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.

The Great Burden of Sin

The eleventh-century Archbishop of Canturbury, Anselm, wrote on “the great burden of sin”:

If you should find yourself in the sight of God, and one said to you: “Look thither;” and God, on the other hand, should say: “It is not my will that you should look;” ask your own heart what there is in all existing things which would make it right for you to give that look contrary to the will of God. (Cur Deus Homo XXI)

That is: If you could, would you be able to stand not glancing at the face of God? (Notwithstanding Exodus 33:20—”Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.”) The answer was particularly clear with Anselm, who wrestled his whole life with the effort to comprehend God intellectually, and in the process gave philosophy its most enigmatic proof for God’s existence. But if you don’t see what’s so utterly impossible to resist about seeing God, pick your poison. A beautiful woman or man? Naked? A taste? A loved one who has died? We all seem to have our gods in one place or another, and we all have our temptations.

To me, this is a biological point. Theologians have long looked to biology for evidences of the Fall; all that pooping, copulating, sweating, gobbling, sleeping, aging, and dying that people do hardly seems like the work of an infinitely intelligent designer. Since we are so eager to think of ourselves as better than our bodies really let us be, something must have happened along the way. And since God is good, it must have been our fault.

Daniel DennettLet’s probe the biology a little further. In his Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett seems to reframe the whole problem, drawing on contemporary neuroscience and philosophy of mind, as well as some basic Freud. Rather than following Anselm’s assumption that the conscious will is a cohesive, unitary agent, Dennett believes it is just one among many systems simultaneously at work in the mind. The limit of the will’s control is not a theological consequence of the nature of will itself—or, more theologically, the soul—but a fact of how the mind operates in general. (In fact, such a scheme might invoke Augustine’s sensation in Confessions of being divided against himself.)

Evidence for this is constantly accessible to us. Things in the visual field are constantly being processed without being noticed. Consider, for instance, how your head turns toward someone looking at you (God?) before you realize what it is doing. These mechanisms, as Dennett assumes, come to us through a long line of evolutionary histories.

However we explain it, at some level of analysis, the condition is the same. I cannot resist looking at God. The illusion of control is shown for what it had always been. (Though philosophers have lately asked, if consciousness is an illusion, who is it that is being deluded?) In both cases, I have lost possession of what I call myself. The scientific idea, like the theological one, is deeply humbling. I am not my own. Whatever that means, it is just as true as ever.

When we figure out how to replace religious ideas with scientific ones, the first impulse is often to be thrilled at our power of reasoning and cleverness. With this science-y replacement, it appears, the concept of sin can be gone, along with its weight. Dennett certainly thinks this way, as we learn well enough in his New Atheist treatise, Breaking the Spell. And to a certain degree, it is right. The scientific explanation does capture things that the theological ones doesn’t. But, in its way, the weight of sin remains.

Climbing the New York Times Building (as metaphor)

Ray Clark climbing the New York Times BuildingI have never felt more in an office.

Today two men climbed the outside of my office building, the fifty-something story New York Times Building in midtown Manhattan (one and two). Meanwhile I was in meetings or sitting at my computer. Metaphors begin in things that are real. I can still hear the sirens outside and the cheering of the crowd below.

Both guys made it all the way up the fifty-something stories and were arrested at the top. The first carried a banner about global warning. The second wore a t-shirt saying, “MALARIA NO MORE.” Indeed.

I have never seen the point so much of climbing mountains—deep down, at least. But I have hardly seen anything so beautiful as climbing buildings.

View to the onlookers below from the 22nd floorHaving been at computers and meetings all day, with none of the incredible fear or exhilaration, metaphor remains. It is Babel, it is Icarus, it is a glorious mis-use. Imagination, salvation, persecution. I heard there were police officers running through the building, trying to pull off the glass to stop him (the first one) but he went up more quickly than they could ride the elevators.

Man against machine. Suicide. David and Goliath.

And there were two of them. Copycats. It’s like the pillar-sitters of late antiquity, who were saints, sitting on top of pillars for years and bestowing miracles. When the fad showed up again in the 1920s, the flagpole sitters were less saints than fools.

The wind was no less strong. Death to malaria.

Hello World!

The Row Boat has been redesigned! Though only powers above mine can know if it was really necessary, I’ve spent the last two days obsessing over migrating from Little Logger to WordPress. All the old Row Boat material is still available on the Archives page, as well as through the search field on the sidebar.

Until now, The Row Boat was one of the few blogs out there not running on one of the major software platforms. Little Logger is a blogging program I built in early 2005, using Perl, static files, and a lot of workarounds. It has served very well since then. But in recent months, it has become clear to me that a change needed to happen. In particular, working with WordPress at The Immanent Frame has shown me what a powerful platform it can be.

The conversion process has reminded me why I stopped being a computer science major in college and switched to religion. I have been quite unable to think about anything else ever since I’ve started, and now I am worried about whether I will fall asleep tonight. This was a regular phenomenon in my computer science days—thrilling, but also perfectly exhausting. It makes me long to be thinking speculatively again, which hopefully can begin again tomorrow. The topic, presently, is Anselm.

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