Thursday, June 18, 2009

Proslogion - Anselm

Proslogion: In the Preface Anselm describes how the Proslogion is a sequel to an earlier work entitled Monologion. In the Monologion Anselm had given arguments for God’s existence and nature, but he was unsatisfied with the complexity of the reasoning there and hoped to give a more simple argument. He desired to give a single argument that needs nothing other than itself in order to provide a proof that 1) God exists, 2) He is the Supreme Good, 3) He depends on nothing else, 4) everything else depends on Him, 5) as well as whatever else is believed by Christian about the God’s nature. It is striking to compare the type of argument that Anselm hopes to provide with the nature of the God that he espouses. The unity and self-sufficiency of the two parallel each other.
Anselm describes the difficulty that his attempts encountered as well as the sudden, almost revelational, insight in which he struck upon the argument. This theme, that insight ultimately depends on Divine Illumination, will recur throughout the work. It bears acknowledgement that our current contrast between Belief and Reason or Understanding does not map directly on to Anselm’s categories. Even Reason or Understanding to him is dependent on Divine Illumination, which is a form of Grace.
Anselm describes his work both as an attempt at contemplating God as well as an exercise in ‘faith seeking understanding.’ Thomas Williams, in his introduction to the Proslogion and in his Stanford Encyclopedia article, stresses that ‘faith seeking understanding’ does not mean to Anselm an attempt to move from mere belief to demonstrative knowledge. Neither, according to him, does it mean that Anselm only expects his arguments to edify those that already believe. Rather, Anselm believes that his arguments could convince anyone, even the fool who does not believe in God. ‘Faith seeking understanding,’ Williams claim, just means “active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God.” This description certainly characterizes the devotional tone of the work. Anselm seeks God, thirsts for Him, and pursues this drive through an attempt to better understand Him.
Anselm sees his relationship with God through the lens of a Neoplatonic scheme of original closeness, falling away, and a journey or ascent of return. Initially, God, who pervades all of creation, should be readily apparent. It is only necessary for Anselm, or any man, to seek God because something has gone terribly wrong. In a standard Neoplatonic scheme, this would be the result of the distance of man from the One in the emanationist scheme, which results in the attenuating of the One’s presence. In Anselm’s case this fall is a result of sin. Anselm, like Augustine, disagrees with perfectionist non-Christian Neo-Platonism. For him too Divine Grace is necessary to enable a return to God, which he sees as arising though a better understanding of Him.
Chapter 2-4 encapsulate Anselm’s famous Ontological Argument (so named by Kant), which is the primary reason we are reading this work. I will not engage with all the different criticisms of the argument, rather I will merely provide a clearer sketch of it. Anselm argues against that Biblical Fool from Psalms: “The Fool says in heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalms 14:1; 53:1). He defines God as “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” The standard interpretation of the argument then proceeds as follows, though William in his SEP article gives a different interpretation:
1) Whatever is understood exists in the understanding
2) The Fool hears and understands the statement “that than which nothing greater can be thought,”
3) Therefore what the Fool understands exists in his understanding
4) It is greater to exist in reality than to exist merely in the understanding
5) Thus, if “that than which a greater cannot be thought” only existed in the understanding it would not be “that than which a greater cannot be thought” because a greater than which could be thought – the same Being existing in reality
6) Therefore, “that than which a greater cannot be thought” must exist in the understanding as well as in reality
In Chapter Three, Anselm argues that God cannot be thought not to exist. Williams focuses on this as Anselm’s true argument. He buttresses this claim by showing how Anselm focuses on it in his Reply to Gaunilo. Focusing this argument has the advantage of avoiding the claim that it is better for something to exist in reality than merely in the understanding, which Gaunilo and many others exploit to criticize Anselm’s argument. The argument goes as follows:
1) It is possible to think that something exists that cannot be thought not to exists
2) A Being that cannot be thought not to exist is greater than a Being that can be thought to exist
3) If “that than which a greater cannot be thought” can be thought to not exist, then it would not be “that than which a greater cannot be thought” because a greater than which can be thought – a Being that is not able to be thought not to exist
4) Therefore, “that than which a greater cannot be thought” cannot be thought to not exist
To make himself clear, in case we haven’t realized, Anselm remarks here that “that than which a greater cannot be thought” is God
In Chapter Four, Anselm explains how, if existence is a necessary part of the definition of God, and therefore if one thinks of God this necessarily entails his existence, the Fool could think of God only to then claim that He does not exist. Anselm answers that there are two senses of ‘thinking:’ first, merely thinking the word that signifies a thing and, second, thinking as understanding. The Fool only thought that God does not exist in the first sense. If one understands what God is in the second sense, one will, according to Anselm, understand that God must exist.
