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Note on the Argument of the Proslogion.

The argument which Anselm embodied in the Proslogion may thus be stated. Whoever speaks of God, even if only, like the Fool in the Psalms, to say There is no God, must, if he is not content to use words without any meaning at all, attach some sense to the word God. Now the sense in which, as a matter of fact, this word is used, as well by those who deny as by those who affirm the real existence of what is denoted is this: That than which no greater can be conceived. Whoever asserts, however, that this does not exist, involves himself in a plain contradiction. For in asserting that that than which no greater can be conceited does not exist, he implies at once that he can conceive something greater, namely that which, beside being all that this is conceived to be, shall also be real. It would lie outside my present task to discuss this argument at length. But as the reader may fairly ask what is thought of the argument by those who make the criticism of such reasonings their business, I will now add a few observations to what I have already said in the Introduction. I shall not indeed state in detail whether this or that philosopher accepted it or rejected it; for such a catalogue of views and doctrines is by itself a 47very barren and unprofitable sort of knowledge. But to mention some of the points on which the criticism of Anselm’s argument might fasten and has fastened, may well be of use in the way of guidance and suggestion, and this I will do, using technical expressions as little as I can, and assuming as little as I may a previous study of philosophy in my readers.

1. It may be asked, Does the argument , as it stands, prove what it proposes to prove? It is difficult, I think, to deny that it seems to do so, and yet most readers will feel that it leaves them unconvinced. They will be inclined to say of it, as Hume said of Bishop Berkeley’s philosophy, that it admits of no answer and produces no conviction. They will suspect some fallacy, some sophistry, they will be sure that it can only be by some trick that they are led so suddenly from the idea or conception of God to belief in His reality, for they are certain that the evidence of reality must be something other than a mere idea. What should it be then? The first answer which suggests itself is probably, The evidence of the senses. Seeing is believing, says the proverb. And in many cases this is true. Who can hold a fire in his hand, asks Bolingbroke in Shakespeare’s Richard II., by thinking on the frosty Caucasus? And Kant, the greatest of all the unfavourable critics of the Ontological Argument, suggested that a hundred dollars in my pocket are some thing very different from any thought of such a sum. But then the most important thing about 48fire is that it should warm us; about dollars that they should be handled and pass from hand to hand. This is not so with God. No man hath seen God at any time. He is not an object of the senses at all, but of faith. A vision may sometimes be the means by which faith is won; but it is not the vision in itself that assures us. One may see and yet not believe. They have both seen and hated, said our Lord, both Me and My Father. And again it is written, Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

Anselm, for his part, is quite clear that his argument applies to God only. It is not at all his intention to guarantee by his argument the reality of everything of which we may be said to have an idea. His contemporary critic, Gaunilo, thought that the same reasoning would guarantee the existence of a most perfect island; for we can form the idea of such an island really existing; and if the island does not exist, this idea would not be the idea of the most perfect island, since such an island, really existing, would be more perfect still; and we can frame the idea of such an island. But Anselm replied to Gaunilo that his reasoning was only applicable to that than which no greater can be conceived; for such a thing must be conceived to be eternal, without beginning or end; and hence it cannot be possible without being real. It is no part of the notion of an island, even of the most perfect, that it should be without beginning or end. Hence all that our thought of the most perfect 49island involves is that it is conceivable, possible; that it may exist or have existed or be yet to come into existence; but to speak of an eternal object, one which has no beginning or end, in this way, is absurd. It cannot, if it is not real now, be possible, in the sense that it may have existed in the past or may yet exist in the future; it can only be possible if it actually exists. I see no flaw in this answer of Anselm’s to his critic; but it practically admits the insufficiency of the original statement of the argument. For, as originally stated, the argument does but show that our notion of perfection is one which cannot apply to a mere idea, but only to what is real; it does not however prove that there is some thing real to which it applies. The contradiction lies in thinking of it as unreal and yet as perfect. Nothing is said in the original statement of the idea at first proving only the possibility of its object; and proving the reality of its object only in the case where possibility is inconceivable without reality.

