Eastern Critique of Anselm’s Ontological Argument

By: Jay Dyer

(c) copyright

The ontological argument of Anselm of Canterbury has long since captivated the minds of many philosophers and apologists. Not long after Anselm published his Proslogion, his devotional apologetic was criticized by Gaunilo, yet Anselm’s argument was taken up by many of the West’s most prominent thinkers, such as Descartes and Leibniz, both giving their own versions. One of the strongest arguments against Anselm would be Immanuel Kant’s, who centered his objection around the notion that “being” is not a predicate.1 The purpose of this paper will be to analyze other problems, particularly theological, metaphysical and epistemological problems in the classical Anselmian formulation.

Anselm’s argument simply stated is as follows:

And certainly this being so truly exists that it cannot even be thought not to exist. For something can be thought to exist that cannot be thought not to exist, and this is greater than that which cannot be thought not to exist. Hence, if that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought can be thought not to exist, then that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought is not the same as that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought, which is absurd. Something-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought exists so truly then, that it cannot be even thought not to exist. And you, Lord our God, are this being.2

Plantinga gives the form of the argument as follows, arguing it is best formulated as a reductio ad absurdum argument:

  1. God exists in the understanding, but not in reality. (assumption for reductio)

  2. Existence in reality is greater than existence in the understanding alone. (premise)

  3. A being having all of God’s properties plus existence in reality can be conceived. (premise)

  4. A being having all of God’s properties plus existence in reality is greater than God. (from 1 and 2)

  5. A being greater than God cannot be conceived. (3,4)

  6. It is false that a being greater than God can be conceived. (by definition of ‘God.’)

  7. Hence it is false that God exists in the understanding but not in reality. (1-6 reductio ad absurdum).3

The argument at first glance gives a convincing appearance of credulity. In Western philosophy, particularly in the medieval theological tradition, there is the familiar divide between the Platonic and Aristotelian approaches to religious philosophy. Without getting into too much of a debate which exceeds the limits of this paper, it is safe to say that Anselm continues to represent the more Platonic and patristic approach to the question of divine knowledge and ontology.4 This approach stresses an a priori account of knowledge of the divine through a special illumination descending from the divine Being.5 The Thomistic account, on the other hand, which would become normative for the Roman Catholic tradition, stresses an a posteriori approach to divine knowledge. Aquinas even argues that all knowledge of the divine in this life is based on analogia entis, with nothing said of the divine being said univocally.6

Anselm, then, applies the more a priorist approach to a well-founded belief of a supreme Being based on the definition of that Being’s nature, which in his scheme is bound up with being the highest possible conception of the human mind. The first problem I want to elucidate with this argument is the presupposition that God is somehow identified with the proposition or idea that He is “that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-conceived.” The argument hinges on the epistemic starting point for divine knowledge consisting in a devotional themed proposition of the human intellect. The Augustinian and Anselmian intellects, in the midst of devotional lauds and platitudes, end up attempting to encapsulate the limits of the divine being by a definition that relies purely on human conceptually capabilities, even while attempting to do precisely the opposite. One might simply respond to Anselm that the divine Being is known apophatically, as opposed to a positive, kataphatic attribution, and is not encompassed or defined by any human-derived conceptual presupposition of being at the top of a scale of being.

Kazan Icon of the Mother of God

Reformed Philosopher Cornelius Van Til comments on the traditional Western Christian biblical-based notion of God as not matching up to the conceptual scheme Anselm puts forward:

We should be careful when we say that God is the being than whom nothing higher can be thought. If we talk of the highest being of which we can think, in the sense of having a concept of, and attribute to it actual existence, we do not have the biblical God. God is not the reality that corresponds to the highest conception of man, considered as an independent being, can think. Man cannot think of an absolutely self-contained being; that is, he cannot have a concept of it in the ordinary sense of the term. God is infinitely higher than the highest being of which we can form a concept….When we speak of our concept or notion of God, we should be fully aware that by that concept we have an analogical reproduction of the notion that God has of Himself.7

This is another line of criticism, and similar to the one Kant famously makes, and is why Plantinga, in his paper, tries to remove the argument from the field of metaphysics, and place it as more of a reductio/logical argument. However, it is impossible to divest this argumentation from the ancient and medieval conceptions of the universe subsisting as a vast chain of being with the Supreme Deity at the top, descending down through the hierarchy of celestial angels to man, then down to animals, hell, and nothingness. It is precisely within this chain of being that the notion of a really existing being is predicated as “more perfect” than a merely logical, notional entity. This is not to say that the argument is necessarily flawed, but rather, that it relies on a vast number of presuppositions. For one, that the universe is so structured as to match up to the model of the chain of being, wherein actual existence corresponds to a “more perfect” reality than “less perfect” notional entities. Perhaps the universe is structured in such a way, but the argument only works if this is so, and Plantinga’s attempt to make it merely a reductio does not remove it from this larger medieval worldview conception.

