St. Anselm (1033-1109), A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

St. Anselm (1033-1109), A Perspective

Who was he? He was born in Aosta in Burgundy and was a pious kid and tried to have a monastic life at the age of 15. However, the local Abbot didn’t accept him, because his father was not happy with his decision. Once his mother passed on, Anselm began traveling. Finally he reached the Abbey of Bec after travelling and started to study under the famous Prior Lanfrance. At the end he took his monastic orders in 1060. Once Lanfrance was appointed Abbot of Caen three years later, Anselm replaced him as Prior much to the embarrassment and disappointment of older and more grounded candidates.

In the next 30 years he wrote his philosophical and theological works and was later appointed Abbot of Bec.

He became the father of the Scholastic tradition and Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 until he died.

He became a celebrated thinker for his logical arguments in two major writings: the Monologion (‘Soliloquy’) and the Proslogion (Discourse). Both of these works were about arguments for proving the existence of God.

By the 12th century the writings of Plato and Aristotle had been rediscovered and reinterpreted by the scholastics that made an effort to synthesize early Greek philosophies with medieval theology.

The students of Anselm, who were familiar with the Greek tradition wanted to see a rational justification for the existence of God, which was not based on the acceptance of scripture or doctrinal teachings. Anselm responded to this demand by coming up with what is known as ‘the ontological argument for the existence of God’, which had been debated among many philosophers in the history of thought till Immanuel Kant rejected it in 18th century.

Rene Descartes used this argument to prove the existence of God. Therefore, Kant killed two birds with one rock, which is not something I would ever do literally.

What is ‘the ontological argument for the existence of God’ any way?

According to a great scholar by the name of S.H. Nasr, a Spanish theologian and philosopher named Francisco Suarez (1548-1617) is credited to have come up with the idea of ‘ontology’ for the first time in the West. What is ‘ontology’? It is a branch of philosophy, which focuses on the nature of existence. (Oxford, Advanced Learning’s Dictionary) It is a “theory of being”. It is the branch of thought, which seeks questions like, what is real? What is the difference between phenomenon and reality? What is the relation between mind and body? Are numbers and concepts real or just physical things are real? (Does the Center Hold? By Donald Palmer) what is being? In and of itself is nothing. Can it be examined by our 5 senses the answer is, not really? ‘To be or not to be’ is what we have in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Why be rather than not be has been discussed in philosophy? Why am I here to begin with? If God is the creator of Adam or the first man, then why did He put him and his woman through tests? If you’re my parents, then why are you punishing me? After all, I didn’t ask to be born? I didn’t ask to be created, Adam might have asked? Where did I come from, what is this and where am I going? If we were believers in personal God, then we would be bound to ask these kinds of questions? Why am I put through hell in this world in which happiness is just a short breeze? Now that I’m aging and getting old, I have to worry about where I’ll be spending the rest of my life at? Am I going to die in a nursing home or at my children’s houses? However, they have their own lives to live. But I don’t want to be a burden. Does anyone want me at my old age? I have lived long enough to be 100, or 103 or 107 years. She is 107 years old and all media is concerned is that she runs even at this age. Longevity is very significant in our time and not what the person has achieved intellectually or otherwise. Is it worth to live this long? My mother gave me birth and I was born with joy to my parents. But how about now when I’m old and waited to be gone? What was the purpose of this coming and going any way? I’m trying very hard to hold on to some branches of trees hanging over the river of life to survive. But the river is rapid and harsh taking everything on its way with no exception. What was the meaning of being to start with? Some like Albert Camus would say, asking this question itself is absurd, because life is meaningless reality any way. Buddha said this life is nothing but suffering and struggle. Are we being punished, but for what crime? This world of relative, imperfect, changing and hurting is not a place to live. We’re just trying to survive but to what purpose? Perhaps all these questions crossed St. Anselm’s mind at some point. If God is responsible for placing us here, then let us ask first what this Reality is.

Anselm says by the word ‘God’ ‘we mean something than which nothing greater can be imagined or thought of. But my question is, what do we mean by God to begin with? Is God an entity? Well, we just used the term ‘something’, didn’t we? Is God a thing? If it is no thing, then He is ‘no’ thing. Basically what we’re saying is that He is nothing. But if He is something, then He is changing. If He is changing, then He is subject to decay and death like us. Is this the meaning of a personal God?

Buddha knew what he was rejecting. He was refuting what people thought of their gods and deities.

I personally believe that the word ‘great’ shouldn’t be used for God at all. God is great is different from saying He is something than which no greater can be thought of. We ought to avoid the concept of a personal God to start with. This is nothing but what is called ‘anthropomorphism’ thinking that God is like us.

