Anselm and the ontological argument for the existence of God

“So in one way it is possible to entertain the concept that God does not exist, but not in the other way. For no one who truly understands that which God is, can think that God does not exist, though he may say those words in his heart, either without any, or with a special meaning. For God is that than which nothing greater can be thought. Whoever truly understands this, understands that he is of such a kind of existence that he cannot be thought not to exist. So whoever understands this to be the nature of God, cannot think of him as not existing.”

Anselm, Proslogion 216ff

Anselm’s argument

  1. 1. In 1077-8, whilst at the Abbey of Bec, in Normandy, Anselm (1033-1109) wrote two short studies dealing with what would now be termed the problem of the existence of God. The first, Monologion, dealt with the reality of the creator in a meditative fashion, with a particular emphasis on the idea that the existence of particular goods required and implied that the Supreme Being existed as the highest good. The second work was Proslogion. (Hereafter P; quotations from P are from the Penguin edition).
  2. P contains the famous “ontological” argument. However, it should be noted that the term “ontological” as applied to Anselm’s argument is a consequence of how the argument was viewed in a later period by the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). In his Critique of Pure Reason, first published in 1781, Kant made some of the most significant criticisms ever of the “ontological” argument, which he appears to have known through its presentation in the thought of the philosopher Descartes (1596-1650). Hence Kant refers to the argument as “the ontological or Cartesian argument”. (“Cartesian” is the term commonly used to refer to the ideas of Descartes).
  3. What Kant meant by the term “ontological” in this connection is a consequence of the argument to the effect that in the case of the idea of the Divine there is no distinction between his essence and his existence – that God is that being whose nature it is to exist self-sufficiently. The point to remember at this stage, however, is that the title or term “ontological” is not an invention of Anselm’s.

The context of the argument in Proslogion

  1. P must be viewed in context. When we read summaries of Anselm’s argument in textbooks of Philosophy of Religion we can get the impression that the original context of composition was a speculation, an abstract and remote piece of pure logic, clear enough from the formal point of view perhaps, but arid and academic in character and unrelated to real experience.
  2. Such an impression is misleading. It is understandable, given the fact that Anselm is usually read in summary form, via his critics, but the thing that is vital to an appreciation of the argument and which the usual approach obscures, is that the argument is the consequence and expression of a deliberate and actually very humane theological method. Anselm claims that his approach is that of fides quaerens intellectum, that is, “faith in search of understanding”. The critical point is that for Anselm, faith, belief in God, was the presupposition, the basis, the starting point, for the sort of theological reflection of which P is an example. The aim was to explore, to the end of obtaining a better understanding, an existing faith. There was in no sense at all an attempt to argue in a persuasive fashion and/or from a neutral point of view for belief in God in a manner that would remove the involvement of faith as a component in the process.
  3. To put the matter in a different way, the argument in P wasn’t the record of a discovery of theistic belief from a position of scepticism. Rather, it charts the discovery of a means by which an existing personal faith finds intellectual expression.
  4. Thus we find Anselm writing that his study is “an example of meditation on the meaning of faith”. It is, he claims, the work of someone “trying to raise his mind to the contemplation of God, and seeking to understand what he believes”. And, in the relatively long first chapter of P, (although the division into chapters was the work of later commentators), Anselm writes what is, in style and effect, a prayer on the pattern of preparation for this sort of contemplative meditation on faith. He argues, if that is the right word, that the preconditions are the withdrawal of the subject into solitude so that peace of mind and place are obtained and the mind is freed for a reflection upon its own state of being. This process will reveal the sorrowful awareness of man’s estrangement from God, and the deep longing for the reunion known and enjoyed in and as faith. The chapter ends with the following remarks:

“… Lord, I am not trying to make my way to your height, for my understanding is in no way equal to that, but I do desire to understand a little of your truth which my heart already believes and loves. I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand; and what is more, I believe that unless I do believe I shall not understand.”