In the next few chapter Anselm uses the definition of God as “that than which a greater cannot be thought” in order to derive what he sees as God’s attributes. Additionally, he discusses the compossibility of these attributes, that is that they all can exist together in one Being. In effect, Anselm argues that God is whatever it is better to be than not to be because, if he was not, a being greater than Him could be thought – a Being which is that better Being. On this basis, Anselm argues that God is not dependent on anything, but that all things were created by Him from nothing. Additionally, He is just, truthful, and happy. This discussion is ripe for a Feminist or any other contextualist critique. Anselm has his own gender-dependent or context-dependent beliefs about what is better than what and he uses his formula in order to claim that God possess the ‘better’ attribute.
Anselm reconciles God’s incorporeality with his percipient-ness by explaining how to perceive is really just to know and does not necessarily require the medium of a body. Anselm also explains how God can both be Omnipotent and All-Good. This is seemingly a conflict because since God is All-Good He cannot do evil, which seems to impinge on God’s power. According to Anselm, the capacity to do evil is not really a power but a weakness. It is the tendency to be affected or moved by misfortune and wickedness. Thus, in fact, the capacity to do evil would actually itself impinge on God’s omnipotence. It would mean that he would be passible; He could be affected by another power.
Anselm then tries to reconcile God’s Mercy with his Impassibility. Being merciful seems to imply the tendency to be moved by compassion, however, as discussed above God’s omnipotence seems to require Him to be impassible. Anselm explains that God is only described as merciful in relation to us; this does not actually mean that God is actually moved by compassion. This argument will later be developed by Maimonides to explain all of God’s positive attributes mentioned in the Bible.
Things get very messy when Anselm tries to reconcile God’s supreme Justice with his Mercy. Justice, in the tradition Anselm is working in, means giving to each his or her due. However, mercy means sparing the wicked from the punishment that they deserve. Anselm goes down many tracks in order to try to reconcile this conflict, not all of which I fully understand. One method is that he claims that, in some way, God’s Goodness is maximized by His being good to the wicked in both punishing and sparing them. Additionally, he claims that doing good to the good and doing evil to the evil is dictated simply by Justice, but having Mercy on the wicked really shows goodness. Anselm admits that this is still mysterious though. He admits that he is confused about the interrelationships between Goodness, Justice, and Mercy. This does not, however, stop him from continuing to try to reconcile them. It is interesting that all these problems result from Anselm working in a scheme wherein Justice and Mercy and opposed to each other. There is good work being done on Justice and Mercy in the Jewish tradition. Some scholars argue that Justice and Mercy do not stand in the same tension in Rabbinic thought as in Scholastic thinking.
In Chapter Ten Anselm discusses how it can be just to both punish and spare the wicked. If one is just, it seems that the other would seem to be unjust. He claims that when God punishes the wicked it is just according to their merits, but when He spares the wicked it is just according to his goodness. He is just to Himself in doing what is fitting for a Being that is supremely good. At the end of his discussion of Justice and Mercy, Anselm seems to finally throw up his hands and embrace voluntaristic reasoning “For only what you will is just, and only what you do not will is not just” (14). Additionally, he admits that mystery of why equally wicked people receive different treatment still remains.
After concluding the discussion of the compossibility of these attributes, Anselm returns to discuss other attributes that are the result of his being “that than which a great cannot be thought.” He argues for the identity of God with His attributes. God is not dependent on anything else in order to possess his attributes. Additionally, he discusses how only God is truly unbounded by place and time.
In chapter fourteen Anselm breaks the flow of his discussion in order dwell on the tensions in his endeavor. He recapitulates what he has proved but expresses his thirst for a more intimate encounter with God. He says that it is impossible to get closer both because of the inherent weakness of the human mind and because of God’s greatness. Indeed, adding to his original definition of God as “that than which a greater cannot be thought” Anselm now claims that God is, in fact “greater than can be thought.” This as the result of the following argument:
1) It is possible to think that a Being that is greater than can be thought exists
2) If God is not that Being, then there is something greater than God
3) But that is contradictory because God is “that than a greater cannot be thought”
4) Therefore, God must be greater than can be thought
In addition to any other issues with this argument, many would question whether it is possible to think that a Being that is greater than can be thought exists. If it is greater than can be thought would it be possible to think that it exists?