Another problem with the formulation as given by Anselm and Plantinga is the problem of univocal predication. This is the source of Aquinas’ rejection of the argument, though it can be argued Aquinas himself is inconsistent as well. Anselm consistently refers to the Supreme Being as the first, and highest, most perfect, subsisting in total aseity, containing in Himself all perfections and all attributes proper to Him, etc. The assumption being, first, that all reasonable persons agree to this same idea of a first, Supreme Being. Of course, the history philosophy demonstrates quite the opposite: men do not have a unified concept of the first being based on a common reason. The arguments between Aquinas, Avicenna and Maimonides show this quite clearly.8

Icon Painter

However, back to the issue at hand, for Anselm’s argument to work, not only do we need a common notion of the content of his proposition of God being the highest human conception, we also need a real correlation between the conception of “being” in general somehow matching up to this “Supreme Being.” The problem is that by his own admission, as well as the classical Roman Catholic tradition, nothing in reality matches up to the type of “being” that God has. For, surely Anselm holds that created being is dependent on God for its existence, is separable into division and parts, and thus not perfectly “one,” is not omnipresent, is not purely “actual,” and so on. A host of predicates and metaphysical statements about created being could be listed, and each one of them is directly the opposite of the type of “being” that the Supreme Being is said to have. Aquinas recognized this, and that is why he thought it more consistent to argue that the concepts are analogical, not univocal, however, his scheme also requires that there be a real correlation between the created being and the Supreme Being.

Another crucial element in this argument that Anselm didn’t foresee was the objection that the biblical idea of the deity is thought to be personal, whether this is the Jewish idea of a single divine Person, or the Christian conception of there being three hypostaseis, this idea is of the utmost importance to biblical theology, as distinguished from the Greek philosophical concepts of the Supreme Being being more of an impersonal force, identified with an abstract principle of pure idea, as is found for example in Aristotle and Plato. The biblical monotheistic conception is supposed to argue for a distinct, personal Deity.

This is especially relevant when one considers the Christian emphasis on the Incarnation as central to its entire scheme. However, Anselm’s argument provides no place or need for the supreme first principle as “personal.” In fact, it ends up equating the being with abstract being as a category derived from created being in general. Kant was entirely correct in pointing out that what this really demonstrates (if at all) is a kind of deism.9 One might be tempted to reply that it’s not that big of a deal if it excludes this personality notion, since Anselm’s argument can still function as an argument for some generic “God in general” as posited by so-called “natural theology.” The problem with this is that Anselm is doing Christian apologetics, arguing for that conception of deity, and the purpose of my criticism is his arguments’ ends.

The reason for this approach in Anselm, as well as in his master Augustine and also later in Aquinas, is the classic Western teaching on divine simplicity. In this definition, God is viewed as purely actual, with no unrealized potentialities. God is what He has, and all of His attributes are strictly identical to His essence, as well as the three Persons, too. All are isomorphically identified. All of God’s actions are also identical to his eternal essence. The human mind, of course, cannot grasp this, and so must parcel out different attributes and actions, and these distinctions are strictly logical distinctions—in reality, God has no distinctions whatsoever.10 Aquinas and Augustine agree. The problem then arises as to how this will be fleshed out in terms of epistemology. If God is conceived of this way, then the argument for God being identified with Supreme “Being” means that all of his attributes and properties are also univocal with the created conception of “being” that was used as the initial analogia. This means that God’s love, justice, mercy, act of creating and judging, are all identical, and are the divine essence. Again, though we finite humans might need to parcel these out as distinct in our minds, in reality—in the divine essence, they are all identical. But if they are all identical, and they are the same as “being,” then this means in reality, there are no distinctions in these things at all. As a side note, this question arose in the history of Roman Catholicism by those who tried to continue the banner of Anselm, such as Nicholas Malebranche and others, who became known as the “ontologists,” but were condemned by the Holy Office because their system ended up with precisely this monism.11


In other words, Anselm would agree that by analogy, we are familiar with the concept of being in general, as applied to the created objects of our experience. As his argument goes, we then extrapolate from the nature of supreme “being” that it must be in a certain way to avoid absurdity. The nature of “perfect being” must correspond to the created idea of being in general, if even imperfectly, and in the final analysis, all that is predicated of this Supreme Being must then be identical with itself. It would then follow that the created “love” and “justice” humans experience must also function in this same way as being in general. When applied to the Supreme Being, love and justice and mercy must also be univocal with the human conceptions. This means that all reality, at base, if it is to match up to and be an analogue of the deity must also be like the deity—absolutely simple, and all possible cognates and predicates identical. However, Anselm knows that created being does not perfectly match up the divine, so he would likely opt for some kind of analogy, like Aquinas.