2. We may further ask, however, Does the argument, if not as originally stated proving what it proposes to prove, yet admit of a statement which would prove it? That is, if we give up the notion that the argument, as originally stated, is by itself sufficient to refute atheism, is it sufficient, if we add to it the explanations by which Anselm, replying to Gaunilo, was (as we have seen) led to add to it? I think it is, so long as we do not question the claim of thought to be our 50only criterion of reality. And few do seriously question this claim. We look into a mirror and see a looking-glass room. Do we believe, like Alice in the fairy-tale, that we should find ourselves in that room, if we could only get through the glass? Certainly not; that, we say, is no real room, it is only a reflection. But why so? We see it as much as we see this room in which we are standing. We see it still, after we have denied that it is real, just as much as we did before. There it is; so is the room on this side of the glass. Where is the difference? We shall find that it is in consequence of the contradictions between them, that we do not think them equally real. On this side of the glass, if you stretch out your hand to touch what looks solid, it will feel solid, but if you stretch out your hand to something which looks just the same in the looking-glass room, you will feel only the smooth surface of the mirror; if you press on, you will break the glass, and the image will vanish, not by the interposition of anything but by the removal of what seemed to be between us and it. You insist, then, that your world shall be free from contradictions; and so where you find in your every-day experience contradictions between appearances which are alike, you say one is only appearance, a reflection of the other which is real, and so fit both into one harmonious system. It is not otherwise when you rise from the experience of the senses to the higher experience of science. We who believe 51the Copernican astronomy, and suppose that the earth goes round the sun, not the sun round the earth, see the sun rise in the east and set in the west just as plainly as our ancestors did in the days before Copernicus; but we say that this is only appearance; really the earth is going round the sun, not the sun round the earth. But why really? Because this way of putting it explains more, makes the whole of experience more harmonious than it would be on any other theory.

And when we are not content even with science; when we indulge ourselves in a faith that, despite the many appearances which are against it, the world is governed by the providence of a good God, we are still in the name of harmony and consistency denying equal reality to appearances which yet remain, as they were before, equally apparent: just as we still see the looking-glass room when we are no longer children, and the sun rise when we have been taught to believe in the Copernican system of astronomy.

The Ontological Argument of Anselm then is, if properly explained, sound, supposing we assume that thought is the criterion of reality; or rather, it is just the assertion that thought is this criterion; that the standard by reference to which we test the reality of everything else is a standard which we carry with us, the standard of what satisfies a thought intolerant of imperfection and contradiction, and insisting, where it finds imperfection and contradiction, that it has 52before it only appearance and not what can finally approve itself as real; that therefore that is the most real which is the most satisfactory to thought.

3. We may, lastly, enquire whether the demonstration given by Anselm that our thought implies the assurance of this perfect Reality, is precisely what Anselm thought it to be, a proof of the existence of the God of religion? As to this, I will briefly say that it does not seem to me to be so. At least there are few men and perhaps no Christians who will find in what this argument proves to be real all that they need as an object of religious worship. But Anselm did not intend his Proslogion to be taken apart from his Monologion, to which it is a sequel; even if he thought, as he seems to have thought, that the Proslogion would by itself suffice for the refutation of atheism. That I have ventured here to translate the Proslogion without the Monologion is due to the circumstance that the intention of this Selection is not philosophical but devotional; and that the Proslogion is included in it less as a philosophical argument than as an example to show how philosophical reasoning can be made a religious exercise. But Anselm had in the Monologion already determined his conception of the most real as the conception of the best. That than which no greater can be conceived must be that which our moral consciousness approves as best; for our scale of values is derived from our moral consciousness. Only if an ethical interpretation be given to the conception of the 53most real will the argument of Anselm lead to the God of religion; but nothing is said of this in the argument itself. For Anselm himself this interpretation was inevitable. His theology was of the school of Plato, and the goodness of God was its fundamental article. But this article itself must be discussed by philosophy; and while it is doubtful, the argument of Anselm will not be found to bring us whither he intended. The understanding at which he aimed, he reckoned to be a half-way house between faith and vision. It presupposed a faith which could count nothing higher in the world or out of it, as Kant says, than the good will: and so it could seem to foreshadow the beatitude pronounced on the pure in heart, that they should see God.

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