Appeared in Summer/Autumn/Winter 2004, Vol. XXIX, Nos. 2, 3, 4 Download PDF here


There are many reasons why Saint Anselm (ca.1033-1109) has seldom been embraced as an exemplar of Christian aspirations. He has a sometimes annoying habit of taking the Lord at His word, a proclivity that – oddly enough – causes him to be reckoned unrealistic. For example, Anselm believes that Christ, in calling His followers to perfection, articulates a realistic prospect. Anselm finds a potent reality in Jesus’ admonitions, and does not hesitate to plumb them for rationale and meaning. In the present age, as in much of the nine centuries since Anselm’s ministry, though, even religious are sometimes reluctant to accept that such prospects as heroic virtue pose a potent and ready option for ordinary Christians.

Anselm casts all life as the study of God. that effort has its intellectual dimension, of course, but it also possesses an active voice. Because he appraises the quality of a person’s life according to the gift of oneself to the lord,2 any willed act has a moral dimension; any activity (including thought) is pertinent to the person’s conformity (or lack thereof) with God and His purposes. Every act, every thought – regardless of context – pertains to the person’s consistency with the Lord and His ways. Thus Anselm, when contemplating the mode of perfection, envisions excellence of character. He portrays this as a moral stance, conceptualizing it in terms that today would be termed “spirituality,” and integrating it into the overall schema of his thought.

To show how life is exercised with this singular focus, Anselm draws upon Regula Benedicti, the monastic rule of Saint Benedict. Having studied under the benedictines at the monastery of Notre Dame at Bec in Normandy (1059-1060), then at age twenty-seven having entered novitiate there (1060) and professed the monastic vows, Anselm had already taken Regula as his own guide and perceived its impact upon others. He continued to call upon Regula Benedicti as Bec’s prior (1063-1078) and abbot (1078-1093), of course, but also as archbishop of Canterbury (1093-1109). In his extant writings, all of which post-date his monastic profession, Anselm drew from Benedict the principal means for realizing the life of excellence that he believed constitutes the human enterprise. For this work, he developed a perspective and approach that he labeled contemplative reason (rationis contemplatio). It served in penetrating the diverse dimensions of divinity as well as in weighing their application. Anselm was determined to understand and pursue3 a life comprehensively entwined with the Lord’s being and purposes. Regula Benedicti, which he knew both intellectually and experientially, assured him that this was a practical and reasonable ambition.

Regrettably, though, Anselm never articulated his concept in a unified, architectonic schema. Thus it is necessary to collate the elements of Anselm’s teaching, drawing upon each theme’s varied appearances throughout the course of the Anselmian corpus. that is not, however, an extraordinary effort, since the diverse fruits of Anselm’s original and fecund mind do indeed render a consistent and compendious philosophy. Even when not presented systematically, his thought is not random; it is integrated compellingly within his perception of reality.

Anselm’s treatment of human excellence is especially representative of this unity. He believed perfection to be possible and incumbent for human beings, and in consequence he approached the prospect of perfection with a vital con dence, abiding trust, and untempered hope. Anselm accepted that the lord had summoned souls to be perfect4 and he was convinced that the creator would not ask of His creatures anything that was not meant to be. the experience gained by Anselm as a benedictine further convinced him that this ambition was practicable. Of course, he did not hold that the monastery was required for the attainment of perfection, but Anselm did find in the cloister’s provisions (especially in the practice of conversatio) efficient means for its realization. The crucial issue in achieving perfection (perfectio), according to Anselm, was the exercise of vigorous rectitude (rectitudo) and zealous truth (veritas) whereby a person followed God with untempered integrity (probitas). what he envisioned was a life of truth (vita veritatis), defined by him as “being-as-being-ought-to-be.”5 Anselm cast truth as a moral and spiritual standard that was both the method and content of perfection. Perfection was thus for him a way of life rather than a mere achievement.


