How to argue graciously: Anselm of Canterbury and Gaunilo of Marmoutiers

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

I recently read the Proslogion of Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury, written in 1077-78, together with the written criticism of Anselm’s argument by Gaunilo, a monk of Marmoutiers, and Anselm’s subsequent reply.

In Gaunilo and Anselm’s correspondence over the Proslogion we see a wonderful example of how to argue graciously — an example which has a lot to teach us in the modern social media world.

The Proslogion of Anselm

“Being very aware of the weakness of his approach in the Monologion — disprove one step in the chain, and everything that follows falls to the ground — Anselm wanted to find one single, compelling argument for the existence of God.”

The Proslogion was Anselm’s ‘single compelling argument for the existence of God.’ It was written as a follow-up to his Monologion, in which he arrived at the full doctrine of the Trinity simply by a chain of rational arguments. Being very aware of the weakness of this approach — disprove one step in the chain, and everything that follows falls to the ground — he wanted to find one single, compelling argument for the existence of God.

He sets forth this argument in the Proslogion. Briefly, it states that God is proven to exist by the fact that he is ‘that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought’ (the so-called ‘Ontological Argument’).

For further details about the Proslogion and Anselm’s ‘Ontological Argument,’ see my previous post here.

Gaunilo’s reply

In a brief reply, Gaunilo of Marmoutiers challenged the argument that God must exist because he (that is, ‘that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought’) cannot be thought not to exist.

Denying the Platonic way of thinking which says that whatever exists ‘down here’ is a pale reflection of what exists in the intellectual realm, Gaunilo argued that just because I conceive of something in my mind, it does not thereby follow that that thing must exist in reality.

“Gaunilo argues ‘on behalf of the Fool’ (‘Pro Insipiente’) — not because he himself believes, ‘There is no God,’ but because he believes Anselm’s case proving the existence of God is not logically secure.”

He uses[1] the example of the ‘Lost Island.’ The ‘Lost Island’ is a place which one conceives of in the mind, far away across the ocean, which is a land far more excellent in every respect than all other lands. One can conceive of such a place in the mind; does it therefore follow that such a place really exists?

Two things really struck me reading Gaunilo’s argument.

Firstly, Gaunilo’s ability to abstract — to argue for a position which he himself does not hold.

That is why his argument is named Pro Insipiente — ‘On Behalf of the Fool.’ Formally, Anselm’s argument in the Proslogion was an argument directed against the biblical Fool who says, ‘There is no God’ (see Psalm 14:1; 53:1).

So Gaunilo argues ‘on behalf of the Fool’ — not because he himself believes, ‘There is no God,’ but because he believes Anselm’s case proving the existence of God is not logically secure.

“Gaunilo had no bone to pick with any of the rest of Anselm’s treatise nor with Anselm himself. Indeed he closes his treatise by praising the brilliance and spiritual fervour of the rest of Anselm’s treatise, saying that all the rest of it should be received gladly by the faithful.”

I first read the Pro Insipiente not knowing who Gaunilo of Marmoutiers was — nor, therefore, what Gaunilo’s position was. It was only as I came towards the end of his argument that I came to suspect that he was actually an orthodox Christian. His argument was ‘on behalf of the Fool,’ not as the Fool.

The second thing which struck me was the close of his short treatise[2] — and it was how he closed which confirmed for me that Gaunilo was a Christian. His argument ‘on behalf of the Fool’ is only with Anselm’s argument that God must exist because he cannot be thought not to exist. He had no bone to pick with any of the rest of Anselm’s treatise nor with Anselm himself. Indeed he closes his treatise by praising the brilliance and spiritual fervour of the rest of Anselm’s treatise, saying that all the rest of it should be received gladly by the faithful.

Thus Gaunilo’s Pro Insipiente is a wonderful little example of how to argue as a friend.

Anselm’s Reply to Gaunilo

Anselm in turn wrote a Reply to Gaunilo in which he defended his argument that God must exist because he cannot be thought not to exist.

Anselm admits that it is only true of ‘that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought’ that it cannot be thought not to exist.

“In making his Reply, Anselm adopts the same spirit of friendly discourse started by Gaunilo. He begins his Reply by saying that the one who argues against him, although he argues on behalf of the Fool, is himself no Fool but a genuine Christian. Therefore (he says) it will suffice if he directs his reply to the Christian.”

So anything which is not eternal, or which does not exist everywhere — i.e., anything which is not unbounded both in time and space — can be thought not to exist. That is because it can be thought not to have existed at some time, or not to exist at some time in the future, or not to exist in some place: therefore it can be thought not to exist at all.

But that which cannot not-exist at a time or in any place, because it is unbounded in time and space, cannot even be thought not to exist. Thus Anselm’s Ontological Argument, that what exists in the mind must exist in reality, only applies to ‘that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought,’ i.e., God.[3]

However, in making his Reply, Anselm adopts the same spirit of friendly discourse started by Gaunilo. He begins his Reply[4] by saying that the one who argues against him, although he argues on behalf of the Fool, is himself no Fool but a genuine Christian. Therefore (he says) it will suffice if he directs his reply to the Christian.

And, having concluded his Reply, Anselm then[5] commends Gaunilo for his evident goodwill towards him.

Indeed, so pleased was Anselm with this exchange of arguments that he directed that the Pro Insipiente and his Reply to Gaunilo should always henceforth be published along with the Proslogion.[6]

Lessons for today

“Not once do Anselm and Gaunilo exhibit the modern social media phenomenon of ‘talking across’ one another’s argument.”

The Pro Insipiente and the Reply to Gaunilo are wonderful examples of arguing graciously — Christianly, even. Anselm and Gaunilo trade blows over ideas, not over each other’s aptitude (much less do they trade insults!).

In both cases their argument and counterargument are concise, and to the point; not once do they exhibit the modern social media phenomenon of ‘talking across’ one another’s argument.

When I see the way people argue in the modern social media world, it’s simply cause to sigh. If only we aspired to argue like Anselm and Gaunilo, we could all make the world around us that little bit nicer a place to live.

 

The Proslogion, Gaunilo’s Pro Insipiente and Anselm’s Reply to Gaunilo can be found in Anselm, Brian Davies, and G. R. Evans, The Major Works, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp.82-122. You can also read these works online at https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/anselm-proslogium.asp.

 

 

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[1] Pro Insipiente, chapter 6

[2] Ibid., chapter 8

[3] Reply to Gaunilo, chapter 1

[4] Ibid., Preface

[5] Ibid., chapter 10

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

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