Proslogion-Book Discussion Answers-Ch. 1-7

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I invite everyone to participate in this book discussion hosted by Fariba, the author of Incarnational Catholic, She is producing a fine topic for us Catholics to discuss on St. Anselm’s Proslogion. I challenge everyone to challenge the text of St. Anselm’s when answering the questions that are posted by Fariba. Click Here, If you need them. Also, challenge my answers to Fariba’s questions. We’re promoting a discussion for a better understanding. I am certain that Fariba will object to some of my points, but through her objections I will gain a better understanding of St. Anselm’s message, this is the point of having these discussions.

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My impressions, so far, of this work of St. Anselm, are negative, but I will admit these feelings are based on a first impression of reading the text. St. Anselm appears to be hiding a rather weak argument for the existence of God in a rather tortuous scholastic maze. The text is filled with an abundant supply of tautologies that for the vast majority of the time spent reading the text, St. Anselm is saying very little. I will agree with Fariba that Anselm does seem to be “frustrated that he does not know God the way he should.” However, although I do agree that he seems influenced by St. Augustine, it appears that Anselm got to only this portion of St. Augustine’s Confession, “You arouse him to take joy in praising you, for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[1] (Book 1 Ch. 1) This makes me conclude by his famous definition of theology, “But I yearn to understand some measure of Your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order to understand that he has failed to understand,”[2] St. Anselm does not have the same understand of the grace and of the mysteries given by God, which is fundamentally understood by St. Augustine throughout his Confessions. St. Anselm, would not make such a point, if he fully had vested belief in Christ’s words, “and said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children,[a] you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”[3]

However, St. Anselm by way of the text has concluded an existence of God; however, Anslem—as explained by Fariba—does appear to be upset by not understanding this distance from God and himself. He speaks of desolation and famine because of this exile that mankind must suffer away from God in exile. St. Anselm, perhaps, needs to fully reach the point of belief to understand the grace that God provides to properly reach the Kingdom of Heaven.

In the early part of the text in Chapter 1 of the Proslogion, it’s interesting that Fariba spoke of St. Anselm’s influence from St. Augustine’s On the Trinity because I felt like I was reading an influence from another text, On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius. It appears that St. Anselm is really driving home the fact in the early parts of the Proslogion that the existence of God, our exile, and our hunger from him all hinge on the importance of the Creation story. St. Anselm writes, “He lost the happiness for which he was made and found an unhappiness for which he was not made…Man then ate the bread-of-angels for which he now hungers; and now he eats the bread-of-sorrows…while, alas, remaining empty.”[4]

The strange divergence between the two text, and rather I would assert the same divergence that occurs between St. Anselm and St. Augustine, is that Anselm doesn’t appear to be persuaded by the argument that Mankind’s betrayal of sinning against the Father is sufficient for this exile. St. Anselm asks, “Why did he take away from us life and inflict death?”[5] I would say to this question it is answered when St. Athanasius writes, “3. For of His becoming Incarnate we were the object, and for our salvation He dealt so lovingly as to appear and be born even in a human body. 4. Thus, then, God has made man, and willed that he should abide in incorruption; but men, having despised and rejected the contemplation of God, and devised and contrived evil for themselves.”[6]

 St. Anselm asks, “Why did God take away?” St. Athanasius answers, “Mankind rejected God.”

In Chapter 3-7 of the Proslogion, one discovers St. Anselm’s argument for the existence of God after one wades through the tremendous amount of tautology to arrive at the argument. The basic argument is that “O Lord my God, You exist so truly that You cannot even be thought not to exist…For if any mind could think of something better than You, the creature would rise above the Creator and would sit in judgment over the Creator—something which is utterly absurd.”[7]

Frankly, I find Blaise Pascale’s argument of “wager” more convincing. St. Anselm’s argument is already laid on the foundation that a deity does exist, and that ontologically speaking if one were to argue that something is greater than God, that something would be God—and there goes the strawman. Perhaps, I feel this way because I know St. Thomas Aquinas’ argument for the existence of God, which St. Anselm did not have the pleasure to read. Fundamentally, one cannot assert the existence of God without proving that God existing is self-evident based on the cosmological argument rather than asserting a mere metaphysical acknowledgment that is ontologically speaking that God already exists and that there can be nothing greater. One must make clear that metaphysically there must be a First Cause before any such argument can be used: “If there is no First Cause, there is no second causes, or simply, nothing can cause itself to be.”[8]

[1] Augustine of Hippo, trans, by John K. Ryan, The Confessions (New York: Image, 2014), 1.