Nevertheless, Anselm connects God’s being “greater then can be thought” to the verse that God dwells in “the inaccessible light.” We cannot understand God, we are blinded and dazzled by His greatness. However, Anselm claims that we cannot look at the sun itself, but we can still see its light. Similarly, we cannot fully understand God, but we can have a partial apprehension.
Anselm goes on to claim many other positive attributes for God many of them quite worldly, such as harmony, fragrance, savor, softness and beauty. Indeed, he seems to claim, foreshadowing Aquinas, that the original referent for these attributes is God himself and that worldly objects only possess them derivatively. This is in sharp contrast to Maimonides’s perspective, and Anselm’s own statements about mercy, that these attributes cannot rightly be attributed to God at all. This seems to indicate the Anselm is most concerned, as he mentions, with God impassibility when discussing mercy and is not as concerned with God incommensurability as Maimonides.
After having discussed many of God’s attributes, Anselm modifies the way that they can be applied to God by stressing one of God’s most important attributes – His Unity. God possess all of the attributes discussed above, but not as parts. Anselm insists on this because unity, according to him, is greater then plurality. This essential unity influences how God’s eternity must be understood. God’s eternity does not merely mean that he continually exists. If it did then God’s existence in the past, present, and future would in some way differ from each other, resulting in plurality, even if merely as a result of their differing temporal relationship. Rather, God is entirely outside time.
Anselm stresses that God’s eternity is greater then the eternity of other created beings. His eternity precedes their eternity because they depend on him for existence, while He does not depend on them. This comment seems to be based on Aristotle’s discussion in the Metaphysics of the various senses of Priority. God’s eternity differs from other beings’ eternity in two other ways: first, they can be thought to end, while he cannot and, second, other eternal things still exist in time, thus in the present there future is still outstanding and their past has disappeared. This is not the case with God’s eternity. Anselm then connects this discussion to debate about how to understand Biblical verses about the “age(s) of age(s).”
Anselm then comments that only God has existence in a strict and absolute sense. Other beings have contingent existence because they depend on other beings. Only God is independent of all other beings. He is not made out of parts. He is not changeable, has no beginning and cannot be thought to end. He does not have past that no longer exists or a future outstanding. Also, He is the is one supreme good
Returning to the theme of God’s unity, Anselm discusses the identity of the Persons of the Trinity. His essential argument is that, due to God’s unity, nothing different than God could come from God. Thus, the Son, the Word of Father, must be identical with the Father, and the Holy Spirit, the love shared by the Father and Son, must be identical with them.
Anselm closes with a discussion of how great the good that is found in God is. This good is the cause of all earthly goodness. He exhorts his readers to love this good, which is the source of all other goods, rather then just the subsidiary earthly good. He then discusses the exponential multiplication of happiness through goodness and love that will be found in the hereafter, a true understanding of which, however, is beyond human capacity in this world. He concludes with a prayer that God enable him to continue to add to his knowledge, love, and joy in him, if not in this life then in the next.
Gaunilo’s Reply on Behalf of the Fool: The basic argument of Gaunilo’s reply is easy to grasp, one cannot go simply and directly, as Anselm does, from conceptual to existential claims. However, Gaunilo throws up a lot of arguments in some of which the reasoning is not as easy to grasp. Charlesworth’s St. Anselm’s Proslogion is a useful aid to help cut through some of the noise and focus on the more central arguments. Essentially, there are three major arguments, but before we get to them it bears mentioning that Gaunilo restates Anselm’s argument in a slightly different manner then Anselm originally offers it. Instead of consistently discussing “that than which a greater cannot be thought” he switches in the middle of the argument to “that than which is greater than everything else.” Anselm takes issue with this change, insisting that his argument requires “that than which a greater cannot be thought.” In the process of this insistence Anselm makes some arguments that support William’s interpretation of Anselm’s argument.
Gaunilo claims that Anselm argues that “that than which a greater cannot be thought,” when heard and understood, exists in the understanding. But then, if “that than…” exists in the understanding, it must also exist in reality, since otherwise it would not be “that then which is greater than everything else” because other things would be greater than it – things that exist in reality.
Having completed his recapitulation/rendition of the argument, Gaunilo offers a number of counter-arguments. Gaunilo’s first central argument compares “that than which a greater cannot be thought” with all the various false things that can be entertained in one’s mind. He claims that Anselm has not provided a good enough argument to show why an inference from “that then which a greater cannot be thought” ’s existence in the mind to its existence in reality is justified, while an inference to the actual existence of other meaningful false concepts is not.
