Anselm’s Ontological Argument and the Philosophers

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).

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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