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Teaching Anselm’s Proslogion

Reading Brian’s last post brought Anselm of Canterbury to mind.  He’s a medieval who has often been read as a philosopher.  He is the supposed inventor of the “ontological argument” for the existence of God: an argument which would later be polished up by Descartes and spawn centuries of debate regarding its logical validity (see Alvin Plantinga’s helpful little book on The Ontological Argument).  More recently Anselm has been approached as a spiritual writer: a person of prayer and deep existential faith.  Karl Barth’s book on Anselm, Fides quaerens intellectum, can perhaps be given some credit for getting the ball rolling on this more pious line of interpretation.

And yet, the question remains open: How are we supposed to teach Anselm now?  As rigorous philosopher or pious monk?  I faced this problem directly last semester, when given the opportunity to lecture on Anselm to a group of undergraduate theology majors.  I tried to strike a balance, but I think I ultimately slid more toward the pious reading.  In retrospect, I’m not sure this was ideal.  A real balance seems important, if only as a way of being honest about what’s in the text.  Yes, most of it is composed as a prayer, an address to God as “You.”  But the second and third chapters are an argument, in which God is not “You” but “something than which nothing greater can be thought.”

In the future, I might try something like this: Anselm’s argument is a real argument.  He thinks you should be able to know with certainty that God exists provided that you understand that God is something than which nothing greater can be thought.  But we won’t be able to judge the validity of Anselm’s logic unless we grasp that this understanding is a lofty goal.  It’s not enough to have the words in your mind.  You’ve got to understand, deeply, what they mean–and what it means in particular for something to be “greater” than something else.  Anselm seeks this depth of understanding through his contemplative and petitionary prayer, in which he allows scripture and his own experience to shed light on the contours of human desire, which both reveal and conceal our intuition of greatness.  In this way prayer–or something like the contemplation it enables–is necessary for us to test the validity of the argument.

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  1. Cass
    February 13, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    “something like the contemplation it enables” is really marvelous.
    Nicely said. All of it.

  2. Cass
    February 13, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    Not completely clear to me what the precise meaning of “pious” or “pietistic” is as either you or Brian conceive these terms, nor whether they are interchangeable.
    But I would offer, for fun, the term “remiss” as an antonym for your “pious” above. Is that accurate, truthful, fair? If not, can you offer a better?

  3. andrewlp
    February 13, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    Thanks for your comments. I wouldn’t say “remiss”–although I think I see what you mean, that perhaps we are using “pious” in a somewhat pejorative sense. I can’t speak for Brian, but I would say by “pious” I mean a certain emphasis on prayer, devotion, religious affection, etc., which may indicate a lack of emphasis on the intellectual, the argumentative, the critical, etc. But perhaps the point of your question is that piety need not be taken in this limited sense…

  4. andrewlp
    February 13, 2010 at 10:55 pm

    Actually, I must revise that last comment: I realize now that “remiss” was proposed as an antonymn, not a synonymn, and of course that completely changes the question! I would suggest that “abstract”, “detached”, or even “coldly rational” could be seen as antonymns for the notion of the “pious” which I’m hoping to convey.

  5. Todd
    February 14, 2010 at 11:24 am

    This seems quite similar to interpretations of the 2nd question of the Summa on the proofs for the existence of God. I was told each time these were introduced that these are not “proofs” for God in the modern sense (they are in the context of a study of sacred doctrine). It is helpful to note that Aquinas doesn’t have atheists in mind when he constructs/borrows these proofs but he still thinks what he is presenting is persuasive on the grounds of reason (it can be “demonstrated”). So I agree: Some balance has to be found for Anselm and Aquinas when it comes to these proofs/arguments.

    • andrewlp
      February 14, 2010 at 11:49 pm

      The comparison with Aquinas is an interesting one. Aquinas seems to reject Anselm’s argument because he thinks it is a priori (which I’m not sure that it is, when all is said and done). And yet, as you suggest, Aquinas nevertheless seems to argue in a similarly balanced way: from reason, yet not without the presupposed context of sacred doctrine.

      • Todd Walatka
        February 15, 2010 at 6:45 pm

        It’s also interesting to note how Aquinas understands Anselm’s ontological argument: precisely as a (faulty) rational proof for God

    • andrewlp
      February 15, 2010 at 12:05 am

      But then again, I wonder: is Anselm’s argument perhaps more dependent on something like prayer than Aquinas’s are? This could be an important distinction. For the “God” reached by Aquinas’ five ways may finally be nothing more than the highest ground entailed by metaphysics (to the extent that it is structured as onto-theo-logic). Thus despite being demonstrably existent, from a certain metaphysical perspective, Aquinas’ proven God would nevertheless not be particularly divine, would not be worthy of praise, adoration, love–that is, not until one seeks to understand this highest ground in the light of faith. The difference is that Aquinas’ arguments can be concluded, and tested for the validity, prior to anything vaguely resembling prayer, whereas Anselm’s cannot. Prayer–or soemthing like it (I keep insisting on this analogical possibility)–has to take place somewhere along the way for the argument to work, with the possible result that the God reached by Anselm, if really reached, is more “divine,” and less easily mistaken for a mere product of a system of causal reasoning.