The origin and aim of the argument

  1. Anselm wanted to sort out a pure, clear and simple argument to confirm and express the faith of the Christian in God. It seems that this matter occupied his mind for quite some time. He wondered if it was possible to have “one single argument, needing no other proof than itself, to prove that God really exists” (P Preface), before the essence of the argument came to him one night at Matins. Anselm doubtless knew of the work De Libero Arbitrio, by Augustine, in which a primitive form of the ontological argument is suggested and, as a means to the end of addressing the problem of expressing the ultimate referent of faith, reference is made to the biblical “fool”, ie, an atheist, “who says in his heart, ‘There is no God’.” (Ps 14 v1, Ps 53 v1)
  2. On the evening in question, Anselm was listening to the reading from Ps 14 when the meditative penny dropped and a line of thought came into his mind. The spur to this was the paradoxical suggestion that even the fool/atheist – who has the idea of “God” existent in his understanding – is capable of a) using the term “God”, and b) of having some sort of idea, an imperfect one, Anselm would contend, of what the term denotes.
  3. But what does the term “God” denote? In Anselm’s view, and on the basis of his experience, “God” stands for a being or a reality greater, more perfect etc than any other conceivable reality. The evidence of the fool, in short, was that the idea of God was undeniably existent at the level of definitions or understanding: on the basis of this Anselm believed that it could be shown how, from the additional perspective of faith, that God “really exists”.
  4. Such was Anselm’s confidence that he duly claimed, in the preface to P, that through the method of “faith in search of understanding” he had discovered “one single argument needing no other proof than itself, to prove that God really exists, that he is the highest good, needing nothing, that it is he whom all things need for their being and well-being …”
  5. Thus did Anselm’s argument emerge, with the aim of extending the self-understanding of an already existent faith. Again, it is important to note that it is not a part of Anselm’s intention to provide a “cold” proof that of the existence of God.

The first phase of the argument in Proslogion

  1. Anselm’s argument is set out in what is now re-presented in chapters two, three and four of P, the rest of which is devoted to a consequent review of the nature, status and attributes of the Divine.
  2. In P2 (line 160) Anselm suggests that on the basis of faith it can be said that God is believed to be “that than which a greater cannot be thought”. This definition needs to be repeated aloud about twenty times!
  3. This definition has generally been accepted by later critics as a fair and reasonable presentation of what traditional theistic belief entails. But it is worth pointing out that the definition is just one of five or six variations that Anselm employs in P. Clearly he was not intending to offer a narrow or over-prescriptive definition.
  4. We should also see that by “greater”, Anselm means “most perfect”, and not the largest! The claim is not, of course, that God is the greatest thing that there is, ie that there is within the world. Such a claim would hardly survive the critical attention of Anselm’s Christian contemporaries! In fact Anselm seems determined to protect the sanctity and the unique status of the Divine against any type of anthropomorphism, and as a thinker in the tradition of Platonic realism he is – as Monologion demonstrates – concerned to display a defence of the absolute universal over and against every particular. His use of a number of variations on the theme of “that than which a greater cannot be thought” is evidence of this concern, as is the point that constitutes pretty well the whole of P15: “… not only are you that than which a greater cannot be thought, but you are also something greater than can be thought.”
  5. This is a vital clarification of what Anselm is affirming – for here he makes explicit the notion that what God “is” in essence is beyond what can be thought by Man. This puts into touch the point made by careless readers of Anselm who think that the standard definition of God as “that than which nothing greater can be thought” means that God is the same as whatever is “that than which nothing greater can be thought”.
  6. Taking these points further, we can say that there is a definite trace of apophatic theology here – ie affirmation via negation over the status of the Divine. We are being warned against trying to “identify as God any being such that it is conceivable for this being to be surpassed in value”. We are being led to an appreciation of the least that God could be, not to God as such. (Anselm seems to make this point in the comment at the end of P1 quoted above). Anselm takes the view that it is clear that the latter is superior, and we can illustrate this if think of, say, a glass of champagne or an envelope with £1000 in it and our name on the outside. In both cases the idea is one thing, and quite nice too – but the glass of champagne and the envelope with the £1000 in it would be even better (as well as more real) if they were in each of our hands! And this line of thinking is of particular importance in relation to the concept of God, ie “that than which a greater cannot be thought”. Thus Anselm (who never mentions champagne or money) writes in the following terms:

