Cur Deus Homo I.19-25

(Continuing from our digression on angels in CDH I.16-18)

“By what reason or necessity did God become man and by His death, just as we believe and profess, return life to the world when He was able to do this through another person, either angelic or human, or by His will alone?” (CDH I.1)

What Anselm has covered so far:

  1. Sin is a problem that must be fixed.  God cannot ignore it or His plan would fail.
  2. God cannot delegate this task to another creature or we would no longer be servants of God alone and equal to the holy angels.
  3. Sin is a problem of justice.  Every injustice has a primary fault–depriving someone of their due–and a secondary fault–damaging that person’s honor.  Each of these facets of injustice cause the order of the universe to be disrupted.  Until each issue has been resolved, disorder reigns.
  4. There are only two ways to resolve the secondary damage to honor: punishment and satisfaction.
  5. The punishment of hell fails to re-order the universe because, by resolving one disorder, another is caused or perpetuated.

So that brings us to the most famous part of Anselm’s argument, wherein he addresses the problem of satisfaction.  This is why Anselm’s argument is often referred to as the “Satisfaction Theory.”

The Analogy of the Pearl

Before diving into his analysis of the satisfaction horn, Anselm returns to the idea that God cannot simply ignore the problem of sin.  He refreshes the dilemma by relating the problem of sin in the form of a short allegory.

“Let us posit that some rich man holds in his hand a pearl of great price which never has any pollution touched and which no other can remove from his hand except by him permitting; and this he would arrange to hide in his treasury, where are the things most dear and precious which he possesses…What if he would allow this same pearl to be struck out of his hand into the mire by someone hateful, although he is able to prevent it; and afterwards, picking it up from the mire dirty and unwashed, were to hide it away in some clean and costly place of his, intending to keep it thus there.  Will you think him wise?”

Ponamus divitem aliquem in manu tenere margaritam pretiosam, quam nunquam pollutio ulla tetigit quamque nullus alius possit amovere de manu eius nisi ipso permittente; et eam disponat recondere in thesaurum suum, ubi sunt charissima et pretiosissima quae possidet…Quid, si ipse permittat eandem margaritam ab aliquo invido excuti de manu sua in coenum, cum prohibere possit; ac postea eam de coeno sumens pollutam et non lotam in aliquem locum suum mundum et charum, deinceps illam sic servaturus, recondat: putabisne illum sapientem? (CDH I.19)

The parts of the allegory are simple enough to identify.  Anselm has reworked the parable of the pearl of great price from St. Matthew’s Gospel so that now God (the rich man) holds human nature (the pearl) in His hand.  The Devil (someone hateful) strikes it from His hand and renders it polluted with sin (the mire).

It makes no sense for God to shrug His shoulders and place humans into heaven (the treasury–imagine a jewel display case like the Smithsonian’s gem collection) alongside His angels (the other dearest possessions).  The order and beauty of the display would be marred by the filth on the pearl; far from completing what was lacking in the display, the pearl so added would detract even further from it.

How could God be wise to ignore such a disorder?  Surely in order to restore the pearl He must do more than simply lift it from the mire and put it in the display case.  He must fix both the pearl and the display case; both mankind and the City of God.  The one is a part of the other.

Every analogy limps and it is illuminating to see what Anselm has left out of this allegory.  In the actual fall of humanity, Adam–the pearl–jumped from God’s hands.  The free will aspect of the story is strangely lacking.  Or not so strange, once you realize that, again, Anselm is not trying to tell a humano-centric story.  We are the object of the action, not the protagonist.  Our fall fits within a larger and grander narrative, as does our restoration.  The story is primarily about God and the order of His entire creation.

At any rate, this is a lovely insertion to the book that summarizes the previous chapters about the angels, unifies them with the earlier chapters about the dilemma, and resets the reader to complete the argument in the subsequent chapters.  [I considered covering it in my previous post, but it’s more true to my teaching to cover it here.  I only summarize the angel theory briefly for the students, whereas I teach this as part of the final push through the book.]

So God can’t simply punish mankind and once more we see a reason that He cannot do nothing.  Here, the reset in Anselm’s own words:

“Hold therefore [the preceding conclusion] most certainly since without satisfaction–that is, the debt being repaid willingly–neither can God forgive the sinner unpunished nor the sinner arrive to beatitude even such as he had before he sinned; for not in this way would the human be restored, even such as he was before the sin.”

