Welcome to this week’s Friday Philosophy post. Today I’ll be offering a snapshot of the life and thought of Saint Anselm, who was an important philosophical theologian of the Medieval period, and produced an interesting argument for the existence of God.
Who Was He?
Saint Anselm was a monk, abbot, philosopher, and theologian of the Catholic Church, who lived between 1033-1109 AD. He held the office of archbishop of Canterbury (the post held by leaders of the Church of England) between 1093-1109, and is remembered for his rational and philosophical approach to the Christian faith.
What’s the Big Idea?
Anselm is most famous for espousing what is commonly known as the ontological argument for the existence of God. The world ‘ontology’ basically means ‘being’, and so God’s being is the focus of the argument.
Imagine, says Anselm, the greatest, most perfect being of which you can conceive. If the being you think of has every possible desirable attribute of greatness, but not existence, it is not the greatest most perfect being possible, because a being that had all the same attributes plus existence would necessarily be greater. Therefore, argues Anselm, the greatest, most perfect possible being (which is God) must exist.
I’ve never found the ontological argument to be very convincing. It feels to me to be more like a philosophical trick than a convincing argument. Is it really the case that the greatest possible being of which we can conceive must exist? I’m not convinced of the veracity of this argument.
It seems to me that there are much more compelling arguments for the existence of God. For instance, the fact that miracles happen, and the fact that God speaks to people and reveals Himself in dreams and visions. Of course, if you haven’t experienced the reality of God then philosophical arguments will seem like an enticing way of trying to understand whether or not God exists.
I do believe there is some merit to philosophical arguments for the existence of God, but I feel there are much stronger arguments than Anselm’s ontological argument. For instance, the so-called ‘teleological argument’, which says that God is revealed in the fact that the universe displays design and purpose, is far more convincing to me.
Progressing through the Medieval period, in next week’s philosophy post we’ll be taking a look at the theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas, and exploring why he is still considered to be one of the key figures in the history of the Catholic Church. Thank you for reading!