Sunday, April 22, 2012

Absence of Chains or Rudder

Yesterday was the feast of St. Anselm of Canterbury, so here's a little something from him.

For injustice is not the kind of thing which infects and corrupts the soul in the way that poison infects and corrupts the body; nor does it do something in the way that happens when a wicked man does evil deeds. When a savage beast breaks its bonds and rages about wildly, and when a ship—if the helmsman leaves the rudder and delivers the vessel to the wind and the waves—strays and is driven into dangers of one kind or another, we say that the absence of chains or of a rudder causes these events. [We say this] not because their absence is something or does something but because if they had been present they would have caused the wild animal not to rage and the ship not to perish. By comparison, when an evil man rages and is driven into various dangers to his soul, viz., evil deeds, we declare that injustice causes these deeds. [We say this] not because injustice is a being or does something but because the will (to which all the voluntary movements of the entire man are submitted), lacking justice, driven on by various appetites, being inconstant, unrestrained, and uncontrolled, plunges itself and everything under its control into manifold evils—all of which justice, had it been present, would have prevented from happening.

[Anselm of Canterbury, De Conceptu Virginali (PDF), Chapter 5, Jasper Hopkins, tr.]


  1. Brigitte6:07 PM

    <span>This "little something" from St. Anselm you provide today, leaves me a bit baffled.  Is it just the poor writing?  Or could a good editor have made it easier for me to agree wholeheartedly with and understand his statement regarding injustice.  He seems to see a difference between injustice and the other absences within an individual's WILL:  constancy, restraint, self-control and even other appetites?</span><span></span>

  2. branemrys8:40 PM

    It's mostly because Anselm's Latin sentences are very, very long, with many folding phrases, and the translator is trying to stay as close as he can without making it wholly incomprehensible. St. Anselm also tends to be somewhat technical in his language.  'Baffling' is often a good description; his arguments are often brilliant, he's not usually quotable. If I had quoted the most famous passage in Anselm, it would have been this, which, as you can see, is the sort of thing that can be followed only if you are willing to get a considerable workout:

    Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.
    Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.

    The basic argument in the passage in the post is that when we say injustice causes someone to do something, we are actually just saying that they are acting without restraint; injustice is not really a cause because it is a lack of something that should be there. This implies (1) that the human will is just  or good on its own; and (2) that injustice is a corruption, not in the sense that something has been added to the will, but in the sense that the will has lost its ability to direct itself (like a ship without a rudder) and stick to the good. Injustice, in other words, is not a being (something God could have created), but a deprivation of something that keeps things in order. I think Anselm would deny that constancy, restraint, and self-control are absences; he seems them as cases in which we are actively choosing the good, whereas in injustice we are letting going of this ability and letting ourselves be ruled by our passions.

    Everything else is just Anselm being precise -- which, unlike clear writing, is St. Anselm's special strength.

  3. Brigitte2:00 PM

    Thank you for the explanation.  It helps me, it's much clearer than the original.  I too think of injustice more as a corruption of the will than something added to it. 

  4. branemrys11:17 PM

    You're welcome!


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