Tene igitur certissime, quia sine satisfactione i.e. sine debiti solutione spontanea nec Deus potest peccatum impunitum dimittere nec peccator ad beatitudinem vel talem, qualem habebat antequam peccaret, pervenire; non enim hoc modo repararetur homo vel talis, qualis fuerat ante peccatum. (CDH I.19)

So it couldn’t possibly be any clearer, as Anselm has argued for many chapters now, that satisfaction is just going to have to work somehow.  Well…

Satisfaction Doesn’t Work Either??

Recall the three features of satisfaction from chapter eleven: satisfaction must be more, pleasing, and different.  What is given to restore lost honor must somehow be more than the offense, it must be pleasing to the victim, and it must be different than what was already owed.  As Anselm now intends to show, each of those has an insoluble problem attached to it.

Another systematic inadequacy makes this crucial section of the argument a little difficult to follow.  Weirdly, Anselm does not treat the three features of satisfaction in the order of presentation given in chapter eleven.  Instead he analyses different, then more, then finally pleasing.  His treatment of the different feature in chapter twenty, otherwise the clearest and best-argued of the three, actually begins with a statement that appears to introduce the more feature instead.  And the pleasing feature is at best unclear and possibly not even addressed at all!

It’s tempting to suggest that Anselm is combining features, that more and different form a complex whole in chapters twenty and twenty-one, and that pleasing combines with something else in chapters twenty-two and twenty-three.  That would at least explain away the artistic inelegance of this section, although it doesn’t make the logic any clearer.  An even more amusing suggestion is that Anselm is just as confused as my own students, who routinely conflate more and different into the same concept.  I think I’ll give St. Anselm the benefit of the doubt here and let this be an artistic failing if only so the logic still plays out neatly.

With that, on to the three features.


First Anselm lays a trap for Boso by asking him what we would give God as recompense for sin.  Boso, eager as any good student, cheerfully supplies a lovely catechism-answer:

“Penitence, a heart contrite and humbled, self-denials and divers labors of body, the mercy of giving and forgiving, and obedience.”

Poenitentiam, cor contritum et humiliatum, abstinentias et multimodos labores corporis et misericordiam dandi et dimittendi et obedientiam. (CDH I.20)

When Anselm presses Boso for a unifying answer–“What is it that you are giving God in all these things?”–Boso walks right into the trap.

Am I not honoring God when for fear and love of Him in contrition of heart I reject temporal happiness, in self-denials and labors I trample the pleasures and ease of this life, in giving and forgiving I give away which things are mine, and in obedience I subject my very self to Him?”

An no honoro Deum, quando propter timorem eius et amorem in cordis contritione laetitiam temporalem abiicio, in abstinentiis et laboribus delectationes et quietem huius vitae calco, in dando et dimittendo quae mea sunt largior, in obedientia meipsum illi subiicio? (CDH I.20)

Any reader paying attention since chapter fifteen should know exactly what has just happened here.  Anselm’s response can best be described as a slow clap of mocking approval.  Honoring God and being subject to Him?  How impressive Boso.  There’s just one, teensy, little problem!

You already owe God all those things.  All created things owe honor and submission to God from the first moment of their existence.  No creature can ever possess anything of their own that is not first God’s.  Rarely in argument can something be reduced to bare simplicity, but here’s a lovely example: What do we owe God? Everything.  Absolutely everything.  No need for funny qualifiers.  No need to cover bases.  Every sinless creature by the simple fact of being creature owes everything to God.

CDH I.20 graphic 2
Text Map of Anselm’s Reply to Boso in CDH I.20

Boso sums it up nicely for Anselm:

“If my very self and whatever I can do, even when I do not sin, I owe to Him lest I sin, then I have nothing which I can return to Him for sin.”

Si meipsum et quidquid possum, etiam quando non pecco, illi debeo ne peccem, nihil habeo quod pro peccato illi reddam. (CDH I.20)

The consequence as it pertains to making satisfaction is clear.  If satisfaction must be something truly our own that we don’t already owe, then we can never make satisfaction to God for our sins.  This is by far the cleanest and most direct argument that Anselm gives in the entire book; combine this with chapter eleven and satisfaction is immediately ruled out as a response to the problem of sin.  Case closed.  No need for further analysis of the features of satisfaction.  That horse is plenty dead; give back the stick.

