Anselm’s Teapot

St AnselmThe  Bible can be used to support the definition of God as an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect Being. However this definition did not arise from revelation or scripture. This is the god of the ontological argument, a god defined by  human wisdom. A god that arose without reference to either scripture or empirical reality, like a Celestial Teapot from the mind of  Anselm, ( c. 1033 – 21 April 1109)  the first of the  scholastic philosophers.

The Ontological Argument

In the ontological argument Anselm thinks of that than which no greater can be conceived.  He argues that even the Godless fool of Psalm 14, would understand the meaning of that than which no greater can be conceived.

  • God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived . (According tp Anselm even a fool understands what this means, even if he doesn’t understand this being to exist in reality.)
  • A being that exists in reality is greater than one which only exists in the mind
  • Therefore God exists, to such a great extent, that he is a necessary being; one that can not be conceived not to exist..

Philosophers have, over the millenium since the The Proslogion  (Anselm 1077-1078)  was written, argued over whether or not this argument is valid, sound or neither.  Given that philosophers are also uncertain about the truth of Annie’s prophecy:

“The sun will come out tomorrow.”

I intend to treat what philosophers have to say about the existence of God with the same degree of concern, with which I treat their opinions about whether or not the sun is certain to rise tomorrow; an attitude advocated by the Scottish philosopher, David Hume.

But I will say that if you accept Anselm’s definition of god – That than which no greater can be conceived to exist -and his second premise, that maximal greatness implies existence, then yes he has proved that it is impossible to conceive that god does not exist. Because at the moment that you conceive the notion that god does not exist, you are no longer thinking of god. To say that you cannot rationally conceive Anselm’s god not to exist, is not the equivalent of saying he exists. It does not rule out the possibility that the set of beings than which no greater can be conceived is empty.

The Purpose of the Ontological Argument

To understand the purpose of the ontological argument, it is necessary to understand something of the culture in which it originated.

Anselm was not just the first of the scholastic philosophers, he was also a pre-reformation Archbishop of Canterbury.. The following passage is taken from a work attributed  to Jonathan Swift  and  follows a  recount  of a quarrel between Archbishop Anselm and the then King of England, William II, the son of William the Conqueror.

The particulars of this quarrel between the king and the archbishop, are not in my opinion considerable enough to deserve a place in this brief collection, being of little use to posterity, and of less entertainment;  neither should I have mentioned it at all, but for the occasion it gives me of making a general observation, which may afford some light into the nature and disposition of those ages.  Not only this King’s father and himself, but the princes for several successions of the fairest character, have been severely taxed for violating the rights of the clergy and perhaps not altogether without reason.  It is true, this character has made the lighter impression, as proceeding altogether from the party injured, the contemporary writers being generally churchmen: and it must be confessed that the usurpations of the church and court of Rome, were in those ages risen to such heights, as to be altogether inconsistent with the legislature or administration of an independent state, the inferior  clergy, both secular and regular, insisting on such immunities as wholly exempted them from the civil power; and the bishops removing all controversies with the crown by appeal to Rome: for they reduced the matter to this short issue: 
That God was to be obeyed rather  than men; and consequently the bishop of Rome, who is Christ’s representative, rather than an earthly prince. 

The Works of the Reverend Jonathan Swift  pages 234-235: Jonathan Swift Thomas Sheridan Pub.1812  

Or in other words, like the lion and the unicorn fighting for the crown, the monarchies of Europe and the church, were in conflict over earthly power.

Prior to Anselm, the majority view of the medieval church was that Christ had given himself as a sacrifice to ransome us from Satan, that is the ransome theory of atonement. A  theology of Christ which portrayed him as paying tribute to he who is sometimes called the  Prince of this World, was consistent with the view, held by the monarchies of Europe, that the church should acknowledge their right to tribute.

Anselm’s theology, the theology of a god who was too powerful to pay tribute to anyone, and a Christology that converted Christ’s death, to the sacrifice of a perfect human, made to satisfy the honour of a holy God, would have played rather better to power hungry churchmen. I would suggest that this provides sufficient reason for the success of the ontological argument.

It was not its success in proving that God existed that recommended it, but its implication:

That God was to be obeyed  rather than men (or devils); and consequently the bishop of Rome, who is Christ’s representative, rather than an earthly prince. 

 N.B. The protestant reformers changed the Christology, and had different notions about how earthly power should be distributed, but they continued to give pride of place in the godhead to Anselm’s god. The cruelty that ensued was not significantly different from that of the inquisition.


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