[2] Anselm of Canterbury, trans, by Jasper Hopkins and Herbert Richardson, The Complete Philosophical and Theological Treatises of Anselm of Canterbury (Minneapolis: Arthur J. Benning Press, 2000), 93.

[3] Mt. 18:3 RSV

[4] Anselm of Canterbury, 91.

[5] Ibid.

[6] St. Athanasius On the Incarnation 4

[7] Anselm of Canterbury, 94.

[8] Peter Kreeft, Summa of the Summa ( San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990). 62.

2 Comments

  1. After posting my response here, I have researched criticisms of St. Anselm’s proofs of God. It appears my thoughts are certainly not original by any means. Gaunilo of Marmoutiers, a Benedictine Monk, argued against the ontological argument of St. Anselm by using reductio ad absurdum. Gaunilo simply changed the noun God to a Lost Island to prove that his Island is the greatest of all Islands; therefore, it exists

    1.The Lost Island is that island than which no greater can be conceived.
    2. It is greater to exist in reality than merely as an idea.
    3. If the Lost Island does not exist, one can conceive of an even greater island, that is one that does exist.
    4. Therefore, the Lost Island exists in reality.

    There was an objection made that you can have the greatest of all Islands as an example given by Gaunilo, but you could have something that is greater than Island. Therefore, Gaunilo’s noun doesn’t appear to be an equivalent example to Anselm’s noun. However, it appears that rather than changing the noun, once could change the adjective to Evil, Cold, or Hot as David and Marjorie Haight asserted.

    Honestly, again, from my own response. St. Anselm’s assertions are made by faulty logic. It’s best to understand his argument as one that illustrates how he concluded himself the existence of God, but there are far better assertions like Aquinas out there.

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    1. I definitely agree with your criticism of Anselm’s approach to God. Anselm does tend to downplay Grace. I am also surprised by the lack of Scriptural references in his works. I began reading Anselm a few months ago because I wanted to overcome my prejudice toward scholastic theology. I generally prefer more mystical works because of the perspective of the author. However, what I like about The Proslogion is that it is written (for the most part) as a prayer. I had no idea that it was written in this style. People tend the present the ontological argument outside of the context of the work. It is interesting that you compare The Proslogion to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word because Anselm wrote a work on Christology with the same name. They are, however, different works in that they address different Christological questions. Still, it would be good to compare and contrast the two works. I have read both. The Monologion is supposed to be based on Augustine’s De Trinitate. I don’t think The Proslogion is based on any of Augustine’s works.

      Like you, I am not convinced by Anselm’s logic. But I do like some of the passages in the work. When I focus only on the argument, I am disappointed (but then I’m not really a big fan of proofs for the existence of God anyway). But if I were struggling with feelings of despair and abandonment, I might find Anselm’s work comforting. I guess I prefer Anselm the mystic to Anselm the scholastic. St. Thomas definitely addresses Atheists in his proofs, but I’m not so sure about Anselm. It is not clear who Anselm is addressing. At times he seems to be addressing believers who doubt:

      “Therefore, 0 Lord, You who give understanding to faith, grant me to understand—to the degree You know to be advantageous—that You exist, as we believe, and that You are what we believe [You to be].”
      and
      “For I believe even this: that unless I believe, I shall not understand (93).”

      But he also addresses the Fool who says in his heart that there is no God, and even claims that the Fool understands that that-something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought exists even though he does not believe:

      “So even the Fool is convinced that something than which nothing greater can be thought is at least in his understanding; for when he hears of this [being], he understands [what he hears], and whatever is understood is in the understanding.”

      So which comes first?

      In this month, I hope to provide more background information of Anselm’s life and society to help us understand this work. For now, it is probably a good idea to give Anselm the floor. What is his argument? What is his perspective? (clearly a phenomenological/post-modern question but an important one I think) Then we can critique it. My questions will be somewhat content-based as a result. But there is always the opportunity to react to Anselm’s conclusions.

      A long response, I know, but here it is. I’m glad you are contributing.

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