Just kidding!  Anselm doesn’t merely beat that dead horse, he taunts Boso along the way as he leads him into deeper despair and confusion.  The verisimilitude to my own teaching experience is very strong here.  On to the second insoluble problem.


As clean as the previous chapter was, matters are not quite so clear in chapter twenty-one.  For the sake of continuing the argument, Anselm sets aside the different feature so that he can show further problems with doing more.  In order to do this, he runs a thought experiment to get a sense of the magnitude of sin.

He begins by proposing a silly example of a sin so that he can show the general form of all sin: “Look over there!” when God has expressly forbidden “looking over there.”  Every Abbey Boy I have ever taught automatically looks and giggles, and then argues that “looking over there” sounds like a ridiculous example.

And that’s the point.  He doesn’t want to get bogged down in competing intuitions about the evil of murder, adultery, rape, theft, etc.  Instead Anselm separates the sin into two components: the thing done and that it is done contrary to the divine will.  We can easily convert a given case, “looking over there contrary to the divine will,” into the general form “to do X contrary to the divine will.”

CDH I.21 graphic
The general form of sin

By choosing the most trivial possible object to substitute in for X in the general form, Anselm throws all the gravity of the sin over to the second half, “contrary to the divine will.”  This need not be an exclusive claim to the effect that the only gravity of the sin is on the second half; Anselm simply limits himself to analyzing that part of the definition.  That turns out to be more than enough to make his point about the impossibility of doing more to give satisfaction.

Boso himself agrees:

“When I consider the action itself, I see that it is an extremely lightweight matter.  But when I behold what it is contrary to the will of God, I understand that it is extremely grave…”

Cum considero actionem ipsam, levissimum quiddam video esse; sed cum intueor, quid sit contra voluntatem Dei, gravissimum quiddam…intelligo (CDH I.21)

With our gaze fixed firmly on the second half of the definition, Anselm walks through a series of comparisons to illustrate the magnitude of sin.  Take an imaginary scales and place the will of God in one pan.  Now start putting things in the other pan and see what can balance the magnitude of God’s will.

Any created thing?  Of course not.  What about the salvation of the human soul, the greatest individual good for any human?  Don’t be silly.  The sum of all created goods in the universe?  Nope.  The divine will is infinite!  It’s an attribute of aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari possit–“that than which nothing greater can be thought.”  By definition the divine will must outweigh, by goodness or perhaps just by sheer existence, absolutely anything other than God Himself.  That’s God sitting in the scales!  He will always be more.

At first Boso attempts to parry Anselm’s argument with some incredibly true-to-life student objections.  In both cases he is trying to limit the conclusion of the argument by tying it to human justice interactions; in each case Anselm has an easy escape.  Sure, in real life we will have more complicated scenarios of good and evil where we don’t have clear options, but let’s start with something as simple as breaking a direct command when there are no pressures or extenuating circumstances.  And sure, in human affairs we might disobey a direct command such that the commander gains rather than loses, who as a result praises and gives thanks for the “disobedience.”  But that’s only because of the limits of human knowledge either as to circumstance or to rightly understanding our last end.  Once you put the omniscient God in the position of commander and take a case as clear as God telling Adam and Eve not to do something pretty trivial, those kinds of worries drop away.  We can worry about more complicated cases another day.

Once cornered and brought around to Anselm’s thinking, Boso then takes the conclusion a step further for Anselm: even if you could somehow have an infinite number of universes of goods in the pan, it would still never be equal to the will of God.  That’s quite a claim!  The gravity of sin, the magnitude of the disobedience, is not just infinite.  It’s hyper-infinite, a different kind of infinite than merely counting “to infinity.”  The latter is merely adding up an endless series of finite things; slapping a “Moebius co-efficient” on the front of that doesn’t put you in the same category as God Who Is Infinity Itself.

That’s going to make more a little difficult.

