Welcome to Philosopher Fridays, where I aim to expose the academic underpinnings of my thoughts on story-telling and writing. In this series I make no attempt to give a comprehensive view of any of the philosophers I tackle, but instead pick out and explain what draws me back to their works again and again.
For the next few weeks I’ll be exploring the tenuous relationship between faith and reason in a sub-series I’m calling “Expecting Ambiguity“. My aim is to explain how philosophical arguments for the existence of God are not as concretely determinate (and thus as easy to dismiss) as they are often cast, but that they instead offer as much insight into the limits and powers of subjective human knowledge as they do into religion.
And because of finals and grading, this week we have a very special Saturday installment of Philosopher Fridays.
ANSELM: Saint Anselm of Canterbury was one of the earliest scholastic theologians. Born to a noble family in 1033, Anselm was initially denied the chance to choice a monastery by his father at the age of 15. After suffering psychological illness and the death of his mother, he left home at the age of 23 to pursue his dream without his father’s consent, and joined the Benedictine order. He was exiled from England a few times because of monarchical and papal power disputes and died in 1109.
What he is best known for, however, is his proof for the existence of God: the Ontological Argument of chapters two and three of the Proslogion. Written in 1077 as a meditation on the existence of God, the Proslogion – originally titled Faith Seeking Understanding – was contentious from the start. The text is almost universally published with its earliest critical commentary, written by monk Gaunilo of Marmoutiers and followed up by Anselm’s own reply to this rebuttal. I will go through the proof, and then address some of its criticisms.
The Ontological Proof:
- If the phrase “that than which nothing greater can be thought” can be understood, then this concept can be said to exist in the understanding.
- That which exists both in reality and in the understanding is greater than that which exists only in the understanding.
- Thus that than which nothing greater can be thought cannot exist solely in the understanding, because if it were only to exist in the understanding, then we could think of something greater – and we would no longer be describing something than which nothing greater could be thought.
- Therefore, that than which nothing greater can be thought must exist in both the understanding and in reality.
- Further, if it is possible to think that something can exist which cannot be thought not to exist, then surely that which cannot be thought not to exist is greater still than anything which can be thought not to exist.
- Therefore, that than which nothing greater can be thought doesn’t just exist in both the understanding and in reality – it cannot be thought not to exist.
And he finishes the argument by saying “And this is you, O Lord, our God” (Ch 3).
Interpretations, Reductions, and Critiques:
This can be a little confusing linguistically, so interpreters are tempted to simplify the ungainly “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” to “the greatest thing I can think of” or “the greatest being that can be conceived”. The argument is recast thus:
- God is the greatest thing that can be thought.
- Since it is greater to exist in reality than just in thought, the greatest thing must exist in reality.
- Therefore, God must exist.
With this change, critiques come quickly and easily. Guanilo’s “perfect island” objection (the early commentary mentioned above) stems from this notion, stating that in imagining a perfect island, you could easily keeping imagining something to make it better without that better thing ever coming to be in reality, thereby nullifying the necessity of static perfection. If one God is the greatest being that can be conceived, then two Gods would be even greater, and then God would not be the greatest possible being, and the entire thing would fall apart. Perfection in God cannot imply existence any more than perfection in an island.
But this simplification is a mistake that fundamentally changes the meaning from something indefinite to something definite. These objections aren’t wrong in themselves. In fact, based on his reply to Guanilo, Anselm quite agrees. However he also notes that these objections have almost nothing to do with his own proof. Because Anselm never defines God as the “greatest being that can be conceived.”
Infinite Perfection and Positive Ambiguity:
In the Latin, the definition of God is always framed in open-ended terms, as aliquid quo maius nihil cogitate potest (that than which nothing greater can be thought), aliquid quo maius cogitari non valet (that than which something of greater worth cannot be conceived), or aliquid quo maius cogitari non potest (that than which something greater cannot be thought). He later asks “What are you, if not the greatest of all beings…?” (ch 5), but he never settles on anything concrete.
This is explicitly not something definite or static, but rather something unlimited and indefinite. To change the definition in this way is more than just reductive – it completely erases the major theological heart of the Proslogion. The real goal of the text, as I see it, is not to prove the existence of a specified and delimited God, but instead to wonder at the notion of God as something which exceeds human understanding. He’s meditating explicitly on our temptation to simplify God and reality into concrete terms and seeking the limits of human understanding. The chapters that follow this proof are primarily questions about what appear to be contradictions, questions about what it means to seek something with no apparent limit, and finally statements about eternity, timelessness, and limitlessness.
This does not simply resolve into a negative theology. God is not “that which we cannot understand”, but instead gives rise to a positive ambiguity that allows us to experience a goodness that can increase indefinitely. Our own limits are removed – however great our creative and intellectual powers, there is no ceiling, no static standard of perfection that cannot be breached. By asserting a God that is not “the greatest being that can be thought” but instead “that than which nothing greater can be thought” Anselm is asserting that our own human limits need not be stifling – essentially, no matter how small we are, God’s infinite greatness is our infinite growth. Says he at the beginning of the final chapter of the Proslogion:
For I have found a joy that is full and more than full. Indeed, when the heart, the mind, the soul, and the whole human being are filled with that joy, there will still remain joy beyond measure. The whole of that joy will therefore not enter into those who rejoice; instead, those who rejoice will enter wholly into that joy. Ch. 26
This isn’t merely a defense of faith, it’s a celebration of human creativity. Anselm recasts our infinite distance from God in a positive light; rather than lamenting how far we are from perfection and bemoaning the ambiguity of faith, he instead rejoices over how far and how freely we can travel when we leave behind our own limits. If we focus solely on what we can contain (concrete, definite ideas) we will deny ourselves the chance to jump into something than can contain us – something in which there is infinite possibility.
There are, of course, some more substantial critiques of an epistemological nature. Kant’s critique of Anselm’s assumption that existence can be cast as a predicate and Hume’s critique of a priori knowledge are both worth some time and exploration. The implications of these critiques far outreach the scope of this post, however, and I’ll save them for another day.
What Anselm calls the divine, others may call wonder or doubt, but the claim is the same: that we can always know more than we can rationally explain, we can always feel more than we can put into words, we can always discover more than our dominant paradigm can account for. The God that Anselm proves is not something concretely determinate, but instead something which renders knowledge, creativity, and growth without limit.