Lecture on Anselm’s Ontological Argument [~1077-1078]


     Copyright © 2015 Bruce W. Hauptli



1. Introduction to the Medieval Period:


As I indicted when I briefly treated this topic earlier, the best way to understand the Medieval period is by adopting the metaphor contained in the title of Arthur Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being.[1]  This world-view emphasized a static picture of the universe and of our place in it.  The universe was viewed as a rational whole where there was a complete agreement of faith and reason.  This view emphasized talk of heavenly spheres, relied upon Aristotelian science and logic, relied upon feudal social conditions, and had could easily countenance the uniqueness condition entailed by the phrase “The Church.”  Each individual knew his/her place—sons and daughters did not have to worry about what their future career would be!  Latin commentaries of earlier authors were studied in the universities. 


     In short, this world-view offered a teleological conception of the universe where value and fact infused one another.  The medieval conception of nature was largely Aristotelian.  As Michael Matthews says,


central to Aristotle’s thought is his concept of nature.  This was essentialistic and teleological.  Nature was not just matter moving around as a result of random pushes and pulls (materialism), nor was it an unintelligible and imperfect shadow of some other perfect realm (Platonism).  Nature was differentiated into various species and objects, all of them had their own internal and essential dynamic for change....Their alteration was the progressive, teleological actualization of a preexisting potential.  The universe was finite, closed, hierarchically ordered, and all its constituents were fixed.  Everything had its own preordained purpose. 

  In appropriate circumstances, the acorn would develop through an internally generated process of natural change. Likewise, when not interfered with, heavy objects would naturally move to their natural place at the centre of the earth.  Science was largely concerned with the understanding of these natural changes in the world.  The contrasting violent or chance changes were of little interest to philosophers, as they did not reveal anything of the object’s nature.[2] 


Think of the difference between having the growth of an acorn and the falling of a ball-bearing as your scientific model and you can come to a better understanding of the contrast between the Aristotelian and Medieval world-views, on the one hand, and the early modern world view, on the other.  The Aristotelian notion of causation involves a compilation of four distinct notions:


the material cause—what a thing is made of,

the formal cause—how a thing is structured,

the efficient cause—the source of the thing, and

the final cause—the goal/purpose of the thing. 


     As Basil Willey points out, this conception of nature led to views of science and motion which are unfamiliar to us today:


St. Thomas [Aquinas], following Aristotle, treats motion as a branch of metaphysics; he is interested in why it happens, not how.  He discusses it in terms of ‘act’ and ‘potency’, quoting Aristotle’s definition of it as ‘the act of that which is in potentiality, as such.’  Motion exists, then because things in a state of potentiality seek to actualize themselves, or because they seek the place or direction which is proper to them....To every body in respect of its ‘form’, is ‘due’ a ‘proper place’, towards which it tends to move in a straight line.[3] 


For the Medieval philosophers, the Aristotelian picture of the universe was firmly rooted in a religious context which was absent in Aristotle’s own thought.  For the Medievals, at the core of the metaphysical picture of the universe was a deity who was the cause, the reason, and the provider of purpose and goodness for everything.  This deity is infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, and all-good (or all moral), and the uncaused cause of everything.  In a word, this deity was perfect. 


2. Introduction to Anselm: [1033-1109]:


St. Anselm was born in 1033 in Aosta (in Piedmont—now in Italy).[4]  In 1060 he entered the Benedictine monastery at Bec, in Normandy, which was then under the mastership of Lanfranc [1005?-1089, Master at Bec from 1042-1063].  Lanfranc was one of the most noted teachers of the period and his many students came to occupy central roles throughout Europe.  Anselm spent thirty-three years at the monastery, and when Lanfranc left in 1063, he became the Prior (an officer in a monastic order just below the level of the Abbot—who is the head or superior).  In 1078 Anselm became the Abbot of Bec.  Lanfranc was brought to England by William the Conqueror in 1070 as Archbishop of Canterbury and served thus until his death in 1089.  In 1093 Anselm was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.  It was hoped, by William II, that he would be a pawn in the hands of the King and the other bishops.  The issues which surrounded his appointment (and the issue which he disagreed upon with two British Kings) had to do with the relative authority of the King and the bishops (over who appointed the Bishops—the King or the Pope), and Anselm was (briefly) exiled during the reigns of both William II and of Henry I (the brother of William II) during the sixteen years he served as Archbishop.[5]  Anselm was canonized in 1494. 