Shifting to infinities solves a worry about the limits of satisfaction in human justice.  Trying to calculate more for the various injustices and dishonors of purely human transactions seems rife with complications.  Do we really want to be involved in a game of quantifying the value of such things?  If honor is really about the order of the universe, if it is a real state of affairs independent of human estimation, then it is not sufficient merely that the parties agree something is more.  An accurate quantification is necessary for satisfaction to be done and order restored.  Does this work at all?  At the very least it is a strong avenue for attacking Anselm’s argument; seldom have I taught a student who was not skeptical of this system.

On the divine scale, however, that problem goes away.  The uncomfortable questions of commensurability drop away, canceling out like some ugly terms in a difficult math problem.  One pan of the scales holds something definitionally more than any and every created thing; that is more than enough to prove Anselm’s point.  It also sets up a nice point he will make in the second volume of the book.

On the other hand, Anselm’s clever move seems to cause more problems than it solves.

If his theory of satisfaction works well on a human scale then we have a kind of cosmological argument, applying the theory in a transcendent way to God.   Well and good.  But if the more idea causes insoluble difficulties for human justice, then it seems satisfaction only works on the divine level.  At that point, having undermined the initial concept of justice, what is the reason for trying to apply it to God in the first place?  How do we know that this account of justice is correct?  It works for God so we apply it in reverse to human affairs?  The terms-canceling trick is dangerous; Anselm still has to be able to defend a satisfaction theory of justice at the human level.  He did warn Boso at the outset that there would be major theoretical components that he would not treat in the course of the argument.  Perhaps this is one of them.  Then again, perhaps St. Anselm is simply propagating the problematic ambiguity from his argument for the existence of God in Proslogion.  Are we assuming something in order to prove it, or is something more profound going on here?  The parallel is striking.

The second problem is that Anselm seems to have obliterated any notion of relative gravity of sins.  By placing an infinite value on the “contrary to the will of God” aspect of sin, Anselm seems to render the object–the thing done–irrelevant for assessing the good or evil of an action.  Why bother distinguishing between lying to my teacher and exterminating the Tutsi tribes?  Whatever the magnitude of those Xs, they are done “contrary to the will of God” which makes them both some kind of hyper-infinite evil.  Even if there are different values for X, those finite numbers are swallowed up and made irrelevant.  [Infinity + 1] is just [Infinity], after all.

This intensification of the problem of sin may cause huge problems for intuitions and natural ethics, but it does seem to comport with St. Paul’s teaching that the Law kills and the Spirit gives life.  It would be an interesting result if Anselm could successfully show that the mortal-venial distinction only applies in the light of Jesus Christ’s saving work.  Perhaps it is worth biting the bullet here on magnitude and insisting that, prior to His saving work, every sin was mortal.  Because of something Anselm argues later in the second volume, I don’t think he has access to this idea.  But perhaps it could be made to work, and Catholic teaching on venial sins preserved.

Or has Anselm moved too quickly from “the will of God is an infinite good” to “acting against the will of God is an infinite evil?”  Perhaps.  It seems more consistent with the total argument to define the magnitude of sin in terms of the disorder of the universe.  The infinities argument would collapse but in its place Anselm would still have a way to show that no human could ever make satisfaction–surely no human has ownership of something more than the entire universe, or its collective perfection in the light of God’s original creation.  Quantifying more would still drop out of the equation and satisfaction would still be out of reach for humans.  Problems solved!

Well, some problems.  Maybe.  There is an ongoing confusion throughout Cur Deus Homo–once again rooted in his earlier work Proslogion–driving this confusion about the magnitude of sin.  It’s a funny question that Anselm has never directly addressed and which he treats quite loosely and vaguely throughout his works.

Who is the agent of the sin we keep talking about?

Here’s a non-trivial question lurking in plain sight!  Anselm moves comfortably between different agents as he moves through the book (just as in the opening chapter of Proslogion).  Sometimes the agent is “clearly” each individual sinner every time he sins.  Other times, most obviously in the analogy of the pearl and the upcoming trial by combat, it is Adam and his first sin that gave origin to every other.  Still other times “the sinner” is an ambiguous fusion of the two–corporate humanity in its collective rebellion against God.