Next, Gaunilo undermines the extent to which God as “that then which a greater can be thought” even exists in the mind. The notion itself, as “greater than anything else,” means that it cannot be subsumed under any known genus. This seems to indicate that an understanding of it might be the mere understanding of words and not the understanding of a meaningful concept. Thus, it cannot be said to be understood and exist in the understanding. This prevents the inference from its existing in the understanding to its existing in reality from even getting started.
Finally, Gaunilo offers what will become the celebrated Lost Island Argument. In effect, he argues that Anselm’s reasoning results in an absurd conclusion. Here argues as follows:
1) “An Island than which no more excellent can be thought” can be conceived
2) This Island, therefore, exists in the understanding
3) Now since “no more excellent island can be thought” this Island must exist in reality, or else a greater Island can be thought – that same Island existing in reality
Gaunilo hopes to show that Anselm’s reasoning from concept to existence is faulty. It is never possible to argue from the fact that something can be conceived to that fact that it actually exists.
After having savaged Anselm’s major claims in Proslogion, Gaunilo parts with praise for the rest of the work. Thus, he sets an excellent example of how to write proper academic book reviews.
Anselm’s Reply to Gaunilo: Anselm begins his response to Gaunilo by restating his argument. This iteration of the argument is less similar to his comments in Ch. 2 of the Proslogion and more similar to his statements in Ch. 3. This provides the basis for William’s argument that this is his more central argument.
In this rendition there is no move from existence in the understanding to existence in reality on the basis of it being greater to exist in reality than merely in the understanding. Rather, Anselm argues that necessary existence is logically entailed in “that than which a greater cannot be thought.” Stated otherwise, that “that than which a greater cannot be thought” cannot be thought to not exist or else it would not be “that than which a greater cannot be thought.” In good Neoplatonic fashion, he argues that necessary existence is greater than contingent existence. Though Anselm does stress this version of the argument more strongly in the reply, he does sometimes fall back to the reality > understanding move.
Anselm responds to Gaunilo’s Lost Island Argument by claiming that his reasoning only works with “that than a greater cannot be thought” and “not the most excellent island” and that, therefore, Gaunilo’s attempt to show that his reasoning leads to absurd conclusions fails. According to Charlesworth this is because Anselm believes that the most excellent Island would have only relative greatness, it would be the most excellent island, while ‘that than which a greater cannot be thought’ would have absolute greatness, it would be the greatest Being. Absolute greatness entails necessary existence, while the Island’s relative excellency does not.
Anselm then argues against Gaunilo’s alteration to his argument. He claims that there is a substantial difference between “that than which a greater cannot be thought” and “that than which is greater than everything else.” Anselm argues that “that which is greater than everything else” could still be thought to not exist; it could be greater than everything else but just simply not exist. In order to show that “that which is greater than everything else” has necessary existence it would be necessary to show that that “that which is greater than everything else” is “that than which a greater cannot be thought.” Once again, according to Anselm, only ‘that than which a grater cannot be thought’ has the required recursivity to entail necessary existence. Only that concept can continue to add necessary existence to any great Being that is thought.
Anselm next responds to Gaunilo’s equation of ‘that than which’’s existence in the understanding to the existence of false things that exist in the understanding. He claims that it does not bother him that all sorts of false things exist in the understanding but do not exist in reality. It is a unique feature of “that than which a greater cannot be thought” that once it is admitted to exist in the mind its actual existence is entailed. Thus, his argument gets off the ground once it is simply admitted that “that than which a greater cannot be thought” exists in the understanding regardless of the fact that many false things also exist in the understanding.
Finally, Anselm responds to the Gaunilo’s argument that “that than which a greater cannot be thought” cannot even be understood and therefore does not even exist in the understanding. Echoing his comments in the Proslogion proper, Anselm comments that, though a full understanding of God is not possible, humans are capable of a partial grasp of God’s nature. This possible by extrapolating analogical from the goods in the world that one is familiar with; God is greater than all those goods. Similarly, it is possible to grasp “that than which a greater cannot be thought” by extending all of the goods that one understands to their limit. That being said, Anselm also argues that even if the true nature of the being which is “that than which a greater which cannot be thought’ is not possible,” it still possible to understand the notion of “that than which is no greater can be thought.” It is just as understandable as the words unthinkable and ineffable (but see C.S. Peirce on the unthinkable and Proudfoot on the ineffable).
In conclusion, with good collegiality Anselm reciprocates Gaunilo’s kindness with praise of his own.