     Sources provide much contradictory information about the man and his life.  I believe the most consistent picture which emerges shows him to be, first and foremost, a devout monk of the highest ability.  We will see his philosophic ability shortly, but he was also a most accomplished administrator.  At least one source denies this because as Archbishop he is exiled several times; but others hold that the actual story here attests to both his renown as an administrator and his piety.  Anselm was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. 


     Anselm was also a very well-known and popular preacher, and his prayers were so sought-after that there were many attributed to him that he did not write, and scholars have had difficulty distinguishing those which are really his from those which were said to be such.[6]  We get a flavor of this aspect of his writing in the “Prologue” and in “Chapter 1” of our readings.  But we need to stop discussing his life, and begin to discuss his philosophical accomplishment. 


     In discussing the philosophy of religion, it is important to distinguish the approaches of philosophers and of theologians to religious questions.  Theologians and philosophers need not differ on the questions that they ask, nor need they offer differing answers to these questions.  As was noted earlier in this course, the distinguishing characteristic of the philosophic enterprise is the use of a dialectical methodology.  This commitment may be evinced in a large number of different ways however.  As Peter Gay notes in his The Enlightenment: An Interpretation Anselm’s philosophical orientation near the middle of the Medieval period was similar to that of St. Augustine [353-403] at the beginning of this period:


...just as Augustine recommended the gradual replacement of pagan by Christian classics, and the expurgation of all obnoxious passages from ancient literature, so his very commendation of the human understanding has a new and unclassical tone.  Ipsum credere nihil aliud est quam cum assensione cogitareto believe is itself nothing but to cogitate with assent,” might be read (and has been read by [Christian] apologists)[7] as the demand that religious faith be tested by rational investigation.  But the statement is antithetical to [the] antique [that is, ancient]...conception of philosophy: it stresses, not the will to criticism, but the will to believe.  Augustine sees man as unhappy; puzzled by himself, his world, and his destiny.  All men want happiness, and all philosophers seek the way to it, but without divine aid all fail: Thou has made us for Thyself, and our heart is restless until it rest in Thee—this famous exclamation from [Augustine’s]...Confessions is the exclamation of a tormented soul weary of mere thought, weary of autonomy, yearning for the sheltering security found in dependence on higher powers.  When Augustine speaks of understanding or reason, these words have a religious admixture: philosophy to him is touched by the divine.[8] 


But Augustine’s dictum stands the traditional method of classical philosophizing on its head: God, who to the ancients was the result of thought, now becomes its presupposition.  Faith is not the reward of understanding; understanding is the reward of faith.  Man may search for the explanation of his situation by his humble reason; he may even try to order his moral conduct through the understanding.  But the explanation for the human condition is a myth—the Fall; the guide to his salvation is a supernatural being—Jesus Christ; the proof text for the primacy of faith over reason is a divinely inspired book—the Bible; and the interpreter of this Book is an infallible authority—the Church.  All four testify to the collapse of [ancient philosophers’] confidence in man’s unaided intellect.  

  Hence, nisi credideritis, non intelligetis: unless you believe, you will not understand.”[9]  This injunction is the center of Augustine’s doctrine on the relation of philosophy to theology, and through its enormous authority, it became the center of medieval speculation on the same subject, although the Scholastics, as the philosophers knew, provided intellect with much room for play....But faith [for Anselm] imposed on the believer the obligation to strive within his limited means to understand what he believes.  True faith is a kind of love, the highest kind of love, and a true lover does not love ignorantly: like all other medieval philosophers, Anselm accepted Aristotle’s dictum that man naturally strives for knowledge.[10] 


We can see Anselm’s adherence to the Augustinian doctrine, and get a feeling of how different this reading is from the others we have examined thus far by looking at the end of Chapter 1 of his Proslogion:


414-415 I acknowledge, Lord, and I thank you, that you have created in me this image of you so that I may remember you, think of you, and love you.  Yet this image is so eroded by my vices, so clouded by the smoke of my sins, that it cannot do what it was created to do unless you renew and refashion it.  I am not trying to scale your heights, Lord; my understanding is in no way equal to that.  But I do long to understand your truth in some way, your truth which my heart believes and loves.  For I do not seek to understand in order to believe; I believe in order to understand.  For I also believe that “Unless I believe, I shall not understand.[11] 


There are several things that are important in this passage and they clearly place him in the Augustinian tradition:


first, Anselm clearly indicates here, and throughout the selection, his piety;


second, he clearly reminds the reader, who would need no reminding, of course, of the terrible distance which lies between us and the transcendent being he is discussing—a distance caused by our sinful condition, and a distance which, tragically, separates us from our true good;


third, Anselm clearly indicates that the transcendent realm is beyond his limited understanding, and distinguishes his efforts at understanding from extreme human hubris; and


fourth, he indicates how important understanding, based, of course, upon the rock of faith, is to us.  