Anselm is in good company with this on-going ambiguity.  St. Paul also has a flexible corporate-individual approach to humans, both in terms of union in Adam as well as in Christ.  Anselm is not exactly doing something new here!  But when it comes to getting clarity on sin, the ambiguity is problematic.  If the magnitude issue is confined to the very first sin that gives rise to every other, or perhaps the collective rebellion of humans against God, then the strange infinities argument carries more water.  If it is every sin committed in an already unbalanced, disordered universe, that seems harder to understand as infinite (or even just universal) in scope.  At the very least if we would like to get a handle on the strange infinities piece of the argument, this agency issue needs to be solved.  There are a myriad of ways to try to thresh the argument at this point.

That sounds like yet another post for another day!


So Anselm has one knock-down argument against humans making satisfaction, as well as one interesting but problematic one.  Based on how he sets up the theory of satisfaction in chapter eleven, we would expect now a treatment of the third feature, pleasing.  How will this one prove impossible for us?

Uh…where’d my argument go?

In chapter twenty-two Anselm hard pivots to another of his mythopoeic parables, this time retelling the fall of Adam as a medieval contest of arms.  Adam is God’s champion, deputized by God to defeat the Devil in spiritual warfare in the garden of Eden.  Free and unconquered by sin, Adam does not simply fail in his duty; by freely sinning he actually repudiates his Lord and joins the party of the adversary like a knight switching sides at a tournament in his king’s honor.  The insult to God is overwhelming.

Our old friend conveniens rears his head once more in this short chapter as Anselm sketches out the correspondences between the two falls, human and angelic, and what sort of restoration would be necessary in order to make things right between Adam and God.

The echoes of pleasing are here: nothing Adam can do now will be pleasing to God except that he forsake his allegiance to the Devil’s party and serve God once more.  Indeed, he would have to accomplish the victory in arms that he forsook on that day of the Fall.  But that is the very thing we are powerless to do, being conceived and born in sin (notice again the extreme fluidity between Adam and us, mentioned above).  Adam is a cosmic WWE heel turning on his own team, tearing open his shirt to reveal the rival’s logo underneath.

Echoes, unfortunately, is all they are.  It is entirely unclear if Anselm intends to take up the question of pleasing in any explicit way.  His summary of chapters twenty and twenty-one indicate a loose unity expressed in terms of more, so that different appears to be a subordinate concern.  Pleasing is nowhere to be found there, and this chapter has far more affinity with the subsequent chapter.  The impetus for reading this chapter as pleasing comes almost entirely from Anselm raising the concept in chapter eleven.  Is the chapter unfinished?  Did he change his mind part way through the execution of the work?  Have I forced the paradigm from chapter eleven?

Luckily we can afford to be agnostic here; Anselm’s crushing blow in chapter twenty lowers the stakes on the success of chapters twenty-one and twenty-two.  Besides, it turns out we have a much more serious problem than satisfaction in the first place.

Don’t Forget Justice

For eleven chapters, the majority of the book’s argumentative content, Anselm and Boso have analyzed the problems of punishment and satisfaction as a response to sin.  Sometimes Anselm is less than clear, sometimes he’s a bit too ambitious, and there are numerous twists in the presentation.  But in the end, all these chapters have been about nothing other than punishment and satisfaction.  Now Anselm springs an ugly reminder on Boso: all this has been merely one half of a larger problem.

Punishment and satisfaction only relate to the secondary harm of injustice–the insult or injury to someone’s honor.  They are the “apology” in our sandbox ethics example from way back in chapter eleven.  But what of the primary injustice, the “stolen toy?”  It would be a strange reconciliation indeed if a child apologized for stealing someone’s toy and then kept the toy for himself!  Surely for a complete restoration of order, both primary and secondary injustices must be resolved.

It is to the primary injustice of sin that Anselm now turns in chapter twenty-three.  Even apart from all the issues surrounding God’s honor, there is still the simple fact that Adam “took” something from God in his sin.  As with his previous claims about depriving God of His honor, Anselm has to be careful with divine attributes here.  The metaphysically simple ground of all being cannot change and cannot be deprived of anything, at least in the simple way in which I can deprive a man of his suit jacket.

As usual, Anselm has a clever move for avoiding this problem:

“Did he not take away from God whatever He had proposed to do concerning human nature?”

