Anselm resources – 3. Early reactions to the ontological argument

This section of study of the ontological argument for the existence of God traces and describes the earliest reactions to the argument as developed by Anselm in the 11th C, and thus provides a link between the original presentation of the argument and its 17th C restatement by Descartes.

i) The reaction of Lanfranc

When Anselm completed Proslogion, (hereafter P.) in 1078 a copy was sent to his former superior Lanfranc (d. 1089), who was by that time Archbishop of Canterbury in William’s England. Lanfranc did not make any criticisms of the argument that are of philosophical interest, but his reaction does disclose a different approach to and method in theology. Whereas Anselm was plainly a creative and expressive philosophical and devotional thinker, Lanfranc was an altogether more conservative academic. His work was mainly in the areas of biblical interpretation and doctrinal study. He was also a lawyer and a more worldly figure than Anselm was. It is no surprise then, that Lanfranc could see little value in Anselm’s work. He thought it too little related to the biblical literature, and he felt that the traditional dogmas had also been neglected. All in all, he was not disposed to appreciate the expressive value of the argument, and one suspects that as practical man with a high political profile, he didn’t have the patience to give it much in the way of close attention.
















ii) The reaction of Gaunilo

Gaunilo of Marmoutiers, a French monk and a contemporary of Anselm’s, produced the first serious discussion of P. With a nice sense of humour, Gaunilo entitled his treatment “On behalf of the Fool”, a reference to the biblical fool of Psalm 41v1, the atheist, who denies that there is a God. Anselm had made reference to the fool, in whose understanding the idea of God could be said to “exist”, in order to draw out the logic of the understanding he, Anselm, had, of God as “that than which a greater cannot be thought”, which to be as such must and cannot not exist in reality as well as in the mind.


Gaunilo felt that the logic here was absurd and in his review he sought to expose the limitations of Anselm’s reasoning. As Gaunilo saw it, it was wrong to believe that the real existence of a thing could be proved from the idea of it. The crux of the matter that Anselm had presented was that if we define the essence and character of the Divine as “that than which a greater cannot be thought”, it follows that the referent of this notion must really exist or the sense of the notion would be contradicted. This was absurd, in Gaunilo’s view, because the principle in this method of argument was a nonsense if applied to things in general.


To illustrate the point Gaunilo made reference to the idea of “the most perfect of islands”, though it has to be said that to follow Anselm’s logic properly, he should have referred to the “most perfect island conceivable”, or to “that island than which a greater cannot be thought”. “The most perfect of islands” as used by Gaunilo originally simply means “the most perfect island that there is” and it is clear that it is easy to prove that this, the most perfect of islands, exists … However, Gaunilo’s point is generally translated into a form that parallels Anselm’s, and thus we may follow the formulation suggested above, viz, “that island than which a greater cannot be thought”. The critical argument then is that the logic used by Anselm suggests that if “that island than which a greater cannot be thought” exists only in the mind, then it is not “that island than which a greater cannot be thought” because it is possible to think of a greater, ie, that island existing in reality as well. Therefore, to be “that island than which a greater cannot be thought” that island must exist in reality as well as in the mind – and so on, for the most perfect conceivable this, that and the other! Gaunilo felt that this was absurd, and that the reasoning failed in Anselm’s usage as well.


Anselm didn’t agree. In his “Reply”, he refers to the idea of the unique, the distinctive, the necessary existence of “that than which a greater cannot be thought”, who exists so truly that he must and cannot not exist. Anselm’s point is that this claim, this logic, can only apply to that in response to which it was elaborated, the referent of faith, God, since it is God alone who can properly be thought to exist and to not not-exist. In contrast, every island and every other aspect of finite reality has what would now be termed a contingent nature, and can reasonably be thought to not exist …


This seems a fair reply. The non-existence of islands, even the most perfect islands thinkable, is not a problem. Indeed, it is a necessary thought, unless we want to engage in fantasy, in which case we aren’t seriously going to press Anselm’s reasoning. And Anselm is, in the opinion of the vast majority of scholars, quite right to insist on the unique status of the Divine via his aseity, his necessary self-existence, which is the concept at the heart of P.3. Bonaventure (1221-74), for example, made explicit the point that the term “island” denotes an entity that is by definition limited, finite and defective. Only the Divine is the proper referent for the argument.


Also, Gaunilo seems to assume that Anselm’s is a wholly intellectual exercise. There is the strong impression that Gaunilo sees the argument in P. as a piece of abstract speculation in which the supposed referent of that speculation is argued into existence. But it is clear that that is not Anselm’s approach. His definition arises from within the perspective of faith and presented as an example of fides quaerens intellectum, “faith in search of understanding”. The starting point is not an abstraction but rather an existential state of affairs in which belief in God is the determinative part. The argument is thus an exploration of that faith, and not an attempt to prove anything in a formal or experimental sense. That being said, it is also true that Gaunilo does spot the element in the “ontological” reasoning that in a later period drew the critical attention of Immanuel Kant.

















iii) The reaction of Aquinas

St Thomas Aquinas (1224/5-1274), was himself the author of a number of “arguments for the existence of God”. But on the face of it his method was different to Anselm’s and the contrast here, given the very great influence that Aquinas’ thought had/has on the Catholic Church, tends to endorse the view that Anselm had produced a piece of reasoning in which illicit transfers were made from the world of ideas to reality as such.


Aquinas rejected the ontological argument as a starting point for arguing the matter of whether the referent of faith existed on the grounds that it made a presumptuous assumption about the essence of the Divine. Aquinas’ point was that man was constitutionally incapable of knowing what the essence of the divine nature was. To claim, as Anselm’s argument did, that the essence of the divine nature was such that he cannot not exist, was improper.


Aquinas’ objection here is against what is often termed the a priori character of Anselm’s argument, ie, the way it attempts to establish a truth from a rational presupposition, from an “idea that we cannot not have”, if you like, or a principle or proposition that we know the truth of independent of experience saving any references that are necessary for an understanding of its terms. Thus, God is “defined into existence”. Gaunilo objected to this, and Aquinas has a similar unease. He remarks that


“even if the meaning of the word ‘God’ were generally recognised to be ‘that than which nothing greater can be thought’, nothing thus defined would thereby be granted existence in the world of fact, but merely as thought about. Unless one is given that something in fact exists than which nothing greater can be thought – and this nobody denying the existence of God would grant – the conclusion that God in fact exists does not follow.” [1]


The critical point here is one that is fully elaborated by Kant, as noted above. But one may suggest that there ought to be a further, though for Aquinas it seems that this thought never came to conscious expression, reason for unease at Anselm’s reasoning. As Kant shows to devastating effect, Aquinas’ own arguments, which appear to follow an experimental a posteriori method, begin from the perspective of faith and attempt to point to the reality and the necessary existence of God from the way of things in the world at large. This unfolds in a fashion that leads back to that which it presupposes, the concept of a God who must and who cannot not exist. Thus a problem for Anselm is eventually a problem for Aquinas! Be that as it may, as noted earlier, Aquinas has had a very great influence on the history and development of Christian thought and his superficially different approach in natural theology led to Anselm’s reasoning falling into a state of neglect till the revival of interest in the matter that was brought about by Descartes’ treatment of the problem in the 17th C.




















[1] Summa Theologica 1a. 2







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