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Erik Desmazières

Not surprisingly, then, interpreters have read Anselm's reply to Gaunilo primarily in order to find his rejoinder to the Lost Island argument. Sympathetic interpreters such as Klima have offered ways for Anselm to respond, but at least one commentator Wolterstorff argues that Anselm offers no such rejoinder, precisely because he knew Gaunilo's criticism was unanswerable but could not bring himself to admit that fact. A more careful look at Anselm's reply to Gaunilo, however, shows that Anselm offered no rejoinder to the Lost Island argument because he rejected Gaunilo's interpretation of the original argument of the Proslogion.

Gaunilo had understood the argument in the way I stated it above. Anselm understood it quite differently. In particular, Anselm insists that the original argument did not rely on any general principle to the effect that a thing is greater when it exists in reality than when it exists only in the understanding.

And since that is the principle that does the mischief in Gaunilo's counterargument, Anselm sees no need to respond to the Lost Island argument in particular. Correctly understood, Anselm says, the argument of the Proslogion can be summarized as follows:. That than which nothing greater can be thought can be thought. If that than which nothing greater can be thought can be thought, it exists in reality. That than which nothing greater can be thought exists in reality. Anselm defends 1 by showing how we can form a conception of that than which nothing greater can be thought on the basis of our experience and understanding of those things than which a greater can be thought.

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For example,. Who, for example, is unable to think. And that just as the latter is better than the former, so something that has neither beginning nor end is better still, even if it is always moving from the past through the present into the future? And that something that in no way needs or is compelled to change or move is far better even than that, whether any such thing exists in reality or not?

Can such a thing not be thought? Can anything greater than this be thought? Or rather, is not this an example of forming an idea of that than which a greater cannot be thought on the basis of those things than which a greater can be thought? So there is in fact a way to form an idea of that than which a greater cannot be thought.

Anselm's Reply to Gaunilo 8. Once we have formed this idea of that than which nothing greater can be thought, Anselm says, we can see that such a being has features that cannot belong to a possible but non-existent object — or, in other words, that 2 is true. For example, a being that is capable of non-existence is less great than a being that exists necessarily. If that than which nothing greater can be thought does not exist, it is obviously capable of non-existence; and if it is capable of non-existence, then even if it were to exist, it would not be that than which nothing greater can be thought after all.

So if that than which nothing greater can be thought can be thought — that is, if it is a possible being — it actually exists. This reading of the argument of the Proslogion is developed at length in Williams and Visser , chapter 5. Recall that Anselm's intention in the Proslogion was to offer a single argument that would establish not only the existence of God but also the various attributes that Christians believe God possesses. If the argument of chapter 2 proved only the existence of God, leaving the divine attributes to be established piecemeal as in the Monologion, Anselm would consider the Proslogion a failure.

But in fact the concept of that than which nothing greater can be thought turns out to be marvelously fertile.


God must, for example, be omnipotent. For if he were not, we could conceive of a being greater than he. But God is that than which no greater can be thought, so he must be omnipotent. Similarly, God must be just, self-existent, invulnerable to suffering, merciful, timelessly eternal, non-physical, non-composite, and so forth. For if he lacked any of these qualities, he would be less than the greatest conceivable being, which is impossible. The ontological argument thus works as a sort of divine-attribute-generating machine.

Admittedly, though, the appearance of theoretical simplicity is somewhat misleading. That is, the ontological argument tells us that God has whatever characteristics it is better or greater to have than to lack, but it does not tell us which characteristics those are. We must have some independent way of identifying them before we can plug them into the ontological argument and generate a full-blown conception of the divine nature.

Anselm identifies these characteristics in part by appeal to intuitions about value, in part by independent argument. To illustrate Anselm's method, I shall examine his discussions of God's impassibility, timelessness, and simplicity. According to the doctrine of divine impassibility, God is invulnerable to suffering. Nothing can act upon him; he is in no way passive. He therefore does not feel emotions, since emotions are states that one undergoes rather than actions one performs. His intuitions about value are shaped by the Platonic-Augustinian tradition of which he was a part.

Augustine took from the Platonists the idea that the really real things, the greatest and best of beings, are stable, uniform, and unchanging. He says in On Free Choice of the Will 2.

For Anselm, then, it is obvious that a being who is in no way passive, who cannot experience anything of which he is not himself the origin, is better and greater than any being who can be acted upon by something outside himself. So God, being that than which nothing greater can be thought, is wholly active; he is impassible. Notice that Augustine also found it obvious that the eternal is better than the temporal.

It is a shifting and shadowy reflection of the really real. As later Platonists, including Augustine, develop this idea, temporal beings have their existence piecemeal; they exist only in this tiny sliver of a now, which is constantly flowing away from them and passing into nothingness. An eternal being, by contrast, is to use my earlier description stable, uniform, and unchanging.

So it seems intuitively obvious to Anselm that if God is to be that than which nothing greater can be thought, he must be eternal. That is, he must be not merely everlasting, but outside time altogether. In addition to this strong intuitive consideration, Anselm at least hints at a further argument for the claim that it is better to be eternal than temporal. His idea seems to be that if God were in time or in a place , he would be bound by certain constraints inherent in the nature of time or place. His discussion in Monologion 22 makes the problem clear:.

This, then, is the condition of place and time: whatever is enclosed within their boundaries does not escape being characterized by parts, whether the sort of parts its place receives with respect to size, or the sort its time suffers with respect to duration; nor can it in any way be contained as a whole all at once by different places or times. By contrast, if something is in no way constrained by confinement in a place or time, no law of places or times forces it into a multiplicity of parts or prevents it from being present as a whole all at once in several places or times.

So at least part of the reason for holding that God is timeless is that the nature of time would impose constraints upon God, and of course it is better to be subject to no external constraints. The other part of the reason, though, is that if God were in place or time he would have parts. But what is so bad about having parts?

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This question brings us naturally to the doctrine of divine simplicity, which is simply the doctrine that God has no parts of any kind. Even for an Augustinian like Anselm, the claim that it is better to lack parts than to have them is less than intuitively compelling, so Anselm offers further arguments for that claim. The argument in the Monologion goes somewhat differently. The argument in the Proslogion, then, seeks to relate simplicity to the intuitive considerations that identify what is greatest and best with what is stable, uniform, and unchanging; the argument in the Monologion, by contrast, seeks to show that simplicity is necessary if God is to be—as the theistic proofs have already established—the ultimate source of his own goodness and existence.

Anselm's success in generating a whole host of divine attributes through the ontological argument does present him with a problem. He must show that the attributes are consistent with each other—in other words, that it is possible for one and the same being to have all of them.

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For example, there seems at first glance to be a conflict between justice and omnipotence. If God is perfectly just, he cannot lie. But if God is omnipotent, how can there be something he cannot do? Anselm's solution is to explain that omnipotence does not mean the ability to do everything; instead, it means the possession of unlimited power.

Being omnipotent, God has no weakness. So it turns out that omnipotence actually entails the inability to lie.

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Another apparent contradiction is between God's mercy and his justice. If God is just, he will surely punish the wicked as they deserve. But because he is merciful, he spares the wicked. Anselm tries to resolve this apparent contradiction by appeal to God's goodness. So God's supreme goodness requires that he be both just and merciful. Despite persecutions, Peter entered a Jesuit seminary with hopes of being ordained one day. Read more: My friends Joe and Vicki protected Jews from the Nazis Rather than accept this response, Peter made a private vow that he would continue to pursue a Jesuit vocation.

Nothing daunted, Peter looked elsewhere. He sailed to Goa.