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Medieval Philosophy - Saint Anselm

By Edited Mar 7, 2014 0 0


Anselm was born in1033 and died in 1109. He entered a Benedictine abbey at the age of 27 as a novice and it was under the influence of the scholar Lanfranc that he developed his philosophical and theological interest.

He became the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093 which he was reluctant to do due to the temperament of the monarch at the time; William Rufus, who wanted royal command over the church. Anselm was in exile because of traveling without the King's permission but was invited back to the country when a new monarch came to the throne. Unfortunately this monarch, Henry I, had the same beliefs about the royal command over the church and Anselm was yet again forced in to exile, only returning 2 years before his death in 1109.

Anselm's fundamental starting point in his approach to philosophy and theology was importantly different to the starting point of many other philosophers, in his own words;

'Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand.'

What this means is that belief is the first step and understanding comes from believing rather than the more traditional technique of understanding leading to belief (or no belief).


The Ontological Argument

This the argument for which Anselm is famously known, it is an a priori proof which means that it uses reason and intuition alone rather than depending on experience.

It starts with the assumption that God is the greatest being that one could ever conceive of.

He writes in Chapter 3 of Prosolgion (one of his most famous works);                 

“there can be thought to exist something whose non-existence is inconceivable; and this thing is greater than anything whose non-existence is conceivable. Therefore, if that than which a greater cannot be thought could be thought not to exist, then that which a greater cannot be thought would not be that than which a a greater cannot be thought - a contradiction. Hence, something than which a greater cannot be thought exists so truly that it cannot even be thought not to exist”

What Anselm means in Chapter 3 of Proslogion;

l  We can think of great beings but they do not exist in reality

l  Surely a being that exists is far greater than one that doesn't

l  It is a contradiction to say that the greatest being might not exist when a great being that does exist is far greater

l  Therefore, if there is a being so great than nothing could be greater then it must exist

l  This being is God


l  Therefore God must exist

What Anselm has here done is reason that the existence of God is necessary rather than just arguing that God does exist. If we accept that God is the greatest being that one could conceive of then it logically, according to Anselm, follows that He must exist.

It seems that if one accepts the premises of this conclusion then the conclusion must follow making this argument a valid one.

Famous philosopher Aristotle obviously pre dates Anselm but his influence can be found in the Ontological argument. Aristotle talked of God being 'pure actuality' and what this means is that whatever it is to be God, He is that by 100%. This relates to Anselm's assertion that God is the greatest being and no greater than him can be thought, if God is 100% what it is to be God entirely, and God is great,  then this could suggest that nothing or no one could be any greater.


Criticism of Ontological Argument

Gaunilo’s Island:

One famous criticism of the Ontological argument comes from Gaunilo in what is generally called 'Gaunilo's Island' or 'The Reply on Behalf of the Fool' (referring to the quotation from Psalm 14 that 'The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God'') , the argument runs as follows;

l  An island that exists is far greater than one that does not

l  I can conceive of an island of which no greater can be thought

l  If it is truly the greatest island it must, then, exist

Evidently we are to conclude that the island does not in reality exist. What Gaunilo has here shown is that this way of reasoning something in to existence does not work as Anselm has us believe.

One could argue, however, that when Anselm uses the term 'greater' he means something more that conceiving of a really good island.

So perhaps Gaunilo's criticism is addressing the argument from the wrong angle by misunderstanding what Anselm means by 'great'.


Necessary Non-existence:

20th century philosopher Douglas Gasking provided this particular criticism and it, rather ironically, uses Anselm's own argument format to argue an opposite conclusion, that God does not exist.

1. The creation of the world is the greatest achievement conceivable.

2. The greatness of this creation is the product of (a) its intrinsic quality, and (b) the ability of its creator.

3. The greater the disability (or handicap) of the creator, the more impressive the achievement.

4. The biggest  handicap for a creator would be non-existence.

5. Therefore if we suppose that the universe is the product of an existent creator we can conceive a greater being 15 namely, one who created everything while not existing.


6. Therefore, God does not exist.

Here Gasking has managed to suggest that part of the greatness of God that Anselm depends thoroughly on leads us to the conclusion that He does not exist instead due to the simultaneous idea of not-existing and creating something impressive being demonstrative of greatness.

This argument has fallen in to great criticism itself as it requires the acceptance of several perhaps controversial or debatable premises but the point may be that God can easily by reasoned out of existence in the same style as he was reasoned in to it by Anselm.



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