Anselm of Canterbury
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Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), also known as Anselm of Aosta, Anselm of Bec, and Saint Anselm, was one of the most important thinkers of the early Middle Ages. He was thoroughly familiar with the Boethian logic of his time, and he contributed to some themes within the art of logic. His main contribution, however, was in the area of philosophical theology. Following the examples set by Augustine and Boethius, Anselm developed the idea of “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum), which aims at elucidating the content of the Christian faith through rational analysis and by providing rational arguments for the central Christian claims. Anselm’s method has been seen as paradigmatic for medieval theology, and he has been called the “Father of Scholasticism.” In addition to his methodological ideas, Anselm’s best-known contributions are the argument for God’s existence based on the notion “that than which a greater cannot be thought” in the treatise Proslogion, taken to be the earliest formulation of the ontological argument, and the satisfaction theory of atonement in the treatise Cur Deus homo. Other important themes in his philosophical theology include the concepts of will and free choice and the questions about the relation of free choice to sin, grace, predestination, and foreknowledge.
Anselm was born in the year 1033 to a family with a partly noble background in or near Aosta, a town situated in an Alpine valley in northwestern Italy, which at the time belonged to the kingdom of Burgundy. His father was Gundulf, his mother was Ermenberga, and he had one sister, Richeza. One of our main sources for Anselm’s life, Vita Anselmi by Eadmer (an English monk who was Anselm’s associate after 1093), discloses that the study of the liberal arts was Anselm’s chief occupation some time in his youth, but Eadmer fails to give any details of Anselm’s studies. He also tells us that Anselm later started giving himself to “youthful amusements,” which has led some commentators to infer, unnecessarily, that Anselm’s youth was a misspent one. At some point Anselm’s mother died, and after that Anselm’s relation to his father grew difficult. At the age of 23, after a clash with his father, Anselm decided to leave his home country, and he crossed the Alps. Of the following 3 years, Eadmer only says that Anselm spent them “partly in Burgundy, partly in France.”
The year 1059 is a turning point in Anselm’s life. At the age of 26, he arrived at the Benedictine monastery of Bec in Normandy. At Bec, there was a school run by the prior of the monastery, Lanfranc, who was of Italian origin and had made a career as a teacher of the liberal arts in his youth. Anselm became Lanfranc’s associate in the school at Bec, and a little later (1060) he decided to become a monk. In 1063, Lanfranc left Bec to become the abbot of a new monastery in Caen. Anselm was elected prior of Bec, and he served in this position for 15 years. In 1078, the founding abbot of the Bec monastery, Herluin, died. Anselm succeeded him and served as abbot for another 15 years, until 1093. Altogether, Anselm was “Anselm of Bec” for more than three decades.
In 1066, the Normans had conquered England. Lanfranc became the first Norman Archbishop of Canterbury. After Lanfranc’s death, in 1089, King William II held the seat of archbishop vacant for several years to be able to expropriate ecclesiastical revenue. In the end, Anselm was nominated as archbishop. Anselm’s tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury (1093–1109) was rife with heavy conflicts with the kings of England (William II and after him Henry I) about the relation of ecclesiastical and secular power (the investiture controversy). Because of the conflicts, Anselm was twice in exile: 1097–1100 and 1103–1106. During the first exile, Anselm went to meet the Pope in Rome and stayed in Italy for more than a year. Anselm died at Canterbury on April 21, 1109.
Many commentators have emphasized Lanfranc’s role in Anselm’s intellectual development, suggesting that Anselm had received little training before he came to the school at Bec (see esp. Southern 1963, 1990). This view is to be rejected. As previously mentioned, Anselm was engaged in studies in his youth, and it is probable that he received thorough training in the liberal arts and at least some training in theology already in Italy. Some features of Anselm’s philosophical and theological thinking are reminiscent of the Italian school discussions as attested by Anselm’s elder contemporary Peter Damian. As for the 3 years that Anselm spent in Burgundy and France, the most plausible scenario is that he was studying and teaching, as Lanfranc had done in the corresponding phase of his career. There are explicit references to contemporary academic discussions in Anselm’s writings, and they assume familiarity with a more developed scholarly environment than the one existing in Normandy. Anselm already was a competent scholar when he arrived at the little school at Bec. Lanfranc hardly had any notable role in Anselm’s intellectual education, but he perhaps influenced Anselm’s decision to pursue a monastic career.
