Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Finding the Individual

 …there are also common natures, such as human nature, which is present in each human being as his or her individual nature. Anselm holds that such common natures “become singular” when combined with a collection of distinctive properties (proprietates) that distinguish an individual from all others (Deincarnatione Verbi 11).

-          Peter King, in the Encyclopædia of Philosophy

In response to an earlier post, where I wrote: "It was Christianity that identified the individual, and this well before the Enlightenment or even the Renaissance," ATL asked: “Do you know any influential works around this time that might have led to this occurrence?”

The earliest of whom I am aware is Anselm of Canterbury: 

Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033/4–1109), also called Anselm of Aosta after his birthplace and Anselm of Bec after his monastery, was an Italian Benedictine monk, abbot, philosopher and theologian of the Catholic Church, who held the office of Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109.

Anselm has been called "the most luminous and penetrating intellect between St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas" and "the father of scholasticism"….

Anselm writes, in The Incarnation of the Word:

…someone who cannot understand a human being [homo] to be anything except an individual shall not at all understand a human being to be anything except a human person, for every individual man is a person.

But when we say, demonstratively, “this man” or “that man,” or use the proper name “Jesus,” we designate a person—who has not only a nature but also a collection of distinguishing proper-ties  by  which  the  common  human  nature  is  individuated  and marked  off  from  other  individuated  human  natures.

If I am recalling correctly, I believe I have read that Anselm somewhat discounted the idea of universals; however, this understanding might be a bit harsh:

While the extent of Anselm’s metaphysical realism is a matter of debate, remarks such as these make it clear that he countenanced some form of realism about universals.

Expanding on this, and again developing his concept of the individual:

In the case of substances, Anselm holds that common names designate common natures, while proper names designate individuals metaphysically composed of a nature combined with distinctive properties with further accidental qualities.


  1. Hm. In the past I have focused on what ideas are found in the Bible or what kind of behavior, life, or plan would the Biblical text motivate me to pursue.

    But it is also interesting, helpful, and confirming to find who and where these interpretations have been developed during church history. What you write about Anselm, makes me want to pay more attention to other things he said. Individualism is definitely an important topic to recognize but also fit into how to fit into the rest of human society.

    1. RMB, I agree. I have come to understand that there is much to learn from the Christian scholars over the last 2000 years. It is fair to say that the Bible can be sometimes difficult to interpret or understand, that some passages appear quite contradictory to others, and that the wisdom gathered from other sources could be helpful in giving context or interpretation.

      Of course, this would not include anything clearly contradictory to Biblical teaching.

      Sola Scriptura is one thing; interpretation and understanding is quite another. Understanding God is complicated business!


  2. Thank you!

    I remember St. Anselm for his attempt at an ontological proof of the existence of God, which I confess is pretty hard to follow and so I was not convinced, but that may have just been the result of my own inability to understand.

    I didn't realize how important he was. To put him as the most important theologian between Augustine and Aquinas is quite an honor. And the father of scholasticism? I wonder what his thoughts were on economics and politics?

    The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives a good breakdown of Anselm's 'proof of God' argument, and it has an interesting discussion of his views on freedom, sin, and redemption (section 4) that may be relevant to our discussions here.

    Here is a taste:

    "Since, as we have already seen, Anselm will define freedom as “the power to preserve rectitude of will for its own sake,” the arguments of On Truth imply that freedom is also the capacity for justice and the capacity for moral praiseworthiness. Now it is both necessary and sufficient for justice, and thus for praiseworthiness, that an agent wills what is right, knowing it to be right, because it is right. That an agent wills what is right because it is right entails that he is neither compelled nor bribed to perform the act. Freedom, then, must be neither more nor less than the power to perform acts of that sort."

    Neither compelled nor bribed eh? Sounds pretty good to me!

    "Rectitude of will" is further defined as "willing what one ought to will or (in other words) willing that for the sake of which one was given a will"

    Seems obvious and yet it is also profound. Also, according to Anselm, truth consists in rectitude (or righteousness).

    "Statements are true when they correspond to reality, but only because corresponding to reality is what statements are for. That is, statements (like anything else) are true when they do what they were designed to do; and what they were designed to do, as it happens, is to correspond to reality."

    This sounds a lot like Hoppe's argumentation ethics. For instance, the libertarian social norm (in the spirit of St. Anselm) is the only one that is true, because the rest do not abide the purpose of a norm, because rather than prescribing a system wherein conflicts can be avoided, they instead enshrine continuous conflict into the norm itself.

    1. "...freedom is also the capacity for justice and the capacity for moral praiseworthiness..."

      Not for license, it seems.

      "willing what one ought to will"

      Aquinas (I think) says something similar (and I am summarizing and paraphrasing), that we have free will in accord with our purpose, and through our purpose we can understanding what we ought to will.

      This is true freedom.

    2. ATL, I have been following a video series by Ryan Reeves. Here is a video of his on Anselm; he offers an explanation of Anselm's proof. It's only about 30 minutes: