Anselm's Argument: Proof or Prayer?

We'll see how this goes over: a brief essay that I wrote last year on the existence of God as seen by St. Anselm (minus the extensive footnotes). I think it's a pretty interesting topic...


One of the greatest proponents of a philosophical proof for God’s existence was Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 A.D.). Anselm argued that the existence of God could be posited based on the principles of ontology alone; he considered the being of God – in existential reality – as directly correspondent to the ability of one to envisage the concept of God in one’s mind. For many, his line of reasoning was seen as pure genius, and regardless of its actual truth-value, it must still be admitted to have been one of the most profound insights in the history of Catholic natural theology. The purpose here will be to take a critical approach to Anselm’s argument from a resolutely logical viewpoint; we will examine the nature of his syllogism and come to better understand the validity, and more importantly the soundness of his famous “ontological argument.” Furthermore, we will explore the possibility that Anselm was not intending his argument to be syllogistic at all, and that his real objective in arguing for the existence of God in such a way was simply an attempt to better show the necessity of reason to be firmly reinforced by faith; Anselm may not have been trying to prove God’s existence, but rather show the mysterious nature of His existence by pushing the principles of logic to the extreme limit of their functionality.

Initially, in order to understand Anselm fully, it is important to lay out his syllogistic argument in graphical format. Below is an approximation, composed of exact textual citations, of what such an argument might look like if it were to be drawn:

Premise 1: Credimus te esse aliquid, quo nihil majus cogitari possit. ("We believe that you are something than which nothing greater can be thought.")
Premise 2: Convincitur ergo etiam insipiens esse vel in intellectu aliquid, quo nihil majus cogitari potest… Et certe id, quo majus cogitari nequit, non potest esse in intellectu solo. ("Even the fool must admit that something than which nothing greater can be thought exists at least in his understanding… And surely that than which a greater cannot be though cannot exist only in the understanding.")
Conclusion: Existit ergo procul dubio aliquid, quo majus cogitari non valet, et in intellectu, et in re. ("Therefore, there is no doubt that something than which a greater cannot be thought exists both in the understanding and in reality.")

A longer version of the argument can be assembled, with more premises and a more complicated structure, but the version stated here will suffice for this essay. Proceeding chronologically through the argument, we will best be able to examine the strengths and shortcomings of Anselm’s logical processes. To begin, let us examine Premise 1 in some depth.

In Premise 1, Anselm defines God as being “aliquid, quo nihil majus cogitari possit.” Given the nature of the claim one should be able to see, even from the very outset, the obvious deficiency that such a characterization entails: God is defined purely in terms of the negative (the lone exception being the fact that, to be included in the argument, whatever reality is designated by aliquid ["something"] must positively exist); all relation concerning God and the rest of possible reality is constructed negatively. Certainly, one cannot be too critical of Anselm for this approach alone, since the great Aquinas (1225-1274) himself later utilized the apophatic method of theology quite extensively in dealing with the nature of the divine attributes. When speaking of God per se, constructing His reality based on the negation of empirically perceptible reality is not a problem. The difficulty of the apophatic approach begins to manifest itself when one desires to show, through logical proof, the existence of such a negatively defined substance. With such a proof, it seems that one attempts to show the positive existence of a reality able to be defined only in terms of the negative. In other words, we return to the impasse of aliquid, quo nihil majus cogitari possit: aliquid must be understood to be real, while all we can say of it is that nihil majus cogitari possit.

If one looks at Anselm’s argument, as laid out in its totality, for its overall value – a value based on the totality of the above-mentioned premises being true and leading to the stated conclusion – it must be admitted to be valid. Even though we have not yet examined the rest of the argument, it is clear from a brief glance that Anselm at the very least establishes a powerful testimony for the existence of God, assuming that his premises are in fact true. However, the mere, unsubstantiated assumption that premises are true would not be enough to provide for soundness. After our examination of Premise 1, it seems that more attention should be paid to this premise alone, since the overall soundness of an entire argument can be totally subverted by one premise, whose truth-value is dubious.

The problem is this: how can we know, beyond a doubt, that aliquid exists in reality since the only thing we can say about it is what it is not? In other words, how can we be sure that something, of which we can say nothing positive, exists? Existence is always a positive concept, since to say existence is negative would be a contradiction in terms and a violation of the principle of non-contradiction. To posit this aliquid, having a nature of indescribability, as the first premise in an argument for the existence of the aliquid itself seems absolutely absurd. No one would attempt to construct a logical argument for the existence of something that they have already decided exists, much less a being they themselves have only assumed to exist based on faith alone.

Perhaps the answer to this problem is not what one would initially suppose. Perhaps there is really no problem at all. A “problem” (etymologically derived from Greek: «pro» meaning “before” and «ballein» meaning “to throw”) is some external thing that is propelled toward the intellect, so to speak, in order that it might be solved. It would be hard for any Christian thinker to say that the existence of God can be treated in the same respect as the mathematical problem of 2 + 2, but this is just what happens when one looks at Anselm’s ontological argument as altogether problematic; it is reduced to an equation in need of solution. It seems, however, that this is not what the great thinker had in mind since he clearly set out his conclusion as a constituent element of Premise 1.