In Southern’s construal (see Southern 1963, 1990), Lanfranc was an eminent dialectician who offered to Anselm a model of how dialectic can be applied to theology. Southern’s evidence for this claim cannot withstand scrutiny (see Holopainen 1996), but it is important to accentuate the role of dialectic in Anselm’s development. Dialectic was a central part of the academic culture at the closing period of the early Middle Ages. Some of the best minds of the eleventh century, from Gerbert to Peter Abelard, spent major parts of their lives studying dialectic. It appears that Anselm was familiar with the same set of sources that served as the starting point for Abelard’s philosophy: the Boethian corpus of early medieval “old logic.” It included Boethius’ translations of Aristotle’s Categoriae and De interpretatione as well as Porphyry’s Isagoge, commentaries on them (one on Categoriae, two on De interpretatione, two on Isagoge), a commentary on Cicero’s Topica, and textbooks on different areas of logic (categorical syllogistics, hypothetical syllogistics, topics, division). The Boethian corpus of dialectic was the most important part of the philosophical library at the time. It offered an array of tools, techniques, and principles that, apparently, could be used for discussing any topic from a rational point of view. Many of Anselm’s contemporaries saw dialectic as the representative of reason.
Another group of texts that highly influenced Anselm are the writings on philosophical theology by Augustine and Boethius. The only one of Augustine’s works that Anselm mentions by title is De trinitate, but he was familiar with a large number of his works. In particular, he had studied carefully some of the “philosophical dialogues” that Augustine had composed early in his career, including Soliloquia, De magistro, and De libero arbitrio. Boethius’ work on philosophical theology includes Philosophiae consolatio and the group of five short treatises known as Opuscula sacra. The works by Augustine and Boethius offered to Anselm a model of theology in which rational analysis is a central ingredient, and it was rational analysis based on dialectical insight. Like Boethius, Augustine was thoroughly familiar with the art of dialectic and frequently made use of it in the context of philosophical theology.
Anselm had first-hand experience of the ancient sources mentioned. He was also familiar with contemporary academic discussions about the same texts and the questions raised by them, but it is difficult to ascertain to what extent he is indebted to his contemporaries because the evidence for the school discussions is fragmentary. Above all, Anselm is an independent thinker who worked out his own unified approach within a broadly Augustinian framework.
The main part of Anselm’s production consists of 11 densely written works (volumes I and II of Opera omnia, ed. Schmitt). Of them, all except one deal with topics pertaining to philosophical theology; the one exception, De grammatico, pertains to dialectic. Philosophically relevant is also a group of fragments known as the Unfinished Work or Fragmenta philosophica. In addition, Anselm left a collection of 19 prayers and 3 meditations, as well as a large collection of letters. Finally, there are collections of material based on Anselm’s oral teaching (edited in the Memorials of St Anselm 1969).
Six of Anselm’s works derive from the period when he was first prior and then abbot of Bec. The first two, the Monologion (A Soliloquy, c. 1076) and the Proslogion (An Address, 1077/1078), form a pair. Their main theme is the doctrine of God, but other important topics are also involved. The four other works that Anselm wrote at Bec are often referred to as his “philosophical dialogues.” In the 1080s, he wrote a series of three connected dialogues: De veritate (On Truth), De libertate arbitrii (On Freedom of Choice), and De casu diaboli (On the Fall of the Devil). The fourth “philosophical dialogue,” the dialectical treatise De grammatico, derives roughly from the same period. In recent years, an early dating for De grammatico has been spreading: it is alleged that Anselm composed it c. 1060 when he was Lanfranc’s associate. The dating is based on Southern’s (1990) speculation about Lanfranc being an expert dialectician and Anselm not having any genuine interest in the study of dialectic. Neither of these claims is true.
