the good life: to be taken care of by the state.

      Like

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