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Oh Soul Most Dear to My Soul

Anselm, the eleventh-century discoverer of the ontological proof for the existence of God, archbishop of Canterbury, and authority on Trinitarian doctrines, is not much known for his views on friendship. Yet, especially in his letters, it was a subject of great concern to him. The ecstasy with which he speaks of and in friendship seems met only by that with which he proclaims his proof for the existence of God.

Take this letter to his friend, the monk Gundulf:

When I sit down to write to you, oh soul most dear to my soul, when I sit down to write to you, I am uncertain how best to begin what I have to say. Everything I feel about you is sweet and pleasant to my heart; whatever I desire for you is the best that my mind can conceive. … Why do you entreat me though your messengers, exhort me in your letters, and constrain me by your gifts, to remember you? “If I do not remember thee, if I prefer not Gundulf among my chief friends, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth” [paraphrase of Psalm 137:6]. (Quoted in R.W. Southern, Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape, 1990: p. 144)

And then this, from the Proslogion, in the chapter before presenting the ontological proof:

Be it mine to look up to thy light, even from afar, even from the depths. Teach me to seek thee, and reveal thyself to me, when I seek thee, for I cannot seek thee, except thou teach me, nor find thee, except thou reveal thyself. Let me seek thee in longing, let me long for thee in seeking; let me find thee in love, and love thee in finding. (Prosl., chapter I)

And finally, from the next chapter, the famous definition:

And indeed, we believe that thou art a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.

The letter above, one of Anselm’s earliest, was written some time before the terms of “nothing greater conceived” became the ground of his proof. The language, nevertheless, is so much the same. With the same regularity, whether speaking of friends or God, he quotes the Psalms, admonishes his unworthiness, and sings praises of the other.

R.W. Southern’s 1990 biography of the saint devotes an extended chapter to the idea of friendship that emerges in Anselm’s writing and the part it played in his life. He lived at a liminal time in the history of friendship, just before the troubadours’ vision of romantic love of women would take European culture by storm. In Anselm’s time, thinking about friendship still rested on the Classical ideal: a rational, while loving, relationship between men directed at a worldly purpose. Yet he broke these rules, nudging in the direction of the romantic ecstasy that was to follow.

For Anselm, friendship was an ecstatic, even salvific event. More than purposes of government or industry, it served above all the cause of eternal salvation. The ecstasy between friends was a place along the path to heaven. The colorful language he uses for and about friends—as well as theology—was considered extreme in his Benedictine monastic life, and as he took on more official responsibility, he was obliged to cool it a little.

The connection between friendship and philosophy that I have explored in other places (here and here, for instance) plays out explicitly in Anselm. At the start of two of his major works, the Monologion and Cur Deus Homo, he explains that the ideas contained therein came first in the course of conversation with brethren, who then asked that he put them into writing. The circle completes itself in the works themselves, where language blurs the line between human friendship and abstract philosophy.

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