The trivium at Bec and its bearing on Anselm’s program of faith seeking understanding, 5

Read part 4 here.

5 Fides Quaerens Intellectum.

We are now in a position to see how this account clarifies the meaning of the title Anselm originally gave to his Proslogion. In the prologue to the text, Anselm says his brother monks asked him for an ‘example of meditating on a ratio fidei.’[1] This could consist, he says, in a multitude of arguments, as did the Monologion, or it could consist in one argument. Anselm asks:

‘whether perhaps one argument (unum argumentum) could be found, which 1) would require nothing other than itself alone to be proven; and 2) would be sufficient to establish: a) that God truly is; and b) that he is the highest good needing no other; and c) is whom all need that they may be and be well; and d) whatever else we believe concerning the divine substance.’[2]

He goes on to call this same argumentum a ‘cogitatio I zealously embraced.’[3]

Like the Monologion, the Proslogion is an example of meditating on a ratio fidei – in this case, the notion that than which nothing greater can be thought. The dialectical aspect of the text is thus not in tension with it having a ‘meditative’ or ‘theological’ sense, since the very process of determining what can be deduced in that context is given via a rumination on, and unpacking of, the meaning of the middle term. Anselm is searching after some one thing, a ratio fidei, called a cogitatio in relation to his possessing it, to serve as an argumentum. The ratio is ‘that than which nothing greater can be thought’, taken up as an argumentum, i.e. a middle term in a series of syllogisms running as follows:

Major Premise: That than which nothing greater can be thought exists in reality, is the highest good, etc.

Minor Premise: God is that than which nothing greater can be thought

Conclusion: God exists in reality, etc.

Each of the above arguments is an example of the Themistian topic from a description (a descriptione), itself grouped among the topics from substance (a substantia).[4] Here, ‘that than which nothing greater can be thought’ is what later Medievals would call a nominal definition, and what philosophers today call a definite description: it captures the content of the idea of God in an exact manner, but since it does so by way of certain contingent features (i.e. being thinkable, being greater than other thinkables),[5] it cannot qualify as an example of the topic from a definition (a diffinitione). The topic is an intrinsic topic, one where the major term’s relation to the minor is elicited directly from the argumentum, usually in a straightforwardly syllogistic manner. Intrinsic topics contrast with extrinsic topics,[6] where the argumentum bears a synthetic relation – proportionality, contrariety, etc. – to the other terms of the argument; and middle topics, which as the name suggests, are in some sense between intrinsic and extrinsic.

The order in which Anselm presents the divine attributes in the Proslogion is gradual, designed to facilitate the spiritual progress of the reader. After establishing God’s existence, Anselm claims God is ‘whatever it is better to be than not to be.’[7] But this general claim is complicated immediately in chapters 6-8, which ascribe sensibility, omnipotence, and impassibility to God; and again, in 9-11, which highlight the conflict between justice and mercy in God. In these chapters, the protagonist’s process of discovering what predicates befit God is also a rarification of his concepts of ordinary goods, where aspects of the ordinary concept in play are also denied of God. This process reaches a peak in chapter 12, where the whole manner in which anything is predicated of God is distinguished from the predication of properties of ordinary objects on account of God’s simplicity; and again in chapter 15, where even the middle term ‘that than which nothing greater can be thought’ is qualified by the claim that God is greater than can be thought. After this, the succeeding chapters become decidedly more apophatic in character.

To support his major premises, Anselm uses reductio proofs. All of these are cases of the middle topic from division (ex divisione), which is similar to, but not quite the same as, disjunctive syllogism.[8] The topic from division begins with a partitioning of opposing predicates with respect to a subject. From here, it can proceed either directly or indirectly. Anselm proceeds indirectly:

That than which nothing greater can be thought is F or G

Assume it’s F

It’s not F

Therefore, it’s G.[9]

The proof is indirect because it assumes the horn of the dilemma it ultimately rejects. The topic is midway between intrinsic and extrinsic because though one of the predicates follows directly from the idea ‘that than which a greater cannot be thought’, this is only made evident by comparing the two predicates to each other as lesser to greater.

