Anselm’s unum argumentum has often been considered the pioneer of the notorious “ontological proof” of God’s existence. While its perennial relevance continues to provoke and inspire, the subtlety of this work’s intention as an invitation to embark upon an existential query, as the axis upon which God’s existence may be understood, has perhaps been less noted. This reflection seeks to uncover a more integral reading of the Proslogion to bring this aspect to light.
The hierarchy of being
Jean-Luc Marion ((J.L. MARION, ¿Es el argumento ontológico realmente ontológico? El argumento sobre la existencia de Dios según san Anselmo y su interpretación metafísica en Kant, Tópicos 32, 2007, 179-205.)) finds in the presentation of the Anselmian argument a three-tiered hierarchy of being. The textual basis for this can be drawn from the third chapter of the Proslogion when Anselm says, “To thee alone, therefore, it belongs to exist more truly than all other beings, and hence in a higher degree than all others.” and shortly after, “thou dost exist in the highest degree of all.” There can be established then the fullness of truth and existence upon the highest degree, decreasing down to the absence of truth and existence in the lowest.
The lowest order thus corresponds to the things that exist only in intellectu. Such (false) things are ‘practically nothing’ and only exist in virtue of the mind that has the power to imagine them. The intermediate order has those things which are understood as reality. They are both in intellectu et in re. Gaunilon’s oppositions to Anselm’s argument attempt to construct analogies that never reach beyond these two degrees. For example, the maius ominibus begins as something in intellectu, and the debate is whether or not it will also ‘move up’ to the second degree. The lost island is a similar case.
The heart of Gaunilon’s critique rests upon the fact that the intellect does not have the power to make things exist in re, an opposition which concords that the content of the intellect should occupy the lower degrees of the hierarchy. This is furthermore shown by the continual need for the intellect to verify what it knows as being true by way of confronting a degree higher than itself. The subliminal demand for ‘empirical corroboration’ takes as its premise this order: that existence in re is of a higher degree than existence in intellectu.
The final tier, however, pertains to the highest degree of being, whose (perhaps a prioristic concession as reality) in re is itself upon the outer threshold of thought’s possibility. Therefore, it is not a matter of imagining an island existing somewhere which could be understood were it found, but in fact, the category of island is inadmissible, the category of somewhere is inadmissible, the category of imagination itself is inadmissible, because the existence which Anselm is referring to is so hierarchically above all of these categories that it holds a degree in re of its own right. It is its own degree of reality that no thing or idea can fully encompass. If nothing in re is able to reach its limits, how much less our thought must be able to. Although the object that is presented is not conceivable in itself, the words that identify it are understandable. Anselm explains this in the ninth chapter of his response to Gaunilon saying,
«There is nothing to prevent one’s saying “ineffable”, although what is said to be ineffable cannot be spoken of. Inconceivable is conceivable, although that to which the word inconceivable can be applied is not conceivable. So, when one says, that than which nothing greater is conceivable, undoubtedly what is heard is conceivable and intelligible, although that being itself, than which a greater is inconceivable, cannot be conceived or understood. » ((ANSELM, Proslogium; Monologium; An Appendix in Behalf of the Fool by Gaunilon; and Cur Deus Homo, trans. S. NORTON DEANE, Chicago, Open Court, 1903, 168. Latin text confronted in ANSELMO, Monologio e Proslogio, a cura di I. SCIUTO, Bompiani, Milano, 2009, 316-411.))
Therefore, in this highest order, that which is greatest [id quo maius] is approachable by thought and understanding only in the words with which it is designated and communicated; for its authentic and full reality [in re] remains beyond any possible consideration in intellectu. The id quo maius is, hierarchically speaking, beyond any category or concept with which we might attempt to hold or assimilate it in intellectu; it has no equivalent, no similar, no adequate analogical pair for comparison. The only designation that indicates its exceptional character is the formula presented by Anselm as a “special case” ((B. GOEBEL, Anselm’s Elusive Argument: Ian Logan Reading the Proslogion, The Saint Anselm Journal, 7.1, 2009, 6. (Cfr. I. LOGAN, Reading Anselm’s Proslogion. The History of Anselm’s Argument and its Significance Today, Farnham: Ashgate, 2009).)), an “exception”, which calls not for a definition but a “conjecture” [conicere]. Only on behalf of said supposition is the exceptional aspect of this highest degree grasped, for the ordinary rules of judgment which correspond to our comprehension of things (in intellectu) can no longer be applied.
