Mar 24, 2012

Anselm, Justice, and Virtue

Yesterday, I gave a guest lecture on St. Anselm's moral theory in a colleague's Medieval Philosophy class, introducing his students to some Anselmian themes beyond the "ontological argument" they recalled from their earlier Intro to Philosophy classes.  Central among those was Anselm's understanding of justice -- or the variety of goodness distinctive to humans and other rational beings -- as rectitude or uprightness of will.

What is particularly interesting about Anselm's examination of this idea -- which he plays with throughout his works, progressively developing a more and more complex picture of moral goodness and evil -- is that early on he articulates this standard of rectitude not simply in terms of the will conforming to some standards, ideals, or rules, but in a more reflexive manner.  Justice is rectitude of will kept for its own sake (rectitudo voluntatis propter se servata).

What Is Rectitude of Will?

Given that Anselm tells his students -- and through his preserved texts, us -- that it is not simply a matter of choosing the right thing, but of doing so for the right reasons, adopting the right motive, willing along the right lines of intention, one might imagine him a Kantian born centuries too early.  Reinforcing this suspicion is the fact that over and over he stresses that the right motive is not material gain, or vainglory, not even natural inclination, but preserving a state of justice, maintaining a condition of moral rectitude, within one's will, one's soul.  Kant would call that willing one's duty for the sake of duty, would he not?  A contentless, universal, categorical volition bearing solely on the very form of willing, unconditioned by any particular and thus merely hypothetical motives of real persons, any desires or inclinations of their own.

That's not actually how Anselm regards willing-justice.  It's true that in some cases and places, he contrasts willing justice -- as willing to keep that very justice in the will -- against all sorts of other determinate, and indeed typical motives: monetary gain, natural inclination, avoidance of a threat or punishment, vainglory, even being like God.  But, in many ways, both in particular cases and in general, Anselm does specify what justice is, requires, or consists in.  I'll not attempt anything here like a comprehensive listing, or even an overview of these numerous but not systematically arranged passages from the great Benedictine Doctor's work -- that's really enough to fill an entire chapter in a book I'm currently writing on Anselm's moral theory.

Instead, let me just point out a few points of reference that might help a reader at least a bit versed in the major moral theories prevalent in Ethics courses and literature today to see where Anselm fits in.  One might locate him within Divine Command theory traditions of Ethics, particularly given his clarifications about justice or rightness of will, like: "Every rational will of the creature should be subject to the will of God;" "rectitude of will is present in someone when that person wills what God wills them to will, "keeping rectitude of will for the sake of that very rectitude is, for each person, to will what God wills that person to will."

What Are We Supposed To Will?

One of the questions that naturally arises out of these reflections is: What does God will, though?  What would God want for a human being to will?  For Anselm, this will be what is morally good or right, and this does not consist in just one single, simple thing, but will involve a number of different goods being harmonized and placed in a right ordering -- when they can be (since there are in fact many situations where we have to choose between goods, to prioritize, to order, to sacrifice, to resist temptations. 

In some cases, Anselm thinks, what God wills for us is revealed through the Scriptures, through interpretation of them.  Examples also play an important part, for instance, that  provided by Christ, in willingly fulfilling justice even at the cost of his own life and suffering.  We can look to duties and obligations stemming from our roles and relationships.  And, we can reason -- in fact, we are called to reason, to develop and make full use of the faculty given to us as the distinctive dimension of our nature, rendering our wills radically free, enabling us to perceive and understand justice, moral goodness.

Anselm references, praises, examines and clarifies, counsels development of, even laments his own lack of the moral virtues, and each of these, as I've discussed elsewhere (here and here) represent particular configurations of the will, specific shapes which justice comes to assume within the rational, distinctively human will.  As Anselm makes clear in his later works, one key aspect of the will is that it is not only the faculty or instrument by which we choose, we will, we commit ourselves -- nor is will simply the concrete uses which we make of that instrument -- equally integral to the will are what he calls its affectiones, its "inclinations," "dispositions," "affections" -- structures of valuing, desire, habit, action.

