Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape by Richard V. Southern

St. Anselm: A Portrait in a LandscapeHere is a title to judge the book by: A Portrait in a Landscape. If that is not inviting, I hope I never have to send you an invitation.

Southern occupies my pantheon of great church historians. There are at the moment three: Christopher Dawson, Henry Chadwick and Richard Southern. There are other good historians, but these are those who I think are best prepared, most insightful and most reliable. The best historians have carefully digested all the primary sources and know what the secondary literature has done and is doing. For most people, that limits us to a very narrow focus. These three historians have a broader range of mastery than most, and Dawson is by far the greatest. Chadwick is king of the Early Church, and Richard Southern is king of the middle ages up through the 12th century. Anything that happened after that date is probably inconsequential.

Here are two things these three historians do for me, and Southern does in this book. The first is that they can plunge into the details of a remote situation, read between the lines, discern what is going on, and explain sympathetically what the situation is. It is the more remarkable in Southern because he does not seem himself to believe as Christians have. Dawson obviously does, and Chadwick maintains neutrality but is clearly positive. Southern is not, but knows how to understand what it meant to the object of his inquiry, in this case Anselm. Southern has written a whole careful, detailed, sympathetic biography of a man of whom he said, “The only important aim in his life was the discovery of God.” The second thing all three do, and that which raises them above the average good historian, is to be able to discern what is going on in general. The details can be confusing and chaotic. Discerning a general tendency, one that makes sense of the chaos of detail and besides describing, explains, is difficult. It is what requires mastery of what most of us are not qualified to master. It is what Dawson, Chadwick and Southern never fail to do. If the past is a vast, unlit cavern, and historians go into the past with a candle, reading in isolated lit places, then what these historians do is set up a series of candles by which the larger proportions of their cave can be discerned. They provide deft and reliable orientation. Southern does this for Anselm and his times: figures out the man, figures out the broader situation, demonstrates how his writing and responses come together in his character and outlook. It is the most humane thing possible, and it takes a great historian to achieve it at such a tremendous distance in time.

Here are two instances of this: “Among other themes, Anselm’s ideal and practice of friendship remains an important clue to the general character of his life and work. It needs to be understood as an expression of a religious ideal shared by all those who were his teachers, his pupils, and his actual or hoped-for companions in the monastic life.”

And, “The Cur Deus Homo was the product of a feudal and monastic world on the eve of a great transformation. With all its originality, and personal intensity of vision, it bears the marks of this rigorous—and if the word can be used without blame—repressive regime.”

Here is my second favorite greatest thing Southern says of Anselm: “But, even if he had not read the Timaeus, he had imbibed elements of Platonic thought from St Augustine. As we shall see in the dispute with Roscelin, he thought that any other kind of philosophy not only led to heresy, but was also indicative of hopeless intellectual blindness.”

This is one of the most characteristic statements about Anselm Southern makes: “The future lay with minds of a different type—minds which saw that government was a matter of administration, and not an attempt to reproduce on earth a pattern of things laid up in Heaven. Anselm aimed at the latter.”


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