The joy of teaching Anselm

This time around I gave myself two weeks of hardcore Anselm in the medieval class, and it’s going really well. I always enjoy teaching Anselm because he’s so thoroughly “discussable” — he has relatively clear argumentative steps, uncluttered by scriptural citations or other appeals to authority (which many students view as prima facie evidence that an author is a fundamentalist or something, so that they don’t really view a text with a lot of citations as an actual argument), and yet he comes to really strange conclusions. Simply walking them through the argument in a Socratic way usually works fine to make sure we’re all on the same page, and along the way there’s always plenty of oddball claims that they want me to follow up on.

The ontological argument, for instance, is basically custom-built for interesting discussion, because of the sensation that (a) it can’t be right and yet (b) you can’t figure out where exactly it went wrong. It’s not as easily dismissable as the various arguments based on using God to plug the hole of infinite regress, and it manages to smuggle more “content” into the idea of God than those ones tend to. And Why God Became Man is a perfect prism for the distinctive concerns of medieval culture and how they present an inflection point between the patristic age and modern times — while at the same time providing the idiosyncratic weirdness we expect from Anselm (for instance, the whole notion of the “heavenly city,” the emphasis on God saving face, the fact that Christ’s death isn’t a vicarious punishment but a massive influx of “extra credit,” the total lack of discussion of God’s love, etc.).

Basically, I find that Anselm is perfect for convincing students of two non-negotiable baseline points that are essential for understanding theology:

  1. Theology at its best is about actual arguments that you can analyze, not simply about arguments from authority.
  2. Theology at its best is way weirder than you would expect — not always in a good way, but usually at least in an interesting way.

25 thoughts on “The joy of teaching Anselm

  1. I agree. When I studied Anselm in my Philosophy of Religion class in undergrad at Texas, all of the students (including myself) were absolutely convinced the argument was flawed. However, discerning where he had made a misstep was quite a challenge. Also, I think Anslem is a good introduction to theology for students mistrustful of appeals to the Bible (especially for students exposed to the evangelical Christianity in the south).

  2. The ontological argument is so great… I don’t care if it’s right or wrong–it’s one of the single most potent conceptual formulations of all time.

  3. Dunno if shameless self-promotion passes comment policy muster, but this is me on teaching the Ontological Argument for the first time last summer:

    Every other time I think about the Argument I don’t get it, and every other time I think about it, I’m dazzled by it. Anselm has gotta be the smartest person in the history of Christianity.

  4. Yeah, the ontological argument is very interesting in that tension between everyone thinking (including believers in God) that must be wrong and not being able to work out why. Like Marvin said, it took me many years to actually get it, and I’m not sure I do, making such an abstract argument weirdly existential. Apparently Bertnard Russell was heard to say during his indie Hegelian phase “Great God in Boots! – the ontological argument is sound!”. Goodchild’s riff on it about money is fascinating.

  5. A comment and a question:

    Comment: Judging by the comments to this post, I assume that people read the “Proslogion” as an epistemological treastise in which Anselm is logically working out descriptive predication for God. I would urge against such a reading. First, although Anselm refers to the text as “discourse,” he orients the text within the frame of meditative prayer (see ch.1). His so-called argument seems, at least to me, to be doxological rather than proof-providing.

    Question: I honestly cannot tell if the comments above are sarcastic or not. Are these comments pointing toward the obvious flaws in the argument or are they genuinely praising it? While I think the “Proslogion” is a valuable text and an enjoyable one to teach, I could not possible keep a straight face and say “I can’t find the flaws.” For instance, see the following:

    “absolutely convinced the argument was flawed. However, discerning where he had made a misstep was quite a challenge”

    And even in the original post: “(a) it can’t be right and yet (b) you can’t figure out where exactly it went wrong.”


  6. Those remarks are not sarcastic. I am not the only person to have said such things about Anselm’s argument.

    As for the prayer format, I can’t for the life of me tell what difference it’s supposed to make. People bring that up all the time, but it’s always just a vague gesture — and it seems to me to be based on a “faith vs. reason” dichotomy that simply isn’t operative for Anselm. He’s praising God for inspiring him with an elegant argument — he was deep in prayer hoping he could find a single argument for God’s existence rather than a string of them. He thinks that the fool who says in his heart there is no God really is a fool and that he has disproven him. Every indication is that Anselm believes this argument would stand up in a non-prayer setting. (I apologize if I am overreacting, but I’ve heard that claim so many times that it’s really annoying to me at this point.)

  7. I agree with you that the dichotomy is not operative for Anslem. Whether or not it is or is not is not my point. The point is this: The argument unfolds rather well as a meditation. If however, one posits that Anselm is providing a proof, then I have serious problems with this. There are numerous flaws with the argument, which I was not delving into for the sake of brevity.

    Also, I would not have said anything such as “He’s praising God for inspiring him with an elegant argument — he was deep in prayer hoping he could find a single argument for God’s existence rather than a string of them. He thinks that the fool who says in his heart there is no God really is a fool and that he has disproven him.” If this is the sort of thing that annoys you, then I don’t blame you.