“Certainly that than which nothing greater can be thought cannot exist only in the understanding. For if it exists only in the understanding, it is possible to think of it existing also in reality, and that is greater. If that than which nothing greater can be thought exists in the understanding alone, this thing than which nothing greater can be thought is something than which a greater can be thought. And this is clearly impossible. Therefore there can be no doubt at all that something than which a greater cannot be thought exists both in the understanding and in reality.” (P2, 177-85)

Thus, to avoid an absurd contradiction of the initial conception and the foundational experience of faith, the absolute being must exist in reality as well as in the understanding.

J Hick, Arguments for the Existence of God, p71


Several points can be made here by way of comment.

  1. To begin with, there is a long tradition of religious philosophy behind Anselm’s reasoning, but it is a tradition that is in some quarters so out of favour that we are liable to miss the force of the argument that he perceives. This is particularly the case in connection with the way in which Anselm claims that it is better to exist in reality as well as in the understanding than to exist in the understanding alone.
  2. On the one hand, this may seem a pretty clear point, given the rather obvious fact that only a very tiny percentage of living organisms commit suicide! But Anselm does not refer to this secure psycho-sociological justification for his claim! His deep commitment to this view is a consequence of that which we noted earlier, his acceptance of, indeed, his participation in, the neo-platonic realist tradition which had provided the main philosophical framework for Christianity since the earliest times in its intellectual history. Basic to this tradition was the view that the Divine was the focus for and origin of being, truth and goodness. The Divine was absolute being, esse ipsum, being-itself; absolute truth, verum ipsum, the true-itself; and absolute goodness or value, bonum ipsum,the good-itself.
  3. In the neo-platonic thought at the origin of the realist tradition, the finite realm was seen as an emanation of the One, the Divine. There was a gracious outpouring or overflowing of the One into the many, an extension of that which is and that which is true and good. Consequently it was held that the various levels and degrees of being flowing from the One exhibited levels and degrees of truth and levels and degrees of value. Christian thinkers steadily rejected the emanatory model in favour of the doctrine of Creatio ex Nihilo, creation “out of nothing”, but they retained the equation of being, truth and goodness in and as the concept of God. Thus it is that for a thinker like Anselm “more perfect” or “greater” are terms with vital quantitative and qualitative implications. And it is obvious to such a thinker that it is good and better to exist than to not exist, to exist in reality as well as in the understanding, and that this principle applies to the Divine in determinative fashion.
  4. However, the reference to the artist, with his work “in mind”, so to speak, reveals an ambiguity in the general claim that Anselm wants to make about existence, (viz, that it is better to exist in reality as well as in the understanding). Artists, great and small, and even writers of introductory studies on aspects of the Philosophy of Religion, know well that there is a difference between the intended and the actual work. Arguably, the former is, in a real enough sense for it to matter deeply, greater than that which is its expression. Thus artists, whether painters or composers, refer to the idea of the work in question, in order to evaluate its form – this is the “Here I was/am trying to do x line”.
  5. The point here can be put in a variety of ways; “The hunt is better than the kill” captures the sense of the matter in a peculiar and actually contradictory sort of way. “Anticipation and intention exceeds manifestation” puts it more formally, and, against the Cartesian logic (for those who know it), doubt is better than certainty since certainty is never actual and absolutism opposes progress, etc.
  6. Further, it is not at all clear that it follows as a matter of course that it is “better to exist than not to exist”. It really is not at all the case that the principle can be extended – it is not better if my possible cancer of the lung exists, nor my possible overdraft. “Dragons” are a nice idea – but things might not be better or more perfect if they were!
  7. Anselm would not, however, disagree with these latter points. He would argue that his view is grounded in the realist tradition which applies the principle of being and value to states and relations expressive of the good. Nevertheless, we may suspect that there is something amiss in this aspect of Anselm’s reasoning. And plainly, to exist is to be constrained by finitude, it is “to be” in the certain face of non-being. Can this be an appropriate implication to hold over the Divine?
  8. All this questioning of the merit of existence may raise in our minds a question about the sense in which it can be in the interests of the religious thinker to insist that God must exist. This, as we shall see, becomes a central concern in the ongoing debate over the ontological argument.
  9. On the other hand, the artist has a vision, or whatever, to communicate. Despite the limits of the expressive medium, he must express to communicate. Perhaps this tension does provide a fair analogy for Anselm? And perhaps his awareness of the problem here is expressed, insofar as he maintains, as we have seen, that despite the reasoning that P reflects, the Divine remains “something greater than it is possible to think about”. His point, as noted above, is intended to warn about the danger of presumption in our thinking about God, including thinking that he exists in a form that approximates to the existence of finite entities. So, whilst we may suppose that on the face of it there are questions against the idea that it is “better to exist in reality” etc, for someone with the outlook of Anselm the truth is rather different. But let us follow Anselm through the next stage of his argument …