     In his The Awakening of Europe, Philippe Wolff maintains that Anselm


…shows the measure of his faith in the Monologion [soliloquy], which he wrote for some of the monks of Bec who asked him for a treatise on the existence and essence of God in which everything would be proved by reason and nothing based on scriptural authority.  It is true that Anselm began—in contrast to some dialecticians—by stating that it was first necessary to base oneself firmly on faith, since it was the Revelation and our faith in it which provided the essential elements for the use of reason.  We do not understand in order to believe, we believe in order to understand.[12] 


Wolff goes on to note that:


St. Anselm’s technical innovations were no less remarkable than the quality of his work.  Other theologians of the period leaned heavily on the authority of the Scriptures and the Fathers, and their writings resemble a series of quotations linked with commentary.  Even Abelard [1079-1142], an innovative and extremely controversial figure of the period] was still using this method.  Anselm certainly studied his sources, but he had assimilated them to the point where they became the very flesh of his own thought.  What we find in him is therefore a chain of private reasoning.  His work is a ‘rational exploration of dogma’, far in advance of his time, and already looking forward to the thirteenth century.[13]


     In his Saint Anselm: A Portrait In A Landscape, R.W. Southern maintains that for Anselm:


by nature, the goal is prior to the method, for Man was created in the image of God and the first aim of all meditation was to revive this obfuscated image.  But in the state of sin, which is the present state of mankind, the penitential stage of horror at the deformation of the image of God in the soul must come first: only then can the reaching out to God begin.[14] 


Nearly everything of permanent value in Anselm’s later writings presupposes an initial introspection.  In one direction, introspection leads to horror of self; in the other direction, it provides the knowledge of being which leads to knowledge of God.  In his two great meditations...Monologion and Proslogion, he proceeded to the knowledge of God.  But in the earliest Prayers and Meditations, we are only at the first stage, when the soul is torn between terror and joy, with the former greatly predominating....[15] 


After citing part of Chapter I of Anselm’s Proslogion [soliloquy], Southern cites the following passage from the monk Eadmer’s biography of Anselm (Vita Anselmi [~1124]):


he also wrote a little book he called Monologion because in it he alone speaks and argues with himself.  Here, putting aside all authority of Holy Scripture, he inquired and discovered by reason alone what God is; and he proved by invincible reasoning that God’s nature is what true faith holds it to be, and moreover that it could not be other than it is.  Then (after writing it) it came into his mind to try to prove by one single and short argument the things which are believed and preached about God—that he is eternal, unchangeable, omnipotent, omnipresent, incomprehensible, just, merciful, righteous, true, as well as Truth, Goodness, Justice and so on; and to show how all these qualities are united in him.  And this, as he himself would say, gave him great trouble, partly because thinking about it took away his desire for food, drink, and sleep, and partly—and this was more grievous to him—because it disturbed the attention which he ought to have paid to Matins[16] and to divine Office.  When he was aware of this, and still could not entirely lay hold on what he sought, he supposed that this line of thought was a temptation of the devil, and he tried to banish it from his mind.  But the more vehemently he tried to do this, the more these thoughts crowded in on him.  Then suddenly one night during Matins, the grace of God shone on his heart, the whole matter became clear to his mind, and a great joy and jubilation filled his inmost being.[17] 


Commenting on this passage, Southern maintains that:


he [Anselm] had already, in his Monologion, succeeded in showing that God necessarily had all those qualities that are ascribed to Him in Christian doctrine.  But he had not shown that all of them are necessarily united in the being of God....he had demonstrated the necessary existence of the properties of God, but not the necessary existence of the single Being in whom these properties cohered.  This is what he aimed at doing in his Proslogion.[18]


The Fool, who has denied that God exists in any sense of the word, is now reduced to a very pitiable state.  He thought he understood the meaning of the word ‘God’, and of sentences like ‘God does not exist’.  But if the [ontological] argument is valid, the predicate ‘does not exist’ contradicts the subject ‘God’, of whom nonexistence cannot be predicated without contradiction.  So the Fool has been using words without understanding the things to which they refer.[19] 


     Similarly, Peter Gay maintains that:


Anselm made it plain that his famous proof for the existence of God...was not designed to demonstrate God to unbelievers or to strengthen the faith of waverers.  There could be no doubts of the fundamental Christian truths.  But faith imposed on the believer the obligation to strive within his limited means to understand what he believes.  True faith is a kind of love, the highest kind of love, and a true lover does not love ignorantly: like all other medieval philosophers, Anselm accepted Aristotle’s dictum that man naturally strives for knowledge. [20]  


     The fundamental theological belief which motivated Anselm’s thought was the belief that the universe is completely dependent upon a deity’s creative power and that the nature and purpose of the universe are determined by this deity’s nature and reason.  Given the importance attached to such a deity, he finds it important to be able to rationally understand that there is such a being.  Moreover, this deity can not simply be, it must exist necessarily according to him. 