Though the Proslogion forms a unity relying on a single argumentum, it does not provide one argument in the modern sense, but several, identical in all but the major term. Since this is so, Gaunilo’s Pro insipiente is no longer merely a criticism of the argument of Proslogion 2-3: it is a criticism of the entire work, since if it prevents linking the predicate ‘exists’ to that than which nothing greater can be thought, it will a fortiori prevent any of the other things Anselm attempts to establish of God from being established.[10]

In each argument of the Proslogion, the middle term is taken up as something whose holding of the minor term is immediately credible or reliable: it ‘requires nothing besides itself alone to be established.’ This is why Anselm never attempts to justify the minor premise either in the Proslogion or in the response to Gaunilo: that the premise is to be assumed is simply part of the rules of the monastic disputation Anselm and Gaunilo are engaging in.[11] Thus, when in section 4 of the Liber Pro Insipiente Gaunilo allows his fool to deny that that than which nothing greater can be thought is God – thereby also reconstruing Anselm’s original first-figure proof as a third-figure one – Anselm bars this line of attack. ‘I use your faith and conscience for a most sure proof of how false this is.’[12]

This reading further reveals something about Anselm’s use of the term ‘fool’ (insipiens) as an appellative for the atheist. The minor premise of a topical argument must be probabilis, or reliable. Boethius tells us ‘the reliable is what seems to be either to all, or to many, or to the wise; and among these [last] either to all, or many, or to those most renowned or distinguished; or to the specialist concerning his own province.’[13] God’s being something than which a greater cannot be thought fits this in several ways. First, it would have been widely assented to in Anselm’s time, and hence ‘what seems to be either to all or to many’. Second, it would have been attributable to ‘those most renowned or distinguished among the wise’, since the claim is found in Seneca the Elder, who, not always having been clearly distinguished in the Middle Ages from his nephew, was an authority in philosophy on par with Plato and Aristotle. Thirdly, and perhaps most interestingly, the pair wise/fool is mapped onto that between the Catholic and the non-believer, and so the claim is in this sense something known to many among the wise. This sense thus underlines the opening lines of the Response to Gaunilo: ‘Since the fool himself, against whom I spoke in my little work, does not reprove me in these words, but rather one who is not a fool, and a Catholic on behalf of the fool, it suffices for me to reply to the Catholic.’[14] Here, the fool is explicitly excluded from the second round of debate as incapable of perceiving what is plain to Catholics.[15]

Given the importance Anselm ascribes to the notion ‘that than which a greater cannot be thought’ as the unum argumentum binding the Proslogion together, it should not be surprising that Gaunilo’s first and principal objection to Anselm’s argument attacks precisely the fittingness of taking up this ratio as an argumentum:[16]

‘Perhaps one can respond that this is now said to be in my understanding from nothing else besides that I understand what is said. Am I not likewise said to have certain false things, and even things existing in no way in themselves in mind when I would understand someone saying them, whatever he would say?’[17]

Here, the mode of cogitation for a false concept – i.e. one failing to be instantiated in a subject under discussion – or one ‘existing in no way in itself’ – i.e. an intrinsically incoherent one – is different from that of one known to belong to a subject. But if the concept ‘that than which a greater cannot be thought’ doesn’t fit into one of these categories, then the mode of cogitation proper to it with respect to God must be that of being understood, which is different still from the previous modes. But understanding only befits a thing established by proof. Hence, if God is understood in this way, then ‘that than which a greater cannot be thought’ does not serve as an argumentum, since it does not secure a matter in doubt, but rather something already established. Put more plainly, even if this concept of God is coherent, an argument relying on it to establish God’s existence will be sound only if it is not probative, i.e. provided it proves nothing new. This is why Gaunilo says the reasoner following this argument will not move from having God in mind as id quo maius cogitari non potest at a preceding time to understanding him to exist at a later time.[18]

But where Gaunilo insists the mode of being of the cogitatum ‘that than which a greater cannot be thought’ must be given beforehand, thereby blocking the temporal process of moving from the premises to the conclusion of the argument, Anselm insists on the partiality of his description to safeguard this temporality. We have already seen Anselm himself later qualifies his famous description of God in chapter 15 of the Proslogion. We can now also see that the minimality and incompleteness of the concept is vital to ensuring its accessibility to the reader meditating along with the text.