  1. I apologize ahead of time if the following seems disjointed. I found this stuff incredibly difficult to get my head around and still feel a bit dizzy. I guess I have three questions:

    1. In order to reply to the Lost Island argument, Anselm has to distinguish between relative and absolute greatness. I'm picturing something like Hegel's distinction between bad infinity (the endless progression of finite moments) and good infinity (an infinity unbounded by the finite and thus absolute). The Lost Island is just the greatest possible island we can think of and is relative to other islands. It's a relative, comparable greatness. God, however, is a greatest with no measure, a qualitatively different greatness.

    Carrying this argument over to the discussion of time, God is not just the infinity of finite moments, in past, present and future and thus plural, but outside of time altogether, qualitatively different from time and not the infinity of discreet moments. But, how does one think greatness hierarchically if they are qualitatively different realms? How is it that one can even compare the two? They are different, but how do you assign greater and lesser?

    2. God is both that than which nothing greater can be thought and that which is greater than can be thought, so he straddles thought and the beyond. I'm imagining the lesser of what can be thought to exist, and then as you move up the ladder of greatness you get to that which can be thought not to exist, and finally at the top, or better, unmoored from the ladder but somehow still greater, you get existence again and that existence extends out beyond thought itself, like a non-existence sandwich. But then the realm of existence outreaches the realm of thought.

    Is it possible to not be able to think that which exists? If it is possible to think that we are not able to think that which exists, doesn't this throw some doubt on our ability to understand that than which nothing greater can be thought? That is, even if nothing greater can be thought, won't the knowledge that existence extends beyond our thought jeopardize that notion?

    3. I don't really understand Anselm's beef with Gaunilo's alteration of his definition of God. Yes, it is possible to think that "that which is greater than everything" does not exist, but it is not possible that "that which is greater than everything" actually does not exist because then it would not be greater than everything. It seems like once you confine the argument to either the realm of thought or the realm of being, it works either way. What am I missing?

  2. Sorry for the delay. Thanks, Yoni; the secondary scholarship you included helped a lot. (I also enjoyed the idea of Gaunilo being the patron saint of academic book reviewers.)