Nonne abstulit Deo quidquid de humana natura facere proposuerat? (CDH I.23)

We return once again to the divine plan, our recurring friend throughout the book.  Anselm hinted at this line of thinking in chapter fourteen as part of his treatment about divine honor; now he splits it off as a separate problem.  In some sense, Adam–and all of us in him–is a thief.  It’s not just that God’s plan for human nature is thwarted; it is in some important way stolen, just like the toy in the sandbox.  Surely justice cannot be done until the thing is returned.

Well, ok everyone.  Empty your pockets!  Who’s got the eternal life?  Do you have it?  Do you?  I don’t have it.  Has anyone seen eternal life?

This is quite an ambitious move to spring at the end of a long argument.  It feels like Anselm is double-dipping here, re-using the idea that he previously used to explain the secondary harm of sin and the effectiveness of punishment.  It’s also rhetorically weird, given that it reduces the primary injustice to a mere ancillary role.  Why spend so much time hashing over the order and beauty of the universe and a possibly dubious theory of satisfaction when such a short and simple answer–to say nothing of more fundamental!–lies close at hand?

Things are even stranger when he elaborates on the theft.  Drawing on the mythic re-telling of the Fall that he began in chapter twenty-two, Anselm conflates two thieves: Adam and Satan.  First there is Adam, who must

“return, by conquering the Devil, that very thing which, by allowing himself to be conquered by the devil, he took from God.”

…id ipsum quod permittendo se vinci a diabolo Deo abstulit, diabolum vincendo restituat… (CDH I.23)

Note the powerful similarity to chapters three and twenty-two.  This will play well with his final conclusion.  But then a twist on the thief:

“so that just as through this thing which was defeated the Devil seized what was God’s and God lost it, so through this thing which overcomes the Devil loses and God regains.”

…ut quemadmodum per hoc quod victus est rapuit diabolus quod Dei erat, et Deus perdidit, ita per hoc quod vincat perdat diabolus, et Deus recuperet. (CDH I.23)

What to make of this grammatical monster?  The thing being conquered and conquering should be the id ipsum from earlier in the sentence, which in turn is the divine plan–what God had intended for the human race.  The wording is a bit strange, saying that this plan is conquered and then fittingly conquers.  Previously it was Adam, and us in him, who played the subject of those verbs.  When he shifts the subject to the impersonal plan, Anselm also shifts the agent of theft to the Devil.  So it is no longer the divine plan that God loses, but…us?

This is nothing other than a variation on the older theory of the Devil’s rights that Anselm “repudiated” in chapters six through ten!  St. Anselm seems to be reaching for a rational demonstration to rescue that venerable account from Boso’s enthusiastic hatchet job.  If I were a text critic I’d say that these two orphaned chapters were originally a unity with chapters six through ten.  Or perhaps he’s simply played a long game so that he can ambush his real point after a long digression.

In any event Anselm sketches one last “convenient” proportion, compliments of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, to show just how this divine plan could be “given back” to God:

“Just as through the conquered one [Adam] the whole human nature was corrupted and, as it were, steeped in sin…so through the [hypothetical] conquering one so many humans would be made just from sin…but homo peccator is in no way able to do this, since a sinner cannot make a sinner just.”

quemadmodum per victum tota humana natura corrupta et quasi fermentata est peccato…ita per vincentem iustificentur a peccato tot homines…sed hoc facere nullatenus potest homo peccator, quia peccator peccatorem iustificare nequit. (CDH I.23)

[Note that the cool construction homo peccator–“man, a sinner,” if you insist on a simple grammatical take–provides a marvelous foreshadowing of his final conclusion.]

Notice that Anselm provides no argument for his conclusion here.  Perhaps he has in mind something like the medieval “you cannot give what you do not have” principle of causality.  Or perhaps Boso lets him get away with relying on the authority of St. Paul.  Either way, this caps Anselm’s long series of attacks on the possibility of resolving the problem of sin:

  1. God can’t do nothing or He is weak and stupid and wicked and logical impossibilities explode all over the place (CDH I.12-13).
  2. God can’t simply punish us with Hell or His divine plan for the City of God fails (CDH I.14-18)
  3. Humans cannot make satisfaction nor, indeed, even return the thing Adam took in the first place (CDH I.19-23)

The end.  All hope is lost.  Time to read another book…?  No, surely there must be a way out!

Where Does That Leave Forgiveness?