    Yes, _Confessions_ is written as a prayer. Of course it can be read as autobiography (and more). Is _Confessions_ an ontological argument for God? I’m not sure I see the comparison. Their motives for writing these texts are not the same.

    Perhaps we’re simply talking past one another. Ultimately, I’m trying to say that there are serious objections to the ontological argument. That’s it. It had sounded as if the argument was impenetrable, to which I strongly disagree.

  8. The quotes in your second paragraph were intended to be in my own voice — that is what I understand Anselm to be saying. I was trying to emphasize that for him there is no serious dichotomy between “prayer mode” and “argument mode.”

    The fact that Anselm’s argument is flawed as a proof does not, to me, indicate that it’s not a serious attempt at a proof. Are you saying that reading it as a meditation makes the flaws in the argument less problematic? If so, that’s a weird kind of charity, because it doesn’t take seriously what I think Anselm is clearly trying to do.

    But at this point, I’m honestly not sure what you’re trying to say anymore.

  9. Also, please note that I’m talking about students who are seeing the argument for the first time, not about my own position. I’m well aware that it’s a flawed argument and that there are many different methods for tearing it down.

  10. Perhaps I misunderstood the tone of the post. Nevertheless, my question of genuine/sarcastic has been answered so I’m satisfied.

  11. For what it’s worth, my comments weren’t intended to be sarcastic. I was discussing my own experience in an introductory course to philosophy of religion during my undergraduate years. Of course, we discussed the holes in the argument, but when initially presented with the arguments most students struggled determining where the problem was. I don’t think anyone left the class actually convinced Anselm had settled the question of God’s existence.

  12. To answer Adam’s question: I don’t think meditation is about proving anything. i don’t think that is the motive of the genre nor do I really know what proving X would even mean. I’m personally not interested in evaluating whether or not an argument is right/wrong or sound/unsound. I think the notion of argument is problematic itself. I’d be more interested in, a la Deleuze, a “see if this works” approach rather than an “is it logical or is it right or is it sound” approach. I think the Anselm text is fascinating AND I could care less if it actually proves God’s existence. If one reads it solely as some rationalistic proof, then I think it is merely a historical curiosity.

  13. What I’m wondering is why there’s the emphasis on its status as a meditation. Couldn’t you read anything in that Deleuzian way? The Monologion is more of a treatise — does that present an obstacle to the Deleuzian style of reading?

    I’m especially confused since you were perfectly comfortable assessing the text as a rational argument, even though you now say you don’t care about that and don’t even feel sure what that’s supposed to mean.

  14. My initial post was asking for clarification so I could better understand the post and the early comments. I suppose that I should not have posted my first comment but only the question. For this, I apologize.

    Yes, you could read anything in a Deleuzeian way. I would not call the “Proslogion” a rational argument: I was simply using the phrase because that is how it is usually described. I honestly don’t understand what a “rational argument” is…it usually presupposes a kind of subjectivity that I don’t find convincing.

    I think Adam’s last comment touched on the point of difference. I don’t see Anslem providing a (rationalistic epistemological) treatise, but rather a meditation. The emphasis on meditation is there because I think the text is more beautiful and productive to be read this way. If there is something in Anselm’s writing that says “read me as a rational argument,” then I’m willing to accept correction. If this is the case, then the text is just far less interesting to me.

  15. I share Adam’s confusion.

    I was actually just having this discussion with one of my professors. As far as I could make out, he was saying a meditation is like an argument for someone who’s already convinced — preaching to the choir when everyone, choir and preacher, know that you’re preaching to the choir. The reader already believes, say, that God exists, and the possible rationality of it / the fact that Anselm bothered to ratiocinate on the subject, ratchets up that reader’s appreciation of God’s existence, gives rise to warm fuzzies, evokes tearfully happy prayers, etc… So ultimately the propositional form of the meditation has about the same role as metre in a hymn — an ornamental variation on a prior dogma.

    The text is more beautiful and provocative, then, because it’s not trying to convince anybody? To me that sounds less provocative… And although I’ve never considered it aesthetically before, the circle jerk doesn’t strike me as particularly beautiful when it isn’t even performed with other people and the accompaniment of music (devotional books: circle jerks packaged for private enjoyment, across time and over long distances, which pack the same onanistic enjoyment for the times when you just can’t find another wanker).

    Sorry for my tone. I’m still annoyed with my Prof. But isn’t that what all this talk of reading Anselm as a meditation amounts to? Salvaging the disproved apologetic as an inelegant hymn?

  16. I should amend something: I got carried away by my over-appreciation for metaphors involving masturbation. I actually appreciate the role of devotional books in religious experience — not because they’re for me (I’m rocky soil). The history of mysticism is actually one of my hobbies: I have nothing but respect for the mystic, affective modalities of texts. But I still fail to see how perceiving those modalities in the Proslogion is better than treating it primarily as an argument?

  17. In 1974 Alvin Plantinga, using a Kripke-style modal logic, showed the ontological argument to be logically incontrovertible. In the process, he also showed it to be vacuous. Plantinga intended the former, but it is not certain whether he intended the latter.

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