Is God ‘that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought’?

St. Anselm presents his work to Matilda. From a twelfth-century manuscript. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
St. Anselm presents his work to Matilda. From a twelfth-century manuscript. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

According to Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109, the existence of God is proven from his being ‘that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought.’

He sets forth this proof in his work, the Proslogion, written in 1077-78.[1] I recently had the joy of reading it in Anselm, Brian Davies, and G. R. Evans, The Major Works, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

What is the Proslogion?

The Proslogion, a fairly short piece of writing, is the sequel to another, longer work of his, the Monologion.

“Anselm’s endeavour in the Monologion is impressive. Nonetheless he arrives as his eventual Trinitarian position by a long chain of logical deductions. The weakness of this is that the argument only succeeds if every step in the chain holds fast: break one link in the chain and everything that follows logically falls to the ground. Thus, after much soul-searching, was born the Proslogion.”

In the Monologion, Anselm attempted to demonstrate from reason alone, without reference to Scripture, the full Trinitarian doctrine of God: i.e., that he is one God, subsisting in three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each Person by himself being God and Lord, and each by nature equal to the others.

His endeavour in the Monologion is impressive. Nonetheless he arrives as his eventual Trinitarian position by a long chain of logical deductions. The weakness of this is that the argument only succeeds if every step in the chain holds fast: break one link in the chain and everything that follows logically falls to the ground.

Anselm himself was very aware of this weakness. And so he wanted to come up with a single argument that by itself would prove the existence of God. Thus, after much soul-searching,[2] was born the Proslogion.

Formally the Proslogion is a prayer addressed to God. Its opening chapter is extremely reminiscent (and doubtless Anselm knew this) of the opening chapter of Augustine’s Confessions, also addressed as a prayer to God, and confessing, in twisting and tortured sentences, the writer’s own personal inadequacy and inability to understand God without the intervention of divine grace.

Anselm’s argument

The key argument comes in the second chapter[3] and is very succinctly set forth. It runs:—

  1. Even the fool who says in his heart, ‘There is no God’ (Psalm 14:1; 53:1) has in his mind a conception of the God he denies.
  1. Everyone agrees that if God existed, he would be the supreme being — in other words, that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought.
  1. Thus, that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought exists in the mind of the fool.

“If ‘that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought’ did not exist in reality, it could not be ‘that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought’ — which is absurd.”

  1. But if that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought exists only in the mind, then it can be thought not to exist.
  1. However, to exist is necessarily better than not to exist.
  1. Therefore, if that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought did not exist in reality, it could not be that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought — which is absurd.
  1. Therefore, if that-than-nothing-greater-can-be-thought exists in the mind, it must necessarily exist in reality also.

This argument is known as the ‘Ontological Argument’ for the existence of God,[4] and has since been used by such luminaries as Descartes and Leibniz.[5]

Does the argument work?

On the face of it, Anselm’s argument looks impressive by its sheer simplicity.

“Anselm’s argument is reliant on the Platonic notion that whatever exists ‘down here’ is a pale imitation of a true, eternal, and more real version of it in the intellectual realm — and that to exist there is far superior than to exist here (e.g., in the mind).”

However, the argument is reliant on the Platonic notion that whatever exists ‘down here’ is a pale imitation of a true, eternal, and more real version of it in the intellectual realm — and that to exist there is far superior than to exist here (e.g., in the mind).

This notion was one which influenced the thought of Augustine heavily, and which Anselm would have imbibed through the writings of Augustine.

If we don’t hold to the notion that every instance, p, of a certain kind of thing down here (let us say for argument’s sake, a horse) is a pale imitation of an eternal P (for example, the eternal Horse) — and, let’s face it, people in the empirical world of today generally don’t — then step 7 in the above argumentation doesn’t really follow. (It behoves me to point out that the above 7 steps are my bullet-pointed summary of Anselm’s argument, not his bullet-pointed steps. Please don’t go quoting ‘step such-and-such of Anselm’s Ontological Argument’ to anybody!)

“Even if we accept the logic of each of the above seven steps of the argument, it gets us to the certain existence of God. But what God? One could argue that Anselm’s argument proves the existence of Allah, or the God conceived of by Orthodox Judaism, just as much as the Trinitarian God.”

Also, even if we accept the logic of each of the above seven steps of the argument, it gets us to the certain existence of God. But what God?

Certainly not the pantheon of gods of ancient Graeco-Roman belief. But one could argue that Anselm’s argument proves the existence of Allah, or the God conceived of by Orthodox Judaism, just as much as it proves the existence of the Trinitarian God of Christianity.

Within the cultural framework of Western Christendom in the 11th century, if one could prove the existence of God, then of course that could only be the God of Christianity.

Today with the Western world incomparably more multicultural, pluralistic, empirical and agnostic, that ‘of course’ doesn’t really hold.

Concluding thoughts

Anselm’s Ontological Argument for the existence of God is an interesting philosophical exercise, and one that is well worth spending time contemplating.

“Human history is littered with examples of gods made in the image of man. We don’t need to reach into the far recesses of history to see this: the many social-philosophical constructions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are all examples of man constructing his own gods. This would seem to tend towards the conclusion that mankind, by himself, is incapable of finding God, or of constructing a true picture of God, from his reason alone.”

Having contemplated it for several weeks since I read the Proslogion, I am led to the conclusion that, at the end of the day, we are still dependent on divine revelation.

Human history is littered with examples of gods made in the image of man. We don’t need to reach into the far recesses of history to see this: the many social-philosophical constructions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, fascism, Nazism, and, more recently, the plethora of postmodernist and individualistic cultural movements in the West — are all examples of man constructing his own gods. Attractive as these movements seem to their originators and their adherents at the time, the results are frequently destructive.

This would seem to tend towards the conclusion that mankind, by himself, is incapable of finding God, or of constructing a true picture of God, from his reason alone.

We need, in other words, God to reveal himself if we are to have any possibility of knowing him.

As Christians, we believe that God has revealed himself in the pages of the Bible — and, supremely, he has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, being by himself God and Lord, and equal in nature to the Father and the Holy Spirit — yet made flesh for us and for our salvation; crucified, died, and buried; but raised again the third day, vindicated by God the Father, and one day to return in glory as Judge of the world.

All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet:

“I will open my mouth in parables;
I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”
Matthew 13:34-35[6]

“All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
Luke 10:22[7]

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.
1 Corinthians 1:20-21[8]

You can read Anselm’s Proslogion online at https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/anselm-proslogium.asp.

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] Anselm, Brian Davies, and G. R. Evans, The Major Works, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. viii.

[2] As he himself tells us in the Preface. Ibid., p.82

[3] Ibid., pp.87-88

[4] Ibid., p. xii

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ontological_argument

[6] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+13%3A34-35&version=ESVUK

[7] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+10%3A22&version=ESVUK

[8] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+1%3A20-21&version=ESVUK

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