Anselm, an Italian who became the Archbishop of Canterbuy from 1093 to 1109, was a monk who bequeathed to philosophy what came to be described as the “ontological argument” for God’s existence. Anselm’s proof is a kind of intellectual acrobatics that makes you want to keep stopping it to rewind and see the mental slight of hand you must be missing. You’re not convinced, but you’re not sure why you’re not convined. Bertrand Russell, who wasn’t given to sympathy for theistic proofs, said it was easy to be persuaded Anselm’s argument didn’t work but much harder to say just what was wrong with it. Whatever you might think after walking away from Anselm’s proof, there’s something generative about an exercise that philosophers have been talking about for almost a thousand years.
I want to spend two newsletters considering Anselm’s proof. This week we’ll focus on understanding the argument itself, articulated in the Proslogion. If you haven’t read this argument before, it might be worth taking the time to read Anselm’s preface and first four (brief) chapters.
In the next newsletter, we’ll return to this by considering O.K. Bouwsma’s provocative and singular critique of Anselm’s argument.
Anselm’s “argument,” we must note, is embedded in the Proslogion (published in 1078) which, far from being an abstract apologetic tract, is more like an intellectual spiritual exercise. It is not the work of a skeptic who is trying to discern whether or not he should believe; nor is it a “defense” offered by a believer trying to convince an atheist s/he ought to believe. Instead, as Anselm clearly emphasizes, this is the intellectual itinerary of someone who already believe and is trying to understand the implications of that belief—it is the work of someone “seeking to understand what he believes.” It is a classic expression of “faith seeking understanding,” a phrase we inherit often Anselm: “I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand” (echoing Augustine). This is the itinerary of someone looking to change the way they believe–from something trusted on the basis of authority to a conviction rooted in the pursuit of intellectual coherence.
This context and strategy is important to note, otherwise Anselm’s project doesn’t make sense—we will either overestimate his goals (as if he were trying to offer a “proof” that demonstrates God’s existence to others) or underestimate the extent to which the assumptions behind his project are themselves informed by faith (“We believe you are…” begins the major premise). This is not an apologetic strategy to take up with Richard Dawkins, for example; consider its opening invitation: “Abandon yourself for a little to God and rest for a little in Him” (§1).
That said, given that this is an intellectual exercise for believers, there also seems to be a glaring absence in the opening paragraph: Christ. Anselm, for some reason, restricts himself to theistic (deistic?) musings. He is looking, seeking, and not finding. He even laments the Fall that darkened his heart and mind and understanding. He appeals to the mercy of God. But all of these are things he knows on the basis of revelation (i.e., the Bible). So if the project includes the illumination of revelation, then how is Jesus excluded? Why go through the intellectual acrobatics of trying to arrive at the existence of God if God has come to us in the Incarnation? Anselm laments, “never have I seen You.” But didn’t Jesus say, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9)? It might be worth asking why Anselm undertakes this intellectual pilgrimage apart from Christ. Is it because he thinks it is “philosophical,” and that philosophy must be agnostic about Jesus, about revelation? And if so, whence such an assumption? We’ll return to such questions next time with Bouwsma. The Argument
The first trick is to simply understand this argument. I’ll try to formulate in something of a syllogism, but I’m not always sure this syllogistic translation properly captures the way this argument operates.
Note once again that the first premise—the starting point of the argument—is actually supplied by faith: “Lord, You who give understanding to faith, grant me that I may understand, as much as You see fit, that You exist as we believe” (§2). So the fundamental conception of God from which the “proof” is derived is provided by belief.
Second, note that “the Fool” invoked here is the fool of Psalm 14: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’“
The argument then proceeds something like this:
P1 You, God, are something than which nothing greater can be thought (“conceived”).
P2 Even the Fool who thinks (then denies) such a something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought understands the concept.
P3 Whatever is understood is in the mind (let’s call this “intra-mental” existence).
P4 But that which exists in the mind can also be imagined as existing in reality (i.e., outside of the mind, extra-mentally).
P5 Extra-mental existence is “greater” than (mere) intra-mental existence.
P6 So if the that- than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought only exists intra-mentally, then, in fact, it is not the greatest.
C1 Therefore, something- than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought exists both in the mind and in reality.
C2 “And You, Lord our God, are this being” (§3).
Convinced? The philosophical fun comes in trying to look for what’s so dissatisfying about the strategy. Most home in on P5 and P6. It might be that Anselm smuggles in a power of the imagination that we don’t buy. And yet there’s something so imaginative about this strategy itself that we can’t quite slam the door on it.