The second phase of the argument

In P3 Anselm argues in similar fashion for the aseity, the necessary self-existence, of the Divine. As Anselm has it, his reasoning logically excludes the possible non-existence of God. It is possible, indeed, with just one exception it is obligatory, to think of things that are existent but which can also be thought to be non-existent: every finite entity.


“If that than which nothing greater can thought, can be thought of as not existing, then that than which nothing greater can be thought is not the same as that than which nothing greater can be thought. And that simply will not do. Something than which nothing greater can be thought so truly exists that it is not possible to think of it as not existing.” (P3, 190-95)

Here it is clear that the mode or quality or concept of “existence” attributed to “that which nothing greater can be thought” is not that sort of existence – finite existence – which characterises things, states and relations in general. Rather, it is necessary self-existence, aseity, that is asserted.

Anselm’s meaning here is clarified in the last part of P3 and in P4. How is it, he wonders, that the “fool” can have the idea of God in his understanding and yet think that there is no God in reality? Anselm thinks that such a person must indeed be “stupid and a fool”, but he goes on to draw the obvious distinction between thinking about or of a thing insofar as one knows and thinks of the word that signifies it, and actually understanding that word and that for which it stands. It is the familiar difference between seeing and perceiving, and it is thus that Anselm thinks that the fool can doubt God’s reality despite having the term in his understanding, whilst such doubt is an absurdity for the person who has faith and who, from this experiential state seeks understanding:

“So in one way it is possible to entertain the concept that God does not exist, but not in the other way. For no one who truly understands that which God is, can think that God does not exist, though he may say those words in his heart, either without any, or with a special meaning. For God is that than which nothing greater can be thought. Whoever truly understands this, understands that he is of such a kind of existence that he cannot be thought not to exist. So whoever understands this to be the nature of God, cannot think of him as not existing.” (P4 lines 216-225)


This study has examined the context and style of Anselm’s famous “ontological” argument in a manner intended as a counter to the approach of some textbooks which treat the argument of P solely as an exercise in pure reason. In fact, the argument has an inductive character: it arises through a process of reflection upon experience – the experience of participation in the community of faith. Accordingly, it is not altogether fair to consider the argument of P just as a deductive argument, with a starting-point in a concept.

Of course, in the religious and philosophical tradition since Anselm the argument has been presented and examined as a deductive exercise. In summary the argument defines God as the ultimate reality which must, to maintain coherence within the concept, be actual to be the ultimate reality. God means that which cannot-not be, so God is! But here we emphasise that the important point for Anselm is the notion that it is faith and not knowledge that leads to the insights of belief, to “understanding”.

In devotional style Anselm ends by saying,

“Thank you, good Lord … for it was by your gift that I first believed, and now by your illumination I understanding; if I did not want to believe that you existed, still I should not be able not to understand it.” (P4, l 227-30)








Past Questions

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