     In his ontological argument, Anselm does not claim that his deity has the characteristics of wisdom, goodness, etc.—to claim this would be to put “universals” over and above this deity.  Instead, he claims that when you speak of his deity saying “God is good” (unlike saying “Socrates is good”), you are using the ‘isof identity (instead of the ‘is’ of predication).  Whereas Socrates may have the characteristic of being good, Anselm’s deity literally is goodness.  To try and put this point another way, when he says that “our” view of this deity is that he/she/it is something perfect, Anselm is not saying that we have an idea of each of the perfections and of that which is all of these things.  Instead, all we need is the idea of perfection itself. 

     Here, then we need to distinguish:


-the “ís” of predication (the paper is white, the man is dangerous), which attributes a property of something;

-the “is” identity (2+2 is 4, Clark Kent is Superman), which says one thing is identical with another one; and

-the “is” of existence (the Higgs Boson exists, there are unicorns), and here we will have to distinguish between necessary and contingent existence!  To understand this concept of “necessary existence,” we should first consider how we can answer this question: “How do we know that there are no round squares?”  Note that while it is generally difficult to prove the nonexistence of a type of thing, but where there are contradictory properties attributed to something this task becomes significantly less onerous.  Note, also, that the normal way of proving the existence of something is to produce it.  In the case of necessary existence, however, something “logical” is again called for. 


     William Rowe offers a four-part distinction which is most helpful:[21]






Necessary Things

(their nonexistence is not possible—they can not not be)

Contingent Actual Things (they really are, were, or will be)

Contingent Possible Things (they could be [could have been], but are not [were not, will not be]

Impossible Things (their existence is not possible—they have contradictory properties)


Must exist

Do exist

Could exist

Can not exist









Anselm’s Deity (there are no other things in this category according to Anselm)

Empire State Building, the Planet Mars, dogs, St. Anselm

Living dinosaurs in Miami in 2014, a socialist utopia, a different instructor for this section

Round squares, married bachelors









This thing exists in reality, and might also exist in the understanding—its existence is independent of “thought;” though some of us may also have it in our understanding. 

These things exist in reality, and might also exist in the understanding—their existence is independent of “thought;” though some of them may also exist in our human understanding. 

These things don’t exist in reality, but may exist in thought.  The “possible things,” of course, could exist in reality, but they don’t. 

They are “impossible things”—they can not exist in reality because they are contradictory.

Some philosophers hold that they might exist in thought.  That is we can have “conceptual knowledge here. 

Some philosophers hold that they can’t exist in thought.  That is their existence is ruled out in all categories of existence. 

Direction of increasing [absolute] “reality” or “greatness

Zero degree of absolute greatness


Note that the “degree of reality” of “impossible things” is “zero”—they are absolutely unreal.  Because they “can not be,” they have no degree of greatness—the idea of “greater” can only apply in first three columns—they are all “possible” (and, thus, differ in that “possible contingent things” could be “actual contingent things;” and “actual contingent things” could be “better” could be “necessary things.”  The “impossible things” can not be better because they “can not be” (to any degree, and what can not be, can not be “better”).   


     An important component of Anselm’s proof (in whatever version one considers) is the notion of “being better.”  As Copleston notes:


...to be gold is better for gold than to be lead, but it would not be better for a man to be made of gold.  To be corporeal is better than to be nothing at all, but it would not be better for a spirit to be corporeal rather than incorporeal.  To be gold is better than not to be gold only relatively, and to be corporeal rather than non-corporeal is better only relatively.  But it is absolutely better to be wise than not to be wise, living than non-living, just than not-just.  We must, then predicate wisdom, life, justice, of the supreme Being, but we cannot predicate corporeality or gold of the supreme Being.[22] 


     In discussing his use of “greater,” note that it really doesn’t apply to the impossible things.  The only things that can be greater are the possible, actual, and, I guess, necessary things.  The “impossible things” can’t be greater because they are impossible.  This is why he needs, really, to show, first, that his deity is at least a possible thing before he can go on to use the notion of “greater” in his proof! 


