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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...

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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

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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 they must share this common power. Now, because it is this common power that is the source of all else, there cannot be several causes but only one. (This proof also depends on the doctrine of essences.) God is not something that has this supreme power; he is this power.

The third proof depends on the fact that things in the world can be ranked according to their degrees of “dignity,” goodness, or reality. For instance, Anselm says, everyone will admit that a horse represents a higher degree of reality than a piece of wood, for the horse is animate; similarly, a person outranks a horse, for he or she is rational. However, the sequence of degrees of reality cannot be an infinite one, for there must be some boundary, some limiting value by which all the rest are measured, a value that is real absolutely. If there should be several things that share this degree of reality, it is nevertheless the case that they are equal because of the common excellence they share. This excellence is the absolute reality that is the source of all relative degrees of reality.

The Ontological Argument

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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, then, for the term “God” does not denote any conceivable thing. Second, Gaunilo says that if the argument were sound, people could prove the existence of other things. By way of example, he invites his readers to think of an island that is blessed with more good features and is therefore better than any actual land with which they are acquainted; then he suggests that people must admit its existence, because if it exists in the mind alone, it would not be as good as lands that are known to exist. Third, he says that an idea or concept is only a part of the understanding and that the existing object, if there is one, is something else. It does not follow from the fact that an idea occurs that something quite different in status also occurs. The fact that I am thinking of a being, thinking of it as the greatest conceivable being and therefore thinking of it as existing necessarily, does not provide the slightest evidence that there actually is such a being, for the thought of a necessarily existing being is one thing and a necessarily existing being is another.

Anselm replies to the first objection by saying that the proof does not require a complete understanding of God, but only that one understands this much: that whatever else he may be, God is such that no greater being than he can be conceived. Even the “fool” must admit this much before he or she can refuse to believe. In reply to the second objection, he says that God, unlike the blessed isle, is not thought of simply as the greatest thing of a certain type, or even as the greatest thing of all, but as the being than which nothing greater can be conceived. This latter concept can refer to only one thing, and that thing quite obviously is not the blessed isle. Later proponents of the argument, such as French philosopher René Descartes, make the same point by asserting that existence is contained in the essence of only one thing—namely, the greatest conceivable being.

The third objection is more difficult to handle. It seems to pinpoint an obvious defect, yet Anselm and many others were not daunted by it. In his reply to Gaunilo, Anselm hardly seems aware of it, for he simply repeats again, as if the objection had not been raised, that if people understand a thing, then it exists in the understanding. Most people are likely to feel more at home with Gaunilo’s theory of ideas than with Anselm’s, so Anselm’s doctrine must be reconstructed so that people can see why the objection seemed so unimportant to Anselm. To do so, the nature of the divine being whose existence is supposed to be proved by the argument must be explored a little further.

The Essence of God

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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.


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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 exemplars. As the Son, they are sustained by God insofar as he is the ground of all, but because they are the intellect of God, they are not the products of a mind and they do not depend for their existence on being in a mind. Thus, there are essences that do not enjoy the highest degree of reality but that do enjoy a degree higher than that which they would if they were mind dependent. As Anselm says, prior to their manifestation in matter, they were not nothing. Because they are consubstantial with God, they are beings in their own right. Anselm leans as far in the direction of a Platonic realism as his theology will allow him.

Anselm was not clear about the manner in which general ideas are apprehended, but he insists that these ideas are the essences just discussed. This follows not only from his realistic doctrine of ideas but also from his theory of truth. When a thing is apprehended truly, its nature is apprehended, but if it exists truly, then it manifests truly the essence God intended it to manifest. Hence, when people think truly, they are apprehending one or more of the essences that constitute the intellect of God. (Thus, God is Truth.) This is not to say that people apprehend essences as they exist in God, for in God these essences are exemplars, but what people apprehend does come directly or indirectly, clearly or obscurely, from God. Because the ideas in people’s understanding come into their understanding, their existence does not depend on people’s understanding and is not restricted to their occurrence there. This is what Anselm means when he says that the things people understand are in their understanding.

