Anselm’s Ontological Argument and the Philosophers Essay

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Saint Anselm of Aosta, Bec, and Canterbury, perhaps during a moment of

enlightenment or starvation-induced hallucination, succeeded in formulating an

argument for God’s existence which has been debated for almost a thousand years.

It shows no sign of going away soon. It is an argument based solely on reason,

distinguishing it from other arguments for the existence of God such as

cosmological or teleological arguments. These latter arguments respectively

depend on the world’s causes or design, and thus may weaken as new scientific

advances are made (such as Darwin’s theory of evolution). We can be sure that

no such fate will happen to Anselm’s Ontological Argument (the name, by the way,

coined by Kant).

In form, Anselm’s arguments are much like the arguments we see in

philosophy today. In Cur Deus Homo we read Anselm’s conversation with a skeptic.

This sort of question-and-answer form of argumentation (dialectic) is very much

like the writings of Plato. The skeptic, Boso, question’s Anselm’s faith with

an array of questions non-believers still ask today. Anselm answers in a step-

by-step manner, asking for confirmation along the way, until he arrives at a

conclusion with which Boso is forced to agree. This is just like Socrates’

procedure with, say, Crito.

Later philosophers have both accepted and denied the validity of

Anselm’s famous ontological argument for the existence of God, presented in both

the Proslogium and Monologium. Anselm did not first approach the argument

with an open mind, then examine its components with a critical eye to see which

side was best. Anselm had made up his mind about the issue long before he began

to use dialectic to attempt to dissect it. “Indeed, the extreme ardor which

impels him to search everywhere for arguments favorable to the dogma, is a

confession his part that the dogma needs support, that it is debatable, that it

lacks self-evidence, the criterion of truth.” (Weber, V)

In chapters 2-4 of his Proslogium, Anselm summarizes the argument. A

fool is one who denies the existence of God. But even that fool understands the

definition of God, “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.” But

the fool says that this definition exists only in his mind, and not in reality.

But, Anselm observes, a being which exists in both reality and in the

understanding would be greater than one that merely exists only in the

understanding. So the definition of God, one that points to “a being than which

nothing greater can be conceived”, points toward a being which exists both in

reality and in the understanding. It would be impossible to hold the conception

of God in this manner, and yet deny that He exists in reality.

The argument was criticized by one of Anselm’s contemporaries, a monk

named Gaunilo, who said, that by Anselm’s reasoning, one could imagine a certain

island, more perfect than any other island. If this island can exist in the

mind, then according to Anselm, it would necessarily exist in reality, for a

‘perfect’ island would have this quality. But this is obviously false; we

cannot make things exist merely by imagining them.

Anselm replied, upholding his argument (in many, many words) by saying

that they are comparing apples and oranges. An island is something that can be

thought of not to exist, whereas the non-existence of “that than which a greater

cannot be conceived is inconceivable.” (Reply, ch.. 3) Only for God is it

inconceivable not to exist; mere islands or other things do not fit this quality.

Copleston sums it up succinctly (for Anselm doesn’t): “it would be absurd to

speak of a merely possible necessary being (it is a contradiction in terms),

whereas there is no contradiction in speaking of merely possible beautiful


St. Thomas Aquinas rejects the argument, saying that the human mind

cannot possibly conceive of the idea of God by reason alone (a-priori), as

Anselm might. The argument does not make sense by itself, and must first

provide an idea of the existence of God with an analysis of God’s effects (a-

posteriori), to which Thomas turns. I think there is evidence in Anselm’s

writings that he would disagree, saying that the idea of God is an innate one

given to us by God, and needs no other revelation to bring it about.

“Hence, this being, through its greater likeness, assists the

investigating mind in the approach to supreme Truth; and through its more

excellent created essence, teaches the more correctly what opinion the mind

itself ought to form regarding the Creator.” (Monologium, ch. 66)

Although St. Thomas was obviously a believer, he was not swayed by the

idea of reason alone being sufficient to prove God’s existence. His objection

of the human mind’s capability to ascertain God is echoed by other philosophers

such as Kierkegaard (who was also a Christian): “The paradoxical passion of the

Reason thus comes repeatedly into collision with the Unknown…and cannot

advance beyond this point.Of God: How do I know? I cannot know it, for in

order to know it, I would have to know the God, and the nature of the difference

between God and man; and this I cannot know, because the Reason has reduced it

to likeness with that from which it was unlike.” (Kierkegaard, 57)

Anselm disagrees, and explains why illumination of God through rational

discourse brings Man closer to God. “So, undoubtedly, a greater knowledge of the

creative Being is attained, the more nearly the creature through which the

investigation is made approaches that Being.” (Monologium, ch. 66)

Descartes restates Anselm’s argument for his own purposes, which include

defining what sorts of knowledge is around that is grounded in certainty. Most

later philosophers tend to use Decartes’ formulation of the argument in their

analyses. Required for Descartes’ project is God, who granted humans the

reasoning capability with which we can cognate truths. The form of Anselm’s

argument he uses involves defining ‘existence’ as one of God’s many perfections.