     One of the “reasons” for maintaining that there must be “something” in the category of Necessary Things is that the question “What explains (or causes) “it all”?” seems to need an answer.  But, clearly, the answer can not be any “ordinary [or contingent] thing” (as it would, then, need an explanation or cause), and this provides a powerful motive for believing in the existence of such a [necessary] thing.  But, as noted above, Anselm wants not only to believe, he wants to rationally understand. 


Bertrand Russell and the “turtle” episode. 


     To fully digest the Ontological Argument, we need to return to the above chart and talk about kinds of “truths” as well as kinds of “existence.”  The two opposite ends of the chart characterize two very different, but related, truths:


Necessary Things

Actual Things

Possible Things

Impossible Things





Necessary Truths

Contingent Truths

Contingent Falsehoods

Necessary Falsehoods

Denial: a necessary falsehood—that is, a contradiction. 

Denial: a contingent falsehood. 

Denial: a contingent


Denial: a necessary truth. 


                                              contraries (if one is true, then the other is                      
                                                false (but they cannot both be true)                            
                                            logical” opposites (contradictories)                                  

The denial of a “necessary falsehood” (a contradiction) is a “necessary truth” (or “logical truth”).  For example if I deny the contradictory statement that “squares have four sides (“It is not the case that squares don’t have four sides”), that is equivalent to stating the logical or necessary truth that “squares have four sides.  The importance of this relationship is that the denial of a necessary falsehood is not simply true, it is necessarily true. 


     This is important in this context because Anselm doesn’t simply want to “prove” that his deity exists, he wants to establish necessary existence.  Thus he wants to establish the fool’s contradiction (when the fool asserts that the deity doesn’t exist) so that the denial of this contradiction (the assertion that the deity exists) is necessarily true—which would mean that the deity doesn’t simply “exist,” but exists necessarily. 


    Anselm’s proof goes like this:


1. God is perfect [STWNGCBT].[23] 

2. “The fool” denies god’s existence.[24] 

3. To do so, “the fool” must have an idea of god. 

4. This idea must be understood; that is, this idea must be “in the understanding.” 

5. The fool contends that the idea is in the understanding alone—that it is notin reality.” 

6. But this can not be true.  If the idea were in the understanding alone (or simply), there could be something “greater” (or “better”) than perfection [STWNGCBT].  That is, there could be something else which existed both in reality and in the understanding, and it would be SGTSTWNGCBT! 

7. But, of course, this is contradictory. 

8. Therefore, God necessarily exists. 


     In discussing “in the understanding” question whether all of the following are “in the understanding” in the same way: round squares, non-actualized possible things, actually existing things, and necessary truths.  Might it not well be the case that what we “have” in the first case is only an understanding of the incompatibility of the concepts?  Understanding and investigating this is very important given that when tied with “greater” this notion is doing a lot of the “work” of the proof. 



   In discussing his use of “greater,” note that it really doesn’t apply to the impossible things.  The only things that can be greater are the possible, actual, and, I guess, necessary things.  The “impossible things” can’t be greater because they are impossible.  This is why he needs, really, to show, first, that his deity is at least a possible thing before he can go on to use the notion of “greater” in his proof! 


     Another hierarchical    Another hierarchical sequence may be of assistance in understanding his view of “greatness:” one could assert that Anselm believes that something that exists and has a beginning and end is good [much better than something that does not, or could not, exist].  Moreover, something that exists that has a beginning and no end is greater still.  And, finally, something that has neither beginning nor end is yet greater


     Regarding “the fool:” in his “Introduction: The Life and Times of Erasmus,” W.T. H. Jackson maintains that:


for the Middle ages, folly was inevitably connected with sin.  Behavior was judged not so much from its social aspects as for the ultimate effect on the destiny of the immortal soul.  Foolish acts were sinful acts, even if the sin was minor, for all of them could be categorized as outward manifestations of inward vices.[25] 


To fully digest the Ontological Argument, we need to return to the above chart and talk about kinds of “truths” as well as kinds of “existence.”  The two opposite ends of the chart characterize two very different, but related, truths:


     R.W. Southern maintains that:


...there is a fundamental difficulty, already perceptible in the Proslogion [Anselm’s earlier book] and now more than ever disturbing [that is, in his later discussion of “the Incarnation”]: in speaking about the activity of God in relation to created beings, some of the words which must be used, like ‘cannot’ and ‘ought not’, seem to suggest a limit to God’s omnipotence.  What Anselm intends to suggest, but has no words which will accurately convey, is that there are some acts—such as acts of injustice—which would be a diminishing of God’s absolute Being, and therefore must be excluded from consideration, not because of any limitation in god, but because of defects inherent in the acts themselves.[26] 


     Frederick Copleston offers a “syllogistic” version of Anselm’s argument:


God is that than which no greater can be thought. 