As it turns out, in Anselm and Aquinas (and Augustine), the source for how we have these conceptions that somehow match up to the divine Being is through what is called “divine exemplarism.” This is similar to the Platonic teaching of forms, but in the Christian Augustinian reformulation, the forms are located in the divine mind. The universals and forms of each thing are known through a reflected image the human has in his mind of the ideal found in the divine mind. The problem, however, is that the divine forms are the same as the divine essence, which all three thinkers agree no one has access to in this life, prior to the Beatific Vision, when the elect will “see the essence of God.” Anselm agrees to this scheme and shares his doctrine of “illumination” with the other two western thinkers, with minor differences.12

Thus in order to know anything at all, be it the divine Being or created reality, the foundation is a certain mirroring in the human intellect of the ideas in the divine mind—and the divine mind is the same as the divine essence, and it is perfectly one. Again, no one is or partakes of the divine essence in this life, and that is the basis for the Western doctrine of “created grace.” So the problem had above arises again. How does Anselm know that the human intellect’s forms correspond at all to a Supreme Being’s forms, which are admittedly nothing at all like the created forms? The human conception of justice is not the divine conception, and even if there is an analogy that accurately corresponds, in reality, “justice” is no different from the divine essence itself. So if one wants to make a real correspondence, one option is to say that all of created reality mirrors this, and is ultimately all one, too, with no real distinctions. But this is monistic pantheism, and is problematic for Anselm.

Creation Mosaic

The other option is to say, as Kant pointed out, the divine forms are unknown and nothing like the created forms, and this is deism, which is equally problematic for Anslem, and thus undercuts his entire illuminist epistemology. Creation, then, must become an emanation from the divine essence, no different than any other action of God, since, again, all the actions are identified with the uncreated divine essence. It is also relevant to note that in this scheme, there arises no distinction between the acts of “generating” the Son and “spirating” the Spirit, since they are just as must eternal actions of the essence. But equating generation and spiration with creating is gravely problematic for Anselm, since he is an orthodox Roman Catholic, adhering to the Nicene definitions of Jesus as the eternally begotten Son, and not a creature.

It should also be pointed out that there are no brute, uninterpreted categories or predicates like “being” and “existence” that aren’t a part of some worldview narrative or lexical structure. In other words, there is no common conception of “being” that is not situated within some framework of cross-referenced words and categories, that are interconnected. To Anselm’s world, these predicates form a necessary linkage with the worldview of medieval Europe and, as mentioned, a hierarchical conception of the cosmos as a chain of being descending (or emanating) from the Supreme Being. It is within this scheme that “perfection” and “being” are situated, and cannot be simply transferred into modern parlance and academic discourse as if this theological argument’s categories contains a timeless indubitably. There is no common definition of “being.”

In conclusion, then, the formulation of the argument from an a priorist approach or from a reductio stance does not divest it of the metaphysical assumptions which continue to plague it. It is from these assumptions, both philosophical and theological, that the argument takes its faulty starting point, building up an entire edifice on assumptions which were not yet questioned in Anselm’s day. Indeed, it could not have occurred to Anselm’s mind to question whether “being” was continuous or discontinuous across cultures, as this was a much later philosophical development. It had also not entered the mind of Anselm to question the assumptions of Western definitions of divine simplicity, as this was an Eastern Christian criticism from which Anselm’s milieu was somewhat isolated. However, aside from these cultural factors, the argument is still flawed insofar as it relies on a definition of the Supreme Being that is conditioned by human reason, while also assuming giving positive, univocal identification to created “being” and the Supreme Being, and in turn resting his epistemology in general on a divine exemplarism which is as of yet not proven, and fraught with the same difficulty as his generic “being” idea due to his doctrine of divine simplicity. The ontological argument is certainly interesting and has long intrigued thinkers, yet as a consistent argument proving its case, it falls flat.

1 Cited in Plantinga, Alvin. “Kant’s Objection to the Ontological Argument” in The Journal of Philosophy Vol. LXIII, No. 19 (American Philosophical Association, 1966), 537-9.

2Anselm of Canterbury, Collected Works of Anselm (Oxford: University Press, 1998), 88.

3Plantinga, 537.

4Matthews, Gareth. “Anselm, Augustine and Platonism” and Brown, David. “Anselm on Atonement,” in Cambridge Companion to Anselm (Cambridge: University Press, 2004), 78-82, 287-9.

5See Nash, Ronald. The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge (Lima, Ohio: Academic Renewal Press, 2003).

6Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica Part Ia Qs. 12-13 (Allen, Texas: Benziger Bros., 1948).

7Van Til, Cornelius, cited in Bahnsen, Greg, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: Westminster Press, 1998), 634.

8 See, for example, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon’s Guide for the Perplexed where he argues at length against the Christians and Islamic Mutakellemim on precisely this issue.

9Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1990), 378-9.

10Anselm, Collected Works, 98-9.

11Denzinger, Heinrich. Enchiridion Symbolorum: The Sources of Catholic Dogma (Fritzwilliam, NH: Loreto Publications, 1955), 419. It is demonstrable that this same problem exists for Aquinas’ model, as well.

12Matthews, “Anselm, Augustine, and Platonism,” 78-82.


4 thoughts on “Eastern Critique of Anselm’s Ontological Argument

  1. I think I am a monistic pantheist of the English Puritanical school.

    Perhaps you could have given more explanation of how the Orthodox view conflicts with Anselm and Aquinas for the uninitiated but an impressively clear and accessible account of the ontological argument.

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