The resolution seems to be this: Anselm did not desire to show the existence of God in terms of a solution to a logical problem, but rather by means of exposing an argument for God’s existence, which requires the reader to contemplate, in his own mind, the vast metaphysical implications that such an argument entails. Anselm looks at God not as a problem but as a mystery (from the Greek «musterion,» deriving from «muein»: “to shut”). He constructs an argument that, although it fulfills the requirements for logical validity as seen above, is not intended to be logically sound. Aliquid quo nihil majus cogitari possit is not provable, but it is certainly the object of immeasurable contemplation.

As a relatively early Christian thinker, Anselm certainly sought to reconcile the abyss between faith and reason; he sought to show the invaluable conjunction of these two elements in forming the complete picture of Catholic thought. In this sense God is very much a mystery, and He is very much revealed in the world by way of the efficacious sacramental realities entrusted to the Church. If God were absolutely transcendent – and it is meant here even in terms of His ability to be known by His creatures – He would not be intelligible in any sense. Because of this, the principles of faith and reason must both be applied to the question of God’s existence; He must be understood to exist both because of rational evidence and because of an assertion of pure faith. Hence, Anselm’s argument must not be said to have logical soundness in order to have value. Its value is found in the cooperation of faith and reason that he forces his reader to assume in order to make any sense of the argument at all.

Ultimately, Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God possesses logical validity, but it does not possess logical soundness. However, it need not be sound (or valid for that matter) if it is not intended to be a logical syllogism in the first place. Despite its being able to be graphically represented as a logical train of thought, it seems much more plausible that Anselm intended to show the mysterious nature of God’s existence in a fashion intended to prompt the full mental and spiritual engagement of the reader.

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    # by Geometricus - February 3, 2008 at 7:42 PM

    Thank you for this essay about Anselm's argument. I am going to send it to my son's philosophy teacher, a colleague at the school in which I also teach (math). It was helpful to me in making more sense of Anselm's argument. I hope it may make Anselm more palatable to the modern ear, especially the young modern ear.

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    # by Abecedarius Rex - February 11, 2008 at 3:38 PM

    A good analysis of Anselm's Proslogion argument. Thank you. I much prefer the thought of Saint Thomas, however, who suggests in Summa Prima Pars, Ar. 1 that God's existence, though self-evident in itself, is not self-evident to us b/c we cannot know the essence of Being (God). Rather, Thomas suggests, we come to understand more about who God is by negative differentias and by a series of "comparisons with material things", thus proceeding from one comparison to another we grow closer to being able to put "things in their right order and control them well," as Thomas states in the opening of the Contra Gentiles.

    Although I agree that Anselm's proof can lead to a greater comprehension of the mystery of God, I think he fails in two respects. First, by relying only on a rational argument and seemingly ignoring the second form whereby man attains to truth (one that "transcends all the industry of reason," as Thomas says) Anselm fails to convince the reader of God's existence. Aquinas' five proofs are far more convincing, not b/c more sound but b/c Aquinas admits to their being not "articles of faith, but... preambles to the articles." The five proofs of Aquinas, consequently, become buttresses for furthering the faith of one who believes, not as bludgeons to force a non-believer into belief.

    Second, by using the ontological proof as an airtight argument against which only "a fool" would argue Anselm cuts out the agony of the atheist's struggle. Indeed, the psalm suggests that "the fool in his heart has said, 'there is no God'"; but Aquinas takes this to mean that rejection of the LOGOS (God) makes all thought impossible and thus makes man foolish. This does not, Aquinas notes, make the struggle any less b/c the atheist in struggling to recognize that LOGOS exists realizes his darkness and yet cannot overcome it by his own power. As Thomas notes "(the existence of LOGOS) precisely is not admitted by those who hold that God does not exist." But Aquinas offers a way out for the perplexed by suggesting that "the prime author and mover of the universe is intelligence," before suggesting that he is YHVH or Joshua bar Joseph or any sort of personal god. Thomas thus shows more mercy to struggling humanity when he states that all men, even "the simple", come to know God through his effects by a slow, gradual process of "(putting) forward divine and spiritual truths by means of comparisons with material things" and not by intelligence alone, lest "the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few."

    Thomas is less elitist, more understanding of human weakness, and thus far more palatable than Anselm in his advocacy for belief.

    Thanks again for the thoughts on Anselm which provided for a brief intellectual escape from the cold of Minnesota and the agony of grading essays.

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    # by Andrew Haines - February 18, 2008 at 4:32 AM

    Sorry I've been absent. Thanks for your comment, however. It was good to hear that someone got something out of that paper!

    Obviously, Thomas' exposition of "proofs" for God's existence is much more concise and well-grounded; he is, after all, Thomas. I wrote the essay from the perspective, though, that Anselm likewise offers us a convincing "proof" of God's existence, not so much from the metaphysical side, as does the Angelic Doctor does so subtly, but from a more "faith-based" perspective. I think the relevance of Anselm's argument in today's world is perhaps even more so than Thomas', given modern society's lack of discipline in rational and logical processes; if the locus of the proof is more subjective, perhaps the chances of it being recognized increase?

    Certainly, if we are just talking about argumentative value, Thomas wins. However, I've been deeply struck as of late by the vast "meaning" which can pervade any variety of statements, even those that seem strictly non-factual. On the surface, Anselm seems unconcerned with the atheist's struggle, however I think that a deeper look at the ontological argument does indeed allow great room for it; after all, I don't think he ever intended the argument to be logically bulletproof, just effective as a tool for conversion. My thought is that he knew what he was doing, but masked the obvious and otherwise superficial claim that "God exists" with a bit of an intellectual game. If this is true, I think his argument rivals Thomas, yet with a completely different scope and depth.