But that than which no greater can be thought must exist not only mentally, in idea, but also extra-mentally. 

  Therefore God exists, not only in idea, mentally, but also extra-mentally. 

  The Major Premise [the first one above] simply gives the idea of God, the idea which a man has of God, even if he denies His existence. 

  The Minor Premise [the second one above] is clear, since if that than which no greater can be thought existed only in the mind, it would not be that than which no greater can be thought.  A greater could be thought, i.e., a being that existed in extra-mental reality as well as in idea.[27] 


     In his “Big-Bang Theology, God Makes A Cosmological Comeback,” Jim Holt offers a succinct summary of Anselm’s argument:


the ontological argument says that God exists by his very nature, for he possesses all perfections, and it is more perfect to exist than not to exist.”[28] 


3. The Text—Proslogion [Discourse] [~1077-1078]:




430 His goal: he wants to demonstrate that his deity truly exists; that he requires nothing but himself to be; and that he is supremely good. 


Chapter I:


430-431 In this chapter Anselm makes the reader aware of our wretchedness (because of original sin), of how far we are removed from the deity and from our “good,” and of the need for an understanding of that which we take on faith. 


-431-432 “I acknowledge, Lord, and I thank you, that you have created in me this image of you so that I may remember you, think of you, and love you.  Yet this image is so eroded by my vices, so clouded by the smoke of my sins, that it cannot do what it was created to do unless you renew and refashion it.  I am not trying to scale your heights, Lord: my understanding is in no way equal to that.  But I do long to understand your truth in some way, your truth that my heart believes and loves.  For I do not seek to understand in order to believe, I believe in order to understand.  For I also believe that “unless I believe, I shall not understand.” 


Chapter II:


432 “...we believe You to be something than which nothing greater could be thought.”  (STWNGBT) 


-‘Greater’ = ‘more perfect’ or ‘better’. 


Even the fool, who denies god exists, “...understands what he hears; and what he understands exists in his understanding, even if he does not understand that it exists [in reality].”[29] 


“So, even the fool must admit that something than which nothing greater can be thought exists at least in his understanding, since he understands this when he hears it, and whatever is understood exists in the understanding.  And surely that than which a greater cannot be thought cannot exist only in the understanding.  For if it exists only in the understanding, it can be thought to exist in reality as well, which is greater.  So if that than which a greater cannot be thought exists only in the understanding, then that than which a greater cannot be thought it is that than which a greater can be thought.  But that is clearly impossible.  Therefore, there is no doubt that something than which a greater cannot be thought exists both in the understanding and in reality.” 


Chapter III:


Here Anselm revisits the argument of Chapter II and cuts it to its core elements:


“This [being] exists so truly that it cannot be thought not to exist.  For it is possible to think that something exists that cannot be thought not to exist, and such a being is greater than one that can be thought not to exist.  Therefore, if that than which a greater cannot be thought not to exist, then that than which a greater cannot be thought is not that than which a greater cannot be thought; and this is a contradiction.  So that than which a greater cannot be thought exists so truly that it cannot be thought not to exist. 

  And this is you, O Lord our God.” 


-Note that mountains and valleys go together—one can’t have the one without the other.  Of course one can have neither. 


-Note, similarly, that convex and concave surfaces go together, though one could have neither. 


-Now note that the notion of an all-perfect being and existence similarly, he contends, must go together.  Here, however, it doesn’t make sense to say that “one could have neither”—the pair involve existence. 


-Just as the “essence” of the deity precludes immorality, ignorance, or impotence, so it precludes nonexistence. 


Whereas in the case of everything else (all other essences), it is possible to separate the “thing’s character” and its existence, here this is not possible.  Of course the “impossibility” referred to here is the strongest sort—the assertion that the all-perfect being does not exist entails a contradiction! 


If you wish to delve further in to the argument, and the attempts to formulate it carefully, I recommend the article on the argument in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 


Chapter IV:


How does the fool make his mistake? 


432-433 “...there must be more than one way in which something is ‘said in one’s heart’ or ‘thought’.  In one sense of the word, to think a thing is to think the word that signifies that thing.  But in another sense, it is to understand what exactly the thing is.  God can be thought not to exist in the first sense, but not in the second sense.” 


