Anselm and Aquinas: ‘On the Fall of the Devil’ Treatise


By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Anselm in his very brief treatise ‘On the Fall of the Devil’, which is only about 25–30 pages in an ordinary paperback book size, explores the nature of Satan’s motivation for rebelling against God’s providential order. The treatise unpacks the multiple dimensions of misery that befell Satan because of that rebellion.

An image of a woman's hands on a closed Bible holding a crucifix.
According to Anselm’s treatise, angels accepted God’s will, but Satan did not and instead sought something more. (Image: Studio KIWI/Shutterstock)

Reason Behind the Fall of the Devil

For Anselm, God created the whole universe and gave all the angels, all the creatures within it, goodwill, a will to participate in the universe. But, Anselm said, each of the angels must actualize, make, inhabit, and endorse that will on their own.

The mystery of the Devil for Anselm was that the Devil inexplicably chose not to accept that will but instead sought something more. The ‘moreness’ of this ‘more’ is a really interesting puzzle, and Anselm was quite psychologically acute about this.

In a sense, it can’t be specified because any particular specification would be obviously insane. The Devil only wants more, a generous but incompletely general and vague ambition.

The problem with a figure like the Devil was that the ambition that they have was so vague and so general in a way that it can never actually specify in any particular way about the world they live in. The Devil’s desire was endless and bottomless just because it was impossible, just because it could never be specified and thus could never be sated.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Analogy of Endless Desires with Lying

An analogy here is useful with lies: It’s easy to tell one lie, but the activity of lying is effectively bottomless because there’s no proper place to end lying. At any moment when someone is lying, it always can seem to make more sense to tell just one more little lie; but each small, minute lie makes the person and the situation that much worse.

Yet by the time someone gets into lying, they are so far into it that the psychological cost to them of owning up to their lies, each one of which is maybe the size of a small grain of sand, but the psychological cost is the cost of the whole pile of sand, the whole amount of lies, so it always feels easier to tell just one more lie. 

Learn more about the Reformation—the power of evil within.

Satan’s Problem According to Anselm

A statue representing Satan.
Satan was a miserable creature because of his endless desires. (Image: Vassil/Public domain)

It always seemed easier for Satan, according to Anselm, to effectively try again to imagine a world where the vague desire he wanted could be sated, even though the very fact of longing for this world was precisely what made Satan miserable.

The good angels accepted what they got, and they were happy about it. 

Satan actually made himself miserable precisely because of his ambition. All this is, it seems, a relatively dense but quite philosophically profound picture. It’s also, though, for Anselm, a very pithy argument.

Learn more about scholasticism and self-deception in evil.

Aquinas, The Enormous Western Intellect 

Thomas Aquinas lived about two centuries after Anselm, and he is probably the greatest intellectual that the West has known in between Augustine and a modern hero (for some people, Kant, or Hegel). 

Aquinas, though, was famous for being able to do the activity of scholastic intellectual juggling more effectively than anyone else. There are famous stories of Aquinas actually literally writing four or five books at once. 

Aquinas would sit in a room or stand in a room and he would have five or six scribes around him, and he would dictate a sentence to one scribe about one of the books he was writing, and then dictate the next sentence to another scribe for another book he was writing, and while those scribes were finishing their sentences he would go over here and dictate other parts of other books.

Learn more about Iblis, the failed, once-glorious being.

The Intellectual Juggling Activities Aquinas Undertook

The statue of Thomas Aquinas with hands cut off.
Aquinas was a skilled writer with a powerful mind. (Image: Ragemax/Shutterstock)

It is true that Aquinas was intellectually active because there are records, and there’s a really fascinating way to prove that. He was actually commenting on a series of Aristotle’s philosophical ethics texts at the same time that he was writing in his Summa Theologiae.

He was also writing a commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In other words, he was doing multiple books, and not like an hour on one book, an hour on the other book, an hour on the third book; he was literally writing them sentence by sentence simultaneously.

That kind of intellectual juggling required a certain kind of mind and a certain sort of skill that would be acquired by training that is pretty much lost to the world today.

Learn more about Rabbinic Judaism—the evil impulse.

Thoughts of Aquinas about Evil

For anyone following in a broadly Augustinian line on evil as Aquinas was, the difficulty is, as Anselm showed, how did he present the mindset of an evildoer? What does a wicked person’s mind report to itself that it is doing when it is doing evil? 

The nature of willing evil is the kind of absence of reasons in some important way, and yet the appearance of those reasons to the person who’s doing them. But this raises this real puzzle: what does evil feel like, or more accurately, what does it think like, from inside? 

This is a profound and interesting effort at empathy toward something that one really shouldn’t feel empathy toward, not because Augustine and those who followed him, like Aquinas, wanted to feel pity for wicked-doers, but rather because they wanted to get as clear as possible about the inner logic of evil’s rationales.

Common Questions about Anselm and Aquinas and the ‘On the Fall of the Devil’ Treatise

Q: What was the analogy of endless desire with lying?

In his treatise ‘On the Fall of the Devil‘, Anselm spoke about Satan and his endless desires. This endless desire can be quite analogous to lying. When people lie, they tend to tell one lie after another.

Q: What was Satan’s problem, according to Anselm?

According to the treatise ‘On the Fall of the Devil‘, Anselm described Satan as a miserable creature for his ambition of wanting more. Unlike the good angels, Satan didn’t accept what he got and that led him to misery.

Q: What was Thomas Aquinas’s unbelievable skill?

Aquinas was famous for being able to do the activity of scholastic intellectual juggling more effectively than anyone else. There are famous stories of Aquinas actually literally writing four or five books at once.

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