The prospect of perfection reflects Jesus’ comprehensive yet individualized call to be perfect as is the heavenly Father.6 That is a charge imparted by the Lord to all His creatures. As Anselm understands it, this precept asks the person to give himself to God7 fully and entirely,8 by which he means rightly, viz. as-it-ought-to-be. Although God does not withhold Himself, Anselm says, neither does He give Himself to everyone.9 It is a matter of rightness. The gift of self, following the Lord’s example, must possess the proper character; it is not merely a self-justied deed. Anselm requires that the gift of self be volitional,10 ample, full and enduring,11 as well as uncompromised in either capacity or time.12 Yet these qualities, while important, are not the key. Perfection, according to Anselm’s understanding of the heavenly Father’s model, demands similitudo, i.e., likeness with divinity. As he conceives it, perfection pertains to being. So the person himself – not just his deeds – ought to conform to the lord. According to Anselm, this similitude is possible because of the person’s creation in God’s image.13

One must learn to express that divine image volitionally and by constant application. Anselm finds therein a dynamic rather than a residual character, one that lends perfection its incipience. Perfection, Anselm believes – in a principle rooted in the Matthean formula – is a matter of likeness to the Lord.

Yet the similitude that Anselm envisions is neither imitative nor proportional. He recognizes, of course, that human excellence, unlike that of divinity, is not absolute. Nevertheless, both divine and human perfection are defined in the same formula, viz. as being as-that-being-is-meant-to-be. There follows from this principle, however, a significant distinction. Anselm does not call for a person to replicate the divine perfection; similitude is marked by likeness rather than parity. So, instead of imitation of God, Anselm calls for a compendious harmony (concordia) with His absolute truth,14 suggesting also that the person will be truer the more perfectly he conforms.15

It is distinctive and pivotal that Anselm centers concordia in being rather than in the more customary locus of the medievals, viz. the will. He looks to character – which informs will and thus deed, of course – rather than to activity, thereby investing perfection with a tonality of the person’s completion as-he-ought-to-be. Anselm portrays a person’s perfection as a plenary condition, i.e. as fullness; it renders the person rightly, as the divine Creator intended. This understanding of fullness is elemental in Anselm’s greater vision of divine/human relations. He proposes maturity, wholeness, ripeness – not some extraordinary metaphysical sublimity. Anselmian fullness has no quantitative aspect, though; it is not a question of more or of less: this is amplitude.16 One is fully as-he-ought-to-be.


Anselm defines being-as-being-is-meant-to-be as truth; perfection is its consequence. By this link with truth (a divine attribute),17 Anselm reinforces human perfection’s tie to the Lord’s own intention. That enrolls perfection in providence without inhibiting its freedom (perfection is an end willed by both the soul and divinity). He also concludes from this that human excellence is not extraordinary: it is the creature’s ordinary and proper course. This is a point of special importance in Anselm’s teaching, in which sin rather than excellence is extraordinary, since it is sin that is inconsistent with the Creator’s design and purposes.

Yet effecting truth and attaining perfection, because these processes employ the will, demand constancy of application. They are not realized passively or by default. Even a glance away from God,18 Anselm holds, would sully truth and obstruct perfection. Thus continuity of effort is imperative. It is that unending effort that Anselm, like Benedict before him, labels “conversatio.”19 Its execution, too, is indebted to Benedict, following upon that saint’s vision of a virtue that is realized naturally and habitually, motivated always by a genuine love ofthelord.20 In Anselm, that quotidian character becomes a central provision: rectitude is to be diurnal and undeviating, qualities that are simply reasonable according to his standards. Why, after having recognized truth, he asks, would the soul choose to veer from it?21

Despite the strength and con dence of Anselm’s assurance, though, it is legitimate to ponder whether the ambition to achieve perfection is practicable, and whether it is, as Anselm proposes,22 possible to pursue it with constancy. His affirmation of the reality that resides in these prospects seems to him a necessary conclusion. After all, the lord would not set an impossible objective for His creatures; were He to do so, the person’s failure would be pre-ordained, and humanity would be consigned thereby to separation from God. that cannot be the course or- dained in providence, however, since it would stand counter to the schema of divine/human correspondence, viz. to humanity’s call to concordia. God, it must be noted, is truth,23 and the person’s truth is derived under His aegis.

