The trivium at Bec and its bearing on Anselm’s program of faith seeking understanding, 1

The following is the first of six posts on St. Anselm’s Proslogion (c. 1077-78). This series reintroduces Anselm’s short theological work by i) making the interpretive assumptions underlying the recent reception of the text explicit; and ii) instead situating the argumentation in the text against the backdrop of earlier medieval contributions to thinking about language and logic – particularly those of Boethius (c. 480-524). This first post reproduces in large part an earlier post, but is included here for completeness. Enjoy the text. More importantly, may it profit you in wisdom and in charity.


Abstract. How should the phrase ‘fides quaerens intellectum’ be understood as a characterization of Anselm’s Proslogion? I argue that ‘fides’ and ‘intellectum’ should be understood not in accordance with the standard meanings we assign to ‘faith’ and ‘understanding’ today, but in accordance with their meaning in works used to teach grammar and dialectic at Bec in and around Anselm’s lifetime.

I begin by making the structures behind the usual understanding of ‘faith’ and ‘understanding’ explicit. From here, I detail the works of the Trivium used at Bec according to a 12th century library list, and provide justification for thinking these same works were used slightly earlier, in Anselm’s time. Next, I show how the terms fides and intellectus functioned in these works. Finally, I turn to the Proslogion and the exchange with Gaunilo to show how these considerations illuminate Anselm’s method in these works.

Keywords: Anselm of Canterbury; Medieval dialectic; Topics, Medieval interpretations of; faith; understanding; reason.

1 The Current State of Anselm Scholarship and the Usual Understanding of Fides and Intellectus

            In Anselm of Canterbury and the Desire for the Word, Eileen Sweeney describes the current state of Anselm scholarship thus:

‘There are real divisions in the interpretation of Anselm. […] Philosophers and systematic theologians carry off parts of his corpus, while those interested in spirituality take others. […] One of the most vexed questions in Anselm scholarship is its disciplinary location. Though the question of whether Anselm’s work is philosophy or theology is ultimately anachronistic, the extreme positions that have been taken on this question reveal something about how incompatible the elements of Anselm’s corpus seem to modern sensibilities.’[1]

According to the operative conception behind the aforementioned divide, to study religion, theology, or spirituality is to take faith as the object of one’s inquiry; while philosophy is that academic discipline most characterized by its connection with reason – and if reason and understanding, ratio and intellectus, are not identical, then the former at least provides the paradigmatic case of the latter.

            Fides, or ‘faith’, is understood in two ways: primarily, as a subjective state, that of believing a matter not objectively verified; secondarily, as the matter assented to. In the first way, the study of faith is part of the study of human subjectivity, and thus subordinated to psychology. In the second, to study faiths is to study the structures of propositional content assented to by those having faith in the first sense. If one structure is privileged as correct, then one is doing theology; if one remains agnostic about the correctness of any one religious system and instead studies properties of these structures for their own sake, then one is engaging in comparative religion.

A divide between subjective and objective senses similarly governs the meanings of intellectus, typically translated as ‘understanding’. This term can refer to: 1) the faculty of knowing; 2) the state of knowledge attained by the proper exercise of that faculty; or 3) the knowledge attained by that exercise. The faculty of understanding is often taken to be identical to the faculty of reason, while the state of understanding occurs when one can give sufficient reasons (i.e. known true propositions taken as premises) for what is understood. As in the previous case, the faculty retains priority over both the state and the object attained, and is usually identified with the human mind. Understanding understanding is, then, the province of psychology. Correlatively, understanding in the second sense is taken to be a psychological state; understanding in the third sense is dubbed ‘mental content’, and is studied, most often in philosophy of mind, under that heading.[2]

The relation between these states is taken as follows. Faith qua act of belief is an act of the will, marked by the subjective indeterminacy of the truth value of propositional contents taken as its object. The state of faith is, compared with that of understanding, incomplete. And the content of religious belief relates to that of understanding according to one of two models: on the first, stemming from Aquinas, truths of faith are above reason; on the second, stemming from Latin Avërroism,[3] truths of faith may contradict reason. In the first, faith acts as a supervaluation function filling in truth values undecidable by the machinery of reason alone. In the second, the data given to faith and reason conflict, and one must choose between the two.

            Fides quaerens intellectum, then, is most often taken to mean ‘subjective, willed believing-without-evidence seeking definitive proof that what it believes unknowingly is in fact the case’. If one takes the content of reason and faith to conflict, then the ‘without’ in the above definition can be strengthened to ‘against’. This sense is not terribly flattering. This does not, of course, mean it is an incorrect reading of the phenomena. But we should hesitate to think this was the picture Anselm endorsed when he gave fides quaerens intellectum as the working title to his Proslogion.

This essay aims not so much to refute standard interpretations as to deepen them. Standard interpretations of the Proslogion and its key terms are not so much incorrect as superficial: the meanings we assign primarily to fides and intellectus are, on Anselm’s analysis, derivative. If reading Anselm differently on this point proves fruitful, perhaps doing so will provide us with a way of seeing the matters themselves differently as well.

[1] Sweeney 2012, 6-7. Sweeney cites Gilson and Barth as examples of ‘philosophizing’ and ‘spiritualizing’ interpretations of Anselm’s work. See Barth 1960, 55-59; Gilson 1951, 26.

While Sweeney should be commended for drawing attention to this division, I do not think her work successfully transcends it. Sweeney sees Anselm’s thought as a coincidentia oppositorum of logic and rhetoric, reason and desire. ‘Anselm’s project in the Proslogion is one that Anselm himself views as both necessary and paradoxical’ (Sweeney 2003, 17). The problem with such a reading is that it merely entrenches the dichotomies and assumptions brought to the table by the above mentioned rival groups; the attempt to balance these opposing elements without questioning their internal content effects a mere reconfiguration of concepts, instead of leading to an improved understanding of those concepts.

[2] To paint the situation a bit more accurately, what is studied is theories of mental content, thereby effecting a redoubling of the primacy of the subject putting forth these theories.

[3] At least, this is how the story is told. For reasons to think the story isn’t quite as simple as its retelling, see Klima 1998.

Go to part 2


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