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Religion Essays - Anselm and Descartes

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Anselm Descartes Religion

Anselm and Descartes

The debate regarding the existence of God has lasted for centuries. Man’s quest to establish the validity of God’s existence remains ongoing till this day. Saint Anselm and Rene Descartes were two thinkers who left a lasting impression from their philosophical works on the existence of God. Both men strived to prove the existence of God using rational and logical argumentation. Stylistically they differ, yet both share a cohesion of interest in which their common objective is to use philosophical reasoning to derive an “Ontological Argument” which favors the existence of God.

Saint Anselm lived during 1033-1109, the prime of the Middle Ages. He was a devoted Christian who contributed significant works in theology and philosophy. As a faithful Christian, he yearned for a rational interpretation that proved the existence of God. The Augustinian phrase sums this idea; “faith seeking understanding” (Baird 322).

In Anselm’s “Proslogion” he develops the “Ontological Argument” attempting to prove God’s existence.

Anselm states that God is a being “in which nothing greater can be conceived.” He significantly quotes, the Psalms 13:1; “the Fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.”’ He addresses this issue because he wants to prove the relevance of his prior statement, “we believe you to be something greater than which nothing greater can be conceived.”

The Fool described in Psalms can comprehend this statement even if he is unsure that what he understands exists. Therefore, a major distinction is drawn by Anselm; “it is one thing for something to be in the understanding and quite another to understand that the thing in question exists” (Baird 325). Thus, the “Fool” can be convinced by his understanding that there is “something than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Anselm goes even further by arguing that “something in which nothing greater can be conceived” not only exists in the understanding, but can also be thought as existing in reality. Consequently, Anselm maintains, “without a doubt then there exists both in understanding and in reality a being greater than which nothing can be conceived” (Baird 325).

Anselm develops his argument further by claiming that because such a thing exists, that thing cannot be thought of as not existing. Moreover, an interesting point is made by Anselm when he says, “It is possible indeed to think of anything other than you as nonexistent.” In other words, Anselm is trying to say that all other things can be thought of as not existing, but God has a perfect existence in which it is impossible to claim nonexistent because then it would be paradoxical. The measure of Gods existence supersedes all others because nothing greater can be conceived.

Anselm once again discusses the fool who says in his heart that there is no God. Reason being, he wants to illustrate the connection between “to say in ones heart” and to think. The fool said in his heart that God did not exist, yet the same fool conceived a being greater than any other. Therefore, to say in ones heart is equal to thinking because to say in ones heart, one must first think. This also holds true for the reversal, if he does

not think, than he does not say it in his heart. Thinking is initiated in two senses according to Anselm. In the first sense, thinking is signaled by a word that describes the thing. In the second sense, thinking is created when one thinks of the actual thing itself. Thus, from the perspective of the first sense it can be true that God does not exist. From the second sense, the denial of the existence of God is impossible because the thing itself has been thought or conceived.

Since Descartes’ “Fifth Mediation” was written many years after Anselm’s “Ontological Argument” it becomes apparent, at least in one sense that Descartes refers indirectly to arguments established in Anselm’s “Ontological Argument.” This relationship or connection can be seen in both arguments as the idea of God’s “perfect existence.” Descartes however, in my opinion delves into the concept of perfect existence candidly. Whereas Anselm, attributes this perfect existence in his statement “we believe you to be something greater than which nothing grater can be conceived.” Regardless of the methods used they both attribute perfection to this supreme, eternal Being.

Additionally, Descartes argument regarding the existence of God is not presupposed by faith like Anselm’s. Rather, Descartes begins his argument in a different manner then Anselm, speaking nothing about prior faith in God’s existence. He begins the “Fifth Meditation” by explaining how he has the ability to conceive in his mind a vast array of different shapes and dimensions. Even if these figments which he has created within his mind do not actual exist outside of his mind, they still contain immutable and

eternal properties. A triangle is used by Descartes to elaborate upon this issue. He argues that even if the triangle did not exist outside of his mind it still contains indisputable properties. Therefore, once these properties are conceived clearly and distinctly they must be completely true.

Like the triangle, the idea of a supremely perfect being exists in both our mind and Descartes. This idea does not differ from that of the triangle in any sense because each contains a nature or property. Descartes clearly and distinctly observes that Gods existence belongs to his nature, like a figure or number whose nature belongs to that figure or number.

Descartes agrees that God can be thought of as not existing. This means, one can segregate his existence from his essential properties. Furthermore, this ability to separate existence and essence is also present within all other things examined according to Descartes. However, with closer inspection and with greater attention given to this notion Descartes discovered that, “we can no more separate the existence of God from his essence than we can separate from the essence of a rectilinear triangle the fact that the size of its three angles equals two right angles” (Baird 430). In other words, with other things we can separate the existence from the properties because the other things are not of a perfect being like God.

Both Anselm and Descartes both use the premise of God as not existing, to prove his existence. They formulate their argument in this way because with closer inspection they refute the thought of God not existing because God has a perfect existence, and to claim that a perfect Being does not exist in reality would be “self contradictory”

(Baird 430). Thus, according to Anselm and Descartes, a perfect Being must exist in both the mind and in reality since its existence is eternal, immutable, and perfect.

In addition, Descartes maintains that he cannot think of God without existence any more than he can think of a mountain without a valley. Even though a necessary characteristic of a mountain is that it be contiguous to a valley, “it doesn't follow that any mountains or valleys exist.” Similarly, even though a supremely perfect being possesses certain attributes, it does not coincide with the existence of that being. Consequently Descartes says, “From the fact alone that I cannot conceive God except as existing, it follows that existence is inseparable from him, and consequently that he does, in truth, exist” (Barid 430) This acknowledgment of Gods existence is made by Descartes namely because God “possesses all sorts of perfections”, existence being one of them.

Descartes then continues addressing an objection in regards to his prior argument. Consequently, he says that it is not necessary for him to suppose the thought of God, yet once he does think of God, then existence is necessary. This follows and is no different from it not being necessary for one to suppose something that is false. Descartes uses the inscription of a rhombus into a circle to illustrate this issue. “It is not necessary to think that all four sided figures can be inscribed in a circle; but if we suppose that I do have this idea, I am forced to admit that a rhombus can be inscribed in one, since it is a four sided figure, and by this I will be forced to admit what is clearly false” (Baird 431). Therefore,

to Descartes one must not say, that even though it is not necessary for one to think of God, when one does think of the idea of a supreme being you are necessarily attributing an array of perfections. Thus, once it has been recognized that existence is perfection, one must conclude that this Supreme Being actually exists. Therefore, a distinction has been made by Descartes; there are many differences between false assumptions and true innate ideas, namely the thought of God. According to Descartes, this idea is not “imaginary or fictitious” because God is the only thing that can be conceived as having a “true and immutable nature.”

There have been many attempts to refute the arguments of Anselm and Descartes. However, because of the rational and logical sequence that both follow in their arguments it has become increasingly difficult for others to prove these claims erroneous. Regardless, both men have provided invaluable documentation regarding the possibility of God’s existence in our minds and in reality. Even atheists find these arguments hard to refute because both thinkers cleverly used the thought of God as not existing, to prove that God, in his perfection does actually exist in our minds and in reality.

Work Cited

Baird, Forrest E., Walter Kauffmann. From Plato to Derrida. Forth ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003.


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