Boso has tried to interject repeatedly in these chapters that God forgives, that Christ came to forgive sins, and the like.  Just as often, Anselm has struck him down as calling upon illicit material, things that depend on the truth of the Incarnation which they set aside for the sake of this argument.  But now that Anselm has apparently reached his finale, Boso interjects once more: what have you done to mercy?  You promised me it would all work out in the end and you’ve swept it away entirely.  Indeed, “the mercy of God and the hope of mankind seems to perish” (videtur misericordia Dei et spes hominis perire)!

First they haggle over the nature of responsibility.  If humans are stuck in an impossible situation as Anselm suggests, should not God excuse them?  It seems unjust for God to demand the impossible of anyone.  Is this perhaps how Anselm intends to introduce the possibility of mercy?

Of course not!  It is true that we sometimes excuse people when they are incapable of doing something, but only when that incapacity is not their fault.  When we render ourselves incapable of doing something, we are in no way excused.  Anselm spins his most true-to-life story ever to illustrate this: the slave who throws himself into a deep hole, rendering himself incapable of completing the task his master gave him.  The fact that the master finds his slave at the bottom of a hole at the end of the day, the work unfinished, hardly excuses the slave.  In a case where the master specifically warned his slave about the hole, the incapacity actually aggravates the fault.

[I say the verisimilitude is strong here because, having taught Abbey Boys for many years, I can solemnly affirm that any students on a hypothetical “labor detention” would gleefully catapult themselves into such a no-escape hole, probably within fifteen minutes of beginning their assigned task.  Upon returning to check on their progress I would not bother going to the work site–I would march directly to the hole ready to start yelling at them.]

Consider another analogy.  A student, confronted with an exam, raises his hand and insists that he should not be forced to take the exam.  Why?  Well, because he does not know any of the answers.  There is no way he could pass this exam.  It would be the height of teacher-injustice to insist that he attempt the impossible!  Now, if the student has been absent with illness for two weeks and has only just returned to school, then the student is correct.  But if the student simply did not study, then he has rendered himself incapable of passing the test.  There is no injustice on the teacher’s side–indeed, supreme justice will shortly be meted out in the form of a grade!

So, then once again, with feeling: what of mercy?  Anselm now delivers his tour de force on the true nature of mercy.

First he sweeps away the rubbish with a series of negations.  Boso’s quick appeals to divine forgiveness without any regard for justice have been a form of cheap grace, to borrow a much later expression.  For God not to demand of someone what is impossible for them is not mercy–that’s empty forgiveness, false generosity.  “Well, I suppose I won’t hold you accountable for throwing the sun into a black hole” is mere pretense.  If this is what we mean when we say that God is merciful, then we are making a mockery of both God and mercy.  But it’s also ridiculous to say that God was going to exact a just penalty on someone and then forebore.  In that case God’s mercy is the enemy of His justice and two perfections, two divine attributes, would be at war with each other.  This is absurd.  And even assuming those are not contradictions in the divine nature, what would it mean for humans to experience such cheap mercy?  They would find themselves unjust in the presence of the just; they would desire to repay but be unable.  Justice is a perfection not only for God but for His creatures and they would lack it.  Heaven would be a state of lack, want, frustrated desire.  It would be Hell.

Does reason slay divine mercy then?  Anselm won’t let Boso get away with that cheap assertion either:

“You asked for reason; take reason.  I do not deny that God is merciful, Who saves men and beasts just as He has multiplied his mercy.  But we are talking about that final mercy whereby after this life He makes a human being blessed; that this beatitude ought not be given to anyone except whose sins have been inwardly forgiven, nor ought this forgiveness happen except by the debt being repaid, which [debt] is owed because of sin according to the magnitude of the sin, I think I have sufficiently shown by the reasons posited above.  If it seems to you that anything can be objected to these reasons, you ought to say so.”