    Personally, I found the shift from Augustine to Anselm regarding the theological theorization of the Fall extremely interesting. Augustine, of course, constantly emphasizes the broken nature of man’s will, but I think he was relatively optimistic about the capabilities of the intellect. Correct me if this sounds wrong, but I think he believed the Platonists had more or less hit upon the truth about God, though maybe not necessarily about the Trinity. That knowledge needed to be illuminated by grace to make it a live, transformative knowledge, but, generally speaking, Augustine’s rhetoric treats the human intellect as insufficient but not incapacitated. It’s the broken will, which both wills and wills not to will, that is the real location of the fall in human nature.

    Anselm, in contrast - and rather strikingly - never mentions the will at all. Instead, the Fall manifests itself in our weakened intellect. Like Ben, I’m not entirely sure I understand the way in which Anselm conceives of thought. Not only is there a difference between our understanding of the links between faith and reason - Anselm clearly isn’t offering anything like a modern proof for the existence of God - there’s a difference, I suspect, between our notion of thought and Anselm’s. The best guess I can give is that in his reply to Gaunilo, he has in mind something like the distinction Aquinas makes when he argues that the mind can touch on God but not comprehend it [comprehend in the sense of its roots - com (around); prehension (touch/grasp)]. I can touch on the greatest thought but not totally grasp it? But then, like Ben says, that seems to undermine his argument that even the fool can understand that God is that than which nothing greater can thought.

    I suppose what I find difficult about Anselm is this tension between a type of logic or scholasticism that wants to fill the notion of God with content and make propositions about his nature, and this much more mystical strain of thought, which claims God exceeds that which we can think and seems to open itself up to some sort of apophatic theology. It’s a constant “yes, but” movement. Maybe in this I read him as close to the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus. But I’m not sure if that’s right. Is the Proslogion a sort of ladder we’re supposed to throw away once we reach this mystical knowledge of an ineffable God, or does it actually contain propositions we’re supposed to accept as literal truth? I suspect that Anselm isn’t clear on this.

    I hope this made sense.

  3. Sorry for the delay - my senior thesis was on religion and politics in the Islamic Republic so I have been caught up in the news for the last few days.

    Great comments and questions guys. Like Liane says I think a lot of the difficulties we are experiencing is the result of an actual tension in Anselm, as well as many other medieval religious thinkers, between the drive to comprehend God and the sense of being hopelessly limited. Ben nicely pointed out how this is manifest in the difficulties in Anselm's argument that God is both 'that than which a greater cannot be thought' and 'that which is greater than can be thought.'

    Once again, I think one of the most famous thinkers that tries to resolve this difficulty is Maimonides who in his negative theology advocates continual study of the natural world, not in order to understand God through his works, rather in order to understand what God is not. Advancement in scientific knowledge for Maimonides allows for more and more negation in one's understanding of God, which is the only type of understanding that is possible.

    Briefly as attempts in response to two of Ben's questions: As much as it seems difficult to us, I think that Anselm would have taken it as self-explanatory that qualitative differences could be ranked in a hierarchy. In fact, from the other Jewish and Islamic medieval thinkers I have read it is only the qualitative differences that actually matter. Merely quantitative hierarchies are really negligible. God has to be qualitatively different, better, than creatures in order to be a true God.

    In terms of the difference between 'that than which a greater cannot be thought' and 'that which is greater than everything.' I think ultimately it comes down to two factors. 1) Existence does not automatically trump other good attributes, it is just one good attributes among many. 2) Only 'that than which a greater cannot be thought' has the recursivity that ensures actual existence.
    Here is why: Imagine everything in the world. Now it is possible, according to Anselm, to imagine something better than everything in the world, lets say its more Just, or more Intelligent. It just happens to be that that this thing still lacks one essential feature - actual existence. That thing can still be better than everything else, it just happens to not exist.

    'That than which a greater cannot be thought,' however, necessitates the addition of necessary existence to any really great thing we think of. So now we think of that thing which is greater than everything else be being more Just or more Intelligent. But we are not done yet because we can still think of something greater than this really Just or really Smart being - we can think of its as actually existing.

    'That which is greater than everything else' allows us to think of something that has many different attributes that make it better than all other things. 'That than which a greater cannot be thought' ensures that whatever great thing we think of has to include existence.
    That's how I understand it, it may not be right, does it make sense?