Around the time he moved from Bec to Canterbury, Anselm was involved in polemics against the Trinitarian teaching of Roscelin of Compiègne. Anselm’s contribution is a treatise called Epistola de incarnatione verbi (Letter on the Incarnation of the Word). An early version of it was published when Anselm still was at Bec, in 1092; the final version was completed in 1094. In 1095, Anselm started working on a treatise in dialogue form that is commonly perceived as his theological main work, Cur Deus homo (Why God Became Man or Why a God-man). He finished it in 1098 in Italy during his first exile. Within the next years, he also composed the works De conceptu virginali et de originali peccato (On the Virgin Conception and Original Sin, 1099) and De processione spiritus sancti (On the Procession of the Holy Spirit, 1101). Anselm’s last work is De concordia praescientiae et praedestinationis et gratiae dei cum libero arbitrio (On the Harmony of the Foreknowledge, the Predestination and the Grace of God with Free Choice, 1107–1108), referred to in abbreviated form as De concordia.
Anselm’s works display a remarkable unity of thought. He had already consolidated the main features of his thinking before he published his first treatise at the mature age of 43.
Anselm’s only dialectical treatise, De grammatico, deals with the semantics of terms of a type called “denominatives” (sometimes also “paronyms”). In the Latin translation of Aristotle’s Categoriae, the term grammaticus served as an example of a denominative. As the term grammaticus can function both as a noun (“a grammarian”) and as an adjective (“grammatical”), the title of Anselm’s treatise cannot be translated directly. Anselm says of De grammatico that it is “not without use to those who need to be introduced to dialectic,” but the treatise is far from being an elementary textbook. A solid working knowledge of the different areas of Boethian logic is assumed throughout, and Anselm indicates at the end (De grammatico 21) that the treatise is related to contemporary academic debates. De grammatico is a contribution to the advanced study of dialectic, but the treatise has pedagogical objectives as well. Anselm takes pains to make the treatment as accessible as possible, and he purposely includes passages that serve to rehearse the techniques of logical concept analysis, sentence analysis, and argument analysis.
De grammatico reveals Anselm as a highly competent dialectician. Anselm makes constant but inconspicuous use of dialectical insights in other works as well, and his dialectically molded habits of thought give a philosophical tone to almost everything that he writes. One dialectical theme that particularly interests Anselm is modalities and the interpretation of modal expressions. He presents remarks about possibility, necessity, and so on, in many of his works. In this and other contexts, Anselm often points out that linguistic usage can be misleading and appeals to a distinction between “proper” and “improper” usage.
Faith Seeking Understanding
The works by Augustine and Boethius offered to Anselm a model of philosophical theology in which dialectically based rational analysis is a central ingredient. From the same sources, he inherited a firm confidence in the harmony of faith and reason. The Christian teaching and the human reason testify to the same truth. The truth that faith proclaims has an intelligible structure (ratio fidei, “reason of faith”), and believers can and ought to use their reason to explore and uncover that structure as far as possible. To express this idea, Anselm coined the dictum “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum – this was the original title of the treatise better known as the Proslogion).
Anselm was convinced that it is possible to reconstruct important parts of the Christian view of reality from a purely rational starting point. In his first treatise, the Monologion, he works to show how this can be done (see below). Anselm later states that he composed his first two treatises, the Monologion and Proslogion, to show that “what we hold by faith regarding the divine nature and its persons – excluding the topic of incarnation – can be proven by compelling reasons without the authority of Scripture” (De incarnatione verbi 6). However, Anselm did not allege that the whole content of faith could be established in this way. In his later treatises, he typically takes some of his assumptions or premises from authority. For example, in Cur Deus homo, he seeks to establish that it was necessary that God becomes man, given some general points about the background situation. Even so, rational analysis and rational arguments have a central role in all of Anselm’s works. He was dedicated to using reason under the guidance of faith: the content of faith provides fixed points that direct rational reflection. In the process, both reason and faith are transformed. On one hand, reason is led to scrutinize the validity of its own principles and at some points to qualify them. On the other hand, the items of faith that were formerly merely believed receive a rational grounding or at least become embedded in a network of rational connections that gives them intelligibility.
Anselm’s idea of faith seeking understanding is related to a Christian view of the human destiny. Man’s end is the vision of God in the life to come in heaven. In that vision, the chosen ones will see the truth (about all intellectual things) to the extent that God chooses to disclose it. Anselm characterizes understanding (intellectus) as “a middle-way between faith ( fides) and sight ( species)”; “the more anyone advances to understanding, the closer he comes to the actual seeing for which we all long” (Cur Deus homo, Commendatio operis). In this overall framework, there is no fear that rational insight might make faith redundant. It is for their faith and not for their insight that the believers will get their reward in the life to come. What is more, the relevant kind of faith is not a mere holding true (“dead faith”) but an active striving (“living faith”): loving God and striving toward Him and loving the good and just and striving to put it into practice (Monologion 78). Faith’s quest for understanding is part of that striving.
