A Canterbury Tale
April 21st is the feast of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). Saint, Doctor of the church and Benedictine monk, he is attributed with the definition of theology as “faith seeking to understand” as well as several works of philosophy. He is also known for the developement of the ontological argument for the existence of God.
Anselm is also referred to as the Father of Scholasticism, a method of teaching prevalent in the middle ages used to challenge and resolve contradictions through logic. Scholasticism was an extension of the developement of learning started in the early middle ages, being born from the monastic schools during that period. The ontological argument is an example of such as it sets to prove the existence of God through reason and logic apart from empirical evidence.
The ontological argument goes like this:
- Our understanding of God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.
- The idea of God exists in the mind.
- A being which exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind.
- If God only exists in the mind, then we can conceive of a greater being—that which exists in reality.
- We cannot be imagining something that is greater than God.
- Therefore, God exists.
An interesting argument, its had its share of critics as well as successors, even to this day. The famous skeptic Bertrand Russell was said to have claimed the argument was sound. René Descartes developed the argument. One of Anselm’s contemporaries and fellow Benedictine monk, Gaunilo of Marmoutiers, criticized it and showed that the argument could in fact be used to prove anything even the idea of a perfect Island.
Anselm didn’t just reside in the academics, he was also the Archbishop of Canterbury. His appointment there was interrupted by exile twice as Anselm disputed with William II and Henry I on issues of church and state. He was also opposed to the slave trade, and pushed for church reform in several areas which included simony, celibacy, and homage to secular lords. He died April 21, 1109 performing his duties as Archbishop.