St. Anselm and his fools in today's world

Term Paper, 1998

14 Pages, Grade: A+


Convincitur ergo etiam insipiens esse vel in intellectu aliquid, quo nihil majus cogitari potest; quia hoc cum audit, intelligit; et quicquid intelligitur, in intellectu est. Et certe id, quo majus cogitari nequit, non potest esse in intellectu solo. Si enim vel in solo intellectu est, potest cogitari esse et in re: quod majus est. Si ergo id, quo majus cogitari non potest, est in solo intellectu, idipsum, quo majus cogitari non potest, est quo majus cogitari potest: sed certe hoc esse non potest. Existit ergo procul dubio aliquid, quo majus cogitari non valet, et in intellecu, et in re.[1]


Not long ago, I met with some friends, Christians and non-Christians, for a philosophy discussion. We discussed Anselm of Canterbury's ontological argument for the existence of God. None of us was convinced that Anselm's proof was valid. In the beginning of the evening, we agreed with Schopenhauer who called Anselm's argument a "charming joke,_[2] but we went on talking and found ourselves challenged by Anselm's argument. It triggered a discussion that clarified various issues of our thoughts. This paper will be an investigation of the implications of Anselm's argument in the context of the contemporary western world -- an investigation of the multiple tangents from Anselm's philosophy to the streams of the popular mindsets of our time.

Anselm (1033/4-1109),[3] archbishop of Canterbury, lived in a time when many people felt that philosophical method possessed an intellectual respectability which theology lacked.[4] Some theologians called Dialectics, like Anselm, started to apply philosophical dialectic and logic to theological issues. The question of the time was how the independence of philosophy could be reconciled with the Catholic position. In 1072, Peter Damian defined philosophy as ancilla dominae (maid of the Lord).[5] Among the Dialectics, Anselm belonged to the group of the Realists.

About 1070 he started his writing career. His most important works are Proslogium, Monologium, and Cur Deus homo. Although calling Anselm the "father of Scholasticism_[6] might be an exaggeration, he set the trend in theology and philosophy for the following centuries by explaining the Christian faith in a rational, logical system.[7] In the 12th century, the Roman Catholic Church made him a saint, and in the 18th called him doctor ecclesiae.[8]

Anselm became best known for the ontological argument for the existence of God which he first formulated in the Proslogium.[9] It goes as follows: God, Anselm defines, is the "being than which nothing greater can be conceived._[10] Since existence in reality is greater than existence in understanding alone, i.,q.n.m.c.p.[11] existing in reality is greater than i.,q.n.m.c.p. not existing in reality. Hence, if i.,q.n.m.c.p. existed not in reality, it were not i.,q.n.m.c.p., for something greater than it could be conceived. This is an absurd contradiction in itself: "certe hoc esse non potest."[12] Quoting Psalm 14:1, Anselm says that even the fool who says in his heart, "There is no God,_ can conceive of i.,q.n.m.c.p., for otherwise, he could not even make this statement about it/ him. Saying 'There is no God,' therefore is absurd, i.e. his non-existence is impossible, and hence his existence necessary.[13]

Our time has found many ways to say 'There is no God.' Psalm 14:1, and St. Anselm would call these people 'fools.' It sounds arrogant, but there is some of truth to it. In fact, 'foolishness' may be a clarifying concept to understand many features of the contemporary mindsets. Let us investigate whether and how Anselm's philosophy applies to modern and post-modern 'foolishness,' and what Anselm can contribute to twentieth century Christian thought.


It is one of the dogmas of our time that one cannot prove the existence of God. It seems that before the Enlightenment, people believed in proofs for God's existence, and then Kant came and showed that they are all impossible.[14] However, the underlying issue is that it takes more than a proof to come to faith.[15] It takes conviction and repentance which are works of the Holy Spirit. Paul expresses this when he points out that the "message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."[16] Paul sees Christians and non-Christians operating within different frames of reference, and what is powerful in the one frame, is foolishness in the other.


[1] "Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.

Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality" (Proslogium, 2).

The translations I quote are those by Deane.

In all references to primary literature I will quote chapters, verses, numbers, etc. where possible. In secondary literature without paragraph numbering, I will cite by page numbers.

[2] Taylor, vii.

[3] Hauschild, 555.

[4] Evans, 11.

[5] Cambridge History, 792.

[6] Weisheipl, 304.

[7] He should rather be pre-Scholastic since he did not yet use the typical Scholastic method (Hauschild, 555).

[8] Weisheipl, 305.

[9] Cf. Proslogium, 2-4.

[10] Proslogium, 2: "id, quo nihil majus cogitari possit."

[11] In the following, I will simply use the abbreviation "i.,q.n.m.c.p." for "id, quo nihil majus cogitari possit."

[12] Proslogium, 2.

[13] Cf. Taylor, xvi.

[14] Kant,

[15] Cf. Lk 16: 31: "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."

[16] 1Co 1:18.

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St. Anselm and his fools in today's world
The Gospel in the World of Thought: Christian Perspectives on the History of Philosophy
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World, Thought, Christian, Perspectives, History, Philosophy, Gottesbeweis, Postmoderne, Relativismus
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Otto Guggemos (Author), 1998, St. Anselm and his fools in today's world, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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