‘something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought’


That’s a mouthful! This is Anselm’s main point in his book, Proslogion. His defense for the existence of God has been a debated one since introduced in the 11th century. He was born in 1033 and forced to accept the position of Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093 (though reluctantly).

Anselm was a Realist in the Scholastic schools of the Roman Catholic Church – which is a school that aimed to show universal principles from the world that we live in. For example, one can see that God is intelligent from the order of Creation. God has purpose in Creation from the fact there is a food-chain, etc.

Proslogion is the sequel to his book, Monologion. In Monologion he attempted to show that God is ‘the best and greatest and highest of all things’. In Proslogion he attempts to show that God is ‘something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought’.

What does this mean? Think of a being that encapsulates the best of everything you can think of – justice, mercy, beauty, power, splendor, majesty. That which you think of is not God. Sorry. God is better than what you just thought of.

It might be argued that merely because you can think of something does not mean that it has to exist. For example, I can think of an beautiful island with white sandy beaches etc. That does not mean it has to exist. Response: This is true, it does not have to exist. However, to exist is greater than not to exist. Therefore, this island is not the greatest island because it does not exist.

In the same way, because existence is better than non-existence, God exists. Thinking of a being that is perfectly just, merciful, powerful, loving, etc. and for him to not exist means that this being is not ‘something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought’. Make sense?

Further, we know that there is such a being that exists because we have in our mind’s eye an understanding of what right and wrong is. That is, we have a sense of morality. The impossibility for morality to find its way through evolutionary processes of trial and error do not solve the problem of evil. We will get into this later in another discussion of God’s existence and the existence of morality – good and evil.

So before you leave this discussion, try this. Close your eyes and think of ‘something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought’. When you get to your highest thoughts, realize that God is more than this. And take comfort in the fact that existence is better than non-existence.

You can read more on this argument here .And I will also make it possible to download a three-page summary I wrote of the book that might be helpful.

2 Comments

Filed under Apologetics, Evangelism

2 responses to “‘something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought’

  1. i read the explanation on the link you provided and it helped a bit more with understanding this argument.

    it explains that to exist in reality is greater than to exist in our own thoughts. i can imagine a perfect (the greatest)island and i can imagine that it exists, even when it doesn’t. but if it did exist, that island would be greater than the own i was thinking of.

    what doesn’t make sense to me here is how we can compare things that exist with things that don’t exist. how can i compare a real island with a made-up one in my mind and say that it is better? it sounds a little nonsensical. (it reminds me of the famous, “Can God create a rock so big he can’t lift it?” this is a nonsense question because it requires us to imagine a finite object with infinite proportions.)

    another question: what’s to stop us from imagining the greatest possible versions of all kinds of things and then saying that the existing version of those things is greater than the one that doesn’t exist and concluding that they exist? the explanation in the link dismisses this as possibility “absurd” and doesn’t really explain why. is this more absurd than applying this argument to the existence of God? can anybody offer any help with this?

    the argument boils down to us thinking God into existence. it says that if i’m thinking of the greatest possible being, then that being has to exist because existing is part of being the greatest possible being. well, isn’t it possible that that being doesn’t exist and i was actually wrong in my thinking? that is, i really wasn’t thinking of the greatest possible being because the one i was thinking of doesn’t actually exist. how would we know that we were right in our thinking unless we knew by some other way (than us conceiving of it) that that being did in fact exist???

  2. Great point, Will. This is the same argument that the fellow at Stanford raises. Could this be one of the holes in the buckets? Possibly. I think the essential presuppostion that Anselm has in his mind has to do with the fact that only the fool would say there is no God and work from that foundation. He says that it is absurd to think that there is no Infinite Being.

    I see my interpretation in what Anselm says in his reply to Guanilo: “But if you say that it is not understood and that it is not in the understanding, because it is not thoroughly understood; you should say that a man who cannot face the direct rays of the sun does not see the light of day, which is none other than the sunlight.”

    That is, it is foolish to deny the sun because you can’t see it because of its rays. OR You deny the existence of a forest because you can’t see past the trees. This is something Anselm does, like many of the Fathers, so well. He uses apologetics to defend the faith and rebuke the fool who says that Christianity is false.

    Essentially, I think Anselm must depend on presuppositional apologetics in order to make his defense work. In fact, any kind of argument for the existence of God must needs depend on it. This is due to the fact that men’s eyes and minds have been covered with argument after argument about piddly irrelevances rather that basking in the God-given conscience. This is why I began with the presuppositional argument (at least one aspect of it) in my first post.

    The one who denies God’s existence is a fool and does not have a foot to stand on if he does not borrow things from the theist.

    Regarding your second question: I would have to say that because we are dealing with finite things there is not a 1:1 correlation. For insteance, there is in each person a longing for justice to roll down like rivers from the mountain tops, but they seek in vain in this world.

    We admire a judge who stands for what is right, but when we look at his record we will probably see that all of his rulings were not so righteous. Thus, there must exist a judge who will judge all cases with righteous judgment.

    I will say this in closing, Anselm is not thinking God into existence as much as he is pointing the person to the sun and begging him to admit that he knows there exists something so magnificent that he just can’t put his finger on if he does not worship the God of the Bible.–>

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