The Two Wills In Anselm's Theory

Anselm distinguishes between two overarching affectiones of the will, which he calls the will--to-happiness and the will-to-justice.  To give an all too truncated thumbnail sketch, the will-to-happiness is the complex of our general and specific desires for those goods which we deem to be beneficial in one manner or another.  We desire them, our will and thereby our being is moved towards them -- not only in determinate moments, but generally, habitually, attitudinally -- we think and feel  and act about them, and sometime even have to choose between or order this variety of goods comprising the ultimate, but all too often unattained goal of happiness. 

The will-to-justice represents and embodies recognition of a higher, more encompassing, value -- justice or moral rightness -- not simply as the choice for justice in particular circumstances, but more generally, a thread running throughout a person's life, their narrative of decisions, commitments, moral failures and successes.

As Anselm tells us, the will-to-happiness, though it can take on and be modified into myriad different formations, always remains within the sentient being -- including the rational human being.  It is part of our nature -- part of our awareness, our activity, our way of existing.  The will-to-justice, however, can be increased or diminished, even lost, in some cases irreparably -- this is precisely why, for the human being as Anselm conceives of him or her, it is so vital to preserve justice in the soul when it is, while it remains,  possessed -- and why it is so imperative to build upon the insecure and unstable beginnings of justice we are fortunate enough to start with.

The will-to-justice possesses a sort of self-referentiality -- glimpsed earlier in the definition of justice -- lacking to the will-to-happiness.  The will-to-happiness wills those things that the being thinks (whether rightly or wrongly) will provide it some measure of happiness, or at least conduce to other things that will be means to other means to the end of happiness.  That will is, as Anselm says, not those things that it wills. 

Not so for the will-to-justice, however, which is in fact the very justice that it wills, not perhaps coinciding in perfect identity -- when I will to continue the struggle against the temptations imposed by other goods to keep reading justice's demands and commands by the flickering uncertain light cast by the small portion of justice I myself possess in my own will and soul, when that is so commonly the case, the justice which I will, with which I voluntarily align myself and my volition, is greater than but encompasses the fragment of justice I can claim as my own.

What Does The Will To Justice Do?

Anselm writes of the will-to-justice tempering or ordering the will to-happiness, and it is best not to think of these as necessarily radically opposed to each other, but as any such opposition being itself a sign of things being very wrong within a person, his or her will and soul, the fabric of one's character and personality, and likely his or her understanding and relationships as well.  There will be indeed many moments, even long periods where, in order to consistently will justice, one has to rein in, check, perhaps even deplore and expunge some portions of one's own relatively misformed will-to-happiness.

In Virtue Ethics terms, this signifies the processes of choosing and acting so as to gradually extricate oneself -- one's very self, the part of one's being which is most determinative, the will -- from the grip of vices, to progress through inconstancy towards the self-control that recognizes what is good and right and chooses it though still desiring otherwise -- this itself a moral achievement all too often downplayed, to recognition and deliberate cultivation -- and eventually secure enjoyment -- of the virtues. In more Anselmian terms, this process consists in the consolidation of the will-to-justice in the soul, a partial fusing of its supervenience and reshaping as it penetrates the will-to-happiness, reforming it to how it ought to be, how it is best for it to be.

Key to this -- and here I'll end -- is developing an understanding, a practical, affective understanding, of the relative values of the variety of goods and how they measure up, how they fit into a proper ordering.  To will justice is, in effect, to choose to actually make justice count in one's deliberations and the flow of one's desires -- not to eliminate all else that makes us human, but to forbid justice's easily drowned out voice to be overcome by siren cries of genuine goods all too easily desired and then chosen inordinately. 

Making the sort of habitual practice of this required is precisely to keep justice in the will -- and like other dynamic goods, it does not just sit inertly like a dead treasure there, but instead actively grows, adding affection and appreciation for justice which only practical experience with that good and its own difficult demands can provide.


  1. Great thoughts. Thank you. Anselm's formulation of justice... I needed this today.

  2. You're quite welcome. Glad it could be of some use. If it's Anselm you like, you can find more posts on him at my other, older blog, Orexis Dianoētikē

    If it's not too personal, I'm interested to know how Anselm's formulation of what justice is was helpful for you.

    1. I do like Anselm; our relationship is just beginning, though. I would certainly share that with you, but maybe on a less public forum. Should I e-mail you at the provided address: I'm bookmarking the other blog.