Although divinity’s absolute truth is exclusive, Anselm’s lack of tolerance for accommodation, adaptation, or compromise magnifies the substance and degree of human excellence. Even though the person’s truth is not absolute, it should stand uncompromised. Indeed, Anselm can be especially dismissive when dealing with arguments that cite human weakness; he rejects minimalism, and requires what is best over mere adequacy. by his logic, perfection is inchoate in the human estate. were excellence impracticable, God’s charge24 would be disingenuous and spurious.25

Despite absolute perfection being reserved to God alone,26 there is a very real perfection that Anselm believes is possible for human beings and is ordained by the lord. It is a calling extended to each individual. The universal aspect in this personal character is its truth, its being-as-being-ought-to-be. Anselm sees this as a very exacting quality. Rather than quantifiable, relative,27 or imitative, perfection is participatory. As Anselm describes it, the person’s truth is greater (i.e., truer [viz., it is as- it-should-be]) the more fully his likeness (similitudo) unto God is as-it-ought-to-be.28 It is being, not merely act, that is affected by truth. A soul is perfect (1) by his participation in divinity,29 and (2) to the degree that he participates in divinity.30 Perfection engages and realizes powers that are inherent in that divine image that is imparted to each human being at creation.


So what is the perfection after which a person strives in response to the call of Scripture?31 Using Anselm’s definition, there is perfection – whether perfection of creature or creator – if one is as-he-is-meant-to-be. Rather than of measure, proportion, or even bounty, it is a matter of rightness.32

The key to grasping, applying, and realizing Anselm’s understanding of perfection resides in that pivotal employment he makes of “conversatio.” Perhaps this concept is proposed most resonantly in his Oratio ad sanctum Benedictum, where Anselm cites conversatio as the core characteristic of the Benedictine monastic vision.33 As he portrays it, conversatio is a matter of continuously turning to the Lord.34 Human perfection, Anselm believes, functions in the manner of a continuum. Thus he never speaks of a singular achievement of perfection, favoring instead a disciplined life that pursues the Lord without respite.

Of course, regrettable as it would be, it is possible that one might turn from God, but even such willed separation need not endure. By free will, Anselm suggests, such weaknesses can be corrected and transformed into a good.35 The person’s turn, after all, can be a 360° turn, rectified by continuing around, back to God, to that countenance that the person has longed – and been called – to seek.36 Anselm would perfect intention and application so that the person returns repeatedly and unfailingly to embrace and be embraced by divinity. For him, the similitude, rectitude, truth, and concordia neither precede nor follow conversatio; they attend it. Conversatio is practiced in perpetuum. Like every aspect of perfection, the application is unending. one must give himself to God and His ways without ceasing. That is how the person returns to the Lord (reditus) and how he is readied for eternal life in the divine bosom (viz., in concordia).

There are two additional factors37 that complement and assume prominence in Anselm’s characterization of perfection, of that perpetual application of oneself to being-as-she-ought-to-be. The first concerns motivation; the second is the realistic prospect of sinlessness. Both are essential to rightness (rectitudo) and thus to the person’s truth.

Motivation is a prominent and recurring theme in Anselm. Consistently, he requires the person to act out of zeal for God alone,38 for the Lord’s sake in se. For example, were one to resist some evil or even to effect a good because of the prospect of the advantage it might yield, that person’s effort would be disoriented, and thus imperfect. One’s motivation must be clearly focused and directed. According to Anselm, it should be aimed specifically and wholly unto God, for His sake.39 this ambition, he holds, is not exorbitant; indeed, the greater one’s adversities, the more such zeal ought to be in evidence.40 That zeal – another quality derived from Benedict41 – will support both continuity of effort and the person’s focus upon the divine content of the means and end. one can even convert dif culties to a good end in the process.42 Right intention is imperative, however, in such an effort. It must be applied without fail. Even thought must be turned to God, maintained with continuity, and articulated according to His goodness.43 Intention is, in Anselm’s vision, crucial to truth and to perfection. A right deed executed from a defective motive or by unworthy means would be impaired, and thus untrue and imperfect. Rightness must appertain on all levels.