  6. shane wilkins
    February 14, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    I think you’re right that you have to understand Anslem’s logic to understand his argument–but I don’t see anything mystical about his notion of understanding (at least not as it bears upon his argument).

    Here’s the best thing I’ve ever read on Anselm’s proof:


    • andrewlp
      February 14, 2010 at 9:52 pm

      I suppose it depends on what one means by “mystical.” And yet, I think the text supports my suggestions (1) that at the very least a depth of understanding is required and (2) that Anselm seeks this depth by means of prayer. The first point is supported by Anselm’s explanation regarding the fool’s ability to disbelieve despite knowing what the words “something than which nothing greater can be thought” mean. The problem is that he understands the words, not the reality (see chapter 3). Moreover, the second point is supported by chapter 1, in which Anselm “raises his mind to the contemplation of God.” Presumably, he saw this as a necessary preparation for the argument–which is not to say, replacement of it.

    • andrewlp
      February 14, 2010 at 11:24 pm

      Shane, I also want to thank you for the link. I liked the article, and I think my own take could be seen as compatible with Klima’s idea that the persuasiveness of Anselm’s argument requires not only “parasitic” but “constitutive” reference. Klima contends that “the atheist, despite the fact that he understands Anselm’s description, will not have that than which nothing greater can be thought of in his mind in the required manner, i.e., making constitutive reference to it. His own beliefs and commitments being logically isolated from the intended referent of Anselm’s description, his understanding of this description will be restricted to a mere verbal understanding, without any commitment to, or any proper concept of, its intended referent.” My claim, expressed in Klima’s terms, is that reaching constitutive reference requires a depth of understanding attainable only through something like the kind of contemplation which Anselm pursues by means of prayer.

  7. February 14, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    @Cass, I was definitely using “pietistic” pejoratively in more or less the sense Andrew gave regarding his use of “pious”—I meant a kind of sentimentalist-spiritual attitude that actively sidelined intellectual concerns.

    @shane, surely the end of the argument isn’t straightforwardly a matter of logic (rather, of contemplation), and that has consequences for how the whole argument is read?

  8. Cass
    February 14, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    Brian, Thanks for addressing the implicit question there. I agree with you whole-heartedly that pietism, in the sense you describe, is a thing to be avoided by the serious-minded. Though, in that case, I am made uncomfortable by your judgment that–indeed–“most” (!) secondary sources on the medievals turn out to be “extraordinarily” pietistic in this flawed and rightly condemnatory sense. Might there have been a bit of overstatement in that, born of the difficulty of equilibrating between the Derridas and gender-feminists on one hand and medieval monks on the other?

    Also, there seems a significant distinction, in that case, between your pietistic and Andrew’s pious. Andrew appears to have in mind that “pious” is a quality good in itself, though somewhat unwieldy or overbearing, and certainly problematic in today’s academic environment, whereas your “pietistic” is a term of reproach and disdain for the “attitude” per se.

    Much of the discussion above is about Anselm and how to teach him, which is undoubtedly interesting. But the bit that these two posts have got me thinking about is piety as such, what it is and where it ought to fit in the study of philosophy and/or theology.

    One direction my thoughts take in pursuit of that question is the ancient and perennial idea of the trustworthy thinker being first and foremost a “just man”, where the conception of justice includes a not-specifically-Christian conception of piety as one necessary component.

    This is where my antonym “remiss” got started. The pious man is dutiful with respect to the gods.–I’m thinking pious in the elevated, guts and glory, ‘put your money where your mouth is’ sense here. Socrates, for example.–The sophist, the careerist, and the atheist are not.

    Andrew, I would say that “coldly rational, detached or abstract” are all–with respect to philosophy and theology–remiss. In some sense they fall short, they are attempts to unnaturally exclude aspects of the act of thinking itself that are germane and essential to it.

    And, I would offer Socrates again–be he historical figure or the mere literary creature of Plato, matters not–as an example of attaining to “something like the contemplation” that prayer enables. He was humble in the face of the truths he was looking at, so humble that his own life weighed comparatively little beside them. He was tried for being “impious” precisely because he was really pious in a sense that went well beyond what the society of his time was prepared to accept.

    This probably goes way off on a tangent. Sorry if so.

    • andrewlp
      February 14, 2010 at 11:41 pm

      I see what you mean by “remiss.” My hesitation to pick it as an antonymn for “pious” has to do with its generality. But I like the connection that you draw between piety and virtue–this seems like fertile ground for future reflection…

  9. February 14, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    @Cass: fair enough—”extraordinarily pietistic” was an exaggeration. But your last thought on Socrates brought another dimension of that literature’s “pietism” into relief, which on your (very good) definition isn’t piety at all: how annoyingly obsequious so much of it is, how frustratingly uncritical. It’s one thing to take seriously how piety (understood positively) ought properly be part of the intellectual life, a question for which Anselm et al. are a great help; it’s another thing to approach the study of these figures in a pietistic way, i.e., to write on them as a monument to their inimitable greatness.

  10. February 15, 2010 at 8:56 am

    If you resolve this conundrum by Thursday, let me know: I start three days on Anselm then–Prologion et al.

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