The Ultimate Reality is not a personal God. It is way above any duality you could possibly imagine. In fact it doesn’t even exist, because it is beyond being and non-being or existence and non-existence. Using the word ‘great’ is incorrect, because its opposite is ‘small’. Size shouldn’t be used for God unless by the term ‘great’ we mean something else. The Ultimate Reality is beyond our imagination. Our intelligence is unable to fathom the depth of this Reality. What is the meaning of the word ‘existence’ any way? ‘Ex’ means ‘out’ and ‘Sistere’ means to place or stand. In other words, it means outstanding. Are we trying to prove an outstanding Reality? God is not something. If I were to deny the existence of God, I have already proven there’s such a thing as God. There must be something I deny its existence. What is that? Well, that is God. As we can see, we already have problem even in rejecting the existence of God. When we refute the existence of anything, we’re already affirming or saying ‘yes’ it is. We’re limited by our language. Thus, proving the existence of God is also limited by the language we communicate.

 St. Anselm and others like him seems to have been scared to move beyond the procrustean bed of the Biblical authority. Even his proof of the existence of God had to be dictated by his faith in a personal Reality. This was true for St. Augustine and even St. Thomas Aquinas.

He argues that even the non-believer or the Fool, as he calls them agrees that this is what the concept of God involves, because the existence of God would seem to follow necessarily from the definition. How can God be something than which nothing greater can be thought of and at the same time it doesn’t exist? There would be a contradiction to think this way. I would like to accept his argument except the fact that there’s a problem with his initial statement to begin with. In fact, because I’m able to think that God is something, then it would be easy to reject his existence. If God were nothing, then it would be difficult to prove His existence. But now that He is something, I should be able to prove His existence. The computer I’m working with exists, because it is something. The glasses I’m wearing are some things, because I can see better. People are not fools to think of God by way of a comparison. Indeed, those non-believers shouldn’t have any problem being very smart to accept the fact that Anselm’s God does exist. Yes there should be a contradiction, if they don’t believe in the existence of Anselm’s God who is something. Given the definition of God presented by Anselm, God must exist. My table exists so does my house. However, is God’s existence on the same par as our existence? I exist, namely I stand out there. But does God also stand out there? We thought God was everywhere. Anselm shouldn’t blame the ‘Fools’, as he put it, for not accepting his argument. However, even if they accept his argument, they’re still struggling to find out what kind of God this may be. Anselm is right in thinking that the existence of God should logically follow from his initial statement, because after all only ‘something’ can exist. The ‘Fools’ ought to accept this argument. But what are we proving? Whose God is this? If this is Anselm’s God, then He must exist, because He is something. But if I was one of those Fools, I would say you’re right. Your God, which is something, does exist but only as a concept. Even a dead person exists. I can’t look at a dead person’s body and say it just doesn’t exist. But what are we proving? Is this a true God or St. Anselm’s perception or interpretation? Is this a God beyond the realm of logic or mind? Even a fool should realize that Anselm’s God really exists, because He is something. The Ultimate Reality doesn’t have to exist, because it is beyond existence and non-existence. The Fools shouldn’t reject this because otherwise there would be a contradiction. In fact there’s no contradiction, if we accept that God is something. Now you might understand why for Kant ‘God exists’ is an analytic statement. The predicate ‘existence’ is in the concept of God. And who is this God but someone’s imagination or perception. We blame Kant for regarding this God as a postulate or assumption. Among other proofs for the existence of God Kant thought Anselm’ was an interesting one.

    I might have muddied the water, but I did it to be able to catch a fish or two. So please don’t get confused. I just wanted to show you that Anselm’s argument for the existence of God, with all due respect cannot help us here at all. He probably had a good intention and yet he was unable to deliver what he had intended to do.

    He goes on to maintain that if we think of a God that doesn’t really exist, then this is not as great as one who does exist. Since we can clearly think of God and suppose He exists, then something than which nothing greater can be thought of should be something that exists.

    Some might think his ontological argument is straightforward in its simplicity. However, a lot of people think there’s something odd and questionable about it. Opinions have been divided as to what precisely is the problem with the argument.