Anselm’s methodological ideas have been seen as paradigmatic for medieval academic theology, and he has been called the “Father of Scholasticism.” On the other hand, Anselm was more confident about what reason can establish than the majority of his scholastic successors.
The rational aspect of Anselm’s theology gets its most pronounced expression in his first treatise, the Monologion. Anselm there offers a bold attempt at reconstructing the basic tenets in the Christian idea of God, and of the creation in relation to God, on a purely rational basis. The Prologue and the first chapter contain explicit and emphatic remarks about the rational method to be used. Anselm’s intention is to proceed “by reason alone” (sola ratione) and “nothing at all in the meditation would be argued on Scriptural authority” (even though the content of it is consistent, Anselm contends, with the teaching of the authorities). Anselm claims that even a person who has not heard Christian preaching can infer many of the central tenets in it by reason alone if he is of at least average talent. He writes the treatise from the viewpoint of a person who investigates things that he does not yet know, disputing with himself in a silent “meditation.” The original title of the treatise was Exemplum meditandi de ratione fidei (An Example of Meditating about the Reason of Faith); the title Monologion was introduced some years later. As the treatise markedly differs from Anselm’s three meditations properly so called, one may ask whether the characterization of the treatise as a “meditation” is Anselm’s attempt to appoint a legitimate place for his boldly rational endeavor in the monastic context.
The Monologion includes 80 tightly argued chapters. Anselm builds his argument on notions that any rational person in his view ought to accept, on one hand, and on claims that he has already established in the course of the treatment, on the other. Chapters 1–4 offer a series of arguments for the existence of a Supreme Being. For example, Anselm argues in Ch. 1 that all the things that are good are good through one thing which is good through itself, and this one thing is supremely good and the supreme of all existing things. Contrary to what is often alleged, Anselm did not see Ch. 1–4 as Four Ways of proving God’s existence. Instead, they are an initial phase in an extensive argument for the Christian understanding of God. It is only in the last chapter, Ch. 80, that Anselm considers God’s existence as proven. Before he arrives at this conclusion, he establishes to his satisfaction that the Supreme Being whose existence is proved in Ch. 1–4 has created everything else from nothing (Ch. 5–14). Further, it is established that the Supreme Being has properties of the kind that the Christian reader will recognize as the properties of the Divine Essence (Ch. 15–28). What is more, it proves to be the case that there is a Trinitarian structure in the Supreme Being, consisting of a “Father,” a “Son,” and their “Spirit” (Ch. 29–63, 79). Toward the end of the treatise (Ch. 68–78), the treatment is focused on the relation between the Supreme Being and creatures of a rational nature, i.e., humans and angels. Among other things, it is established that the Supreme Being is the proper object of human love, hope, and faith and that the final destiny of a human being depends on his or her relation to the Supreme Being. At the end (Ch. 80), the Supreme Being is identified as God. Even here, Anselm does not give up the rational point of view. He does not appeal to the Christian teaching about God but instead makes a claim about what people who postulate god or gods mean by the word “god” and then argues that the Supreme Being is the only being that can adequately meet this description.
The Proslogion and Anselm’s Argument
In the Preface to the Proslogion, Anselm describes the treatise in relation to his first treatise, pointing out two important differences between them. First, there is a difference in the complexity of argumentation: the Monologion includes “a chain of many arguments,” whereas the Proslogion will introduce “a single argument” (unum argumentum). Second, Anselm points out a difference in the mode of presentation: the Monologion was composed from the point of view of a person who investigates things that he does not yet know, whereas the Proslogion is composed from the viewpoint of a person who strives to elevate his mind to the contemplation of God and seeks to understand what he believes. The original title of the treatise, Fides quaerens intellectum, ostensibly refers to the last-mentioned aspect of the perspective chosen. The title that Anselm invented some years later, Proslogion or Alloquium (An Address), is related to the circumstance that the person who speaks in the treatise addresses God and his own soul in turn.