With regard to sinlessness also, Anselm cites the need for unstinting allegiance to God’s standard. His unsympathetic response to human weakness is unyielding. Indeed, his concept is so steadfast in its expectation of perfection that it might be appraised as falling just short of at least an approximate Pelagianism.

This is how Anselm reasons the possibility of sinlessness. Temptations to sin can neither force nor interfere with freedom of will.44 Therefore, sin (separation from God)45 cannot be coerced. The person’s will, rightly applied, necessarily is mightier than temptations.46 So no one can be induced to turn unwillingly from God. Such infidelity, if it should occur, is derived of faulty will, of a peccable application of human initiative. Accordingly, remaining sinless is a realistic goal, indeed a necessary one if the person would lead the life of truth.

Real perfection, however, is not strictly a matter of will and act: it requires the right roots (i.e., motivation), and it ought to – and can – be practiced without interruption. That is how Anselm understands it. Humans tend to be much too eager to excuse themselves for their failures, forgetting that the all-good God does only good, including in the realm of creation. In consequence, any deviation from the Lord’s ways follows upon a poorly applied will, not upon the fact that “I am only human.” Anselm posits this analysis by a typically discursive seven-fold logical progression:

1. God calls the person to perfection.
2. Ideally, that person responds by intending, willing, and living truth.
3. There is nothing that could force the person to deviate from God’s path.
4. Affinement and application to the Lord and His purposes should and can be incessant.
5. Thereby, one can and should effect truth, i.e. being-as-one-ought-to-be,
6. And actualize the ordinary rectitude proper to the human estate. therefore,
7. By this ordinary way, willed by both God and the soul, perfection is assuredly practicable, a realistic and attainable goal.

This is, by Anselm’s depiction, the proper way of life, the vita veritatis.


There is, then, a clear protocol, albeit a highly theoretical one, for executing the life of truth according to Anselm’s vision. It employs the rectitude he perceives in truth, and thereby guides and effects both motivation and act. Yet, although ordinary, Anselm’s perfection –  truth – is required to mature and be nurtured into a full and complete realization. this unremitting choice of the godly way is built upon the Gospel standard that the lord is way, truth, and life, and thus the one sure route to the Father.47 Christ’s way is the path whereby one pursues concordia; divinity’s truth is re ected in the rightness of a Christian’s being and deportment, and the Lord’s life is applied, not in imitation but in conformity, by the person’s living according to Christ’s own ways and truth. Moral life, Anselm holds, is indeed a matter of truth, of being-as-being-is-meant-by-God-to-be. Thus, since all things are possible with God,48 and because the Lord intends this, the soul can embrace perfection, i.e. a life of truth.

The perfection that Anselm envisions in the realization of truth is ordered thus:

1. The practice of truth is initiated in the gift of self. This is, he says, a complete gift of self.49
2. The soul is given by conforming to the Lord (similitudo).50
3. However, human truth, unlike God’s truth, is not absolute. Instead, one is truer the more he is like or in conformity with God.51
4. In order for one to be true, or genuinely conformed to divinity,52 right motivation is required. A good, in order to be good, must be executed for the Lord’s sake, and not for the sake of any other thing.53
5. No force or temptation is more powerful than a rightly ordered and informed will.54 Therefore, perfection is practicable; after all, deviation from God’s way cannot be compelled; it is always volitional.
6. However, the will’s choice of the good or right option ought to be made incessantly (conversatio). Even a glance away from God55 inhibits similitude, compromises rectitude, and obstructs concordia.
7. This incessant choice of the godly way establishes rectitude and thus effects truth. Anselm uses this standard repeatedly: it explains integrity;56 it depicts uprightness,57 justice,58 and the whole scope of a person’s (virtuous) conduct. The life of truth, moral life, Anselm holds, is a matter of being-as-being-is-meant-by-God-to-be. This is vita veritatis, and if lived fully, it is realized as excellence, or perfection.