    There was a Benedictine monk by the name of Gaunilo of Marmoutiers who was his contemporary. He criticized Anselm’s argument by saying that if Anselm’s reasoning were right, then one could think or conceive of a lost island which was the most perfect one there could ever be. Since through definition this island is the most perfect, it has to exist and for Anselm it would be less than perfect if it didn’t. Gaunilo, therefore, said if we accept Anselm’s argument, then we’re allowed to succumb to the existence of all kinds of imaginary things and thus it cannot be tenable. Anselm’s answer to Gaunilo was that the quality of perfection is such an attribute which can only be used for God. Consequently his ontological argument cannot be applied to the proof of the existence of imaginary islands or anything else. If I were Gaunilo, I would respond to him by saying that once you have the word God before you, you ought to question yourself as to how objective this Reality is. You believe in the God of Abraham but is this the true creator or He is only a figment conceived in your mind. Even faith in this God is unable to help you. What if it is the same God whose bust became an idle for Pharaoh’s wife? She believed in this God and still she was ready to turn her back to it but instead Joseph turned his back to her.

    God is not an island according to Anselm. But nevertheless, we’re the ones who have turned the Ultimate Reality into a personal God of our imaginations.

    Anselm by using his mind struggles to prove the existence of a God, which for Kant is nothing but a postulate or assumption. The existence of this God depends on my interpretation and perception. With pure reason we’re not able to know God, our true Self and what is beyond the phenomenal realm for Kant. To my humble opinion, Kant made a lot of sense by clearing the way to the Ultimate Reality except the fact that he was unable to show us how to get there.

     As we mentioned before, versions of Anselm’s ontological arguments influenced St. Thomas Aquinas and Rene Descartes, which were refuted by Kant later on. All right it is not enough to understand this in our mind according to Anselm, because it wouldn’t be the greatest. So it should exist outside of our minds. An atheist would much rather not to believe at all that there’s a creator God than go through so many arguments, which are but mental acrobatics.

    For in Him we live, move and have our beings. (Acts 17: 28) Don’t worry who said that but think for a moment about what is conveyed. The fish go to their mothers and ask about what water is. The water is in the jar and we’re revolving around the world looking for it. We’re in it and we’re still searching for it. We’re here and will have to taste death some day but it doesn’t mean we don’t exist even when we’re dead. We shall be around in some forms. How do I know? This is an interesting question to which I have no answer, because leaving this world is a one way street. Who has come back to tell us what is going on after our departure? There’re stories and I’m afraid those are the only realities we have, which are not even facts.

    St. Thomas Aquinas was very much aware of Islamic sources. He studied Muslim philosophers and I still don’t know why he had to accept Anselm’s ontological arguments, which didn’t help either of these great thinkers to find out what is behind this curtain of mystery, namely the world beyond. Like Socrates, I know this much that I don’t know. Socrates was asked about the life after death to which he had no intellectual response. He simply didn’t know and I believe he was not ashamed of admitting it either.

     Kant’s basic objection to Anselm’s argument was that the concept of God as a perfect Being or necessary Being doesn’t follow that God exists, because ‘existence’ is not a perfection. The concept of an existing perfect Being is no more or less great than the concept of a non-existing Being. Many thinkers maintain that the problem with Anselm’s argument is the fact that we just cannot determine whether something exists or not simply through analyzing the meaning of a term or concept. Whether or not Anselm made a logical mistake here has been the subject of a controversy among many philosophers and logicians to this day.

     Recently a thinker by the name of Norman Malcolm revived a lesser known and different version of Anselm’s argument which dodged the bullets of Kant and others which stepped aside.   Malcolm maintained that Anselm’s arguments in the ‘Proslogion’ make sense, because ‘if it is possible that a necessary being [Being] could exist, then it must exist for it would be a contradiction to say a necessary being does not exist’. We’re all possible or contingent beings. Necessary Being cannot not exist, thus it must exist. Perhaps it is a mistake to make use of the term ‘something’ for necessary Being. Anselm’s argument with Gaunilo is that necessary Being cannot not be and thus we shouldn’t compare it with an island.

    Malcolm says God could ceases to exist, if the concept of God was self-contradictory or nonsensical. This is something, Malcolm holds, to be shown by those who are opposing the ontological argument.

    I myself believe that we can easily avoid Anselm’s problem by just going way above the personal God to the Ultimate Reality to the top of the tetrahedron, which is beyond being and non-being or existence and non-existence. This Reality doesn’t have to exist. We don’t have to prove its existence. This term can only be used for everything in the universe but not for the Ultimate Reality. This Reality is even beyond relative and absolute. We don’t know what it is, because it is beyond essence and existence. Anselm says, ‘The quality of perfection is an attribute only applicable to God’. However, this Reality is beyond perfection and imperfection. It is One to which Plato was pointing. Duality belongs to the realm of multiplicity or many. We seem to be struggling to leave the bondage of anthropomorphism facing the procrustean bed of absurdity.

