Saint Anselm was an Augustinian Christian whose fame rests to a great extent on his belief that faith is prior to reason, a belief he expresses in the well-known words of the Proslogion: “For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this I also believe—that unless I believed, I should not understand.” After one has accepted on faith the revelations given through Scripture and through the church fathers, reason is able to fulfill its secondary role of clarifying meanings and providing proofs. Yet Anselm was an ambivalent figure, for despite his emphasis on the priority of faith, he felt a very strong need to support it with proofs. Indeed, he extended the scope of reason considerably further than did the Scholastics who followed him, for they would not have thought of trying to prove doctrines such as those of the Trinity and the Incarnation. His rationalism led others to characterize him as the first of the Scholastics.

The Three Proofs

Anselm delivered three proofs of the existence of God in his earlier work, Monologion. According to the first argument, the goodness of things in this world must be caused and must therefore stem from one thing that is good or from many. However, if many causes have their goodness in common, it is by virtue of this goodness that they cause good things; therefore, there must be a common source. In either case, whether the cause be one or many, a single, unitary source of goodness is indicated. Because it is the source of all goodness, this source is not good because of something else but is itself goodness. (Notice that this argument depends on a realistic doctrine of essences that will allow an essence such as goodness to function not only as a form but also as an active First Cause.) God is Goodness itself, not merely something that possesses goodness.

The second argument follows a similar course with respect to existence. Because whatever exists must have a cause and because an infinite regress of causes is impossible, there must be either one ultimate, nonfinite cause or several causes. If there is but one cause, one has encountered God. If there are several, then either they support one another mutually or they exist independently. The former is impossible, for that which is supported cannot be the cause of that which supports it. However, if there are several independent ultimate causes, each must exist through itself, and therefore...

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The Ontological Argument

Apparently Anselm thought these proofs too complex, for in Proslogion, he says that he searched a long time for a simpler proof. The result is the well-known ontological argument. When people think of something, Anselm says, and people are really thinking of it and not just uttering the associated verbal symbol, that thing is in their understanding. Of course, people need not understand that it exists, for they may be thinking of something that they believe does not exist, as in the case of those “fools” who say in their heart that God does not exist, or people may be thinking of something about whose existence they are uncertain. However, in any of these cases, if people are thinking of something, if they understand it, then it, and not something else, is in the understanding. This point applies to people’s thought of anything, including God. However, in the case of God, people are thinking about a unique thing, for they are thinking about the greatest thing conceivable, the being “than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Now if a being exists in the understanding alone, it cannot be the greatest conceivable thing, for a being that exists in reality as well as in the understanding would be greater. Consequently, because God is the greatest being conceivable, he must exist in reality as well as in the understanding. Or, to put it another way, if the greatest conceivable being exists in the understanding alone, then it is not the greatest conceivable being—a conclusion that is absurd.

This argument met opposition from the monk Gaunilo, who criticized Anselm in his Liber pro insipiente (eleventh century; In Behalf of the Fool, 1903). First, Gaunilo says that because God’s nature is essentially mysterious, people do not have an idea of him. People may think they do, but they have only the verbal symbol, for when they hear the word “God,” what are they to think or imagine? The proof fails,...

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The Essence of God

Anselm regarded God as self-caused, but the nature of this causation is quite mysterious. God could not have functioned as his own efficient, material, or instrumental cause, for all these causes must be prior to their effect, and not even God could exist prior to himself. For a similar reason, God did not create himself. Yet he does exist through himself and from himself. By way of explication, Anselm presents us with a model, that of light. Light illuminates another thing by falling on it, but it also lights itself, for it is lucent. Its lucidity must come from itself, though, of course, it does not fall upon itself. Now, he says, in God, the relation between essence, to be, and being (existing) is like the relation between the light, to light, and lucent. The implication is that the essence of God, the being he enjoys, and the generating of this being are one and the same thing. Like his master Saint Augustine, Anselm conceived of God as an active essence, an activity that necessarily exists, not simply because it is active, but because its activity is the activity of existing.

In other places, too, Anselm indicates quite clearly that God is not a substance having matter and form. First, he points out that if God were such a substance, he would be composite, a state impossible in a being that is the unitary source of all and in a being that has no prior cause. Furthermore, God cannot be a substance possessing such qualities as justness, wisdom, truth, and goodness; for if he were, he would be just, wise, true, and good through another and not through himself. God does not possess justness and wisdom; he is justice and wisdom. That is, as was indicated in the earlier proofs, God is identical with these essences, and because in him they are one and the same essence, God is an essence.


This same conclusion is reached by another route, that of creation. As pure spirit, God creates the matter of the world ex nihilo, but he creates it according to a model he had in mind prior to the creation. That is, as Augustine had said earlier, all the essences that are manifested in the world existed in God’s thought prior to the creation. Insofar as this network of essences is the model according to which the world is created, it is the formal first cause of the world (Augustine had called the divine ideas “the reasons”), and as first cause, it is identical with God. Following Augustine, Anselm says that insofar as God is this expression of the world, he has an intelligence; he is wisdom, the word, the Son. However, the important point as far as the ontological argument is concerned is that God is not thought of as a substance in the ordinary sense, but as an essence (the Father) and also as a set of essences (the Son) that function respectively as efficient and formal cause of the world. Again, as in the proofs of Monologion, God the Creator is thought of as an acting essence. In God the Father exists the highest degree of reality an essence can enjoy—that of an eternally acting essence that exists in and through itself.

Anselm’s doctrine of creation throws still further light on the ontological argument. It is to be noted that the essences that exist prior to creation are not created, for they are the eternal...

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Essences and Reality

In speaking as if people already knew that these essences constitute the mind of God, it might seem that people beg the question that is to be settled by the ontological argument, but an account of Anselm’s doctrine of creation serves to illuminate the way in which he thought of God and of essences. In both Proslogion and Monologion, Anselm emphasizes the proposition that essences are characters that may be shared in common by many things and that they are ontologically prior to these things. One can assume that he would agree with Augustine, whom he follows in so many respects, that the eternity and immutability of self-evident truths and of the essences involved in them, and the fact that many minds can share...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Barth, Karl. Fides Quaerens Intellectum. Translated by I. W. Robertson. London: SCM, 1960. One of the twentieth century’s greatest Protestant theologians explores Saint Anselm’s understanding of religious faith.

Bencivenga, Ermanno. Logic and Other Nonsense: The Case of Anselm and His God. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Explores the logic of Anselm’s arguments for the existence of God, especially the ontological argument.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Medieval Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962. An...

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