Brief Outline of the ‘Proslogion’ by Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm’s purpose for writing Proslogion is to find “a single argument which would require no other proof than itself alone…to demonstrate that God truly exists.”

Chapter’s I – XXVI
The argument starts with a statement that man was created to see God, that man has an innate hunger to know his creator. This hunger exists because man was created with implanted ‘understanding’ that God exists, even though the fool argues that God does not exist. Anselm argues that all men , if honest, must admit that there is something, ontologically, “which nothing greater can be conceived to exist.” For this reason God cannot even be “conceived not to exist.” To prove this statement Anselm calls to attention the presence of good in ascending degrees of goodness, which ultimately leads to a supreme good, or source of all other goods, which is God. For all things can be traced back to the existence of God, since “they cannot exist at all without” God.

On Behalf Of The FoolAn Answer to Anselm’s Argument By Gaunilo
Gaunilo replies to Anselm by making a distinction between the ‘real object’ and the ‘understanding’. He argues that “the real object is one thing, and the understanding itself, by which the object is grasped, is another.” He then calls for a proof, beyond his own assumptions that this object truly does exist. Gaunilo likens Anselm’s argument that although one can imagine the most beautiful island it does not prove that such an island actually exists.

In Reply To Gaunilo’s AnswerIn behalf of the fool
In answering this objection Anselm applied Gaunilo’s logic to any other object of understanding in creation and argues that “if it can be conceived at all, it must exist” in some sense or another. Anselm makes the distinction between that which exists, and that which is necessary for all other things to exist. He argues that “using the lesser good to the greater” argument, we can form a considerable notion of a being than which greater is inconceivable.” For Anselm the scripture attest to this line of logic in Romans 1:20, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”

Key Quote

“Teach me to seek you, and reveal thyself to me, when I seek you, for I cannot seek you, except you teach me, nor find you, except you reveal thyself. Let me seek you in longing, let me long for you in seeking; let me find you in love, and love you in finding. Lord, I acknowledge and I thank you that you have created me in this thine image, in order that I may be mindful of you, may conceive of you, and love you; but that image has been so consumed and wasted away by vices, and obscured by the smoke of wrong doing, that it cannot achieve that for which it was made, except you renew it, and create it anew. I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate your sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe,   that unless I believed, I should not understand.”

In many ways Anselm’s Proslogion is a philosophical devotional. To adapt the words of C.S. Lewis, ‘hard doctrine or philosophical theology are often more helpful in devotion than the modern idea of devotional readings’. Proslogion is more a philosophical work than a devotional, but has devotional value for the Christian thinker.

In short, Anselm sought to provide one argument for the existence of God that required no other proof beyond the argument itself. The end result was what has now come to be known as a classical example of the ontological argument. Proslogion is truly a good model, within certain boundaries, of ‘faith seeking understanding’, or an ‘example of meditation on the grounds of faith.’

Anselm’s argument style is philosophical, in that he attempts to argue proof of God from following the rules of logic. The devotional qualities are obvious from the preface, Anselm calls the reader to cast aside all other cares and “enter the inner chamber of your mind; shut out all thoughts save that of God…and seek him.” Anselm’s heart is clear, “let me seek you in longing, let me long for you in seeking; let me find you in love, let me love you in finding.” For Anselm, “there is…so truly a being than which nothing greater can be conceived to exist, that it cannot even be conceived not to exist; and this being you are, O Lord, our God”, and “no one who understands what God is can conceive that God does not exist.” Anselm attempts to prove that all men understand that God exists, whether they acknowledge it or not.

It seems well to mention the only boundary that this author might add to sober Anselm’s argument. One must never assume that reason is neutral, reason has, like all other things, been devastated by sin. Therefore, it is not by reason alone that one may truly find God. While reason may point to God, Romans 1:20, it may never remove the separation caused by sin. Gaunilo argued this in his response to Anselm, “for it should be proved first that this being itself really exists somewhere” beyond mere “hypothesis.” Yet Gaunilo may over step his argument by qualifying the former statement in adding that the existence of such a being must be proved “to such a degree that it cannot be conceived not to exist.” Again, some might argue that both writers are resting their final arguments on reason alone, and ‘proofs’ that demand such belief. At the very least, these arguments can bring an atheist to an agnostic position.

The philosophical elements of this work are well balanced with devotional overtones. Anselm writes at the end of the first letter, “I pray, O God, to know you, to love you, that I may rejoice in you. And if I cannot attain to full joy in this life may I at least advance from day to day, until that joy shall come to the full. Let the knowledge of you advance in me here, and there be made full. Let the love of you increase, and there let it be full, that here my joy may be great in hope, and there full in truth.” While this work is heavy philosophically it is not devoid of devotional elements. Proslogion is, literally, a philosophical discourse on the existence of God. While Anselm himself acknowledges that his “understanding cannot reach” God alone, he does illustrate the use of reasoning in removing the intellectual walls that hinder one from acknowledging the existence of God.

When read alongside of Romans 1, Anselm has provided a good example of philosophical reasoning; in that ‘being’ points to the existence of something greater, the Supreme Being, namely God.

Part 1: Tertullian’s Apology

Part 2: Athanasius ‘On the Incarnation’

Part 3: Saint Benedict ‘The Rule’

Part 4: Gregory’s ‘Pastoral Rule’

2 thoughts on “Church History Teasers (Part 5): Anselm’s ‘Proslogion’

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