    Anselm seems to be defining what God is. We know very well we can only speak of God’s attributes not His essence. We have absolutely no knowledge of what God is. God’s whatness is not what we can know. To prove His existence Anselm appeals to His essence. In other words, he is saying God is that necessary Being than which nothing greater can be thought of, therefore He must exist. An island is contingent reality but God is a necessary Being and He cannot not exist, which means He must exist. We can sense that there’s something wrong with his argument here. Who are we to decide what God should be or whether He exists or not? What if the truth is completely different from what we think? We’re like bats trying to imagine what the Sun is. Mother, what is water? How can she answer this question? We know it exists, because we’re in it. But what is its essence? I cannot even say that ‘God is a necessary Being’ let alone whether it exists or not. To answer Malcolm, this can satisfy my logical curiosity. However, we’re still in the realm of the contaminated mind not a pure one. Only Spirit knows the Spirit, namely Atman knows Brahman. But even this statement is incorrect, because there shouldn’t be any duality in the One even in Atman, the ray of the Sun within us. This is not a mathematical oneness to be sandwiched between plus and minus. This Oneness has no boundaries. Anselm says ‘The quality of perfection is an attribute only applicable to God’. However, I argue that that Reality is beyond perfection and imperfection. Perfection doesn’t necessarily result in existence as Kant argues. What are we trying to achieve here? Perfection is only one of the attributes of God and in Islam He has 99 names, which are but His attributes. We need to go beyond our ordinary language to understand what it means to experience the Ultimate Reality. We ought to smell the perfume of the Reality rather than proving the sun that shining before us. Christ was standing or sitting in front of Pontius Pilate reflecting the Sun as a mirror and he was wondering what truth was. We should start with ourselves rather than worrying whether God exists or not. In the presence of Moses his followers rebelled against him. They were so impatient that they didn’t wait to see the words of God on the tablets. We put all the blames on Satan for our behaviors while we’re to blame. I believe Jesus went to the cross because he was blamed for all the wrong doings of the people around him. We act as if our theology is the direct revelation by God. I personally believe Christ was not crucified for our sins as a sacrificial lamb. He had a destiny similar to Socrates.

    We have forgotten ourselves and try to use our pure reason, using Kant’s philosophy, in order to prove the existence of God. We have polluted our waters as early as 1845 as it is printed on the bottles of Poland Spring water. One scholar once said the pollution without is the pollution within.

    We have not changed a bit in spite of Darwinian evolution. They treated Jesus exactly like he had warned them not to.

    Friedrich Nietzsche believed there’re two Gods, a good one and a not so good one. How can you tell one is good unless there’s bad one? Think for a moment what duality has done to our theology. I think Nietzsche had a point here in that we’re in a world in which opposites and contradictions are unavoidable realities. When we read the Old Testament in the beginning God created the world and it was good, we immediately question, where was the bad one? We’re linguistic creatures and have no choice but struggle through this means of communication. We take things literally and sometimes symbolically. Philosophers like Philo believed that we ought to try to understand the stories of the Bible metaphorically, allegorically and symbolically. By doing otherwise we would end up with theologies and have to accept them by faith. But once we put them through the rational test, we can see the difference between two approaches. There’s nothing wrong with our intelligence as long as it is not reduced to rationalism of Kant’s pure reason. Intelligence is a gift of God and we must not turn our backs to it. When great minds advise us to use right knowledge to see the truth, we ought to think they must be refereeing to the use of the Intellect within us.

     For a moment forget about who wrote what you’re reading. Just think for yourself and ask whether Anselm’s arguments for the existence of God make any sense. Whether you were born into a Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. or joined this political party or other ones, you’re still entitled to know what is going on intellectually when you’re presented with an argument like Anselm’s. Let us see what it says rather who says it and try to prove His existence.

    We learn that God’s essence and existence are one. My essence and existence are separate. A baby first points to an object and then asks his or her mom what is that? We first notice the existence of a tree, and then we want to know what it is. I’m but what am I? In God, essence and existence are one. If this were true, then why we first come up with such an argument as Anselm’s? The statement ‘God is a necessary Being than which…’ If His essence and existence are one, then why do we need to prove His existence? In the Ultimate Reality there’s no duality of essence/existence. This duality doesn’t even exist  God either. This Reality is beyond good God and bad God. It doesn’t even exist. Besides, using the word ‘existence’ for it is incorrect. Silence is perhaps the only term which could be used, because it cannot be divided.

    St. Anselm tried to give us something to think about. However, he was unable to satisfy the intellectual curiosity of his generation and ours.

    (Philosophy, 100 essential thinkers, by Philip Stokes)