By this understanding, perfection is assayed according to incessant, right application rather than in ref- erence to some nal level of attainment. Perfection is a matter of being at every moment as the person is intended by God to be. Intention must be asserted repeatedly so that divinity informs character, not merely will.

This is not a mitigation of the exalted accomplishment ordinarily associated with perfection. Anselm’s standard for human perfection is neither relative nor lax. He simply places his emphasis elsewhere, namely, on being rather than deed (which is characteristically Anselmian), linking perfection inextricably with continuous appli- cation, viz. with conversatio. Perfection, like the truth that is its method and core, is lived rather than achieved. one must be as-being-is-meant-by-God-to-be. that status reflects divinity’s eternity (aeternitas); it suggests a constant and ever-present now.


Perfection is thus not depicted by Anselm as flawlessness. at would be an apt consequence of perfection, of course, but not a result that is substantial to the concept itself. By his emphasis on perfect being, Anselm colors perfection in a different hue. The distinction he draws is rooted in the Matthean conditional phrase whereby perfection is specified according to the manner of the Father’s perfection.

For Anselm, the Father’s perfection resides in His rightness of being, i.e. His truth, understood as His being-as-being-ought-to-be. Certainly, the divine will does not err,59 but the fact of His perfection is a matter of fullness, of completion. By Anselm’s understanding, this pertains to character. In human perfection, too, the will is not substantially at issue. In discussing perfection in terms of conversatio, Anselm stresses not the attainment of awlessness, but the conversion of character whereby all e ort is turned to and drawn from divinity. Accepting Benedict’s standard that in all things God can be glori ed,60 Anselm sees the soul’s rightness and completion in the perpetuity of that natural and habitual61 application. He would secure full and rectitudinous being, recognizing that act follows upon, rather than specifies, character.

Thus, as his model of the plenary soul and its imperative, Anselm cites (as does Benedict) the Deuteronomic injunction that a soul should love Divinity with fullness of heart, soul, might, and mind.62 By his understanding, this is a condition wrought by the ongoing application that is conversatio rather than by a single, resolute rectification, i.e. conversio. Anselm envisions a pervasive harmony in which focus is sustained and maintained by continual, alert attention and industry. He expects the person – even when he has fallen – to arise again and reinvest herself in Him completely and with zeal.63 That fiducial deposit in divinity, associated by Anselm with the Benedictine insight and provision,64 is for him a dimension of the practice of truth (being-as-being-ought-to-be).

In Proslogion’s first chapter, where his soul is so eloquently and passionately stirred by contemplation of divinity (even as it is tortured by the seeming distance between him and the Lord), Anselm begs God to enroll him in this movement toward truth. He prays:

Speak, my whole heart, speak to God and say,“I seek your countenance; my lord, I seek your face.” So deign to come, my God, and teach my heart where and how you are to be sought, where and how you would be found.65

By this standard, the Lord serves as both goal and means, the “where” and “how,” in effecting similitude and therefore truth and thus perfection. Anselm intends the person to be true. Effecting a complete and uncompromised alignment of character, the soul is transfigured and her concord with God becomes so profound that she is defined afresh in the context of divinity.

Perhaps Anselm’s aspiration to perfection ought more rightly to be accounted hope than prescience. Indeed, the Church acknowledges Anselm as doctor spei, the doctor of hope. By his standard, hope spurs the soul and keeps her focused upon the Lord whose prospect she would realize. Indeed, the source of Anselm’s confidence is the surety that God accepts truth as a good, as a goal, and as the means to the person’s enrollment in the embrace that is concordia and in the completion that is perfectionis.


Standard abbreviations are used for citations of Sacred Scripture.