Between unthinkable and impossible thought
The cogitari nequit upon which Anselm insists is, for this reason, key to comprehending the subtlety of his argument’s indication, and underlines the negative aspect of a no-concept with which the divine reality must be ascertained as in re. There is furthermore an indirect structure to the formula. For structurally, id quo maius cogitari nequit says nothing of the object it refers to, but places it before us as indirectly referenced to an impossible greater. So the mind must consider this id, not in itself, but as indicated by a relative hypothetical impossible, it’s inconceivable greater. The mind is thus challenged to grasp at a heteronomous object. This peculiar formula is also contrasted between a positive id and a negative cogitatio. This negative rule of thought determines the positive infinite of its object, forbidding any attempt to conceptualize it ((P. GILBERT, Pensiero ed esperienza cristiana in Anselmo d’Aosta, trans. E. MANFREDOTTI, in Rivista di filosofia tomista e di filosofia contemporanea, Padova, 1995, 180.)). This combination of elements generates a sort of “place/no-place” [nusquam locus] where a unique paradoxical experience of intentional effort is meant to conduce the philosophical search for God towards its prerogative ((Cf. Augustine, Confessions X, 26.)).
Curiously, Anselm goes still farther to distinguish between what cannot be thought, and what is properly irrational, clarifying that his argument deals with the former, while the counterargument of the insipient deals with the later. The case of the insipient presents a true challenge for who would want to prove the existence of God, because “in no wise could he understand God” ((ANSELM, ibid. 166.)). However, Anselm insists, “in some degree” it is possible to understand the id quo maius cogitari nequit, even if it is conceptually ‘empty’, offering no content in intellectu other than itself as a placeholder. The Philosopher calls this argument “sufficiently necessary” in order to arrive at the affirmation of divine existence, for “while the discovery of truths about God requires faith, one does not need faith to understand the argument” ((B. GOEBEL, ibid. 3.)).
[pullquote]The argument’s strength however does not end here. Anselm reinforces his point, insisting not upon the impossibility of thinking upon divine reality, perhaps because greater access is always possible through faith, but rather, upon the impossibility of thinking that the object of his formula does not exist. The denial of the existence of id quo maius cogitari nequit becomes an affirmation that is properly irrational. There is a subtle line, therefore, to be drawn between approaching the existence of God as something irrelative to thought or declaring it entirely irrelevant to thought. The first recognizes a reality that supersedes the mind’s relative capacity, something whose mystery eludes our comprehension, but whose reality is sincerely affirmable. The second instead attempts to cancel any legitimacy of said existence as a useless pretension of our thought.[/pullquote]
A possible forth, still inferior degree of the hierarchy could here be inserted, for that which is neither in re nor in intellectu. In other words, indicating something entirely irrelevant to all consideration. To this forth level belongs the insipient accusation, “id quo maius coitari nequit does not exist”; not for holding God’s existence as something irrelevant, but because in demitting to reason upon what is indicated by the words id quo maius cogitari nequit, he makes of his own thought an irrational contradiction, overstepping the logic of the hierarchical order which he yields to justify this very negation. He simultaneously demands corroboration of a higher degree (in re), and ushers in his own thought (in intellectu) as a default higher degree in the absence of empirical proof.
The signification of the “sufficiently necessary argument” is simply ignored in its whole, and is altered from its original reference to a hypothetical impossibility, for an imposed real impossibility: that my own thought can effectuate the non-existence of a reality (in re) whose real hypothetical possibility is not only valid in this world but in every possible world ((Cf. B. GOEBEL, ibid. 12.)). By doing so, the insipient utters a non-reality that can neither be in re nor in intellectu; replacing what is legitimately unknowable, but affirmable as a hypothetical possibility, instead insisting upon a real, but irrational impossibility. In refusing to risk testing the limits of reason’s capacity he ends abandoning this capacity within reason’s limits. The insipient is insipient precisely because he refuses to reason.