Essences and Reality

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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 the same ideas, are sufficient evidence that general ideas are not created by mutable and independent minds. At any rate, the argument presupposes that because they are not mind dependent, essences can occur elsewhere than in minds. Thus, one can conceive of an essence enjoying a higher degree of reality, such as existing in the physical world or, perhaps, existing in such a way that it is self-sustaining. That some of the essences one apprehends also enjoy a higher degree of reality cannot be denied, for they are manifested as material objects. The only question, and the interesting one, is whether any essence one can apprehend also enjoys the supreme degree of reality. It would be worth examining the various essences one apprehends to see if there is any case where this is so. Anselm says we are led to a positive answer in the case of one and only one essence, that of the “being than which none greater can be conceived,” for in this case alone, the essence is such that it necessarily exists.

To do justice to Anselm and understand the strong appeal this argument had for him and many others, one must be clear about the fact that throughout the argument he is talking about an essence. The premises are premises about an essence and the conclusion is a statement about this very same essence. It is not, as Gaunilo insisted, a conclusion about something else. Gaunilo’s objection would be valid, as it is in the example of the blessed isle, if Anselm had concluded that an essence has been manifested in matter. However, because manifestation in matter is always an accident, this is not something that could be discovered by examining an essence alone. It is crucial to the argument that existence in matter should not be thought of as the highest level of existence and that the being concerned should not be thought of as a composite of form and substance. The argument can move only from essence to Pure Essence, or essentia. That is, it can reveal to one only something more about essence, and this is just what it does when it shows that one of the essences one apprehends is an active self-sustaining essence.

This discussion does not show that Anselm’s argument is sound, but perhaps it does show that the whole question centers on two radically different theories about ideas, essences, and objects. Historically, philosophers who have found Anselm’s argument acceptable have leaned toward a Platonic or Neoplatonic realism in which the role of essences is emphasized and that of matter minimized. The proof was not accepted by the Aristotelians who dominated the philosophic world for four or five centuries after Anselm, nor by the nominalists and empiricists who have dominated so much of philosophic thought in the last three hundred years; but it is adopted in one form or another by Descartes, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Baruch Spinoza, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who, despite the fact that they diverge radically from one another, are each influenced, directly or indirectly, by Plato, Plotinus, or Augustine.


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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 excellent historian of Western philosophy provides a readable account of Anselm’s thought and its significance in the medieval period.

Davis, Stephen T. God, Reason, and Theistic Proofs. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997. A thoughtful discussion of traditional attempts to prove the existence of God, including Anselm’s ontological proof.

Eadmer. The Life of Saint Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. Translated and edited with an introduction and notes by R. W. Southern. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979. The principle source for biographical information on Anselm, this work is important not only for what it reveals about Anselm but also for what it tells about the community of monks that shaped him and his thought.

Evans, G. R. Anselm and Talking About God. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978. Explores Anselm’s view about what can—and cannot be said—about God. Analyzes, in particular, Anselm’s understanding of language and logic.

Hartshorne, Charles. Anselm’s Discovery: A Reexamination of the Ontological Proof for God’s Existence. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1965. A sympathetic interpretation of Anselm’s ontological argument for God’s existence by one of the twentieth century’s eminent philosophers and theologians.

Hopkins, Jasper. A Companion to the Study of St. Anselm. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972. A helpful guide to a full range of Anselm’s thought. This work systematically analyzes Anselm’s philosophical themes (truth, freedom, and evil) as well as his theological concerns (Trinity, Incarnation, and Redemption).

Morris, Thomas V. Anselmian Explorations: Essays in Philosophical Theology. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987. Morris shows how Anselm’s philosophy and theology contain approaches and insights that can inform contemporary reflection.

Rogers, Katharine A. The Neoplatonic Metaphysics and Epistemology and Anselm of Canterbury. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997. This study focuses on the Platonic influences on Anselm’s understanding of reality and knowledge.

Southern, R. W. Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. This work analyzes Anselm’s thought and situates his life in its historical context. The work considers not only the theological and devotional aspects of Anselm’s life and its monastic context but also matters involving history, politics, and economics.

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