Saint Anselm of Canterbury: Man of Faith Seeking Understanding Reply

April 21, Feast of Saint Anselm of Canterbury

St Anselm of Canterbury

I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.

With these words, St. Anselm concludes the opening prayer of his monumental (and contentious) Proslogion.

Anselm’s aim in this work is to prove God’s existence on the grounds of “Faith Seeking Understanding” (the original title of that work). Understandably, this type of argument seems to warrant the criticism it often receives for begging the question.

Yet does Anselm’s argument in Chapter 2 of the Proslogion assume what it aims to prove? Let’s take a closer look at the argument and see if it does:

Truly there is a God, although the fool has said in his heart, There is no God.

AND so, Lord, do you, who do give understanding to faith, give me, so far as you knowest it to be profitable, to understand that you are as we believe; and that you are that which we believe. And indeed, we believe that you are a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. Or is there no such nature, since the fool has said in his heart, there is no God? (Psalms xiv. 1). But, at any rate, this very fool, when he hears of this being of which I speak –a being than which nothing greater can be conceived –understands what be hears, and what he understands is in his understanding; although he does not understand it to exist.

For, it is one thing for an object to be in the understanding, and another to understand that the object exists. When a painter first conceives of what he will afterwards perform, he has it in his understanding, but be does not yet understand it to be, because he has not yet performed it. But after he has made the painting, be both has it in his understanding, and he understands that it exists, because he has made it.

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.

Before analyzing the argument presented in this text, we add a couple of contextual comments:

First, the argument begins with what many an atheist has taken as an insult: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘there is no God'”. I’d like to ask them to take it with a grain of salt. Anselm is quoting the Psalmist (Psalm 14:1; 53:1), traditionally considered to be King David. Anselm frequently quotes the Scriptures as a matter of course. That’s just the way he does things. That said, most of the atheists I know are very intelligent people.

Second, most people familiar with Anselm’s argument in the Proslogion are not familiar with his 3 other arguments in the Monologion. One often hears that Anselm think that the only way you can prove God’s existence is to begin with the concept of God in the mind and then make the jump to reality. Now there’s a straw man argument if I ever saw one — a fool’s argument at that.

The argument Anselm provides in Chapter 2 of the Proslogion is a reduction to the absurd. He begins by assuming that God does not exist in reality, follows this assumption with seemingly reasonable premises, and ends the argument with a blatant contradiction. The implication is that the premises are inconsistent an so at least one of the premises must be false, namely, the assumed premise that God does not exist in reality. Here is a summary of the proof one finds in the text provided above:

Let x = nominal definition of ‘God’: that than which nothing greater can be thought

  1. God is x [nominal definition of ‘God’]
  2. x exists in the mind (i.e., x can be thought) [self-evident]
  3. x does not exist in reality [assumption]
  4. If something exists in the mind and not in reality, then something greater than it can be thought (namely, something that exists in reality, or even the same thing thought to exist in reality) [based onthe meaning of “greater”]
  5. If x is in the mind and x is not in reality, then something greater than x can be thought [instantiation of 4]
  6. Something greater than x can be thought [2, 3, 5 by modus ponens]

Line six reads: Something greater than that than which nothing greater can be thought can be thought — a blatant contradiction.

Therefore, Anselm insists that the premise in line 3 must be rejected and declares, “Game over.”

Parallel text and analysis: Click to enlarge image

I’m not stating my opinion here as to whether or not this proof is formally valid or whether all the premises are sound. However, I did want to show why I don’t think it warrants the criticism it often receives.

It’s not the ontological argument of Descartes or Leibniz.

Looking for some really deep spiritual meditation material from Saint Anselm? Give this one a try:

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