When I was a student at Concordia College I became fascinated with Anselm’s argument for the existence of God. So much so that I decided to make it the topic of my Senior Honours paper in Philosophy. I initially thought, with all the arrogance of a young student of philosophy, that I would show how silly and mistaken the argument was. Indeed, that was largely the kind of judgment I was encountering in many modern philosophers. But my mentor, Professor Anderson encouraged me to read and reread the Proslogium – Anselm’s text where the argument in found – and to give it a word by word analysis, noting the assumptions that Anselm brought to the argument. I did this for the next six months even though Anselm’s actual argument is only a few sentences long.
I was surprised to discover that Anselm was a monk, actually a teacher of novice monks at his monastery at Bec in France when he pondered this question. And, as a Benedictine monk he was daily part of the Opus Dei, or work of God, that structured the monks’ lives in the monastery. The Opus Dei was eight periods of communal prayer beginning with Vigil at 2 am and concluding with Compline after sundown in the evening. When Anselm was seeking an argument for the existence of God he was not seeking to quiet his doubts about God’s existence, but, as he said, this was an exercise of “faith seeking understanding.” His whole life was saturated with belief in God. He did not see the argument as moving one from unbelief to belief, but of moving the believer to an understanding of what he/she already believes. This put his search in a whole different light.
I was also surprised to discover that Anselm was surprised by his own argument. He recounts in his preface to the Proslogium, a text he had earlier called “Faith Seeking Understanding,” that he had been searching for an argument for some time and that it was when he had about abandoned his quest that the argument suddenly came to him. This suggested to me that the argument was not the result of a ponderous, step by step, exercise in rational argument construction, but a flash of intuition, an inward act of illumination that suddenly gave him the insight he had longed for.
My third surprise was to learn that Anselm prefaced his argument by encouraging his reader to prayer. This I came to see was not just a pious gesture – though it is that too – but actually essential to his argument. Thinking for Anselm is a type of prayer, it is meditation on what we believe, seeking to understand our faith. Put aside everything else, Anselm says, and enter this inner world of prayer. And his assumption here – one that is not shared by modern philosophy – is that we are made to know God. The mind is made for God.
My fourth – and final – surprise was to find that Anselm actually has two arguments for the existence of God. One I found convincing, the other I found problematic. So, armed with these “surprises” what conclusions did I reach? It was not without some embarrassment that I finally concluded that Anselm’s argument was, at least in its second form and given his assumptions, persuasive. It worked. It was an argument that did what Anselm thought it could do, namely, bring understanding to something we believed. And with understanding comes joy, that quiet inward joy that comes when one sees the truth. So I always tell my students when I talk about Anselm: smile.
Now what was the argument? It is often called the “ontological” argument because it is an argument based on “ontology” or the study of being. And, since that doesn’t help, it is argument based on the analysis of the word “God.” Anselm says that the word means “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Even the fool, the one who says that “God does not exist,” knows that the word means “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” The form of the argument that I found persuasive is that God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” cannot be conceived not to exist. Get all those negatives? The argument goes as follows:
…it [God] assuredly exists so truly, that it cannot be conceived not to exist. For it is possible to conceive of a being which cannot be conceived not to exist; and this is greater than one which can be conceived not to exist. Hence, if that than which nothing greater can be conceived, can be conceived not to exist, it is not that, than which nothing greater can be conceived. There is, then, so truly a being than which nothing great can be conceived to exist, that it cannot even be conceived not to exist; and this being thou art, O Lord, our God.
This argument is more like a koan in the Zen tradition of Buddhism, a puzzle to meditate on, to carry around with you, to live with, until you can come to see as Anselm saw. It is not a series of deductions to go through, nor is it a set of logical moves. It is a compressed intuition, a lightening flash, that once it flashes, leaves you with a transforming inner joy. But it takes time to come to, it takes time to realize the flash in Anselm’s argument that if we think on God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” then we cannot think of God as not existing. Since then we would not be thinking of “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Get it.
It was some thirty years later that I was finally able to visit Anselm’s monastery at Bec. I had been in France for an international conference and following the conference I had gone to visit Chartres where I’d meet up with a friend and fellow conferee, Ramon Mujica from Peru, and his girlfriend Claudia. We would then visit the magnificent Cathedral – I had been to Chartres before and this time I wanted to walk the labyrinth on the cathedral floor – then travel across France to Normandy and the monastery at Bec. The visit to Chartres was marvelous, how could it be elsewise? Then the drive across country was lovely: it was spring and the world was awakening. We got to Bec in the late afternoon. I would stay for a couple of days, I would drive Ramon and Claudia into nearby Rouen where they would stay then take a train back to Paris.
Bec was lovely. It is a small village and the monastery is set on the edge of the village in a valley in the Norman countryside. A stream runs through the monastery. In the 90s when I visited Bec there were no buildings that remained from Anselm’s time, but I did discover a poem in which Anselm referred to Bec as the nest that made him. Over the days at Bec I went to services in the Chapel and spent time in prayer and meditation. But mostly I walked along the stream that ran through the monastery, listened to the birds, and smelled the new blossoms of spring. Then I would stop and sit and think about Anselm and this setting. I imagined him walking along thinking his thoughts, laughing as he suddenly realized what he realized: that we cannot think God as not existing. This was a hard won insight but when it came it came as a gift. It was here at Bec that this flash of lightening illumined Anselm within. I wrote these words in my notebook: did you sit stern/ brow knitted/ teeth gritted? Did you press hard/ twist and turn/ slowly burn? Or/ did you laugh/ give in/ give way/ to godly play?/ how did you meet/ the dancer who dances/ truth/ across the floorboards of the mind?
Walking the place that Anselm called “His Nest,” I think I “know” because I smiled, too.