In the Proslogion, Anselm discusses God’s existence (Ch. 2–4) and the properties of the Divine Essence (Ch. 5–23) within a devotional exercise. (Altogether there are 26 chapters.) Philosophical commentators have largely concentrated on the part on God’s existence (Ch. 2–4) and especially on Ch. 2. This chapter counts among the most famous pieces of philosophical text written in the Middle Ages: it includes the inference known as “Anselm’s ontological argument” or simply “Anselm’s argument.” It is taken to be the earliest formulation of the ontological argument for God’s existence.
Anselm’s argument is based on the characterization of God as “something than which a greater cannot be thought” (aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari possit). Anselm uses various slightly differing formulations of this expression; we shall abbreviate it X. Basically, the argument runs as follows. We believe that God is X. One can doubt whether there is any such being, because the Fool of the Psalms (Ps. 14: 1, 53: 1) denies God’s existence. But when the same Fool hears the expression X being used, he understands what he hears, and whatever is understood is in the understanding (in intellectu). Therefore, X exists at least in the understanding. However, it cannot be the case that X exists only in the understanding. For if it existed only in the understanding, it could be thought to exist also in reality (in re), which is greater. Therefore, if X existed only in the understanding, it would not be something than which a greater cannot be thought, that is, X would not be X. This is impossible. Therefore, X exists not only in the understanding but also in reality.
The name “ontological argument” goes back to Immanuel Kant. He was not familiar with Anselm and thought of some later thinkers instead. Some commentators insist that the name “ontological argument” should not be used of Anselm’s inference because it is different from, say, Descartes’ argument. This depends on what is taken to be essential to the ontological argument. Anselm’s inference is different from some later versions in that it does not appeal to the “concept” or “definition” or “essence” of God. However, it is an a priori argument that seeks to deduce the existence of a being starting from an expression signifying that kind of being, and it derives the force it has from the meaning of the expression that is used.
Soon after the publication of the Proslogion, someone, traditionally identified as the monk Gaunilo of Marmoutier, wrote a short text Pro insipiente (On Behalf of the Fool) criticizing Anselm’s argument. Anselm appended the critique and his rejoinder, often called Responsio (Reply), to the end of the Proslogion. The considerations that Anselm presents in the Responsio elucidate his argument in many ways. A well-known part of Gaunilo’s critique is the Lost Island counterexample: it is possible to use Anselm’s strategy to argue for the existence of an island that is in every way excellent. Anselm rejects the counterexample as inappropriate and lets us understand that his argument does not apply to anything other than X, but he fails to offer any extended analysis of the matter.
There has been extensive dispute about the correct interpretation of the argument in the Proslogion. The traditional reading maintains that Anselm meant to introduce a strictly rational proof for God’s existence. This view has been challenged by fideistic and mystical interpretations of the treatise (see Hick and McGill 1967). The proponents of these interpretations can appeal to the fact that the Proslogion is a devotional exercise in which a believer strives to elevate his mind to the contemplation of God in prayer. Related to this, Anselm introduces the idea that God is X as a thing that “we believe” (credimus). The fideistic interpretation claims that Anselm’s aim in the Proslogion was to show the internal consistency of the Christian view by deducing articles of faith from other articles of faith, and this is said to be what the dictum “faith seeking understanding” actually means (Barth 1960).
Any adequate interpretation of the Proslogion needs to take the devotional character of the treatise seriously. From this it follows, among other things, that the common supposition that Anselm wrote the Proslogion in view of the Fool needs to be forsaken as absurd. Nevertheless, the traditional idea about the rational nature of Anselm’s proof can be shown to be correct.
Anselm makes it clear in the Preface that the argument that he will introduce in the treatise, the “single argument,” serves to prove God’s existence and “whatever we believe about the Divine Essence.” It is the single argument, and not the inference in Proslogion 2, that really deserves to be called Anselm’s argument. There is no scholarly consensus about what exactly Anselm refers to by the phrase “single argument.” It is clear, though, that a strategy of deriving divine attributes from the notion X is centrally related to it. Namely, Anselm believes that God’s attributes are of a kind that makes their bearer greater or more excellent: the Divine Essence is good, eternal, just, and “whatever it is better to be than not to be” (see Monologion 15; Proslogion 5; Responsio 10). Because of this, X can be proved to have any of the divine attributes, for if it lacks any such attribute, then it will not be X. Further, Anselm asserts that the ability to make correct value judgments belongs to the essence of rationality (Monologion 68). Consequently, on Anselm’s assumptions, it should be possible to present, starting from the notion X, a strictly rational demonstration for the existence of a being that has all the attributes that the Divine Essence is believed to have.
