St. Anselm Date of Meeting



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Title of Work: Proslogium, St. Anselm

Date of Meeting: 3/17/09
Notes by: Jenny from the Block

Summary of Proslogium

In this book, St. Anselm develops the “ontological argument” in which he proceeds from the idea of God to God as existent, as a reality. He hopes that this one argument will be sufficient, by itself alone, to prove all that we believe concerning the Divine Substance, fulfilling the function of many complementary arguments of his former works, including the complex and various arguments of the Monologium. After proving the existence of God, he goes onto prove His attributes, which he claims are contained implicitly in the conclusion of the ontological argument. (See Copleston, Vol. II, pp. 161-162)



Situation within the History of Philosophy

  • The Augustinian tradition and the Credo, ut intelligam ­

- In general, the though of St. Anselm is rightly said to belong to the Augustinian tradition. He begins the Proslogium with his “Credo, ut intelligam,” “I believe that I may understand,” which is an attitude he held in common with St. Augustine. For St. Anselm, this means an application of dialectic or reasoning to the dogmas of faith, not in order to strip them of mystery but in order to penetrate them, develop them and discern their implications, so far as this is possible to the human mind.

  • No clear distinction between the provinces of theology and theology; this mindset is anterior to St. Anselm 

  • St. Anselm did not confine the use of the Credo, ut intelligam motto to the understanding of those truths exclusively which have been revealed and not discovered dialectically. He extended it to truths like the existence of God, which are believed, but which can be reached by human reasoning. In this regarded, he contributed to the development of natural theology.

  • He thought, like Augustine, that the Christian should try to understand and apprehend rationally all that she believes.

  • Thus, St. Anselm, who believed in God’s existence (philosophy for St. Thomas) and in the doctrine of the Trinity (theology for St. Thomas, not demonstrable by human reason), thought we should apply our understanding to both truths.

  • Without the clear distinction between philosophy and theology, it is easy to understand how the fact that the first truth (God’s existence) is demonstrable, coupled with the desire to understand all that we believe (the attempt to satisfy this desire being regarded as a duty), naturally leads to an attempt to demonstrate the second truth (Trinity) as well, which we see in the Proslogium (chapter 23)

  • However, St. Anselm accepted the primacy of faith and the fact or authority, and only then went on to attempt to understand the data of faith. His attempt to “prove mysteries” arose simply from the desire to understand all that one believes; he simply did not clearly define beforehand the ways in which different truths (demonstrable and revealed) are accessible to us, as did St. Thomas.

Proslogium, or Discourse on the Existence of God

Preface & Chapter 1

  1. This work aims at proving, in a single argument, the existence of God and whatsoever we believe of God [preface]

        1. St. Anselm tells us he writes as one who contemplates God and seeks to understand what he believes.

          1. The Monologium was “An Example of Meditation on the Grounds of Faith” while this work is “Faith Seeking Understanding”

        2. He claims that we believe that we may understand (Credo, ut intelligam), as opposed to seeking to understand in order that we may believe [chapter 1]

        3. Man cannot seek God unless God teaches him – he believes and contemplates in order to understand what he believes

          1. Throughout this work, the theme of our fallen nature is present – we were created to see God, but our sinfulness obstructs this purpose and thereby makes us miserable

Chapters 2-4

  1. The Ontological Argument [chapter 2]

  • God is that than which nothing greater can be thought

  • But that than which no greater can be thought must exist, not only mentally, in idea, but also extramentally

  • Therefore, God exists, not only in idea, mentally, but also extramentally.

        1. The major premise simply gives the idea of God, the idea which man has of God, even if he denies His existence

          1. The minor premise is clear, since if that than which no greater can be thought existed only in the mind, it would not be that than which nothing greater can be thought. A greater could be thought, i.e. a being that existed in extramental reality as well as in idea. In other words, to exist in reality is better than to exist only in the mind.

        2. Moreover, God cannot be thought to not exist; He is the necessary being [chapter 3]

          1. It is possible to think of a being that cannot be thought not to exist; and this is greater than one that can be thought not to exist. This follows from the ontological argument, insofar as a necessary being (just as one that exists in reality) is better than a contingent being (just as one that exists only in the mind).

          2. Here, St. Anselm is demonstrating that it is a contradiction in terms to say that a necessary being (God) does not exist.

          3. As long as we have the right idea of God, we cannot deny His existence without involving ourselves in a contradiction.

            1. Thus, only the fool says in his heart that there is no God.

        3. St. Anselm returns to this argument in his response to Gaunilo’s objection: that St. Anselm was guilty of an illicit transition from the logical to the real order

          1. Gaunilo posited that he could apply the same argument for the most beautiful island that could be thought.

          2. St. Anselm responded that the idea of even the most beautiful island is not the idea of something which must exist: even in the purely logical order the 2 ideas are not on par – If God is possible (if the idea of the all-perfect and necessary Being contains no contradiction) God must exist, because it would be absurd to speak of a merely possible necessary Being. (contradiction in terms)

          3. The idea of God, unlike the idea of the most beautiful island, is the idea of an all-perfect Being, and if absolute perfection involves existence, this idea is the idea of an existent, and necessarily existent Being.

          4. In other words, absolute beauty does not necessitate existence, while absolute perfection does. It is not a contradiction to speak of a merely possible beautiful island, while it is a contradiction to speak of a merely possible necessary Being.