Rationem postulasti; rationem accipe.  Misericordiam Deum esse non nego, qui homines et iumenta salvat, quemadmodum multiplicavit misericordiam suam.  Nos autem loquimur de illa ultima misericordia, qua post hanc vitam beatum facit hominem; hanc beatitudinem nulli dari debere nisi illi, cui penitus dimissa sunt peccata, nec hanc dimissionem fieri nisi debito reddito, quod debetur pro peccato secundum magnitudinem peccati, supra positis rationibus puto me sufficienter ostendisse.  Quibus si quid tibi videtur posse rationibus obiici dicere debes. (CDH I.24)

It’s no good insisting on a rational demonstration and then complaining about its conclusion!  As I tell my students year after year, if you think there’s something wrong with the conclusion then you have to show which premise is wrong or where the form breaks down.  Anything else betrays a total lack of understanding of how logic works.  So where is the error?

When Boso tries to throw this back on Anselm again one last time–how on earth can God be merciful then??–Anselm plays one of the funniest rhetorical tricks in the history of argument.

“Oh no, Boso.  That’s not your question for me.  That’s my question for you.  You’re the one defending the position that our salvation can come about by other means.  We played this by your rules, not mine, and now we’ve found that there are no solutions.  Whose fault is that?”

The entire argument of Cur Deus Homo from chapter eleven onward has been one giant proof by contradiction.  We use such proofs in math all the time.  To prove something begin by assuming its opposite, then argue until you show an impossible absurdity.  If the reasoning is sound, you’ve successfully proven that the opposite is impossible and so the thing you wanted to prove must be true.

A standard example for high school math students: prove that the square root of two is irrational.  Begin by assuming that it is rational, which means it can be expressed as a ratio of two numbers a and b.  Using nothing but some basic math moves you could teach any high school student, you will arrive at an impossible conclusion from that assumption.  That means that the square root of two cannot be expressed as a ratio of a and b, and that is the very definition of irrational.  QED.  Check one out on Youtube if you want to see the steps.

Anselm has done the same.  All these horrible, mercy-destroying conclusions Boso doesn’t like are the absurdities that arise if we assume that the Incarnation is not real.  Take Christ and His saving work off the table and then everything breaks.  So God could not have done it another way.  Ta-da!  You asked for a rational demonstration; don’t cry now that you’ve got one.  Rejoice, and make all your friends at Laon embrace Christianity!

That’s it.  The book is over.

A Buried Conclusion

My students stop and stare at this every year, no matter how many times I warn them that they should be able to see the ending coming.  Boso agrees with them; this ending-by-negation feels hollow and he demands that Anselm give some kind of positive account of how Christ actually solves these problems.  That, after all, is why there is a second volume to Cur Deus Homo.

When I teach this in class I borrow against that second volume and show Anselm’s bottom line answer:

“If then, as established, it is necessary so that concerning humans that city above may be perfected, nor can this be except that the fore-said satisfaction be done, which no one can do but God and no one ought to do but man, then it is necessary that a God-man do it.”

Si ergo, sicut constat, necesse est ut de hominibus perficiatur illa superna civitas, nec hoc esse valet nisi fiat praedicta satisfactio, quam nec potest facere nisi Deus nec debet nisi homo; necesse est ut eam faciat Deus homo. (CDH II.6)

This is the famous answer that comes down to us in catechism form through the centuries when trying to summarize Anselm’s argument: only God can do it, but a human must be the one to do it, so an Incarnation of God as human is the only way to make satisfaction.

This answer means that God is merciful precisely by being just: His mercy is nothing other than paying our debt that we ourselves cannot.  He pays it as one of us.  He really pays it, really restores order, and most marvelously of all, somehow allows us to really participate in His just act so that we ourselves may be just.  Jesus Christ is not “the merciful one”; He’s not the one who taught us nice things about mercy.  Jesus Christ is the incarnation of God’s mercy.  He is the Sun of Justice and Mercy alike.  Apart from Him, there is no answer to the riddle of justice and mercy.  Anselm’s answer to Boso’s original challenge is that the masters of Laon cannot give a coherent account of how justice works.  They have no theory of sin and salvation that makes any sense because the only one that does is this one–the Catholic faith.

It is truly remarkable that Anselm does not give us this answer in volume one.  Once you know to look for this answer it is obvious at every stage of his argument; he has clearly planned well for this climactic claim.  But he impishly leaves his audience in a state of perplexity at the end of volume one, preferring instead the cognitive dissonance left in the wake of his reductio ad absurdum.

How exactly does Anselm get from this brain-smashing negation to the quotation in volume two?

Stay tuned.

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