Regarding the Remaining Chapters V-XXVI:


In these Chapters Anselm clarifies other “attributes” (or “perfections” or characteristics”) of this being which necessarily exists.  In his A History of Philosophy, Frederick Copleston notes that for Anselm all of these characteristics or attributes are “contained implicitly” in the ideal of “a perfect being” [“a being [thing] than which no greater can be thought”]:


St. Anselm wanted his argument to be a demonstration of all that we believe concerning the divine Nature, and, since the [ontological] argument concerns the absolutely perfect Being, the attributes of God are contained implicitly in the conclusion of the argument.  We have only to ask ourselves what is implied by the idea of a Being than which no greater can be thought, in order to see that God must be omnipotent, omniscient, supremely just, and so on.  Moreover, when deducing these attributes…St. Anselm gives some attention to the clarification of the notions in question.  For example, God cannot lie: is not this a sign of lack of omnipotence?  No, he answers, to be able to lie should be called impotence rather than power, imperfection rather than perfection.  If God could act in a manner inconsistent with His essence, that would be a lack of power on His part.  Of course, it might be objected that this presupposes that we already know what God’s essence is or involves, whereas what God’s essence is, is precisely the point to be shown; but St. Anselm would presumably reply that he has already established that God is all-perfect and so that He is both omnipotent and truthful: it is merely a question of showing what the omnipotence of perfection really means and of exposing the falsity of a wrong idea of omnipotence.[30] 


Anselm maintains that we can know that this deity:


-is missing no kind of goodness (Ch 5):


--433 “…and so, you are just, truthful, happy, and whatever it is better to be than not to be.  For it is better to be just than unjust, and better to be happy than unhappy.”


-can “perceive” (that is have knowledge) without having a body (Ch 6),


-is omnipotent though there are things it can not do (cannot be corrupted, cannot lie, cannot cause the true to be false, etc.)—because these “activities” are actually “weaknesses” (or “imperfections”)—being “unable” to do them, is not a weakness:


--433 “so whoever can do these things can do them, not in virtue of his power, but in virtue of his weakness.  So when we say that he [the person who can do them, unlike the deity] “can” do these things, it is not because he has the power to do them, but because his weakness gives something else power over him” (Ch 7),


-can be merciful and yet impassible [unaffected by emotions]:


--434 “…you are merciful, because you save the sorrowful and spare those who sin against you; but you are also not merciful, because you are not afflicted with any feeling of compassion for sorrow” (Ch 8),


-can be completely just and yet spare the wicked (Ch 9),


-is not a place nor a time, though all things are “in” him:


--438 “…it is not even the case that yesterday, today, and tomorrow you are; rather,, you are simply outside time altogether.  Yesterday, today, and tomorrow are merely in time.  But you, although nothing exists without you, do not exist in a place or a time; rather all things exist in you.  For nothing contains you, but you contain all things” (Ch 19),


-439 alone is what it is and who it is:


--“…you alone, Lord, are what you are; and you are who you are.  For whatever is one thing as a whole and something else in its parts, and whatever has in it something changeable, is not entirely what it is.  And whatever began to exist out of nonexistence and can be thought not to exist, and returns to nonexistence unless it subsists through some other being; and whatever has a past that no longer exists and a future that does not yet exist: that thing does not exist in a strict and absolute sense.  But you are what you are, since whatever you are in any way or at any time, you are wholly and always that. 

  And you are the one who exists in a strict and absolute sense, because you have no past and no future but only a present, and you cannot be thought not to exist at any time” (Ch 22), and


-is triune—that is it is one being and three beings:


--439 “thus, whatever each of you is individually, that is what the whole Trinity is all at once, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; for each of you individually is nothing other than the supremely simple unity and supremely united simplicity, which cannot be multiplied or different from itself” (Ch 23). 




Notes: [click on note number to return to the text for the note]

[1] Cf., Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1936). 

[2] Michael Matthews, The Scientific Background to Modern Philosophy (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989), p. 6--emphasis is mine. 

[3] Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background (New York: Columbia U.P., 1967), p. 16. 

[4] Obviously, but importantly, we should no more think of him as Italian (or French, or British), than we should think of Plato as Greek.  We use these phrases to refer to current political and cultural “organizations,” and these did not exist (or did not exist in their current form) at the time of these thinkers.  Anselm, in fact, could be better considered as a pious monk (or as a Bishop) whose primary “allegiance” was to a religious rather than any political organization. 

[5] The conflict between Anselm and Kings William II and Henry I is, in many respects, similar to the sort of conflict which students may be familiar with from the (later) story of Sir (and Saint) Thomas Moore (1487-1535) and his conflict with Henry VIII. 