            1. Perfection is not part of the island’s essence as it is God’s

        4. A thing may be thought in 2 ways (1) when the word signifying it is conceived (2) when the thing itself is understood – God can be thought not to exist as far as the word goes, but not in reality. [chapter 4]

          1. E.g. No one who understand what fire and water are can think fire to be water, but someone could call “fire” by the word “water”

Chapters 5-22: The Attributes of God

  1. St. Anselm wanted his argument to be a demonstration of all that we believe concerning the divine Nature, and, since the argument concerns the absolutely perfect Being, the attributes of God are contained implicitly in the conclusion of the argument: We have only to ask ourselves what is implied by the idea of a Being than which no greater can be thought, in order to see that God must be omnipotent, omniscient, supremely just, etc. (see Copleston, Vol II, 162-163)

        1. Throughout discussing the attributes, St. Anselm clarifies them in order that we may not confuse perfections and imperfections (examples below)

        2. Omnipotence: God cannot lie. But this is not a sign of a lack of omnipotence, for to be able to lie should be called impotence rather than power, imperfection rather than perfection.

          1. In other words, ability is not the same as power, for the ability to do certain things is impotence. “For he is not said to be able because he is able himself, but because his impotence gives something else power over him.” (e.g., heteronomy in Kant) [Ch 7]

        3. Compassionate & Passionless: God is compassionate in terms of our experience (because we experience the effect of compassion) not compassionate in terms of His being (in which case He is passionless) [Ch 8]

        4. God is just and merciful, for it is better to be good to the righteous and the wicked, than to be good to the righteous alone [Ch 9]

          1. God is good to the wicked because He is supremely good

          2. Moreover, God is good to the wicked both in punishing and sparing them

            1. He spares the wicked not because He is moved by pity for them, but because it is good to spare and God is supremely good – God is compassionate because He is supremely good (remember, all His attributes flow from the idea of a Being than which no greater can be thought).

          3. God is just according to His own nature, because He does what is consistent with His goodness; but He is not just, according to our nature, because He does not inflict punishment deserved – we must look at justice from our end and God’s end and clarify what it means in each case [Ch 10]

            1. When God punishes the wicked, it is just b/c it is consistent with their deserts; and when He spares them, it is just because it is compatible with His goodness.

          4. “For though it is hard to understand how they compassion is not inconsistent with they justice; yet we must believe that it does not oppose justice at all.”

            1. This good example of believing in order that we may understand – we believe that God is supremely just, so we then seek to understand how it could be that compassion and justice are not inconsistent [Ch 9]

            2. Furthermore, this is why we must contemplate God – contemplation is seeking to understand what we believe, according to St. Anselm

          5. Furthermore, whatever God wills is just – we cannot comprehend why He spares these rather than those

        5. Whatever God is, He is through Himself [Ch 12]

        6. He is uncircumsribed and eternal – He is not bound by space and time.

          1. Created spirits are also uncircumscribed, but they are not everywhere. [Ch 13]

          2. Moreover, all things exist in Him [Ch 19]

        7. We know the source of God’s compassion (His goodness), yet it is hidden in His depths – God is seen and yet not seen by those who seek Him [Ch 14]

          1. We do not see darkness, for there is no darkness in God. However, we cannot see further because of our own darkness – we are obscured by our own insignificance and overwhelmed by God’s infinity.

          2. We cannot see the light of God because it is too bright, yet it is that by which we see [Ch 16]

          3. God is actually more than can be conceived by us [Ch 14&15]

        8. When discussing God’s eternity, St. Anselm does not distinguish between eternity and immortality [Ch 19-20] Why?

        9. God is wholly one, not made of parts – all the attributes of God are not parts of Him, but one. God’s attributes are identical with God’s self.

        10. In Chapter 22, St. Anselm clarifies God’s necessity (See II, 2)

          1. “What begins from non-existence and can be conceived not to exist (unless it subsists in something else), returns to non-existence; and what has a past existence, which is no longer, or a future existence, which is not yet, – this does not properly and absolutely exist.”

          2. Those are contingent beings. But whatever God is, God is as a whole and forever.

Chapters 23 – 26:The Trinity, The Creative Life and the Blessed Life

  1. As noted in the summaries, St. Anselm attempted to demonstrate the Trinity. He was in a point in history in which the clear distinction between philosophy and theology had not yet been made.

        1. He explains each Person of the Trinity, notes that God is the supremely simple unity and concludes that the Trinity is Father, Son and Holy Spirit all at once.

        2. St. Anselm calls upon his soul to contemplate how great is the good that God is. He contemplates individual goods with God, who contains all goods and then moves highlight the infinite difference between Creator and creature – “For if the created life is good, how good is the creative life!” [Ch 24]

          1. Here, we can see the Augustinian spirit in Anselm – he is appealing to the soul’s restless longing. It seems that this is an entreaty more than it is a proof: Can you conceive of anything greater than God? Than He who is Creator and Savior? (For the created is good, as is salvation, and God actually is these)

        3. Ch 26: “The blessed shall rejoice according as they shall love; and they shall love according as they shall know.”

          1. Joy beyond measure still remain even when heart, mind and soul are full of joy.

          2. Proslogium ends with a prayer, in which St. Anselm prays to know God and to never stop hungering for this knowledge.

            1. We must ask to know God and God will reveal Himself – St. Anselm began by informing us that man cannot seek God, unless God Himself teaches man.



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