“Existence is a part of the concept of a perfect being; anyone who denied that a

perfect being had the property existence would be like someone who denied that a

triangle had the property three-sidedness…the mind cannot conceive of

triangularity without also conceiving of three-sidedness…the mind cannot

conceive of perfection without also conceiving of existence.” (Fifth


Several philosophers ask what properties necessarily should be ascribed

to God, and if existence is one of them. Lotze asks how a being’s real

existence logically follows from its perfectness. This deduction, Lotze says,

satisfies our sentimental values that our ideals must exist. “Why should this

thought a perfect being’s unreality disturb us? Plainly for this reason, that

it is an immediate certainty that what is greatest, most beautiful, most worthy,

is not a mere thought, but must be a reality, because it would be intolerable to

believe otherwise. If what is greatest did not exist, then what is the

greatest would not be, and it is not impossible that that which is greatest of

all conceivable things should not be.” (Lotze, 669) The mind can contrive

wonderful and fantastic things. Where is the fallacy in thinking of a perfect,

unreal something?

Descartes’ formulation which ascribes ‘existence’ to a most perfect

being leads us to the most famous objection to Anselm’s argument, from Kant.

Kant has a problem with treating ‘existence’ as a property of a thing, that it

makes no sense to talk of things which have the property of existence and others

which do. Consider the plausible situation of asking my roommate Matthew to get

me a beer. “What kind of beer?” he replies. “Oh, Budweiser. And a cold one,

at that. Also an existing one, if you’ve got any,” I might specify. Something

just seems amiss.

For Kant, when you take away ‘existence’ from a concept of a thing,

there is nothing left to deal with. It makes no sense to talk of an omniscient,

all-powerful, all-good God, nor of a red-and-white, cold, non-existent

Budweiser. A thing either exists, with properties, or it doesn’t. Where

Descartes and Anselm would say you are making a logical contradiction by saying

“God does not exist” because of the fact that this statement conflicts with the

very concept of God including the property of existence, with Kant, making this

sort of a statement involves no contradiction. For postulating non-existence as

a part of a thing’s concept sort of negates any argumentative power that the

concept’s other qualities might have had. A concept of a thing should focus on

its defining qualities, such as cold and Budweiser, rather than on its existence.

Anselm’s original reply to Gaulino might be applicable here in a defense

against Kant. Perhaps it is possible to deny the existence of mere things (be

they islands or Budweisers) without logical contradiction, but in the case of a

most-perfect being, ‘existence’ must be part of its concept. Perhaps it is

possible that an island can be said not to have existed, maybe if tectonic

plates hadn’t shifted in a certain way. But God is not bound by the constraints

of causality; God transcends cause, existing throughout all time. So in the

concept of God is ‘existence’, as well as His various other attributes. So to

say “God does not exist” is contradictory, after all.

Kant counters this with a devastating blow. He reduces the ontological

argument to a tautology:

“The concept of an all-perfect being includes existence.” “We hold this concept

in our minds, therefore the being must exist.” “Thus, an existent being exists.”

Even if we grant the argument numerous favors, letting it escape from

plenty of foibles, in the end, it still doesn’t really tell us anything

revealing. “All the trouble and labour bestowed on the famous ontological or

Cartesian proof of the existence of a supreme Being from concepts alone is

trouble and labour wasted. A man might as well expect to become richer in

knowledge by the aid of mere ideas as a merchant to increase his wealth by

adding some noughts to his cash-account.” (Kant, 630)

Anselm’s argument was not designed to convince unbelievers, but to be

food for believers like Gaunilo who wished see what results the tool of

dialectic will bring if applied to the question of God. While today the

argument seems weak, or even whimsical, it is a brave attempt to go without

dogma in explaining God. The argument “must stand or fall by its sheer

dialectical force. A principal reason of our difficulty in appreciating its

power may well be that pure dialectic makes but a weak appeal to our minds.”

(Knowles, 106)

I think I stand with St. Thomas and Kierkegaard in this matter, for it

seems that a purely logical argument of God’s existence is somewhat out of place.

One must be in a position of “faith seeking understanding”, in an a-posteriori

state of mind to appreciate an a-priori proof such as this. This is somewhat

odd and unsettling, for I tend to agree with logically sound arguments at all

other intersections of my life. It seems as if Church dogma these days

accentuates the mystery of God, staying away from reasoning such as Anselm’s to

attract followers. For to have faith in the mystery is what is admirable. One

should not be tempted to attend church smugly because it is illogical not to.


Anselm. Proslogium, Monologium, Cur Deus Homo. with introduction by Weber,

translated by S. N. Deane. Open Court, La Salle, 1948.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy. Image Books, New York, 1994.

Honderich, Ted (editor). The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University

Press, New York, 1995.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by N. K. Smith. London,

1933 (2nd edition).

Kierkegaard, Soren. Philisophical Fragments. Translated by D. F. Swenson.

Princeton University Press, 1962. Knowles, David. The Evolution of Medieval

Thought. Random House, New York, 1962.

Lotze, Rudolf. Microcosmus. Translated by Hamilton and Jones. Edinburgh, 1887.


Southern, Richard. Saint Anselm. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990.

Van Inwagen, Peter. Metaphysics. Westview Press, Boulder, 1993.

Category: Philosophy

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