CDH    Anselm, Cur Deus Homo*
D.Con  Anselm, De Concordia Praescientiae et Praedestinationis et Gratiae Dei cum Libero Arbitrio*
CDV     Anselm, De Concept Virginali*
D.Lib   Anselm, De Libertate Arbitrii*
DV       Anselm, De Veritate*
Ep       Anselm, epistles* [text is taken from Schmitt* and numbered for English readers in conformity with the Walter Frohlich edition: Anselm of Canterbury, The Letters of Anselm of Canterbury, Cistercian Studies Series nos. 96, 97, 142, trans. Walter Frohlich (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1990, 1993, 1994).]
Mono   Anselm, Monologion*
MRH   Anselm, Meditatio Redemptionis Humanae*
Orat     Anselm, Orationes* [with lines numbered in conformity with the English translation of Benedicta Ward: Anselm of Canterbury, The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the ‘Proslogion’, trans. Benedicta Ward (London: Penguin, 1973).]
Pros    Anselm, Proslogion*
RB       Regula Benedicti [with verses numbered according to the Timothy Fry edition: Benedict of Nursia, RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in Latin and English with Notes, ed. Timothy Fry (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1981).]
ST       Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

*For Anselmian texts, citations follow Schmitt:
S. Anselmi Opera Omnia, six volumes, ed. rS. Schmitt (Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1946-196 1) [on CD-Rom: Past Master’s Series (Charlottesville, VA: Philosophy Documentation Centre, 1992.)].



1 An earlier version of this essay was delivered at the symposium, “Saint Anselm, His Origins and Influence” at Saint Anselm College (Manchester, New Hampshire), 31 March – 1 April 2000.
2 Mono 68; Pros 25; MRH; Ep 211, et al.; plus admonitions in Orat, e.g. Oratio pro amicis.
3 Cf. e.g. Pros 1.
4 Cf. Mt 5:48.
5 DV 12; cf. also Ep 22.
6 Cf. Mt 5:48.
7 CDH I:20 et al.
8 Cf. e.g. Mono 68.
9 MRH.
10 Mono 68.
11 Cf. Deut 6:5; Mt 22:37; Mk 12:30; Lk 10:27; RB 4:1; MRH; CDH 1:20. 12 Mono 70, et al.
13 Gen 1:26-27,5:1,9:6.
14 DV 7.
15 Mono 31, 36.
16 The Lord’s love operates similarly. Regarding divine love, cf. Mono 50-57. 17 C£ DV 1; Mono 16.
18 CDH I:21.
19 RB 57:9; Orat: Oratio ad sanctum Benedictum, line 21.
20 RB 7:68-69.
21 Mono 70.
22 For a fuller statement of this point, cf. the present author’s essay “Anselm on the ‘Dark Night’ and Truth,” Cistercian Studies Quarterly (2000), 239-249. Some elements from that essay are employed in the present argument.
23 DV 1.
24 Mt 5:48.
25 Pros 1.
26 C£ Mono 1.
27 A person’s excellence is appraised according to its similitude with God’s excellence. Cf. Mono 31. 28 Mono 31, 36.
29 C£ Mono 3, 4, 6.
30 Mono 10,15.
31 C£ Mt 5:48.
32 Mono 10,15.
33 Orat: Oratio ad sanctum Benedictum, lines 20-21.
34 Cf. Ward’s translation of the Oratio ad sanctum Benedictum, line 21. The complete translation of this prayer appears on 196-200 of her edition. Ward’s rendering of conversatio as a “continual turning to God” is penetratingly and insightfully attuned to Anselm’s understanding.
35 Ep 312.
36 Cf. Pros 1.
37 The recurrence of these factors in Anselm’s thought is significant. When discussing culpability, he is far more attentive to intention and motivation than to results and consequences. By Anselm’s vision, this approach conforms to Benedict’s teaching (1) in crediting the Lord with the accomplishment of a good end (RB 4:42-43), and (2) in expecting divine labor to bring the person’s good intentions to fruition (RB prologue:4).
38 CDH 11: 1; Ep 186; et al. Cf. also RB 72:2-3. 39 Cf. also Mono 70.
40 Ep 199.
41 Cf. RB 72.
42 Ep 312.