‘But if you say that what is not understood completely is not understood and is not in the intellect, say that one who cannot look into the purest light of the sun does not see the light of day, which is nothing besides the light of the sun.’[19]

For Anselm, the meditator certainly has this concept ‘that than which a greater cannot be thought’ in mind, even though neither the attributes nor the mode of being of what it signifies need be specified antecedently to or immediately in that concept. Just as the light of the sun is visible, albeit not directly, so too God, than whom a greater cannot be thought, is intelligible, even if a complete understanding of the divinity escapes us.

[1]Pros. proemium.

[2] Pros. proemium: Coepi mecum quaerere si forte posset inveniri unum argumentum, quod nullo alio ad se probandum, quam se solo indigeret; et solum ad astruendum quia Deus vere est, et quia est summum bonum nullo alio indigens, et quo omnia indigent ut sint et bene sint; et quaecunque credimus de divina substantia.


[4] See BDT 1187B-1187D.

[5] This needn’t imply the existence of real distinct accidents inhering in God. But this point has to wait until Proslogion 12, and so isn’t yet present at the beginning of Anselm’s treatise.

[6] On extrinsic topics, see BDT 1190B-1192B.

[7] Pros. 5.

[8] See BDT 1192C-1193D.

[9] This format is especially prominent in Scotus’ reformulation of the proof. See Scotus (1966).

[10] This may help explain Anselm’s sometimes acerbic tone in the Responsio: he rightly read Gaunilo’s praise at the end of the Pro Insipiente as tongue-in-cheek.

[11] Cf. Aquinas’ criticism of the argument at ST. Ia, q. 2, art. 1. There, Aquinas attacks the evidential status of the minor premise, and thereby the fittingness of taking it up into the context of a dialectical disputation: ‘It is possible that who hears the name ‘God’ does not understand it to signify something than which a greater cannot be thought, since some would believe God is a body.’

[12] Resp. 1: ‘Quod quam falsum sit, fide et conscientia tua pro firmissimo utor argumento’

[13] BDT 1180CD: ‘Probabile vero est quod videtur vel omnibus, vel pluribus, vel sapientibus, et his vel omnibus, vel pluribus, vel maxime notis atque praecipuis; vel quod unicuique artifice secundum propriam facultatem.’

[14] Resp. proemium.

[15] This strategy for excluding the fool from the disputation is retained as the environment for the proof shifts from monastic to scholastic. Witness Bonaventure: ‘the intellect has in itself … sufficient light to repel this doubt and to extricate itself from its folly. Whence the foolish mind voluntarily rather than by constraint considers the matter in a deficient manner, so that the defect is on the part of the intellect itself and not because of any deficiency on the part of the thing known.’ Trans. from Klima 2000, 75.

[16] However, I know of no secondary literature on the topic that has so much as mentioned this.

[17] Pro Ins. 2: ‘Respondere forsitan potest, quod hoc jam esse dicitur in intellectu meo, non ob aliud, nisi quia id quod dicitur intelligo. Nonne et quaecunque falsa, ac nullo prorsus modo in seipsis existentia, in intellectu habere similiter dici possem cum ea, dicente aliquot, quaecumque ille diceret, ego intelligerem?’

[18] Pro Ins. 2: ‘Sed si hoc est: primo quidem non hic erit aliud, idemque tempore praecedens, habere rem in intellectu; et aliud, idemque tempore sequens, intelligere rem esse.’

[19] Resp. 1: ‘Quod si dicis non intelligi et non esse in intellectu, quod non penitus intelligitur; dic quia qui non potest intueri purissimam lucem solis, non videt lucem diei, quae non est nisi lux solis.’

Part 6.

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