[6] An excellent initial source for some of his prayers is The Marian Spirituality of Saint Anselm, http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/anselm.html , which I last accessed on July 6, 2009.  The page states that it is “maintained by The Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute, Dayton, Ohio 45469-1390, and created by Michael P. Duricy,” and its discussion of his “Three Prayers To [the Virgin] Mary is informative. 

[7] Christian “apologists” were theologians who endeavored to offer rational arguments and proofs for Christianity. 

[8] Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation: The Rise of Modern Paganism (N.Y.: W.W. Norton, 1966), p. 230.  Emphasis added to passage twice.  

[9] Gay’s footnote here reads: “this much-quoted passage is from the Septuagint version of the Bible, from Isaiah, VII, 9.  All other versions translate the Hebrew differently.  The King James Version has, “if you will not believe, surely ye shall not be established.”  The Septuagint is an ancient Greek version of the Old Testament Scriptures that was made by between seventy and seventy-two translators between 208 and 130 B.C.E.  Emphasis is added to the cited passage. 

[10] Ibid., pp. 230-231. 

[11] St. Anselm, Proslogion, trans. Thomas Williams [1996], in Classics of Western Philosophy (seventh edition), ed. Steven M. Cahn Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006), pp. 413-424, pp. 414-415.  As Anselm notes in the “Prologue,” the title is meant to indicate “a speech made to another”--his earlier Monologion was intended as a “speech to himself.” 

[12] Philippe Wolff, The Awakening of Europe, trans. Anne Carter (Baltimore: Penguin, 1968), p. 228. 

[13] Ibid., p. 229. 

[14] R.W. Southern, Saint Anselm: A Portrait In A Landscape (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1990), p. 104. 

[15] Ibid. 

[16] The first of the seven canonical hours or, the service at that time (midnight or daybreak), morning prayer/song.  For Medieval monks, these canonical hours represented times of mandatory communal prayer.  Matins was frequently accompanied by lauds (marked especially by psalms/praise).  The other canonical hours are prime, tierce, sext, nones, vespers, and chompin. 

[17] The passage from Eadmer’s Vita Anselmi [1114?] [as it appears in Patrologia Latina, ed. J.P. Migne (Paris, 1844-1864) v. 158, cols. 49-120 I, xix] is from The Life of St. Anselm by Eadmer, trans. R.W. Southern (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1963), pp. 29-30.  Eadmer was one of Anselm’s monks and accompanied him from Bec to Canterbury as well as on his various travels while Anselm was Archbishop. 

[18] R.W. Southern, Saint Anselm: A Portrait In A Landscape, op. cit., pp. 116-117. 

[19] Ibid., p. 130. 

[20] Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, op. cit., p. 231. 

[21] Cf., William Rowe, “The Ontological Argument,” in Reason and Responsibility (eighth edition), ed. Joel Feinberg (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1993), pp. 8-17.  Rowe’s article provides a very helpful clarification of Anselm’s argument as well as a useful discussion of a number of criticisms of the argument. 

[22] Ibid., v. 2, Pt. 1, pp. 181-182. 

[23] The abbreviation stands for ‘that than which nothing greater can be thought.’ 

[24] The references here are to Psalms 14:1 (“The impious fool says in his heart ‘There is no God.’”) and 53:1 (“The impious fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”).  Citations from The New English Bible (N.Y.: Oxford Univ. Press, 1971). 

[25] W.T. H. Jackson, “Introduction: The Life and Times of Erasmus,” in The Essential Works of Erasmus, ed. W.T.H. Jackson (N.Y.: Bantam, 1965), pp. 1-24, p. 22. 

[26] R.W. Southern, Saint Anselm: A Portrait In A Landscape, op. cit., p. 207. 

[27] Frederick Copleston, History of Western Philosophy: Medieval Philosophy, v. 2, Pt. I (Garden City: Image, 1962), p. 183.  A syllogism has two premises, a “major” one which is listed first, and a “minor” one which is listed second. 

[28] Jim Holt, “Big-Bang Theology, God Makes A Cosmological Comeback,” Wilson Quarterly Winter 1998, pp. 39-41, p. 41. 

[29] Anselm begins his proof in “Chapter 2” by referring to Psalm 14:1 which says “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’  They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good”; and Psalm 53:1 which says the same thing.  The translation here is that of the Revised Standard Version (N.Y.: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1952). 

[30] Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy: Medieval Philosophy (v. 2, pt. I, op. cit., p. 184. 

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