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Bishop Anselm of Canterbury is another awesome philosopher I like, and another one the learning of whom I’ve made easy for you through a new series of YouTube/Rumble videos. And, for those who want to read a few paragraphs instead of watching a video of a philosophy nerd talking, here are four pointers on Anselm.
First, the point of Anselm’s book, the Proslogion, is fides quaerens intellectum, “faith seeking understanding.” This is a more succinct version of Augustine’s idea that “Unless you believe, you will not understand” and a bunch of Augustiney epistemology and theology that goes with it.
Trust comes first, understanding later. We don’t understand in order to believe, but vice versa.
This is the standard model of faith and reason in medieval Christian philosophy. The medievals recognize that faith and reason are not exactly the same thing, but that doesn’t mean they’re in conflict. Faith and reason are better off together. And faith comes first. We know what we need to know by trusting reliable authority (of G-d, scripture, and church). But a better form of knowledge would also involve understanding what we know–as much as possible.
This isn’t just medieval theology. It’s not that different from how a lot of knowledge normally works. Here’s how I put it in a book on Augustine: By simply trusting his parents, a child may have a true belief about who he is. But through a study of biology and genetics, along with running a DNA test, he may come to understand this fact through reason and know it without relying solely on authority.
Second, the Ontological Argument. The famous, the infamous, the magnificent, the dreaded . . . Ontological Argument!
Anselm put it together first, although there are some roots in Boethius. The Ontological Argument can be terribly confusing (if you let it), but it’s supposed to be terribly simple. The trick is to not think about it too hard. (Ok, think hard the first time, but once you realize what’s going on and realize there’s not much else going on, I’d recommend stopping all the hard thought.)
Here’s a simple version of the Ontological Argument:
Non-existence is an imperfection.
G-d is, by definition, a perfect being.
Therefore, if G-d does not exist, then a perfect being has an imperfection, which is impossible.
Therefore, G-d does exist.
Like most people, I don’t find the Ontological Argument entirely convincing. Just looking at this simple version, if G-d does not exist, then there’s no perfect being to have an imperfection. (If we stick a bit closer to Anselm’s version in the Proslogion, and from what I can tell, the argument only works if things have essences whether they exist or not. That’s too much metaphysics for now; maybe we shouldn’t talk about that; and maybe I don’t know enough medieval philosophy to talk about it anyway!)
Anyway, the argument is interesting, and just disagreeing with Anselm’s version of it doesn’t mean there’s nothing to it. It might show something important about the necessary existence of G-d: If there is a perfect being, then his non-existence is impossible. And there are still those who think a related argument actually works!
In any case, the Ontological Argument is integral to the Proslogion. The whole book is a meditation in perfect being theology–seeing what we can learn from the knowledge that G-d is perfect. The Ontological Argument is supposed to get the whole thing started and make it work. The book is, to some extent, a failure (on Anselm’s own terms) if the Argument fails.
But never mind all that.
Third, here’s the most important thing people need to learn about the Proslogion: It’s about a whole lot more than the Ontological Argument.
The Ontological Argument is in chapters 2-3. That’s it. There are 26 other chapters in the book!
Fourth, the ultimate goal of the book is to harmonize the love of G-d, the love of neighbor, and the love of oneself. Loving myself means doing what I need to do to be happy. And what I need to do to be happy is love G-d: G-d is the greatest possible being, the source of all goodness, infinite goodness, and the only infinitely good goodness, truth, beauty, and justice able to satisfy all our desires!
And the way to enjoy G-d is together. The goodness of G-d is not lessened by being shared, but increased; some goodness of G-d is enjoyed by enjoying it in another person, and the way to love other people in the first place is to help them love G-d.
Here’s Chapter 25:
If it is wisdom that delights you, the very wisdom of G-d will reveal itself to them. If friendship, they shall love G-d more than themselves, and one another as themselves. And G-d shall love them more than they themselves; for they love him, and themselves, and one another, through him, and he, himself and them, through himself. If concord, they shall all have a single will.
This is all very Augustiney, of course. It’s hard to find a better summary of the Augustinian view of life, the universe, and everything in a single book than the Proslogion.
There’s lot more! In one video, I explore the venerable idea of philosophical ascent to the knowledge of G-d. The Proslogion is a lovely book in the ascent tradition.
In another video (and in a Ricochet post) I explain how Anselm presents the classical account of omnipotence: G-d has unlimited power, which is not the same thing as the ability to do just anything.
One final observation: The Proslogion is a lovely book, and it’s also very short. You can read it in an hour or two! It’s one of those magnificent books that lets you learn some real history of philosophy without spending years studying in school.
Here’s where you can subscribe to me on Rumble, and here’s my Rumble channel for Anselm. Here’s a YouTube channel for my Anselm videos. It has some old Anselm videos, but the new ones that are already on Rumble won’t be out on YouTube until sometime in early 2023 or so.Published in