The search for the implicit sense
Anselm establishes in chapter IV of the Proslogion that, “there is more than one way in which a thing is said in the heart or conceived. For, in one sense, an object is conceived, when the word signifying it is conceived; and in another, when the very entity, which the object is, is understood” ((ANSELM, ibid. 9-10.)). This first sense would refer to conceiving id quo maius cogitari nequit as something existent, while the second would refer to understanding what God, the object of the id quo maius, is in Himself. Since this second sense corresponds, in this “special case”, to something beyond comprehension in intellectu, the first sense is the one initially considered by the argument. The second sense, nevertheless, is certainly discoverable in the truth contained by the words that signify the first sense. Its discovery however implies moving beyond the threshold of the intellect.
What then can be ascertained from the words id quo maius cogitari nequit? The fact that the argument carefully refers to an impersonal and indefinite id is often betrayed in the translations by a perhaps premature substitution of the word, “God”, as the known, implicit object of the formula. It is preferable, however, to maintain the id in order to grasp the intentionality of the formula. The id provokes searching because it is a no-concept, in need of content. This searching is a fundamental part of the unum argumentum, for it must bring the searcher gradually from conjecture to conviction. Thus a certain pedagogical formulation is here intended to serve as a guide along a path of discovery. Anselm explains, outlining at least three main steps to this path in chapter XIV: “Thou didst seek God. Thou hast found him  to be a being which is the highest of all beings,  a being than which nothing better can be conceived […] and  that it is everywhere and always” ((ANSELM, ibid. 20. These and the following italics are mine.)). In his response to Gaunilon, Anselm clarifies that this id “cannot be conceived except as without beginning”, and, “if it could be conceived not to exist, it could be conceived to have a beginning and an end” ((ANSELM, ibid. 154,159.)) and would therefore no longer be that whose greater is unthinkable. The word unthinkable/inconceivable [cogitari nequit] thus indirectly gives to this id an implicit sense of eternity and infinitude, perhaps even of absolute transcendence.
Another indication here is that Anselm passes from the hierarchy of maius to melius, indicating a first intention in chapter III, again in V, with a definitive substitution of the formula in chapter XIV: “[id] quo nihil melius cogitare potest”. Greatness, therefore, opens way to Goodness in the search. Anselm’s argument for God does not therefore end upon the intellectual plane of being and existence, but moves into the heart of presence and blessedness. It seems perhaps his intention was not to dissect an ontological proof of the superlative being, but to awaken an anthropological experience, of awareness, within the confines of one’s own limitedness, of the presence of a reality which precedes and exceeds the possibility of the mind, calling one to recognize the direction of their own deepest longings.
Anselm’s initial intention is clear, fides quaerens intellectum. There is something (an id); that something is true; and that truth is good. By chapter XXIII of the Proslogion, the intellect has deepened upon what is implicit in this id, as Anselm relates, “Now, this is that single, necessary Being, in which is every good; nay, which is every good, and a single entire good, and the only good” ((ibid. 29.)). Therefore, being and goodness come to coincide in perfect and simple necessity. The words of the closing chapter (XXVI) are neither superfluous nor insignificant, for they mark the final progression of this simple and “sufficiently necessary” search, for those who walk it “shall rejoice according as they shall love; and they shall love according as they shall know” ((ibid. 33.)). Therefore, a final addition may be added to the initial intention, as the completion of the movement to understand God shows itself to be intellectum quarens amor. Kant’s critique of ‘so much wasted effort’ ((Cf. E. KANT, A critique of pure reason, pt. II, b. II, ch. III, sec. IV.)) on ‘ontological’ arguments does not discredit this medieval predecessor’s striking intuition, that God can only be truly understood beyond the concepts in intellectu, in the heart, rather, of practical reason and morality.
© 2015 – Benjamin Oldani para el Centro de Estudios Católicos – CEC