St Anselm: Are You Restraining the Ambition to Explain?

Feast of the Holy Father Niphonus, Patriarch of Constantinople

Anselm_Square_3.jpegOF ALL THE things that can be said of something, could any be appropriate to the substance of so wonderful a nature as this? This is the question to ask as carefully as possible at this point. I would be surprised if we could find anything from among the nouns and verbs which we apply to things created from nothing that could worthily be said of the substance that created all. None the less we must see where reason takes us. […]

The Trinity seems to me to be a sublime mystery, which stretches well beyond the horizon of human understanding. Therefore one ought, I think, to restrain the ambition to explain. When investigating the inexplicable, if it is possible to arrive at an account which is certainly correct, I think one must be content with that even if it is impossible to see how it may be so. […] And what, after all, is as incomprehensible, as ineffable, as that which is above everything else? So then, given that all our assertions so far on the subject of the supreme essence have been made on the basis of necessary reasoning, the fact that understanding cannot fathom so far as to explain them in words does nothing to undermine their certainty. […] 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. What we do, when we cannot, or will not, utter something properly, is to signify it by means of something else – a riddle for example. And often we do not see something properly (i.e., as it is), but we see it by means of some likeness or image – when, for example, we make out someone’s face in a mirror. Thus we say and do not say, see and do not see, one and the same thing. For it is through something else that we say it, and we see it. But through what is proper to it, we do not.

This line of reasoning, therefore, allows our conclusions about the supreme nature to be true and the supreme nature itself to remain ineffable. We understand them to be indicating the supreme nature by means of something else, rather than expressing it by means of what is proper to its essence. The names, then, that are apparently predicable of the supreme nature, merely gesture towards it rather than pinpoint it. For when it comes to thinking of what such words signify, it is much more comfortable for me to form the mental conception of what I experience from the created world, than of what I understand about that which transcends all human understanding. And what it is that such words, by their signifying, form in my mind is something far inferior to – worse: far, far removed from – what my mind is trying to understand. And how insubstantial are these signifyings through which my mind has to work! The name “wisdom” does not suffice to show me that through which all things were made from nothing, and through which all things are preserved from returning to nothing. The name “essence” cannot express that which is far above (through its unique loftiness) and beyond (through what is proper to its nature) all things. Conclusion: the supreme nature is ineffable, because it simply cannot be made known as it is by means of words. But a claim about the supreme nature, if one can be made that is dictated by reason and is stated indirectly – in a riddle, as it were – is not false.

~St Anselm, Monologion, 15, 64, 65


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