Anselm does not explain why he chose to introduce the single argument by using it in a devotional exercise. One possible explanation is that his aim was to mold the attitudes of a conservative monastic audience toward the rational analysis of faith. In the Proslogion, Anselm does not yet say that understanding is “a middle-way between faith and sight” (cf. above), but the devotional exercise in the Proslogion in effect puts the search for rational arguments in this kind of framework (see Holopainen 2009).
Will, Choice, and Freedom
In many of his later works, Anselm deals with issues related to will, choice, and freedom. The discussions are intricate and aim at solving philosophical problems related to the Christian doctrine. In De libertate arbitrii, Anselm seeks to establish that human beings always have a freedom, namely, “freedom of choice,” which makes them accountable for their good and evil deeds, even though it is the case that a sinner cannot turn away from sin without the help of the divine grace. The main task in De casu diaboli is to explain the fall of the angel that was the first creature to sin and to explain it in such a way that God will not in the least be responsible for his fall. An analysis of the functioning of the will is a central ingredient in the explanation. In De concordia, Anselm works to show that free choice is compatible with divine foreknowledge, predestination, and grace.
Freedom of choice is a freedom that belongs to all beings that have will and reason: to human beings, to angels, and to God. Anselm defines freedom of choice as “the ability to keep the uprightness of will for the sake of uprightness itself.” The ground for this definition has been laid in De veritate, where justice (or righteousness) is defined as “uprightness of will kept for its own sake.” A will is just (or righteous) if it always wills what it ought to will and it wills it for the very reason that it ought to will it. Freedom of choice is, hence, the ability of rational creatures to keep justice, that is, to continue willing what they ought to will for the reason that it is what they ought to will. Anselm, thus, did not conceive freedom in terms of choosing between different alternatives. He explicitly rejects the suggestion that freedom of choice could be defined as “the ability to sin and not to sin,” and he claims that a being who is not able to sin is freer than a being who is able to sin.
Both human beings and angels always have freedom of choice. They always have the ability to keep the uprightness of will because nothing in the world, not even God, can prevent the will from willing what it ought to will; the will wills only what it wills to will. However, it is not always the case that rational creatures can use their freedom of choice. A will can keep uprightness only if it has uprightness, and this is not always factual. Nothing can take uprightness from a will, but the will itself can desert it by willing what it ought not, and any slightest breach will have this consequence. Once the uprightness is lost, the will needs the assistance of the divine grace to recover it (and the grace also constantly assists the will when it has uprightness).
Regarding divine foreknowledge, Anselm argues, following Augustine, that it actually guarantees human freedom: it is part of God’s foreknowledge that some of the things that he foreknows to occur will occur for the reason that human beings will freely choose them. Further, Anselm appeals to the nontemporal character of divine existence and claims, as Boethius had done in Philosophiae consolatio, that God’s knowledge is not really foreknowledge but knowledge of what is present.
Anselm’s best-known theological contribution is the satisfaction theory of atonement that he presents in Cur Deus homo. Anselm lays out a grand scheme of history directed toward the realization of a heavenly city in which a predetermined number of good angels and elect men will enjoy the presence of God. Sin threatened to destroy God’s plan. Adam and Eve fell into sin, and thereby the whole human race was tainted by sin. Even the smallest disobedience by a creature is an infinite offense against God. In order that reconciliation between men and God is possible, a compensation for the offense is needed. It should be an infinite compensation, and it should be offered by a representative of the human race. Anselm argues that such a compensation is possible only if the second person of the Trinity becomes incarnated as a God-man: by his death, the God-man can offer satisfaction on behalf of the human race.
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- Saint Anselm Journal (n.d.). https://www.anselm.edu/academics/faculty-academic-centers/institute-saint-anselm-studies/saint-anselm-journal. A refereed e-journal.