Augustine & Anselm on Where to Turn for Knowledge of God

The writings of Saints Augustine and Anselm have proven to be especially formative for not only contemporary Christian thought, but for contemporary philosophical thought in general. Anselm’s so-called Ontological Argument alone has generated a staggering amount of discussion since its conception ten centuries ago[1]. It is among the most fascinating and controversial pieces of natural theology ever penned[2].

The interest of this post, however, is not in the Ontological Argument per se. Its purpose, rather, is to consider the origination of knowledge of God as seen in these two great thinkers. Specifically, we will see that given Augustine’s (Platonic) theory of knowledge (which was widely accepted in the Medieval period), it was experience—inward experience—that led to Anselm’s “proof” of God’s existence. This order is significant: turning inward for experience first, “proof” second; the proof merely reminds us, in this case of God’s existence.

Stylistic Similarities in Augustine and Anselm

It seems a reasonable starting point to note the stylistic similarities between Saints Augustine and Anselm. As is well known, each sought understanding for his faith through prayerfully petitioning God. Augustine wrote:

Grant me, Lord, to know and understand…Thee…. My faith, Lord, shall call on Thee, which Thou hast given me, wherewith Thou hast inspired me, through the Incarnation of Thy Son, through the ministry of [St. Ambrose][3].

Anselm similarly wrote:

But I do desire to understand Your truth a little, that truth that my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe that I may understand…. Well then, Lord, You who give understanding to faith, grant me that I may understand, as much as You see fit, that You exist as we believe You to exist, and that You are what we believe You to be[4].

Though they use slightly different approaches, both clearly desire to substantiate their already held faith via reasoning. Let’s turn now to consider Augustine’s Theory of Signs, which was the decisive way of understanding signification in the Middle Ages and which decisively influenced Anselm’s project.

Substantive Similarities in Augustine and Anselm

In the later medieval world of Anselm one could entertain a problem of faith and reason, though such was not the case in Augustine’s early medieval world—at least not in the same way; there was not yet a sharp distinction drawn between the capabilities of reason on the one hand and the provisions of tradition and authority on the other.
As is now well known, Augustine, after reading the Platonists, came to view God as an immaterial Being[5]. He realized—experienced is the word I’d rather use—a world that is not at all material. He writes:

And being thence admonished to return to myself, I entered even into my inward self, Thou being my guide: and able I was, for Thou wert become my Helper. And I entered and beheld with the eye of my soul (such as it was,)…the Light Unchangeable…. Thee when I first knew, Thou liftedst me up, that I might see there was what I might see, and that I was not yet such as to see[6].

It was by “seeing,” that is, experiencing via an intelligible light that Augustine came to affirm the immaterial Being. This experience, of course, is, if not equivalent to, then at least strikingly similar to Anselm’s proof for God’s existence in chapter three of his Proslogion. Recall the opening words of that work:

Come now, insignificant man, fly for a moment from your affairs, escape for a little while from the tumult of your thoughts…. Abandon yourself for a little to God and rest for a little in Him. Enter into the inner chamber of your soul, shut out everything save God and what can be of help in your quest for Him…[7]

Each version depends on our “seeing” something that we have within us conceptually; it is an experience for each (though Anselm’s experience is admittedly a bit less grand).

Soon after his conversion to Christianity, Augustine adopted as his (nearly exclusive) goal knowing God and the soul, and how the latter can reach the former. Of course, if this is the case, why in The Teacher does he devote so much time to signs rather than realities (since, as he already believes, both God and soul are realities)?[8] In order, he explains, to “exercise and sharpen our mental powers. This will enable us not only to endure, but also to love the warmth and light of the region wherein is found the happy life.”[9] This preparation includes the realization that all language serves merely to remind or teach us (or someone else) of something. Even prayer is a reminder—not to God, but (if praying silently) to oneself to enter into one’s inmost mind, where word’s cease altogether.

Augustine demonstrates that in practice we always use signs; it may be impossible to do otherwise[10]. After spending considerable time on visible things and the signification thereof, he turns to ask how signs can signify things which can’t be seen[11]. At this point he backpedals a bit; perhaps, after all, there are things which can be taught without signs[12]. In fact, upon closer examination, it turns out that signs mean nothing without prior knowledge of that which is signified. Augustine explains:

I discovered it was the name of a thing well known to me from my having seen it. Before I made that discovery the word was merely a sound to me. It became a sign when I had learned the thing of which it is the sign. And this I had learned not from signs, but from seeing [experiencing] the actual object[13].

We learn, then, by going out and experiencing things; the signs merely serve to remind us of these experiences.

But what of universals? They are obviously not visible to us (at least they are not to me), and they aren’t available through signs. Thus, Augustine says, we must take recourse to “Truth which presides over our minds within us…. Our real Teacher is he who is so listened to, who is said to dwell in the inner man, namely Christ, that is, the unchangeable power and eternal wisdom of God.”[14] So, our knowledge of (the world of) particulars comes from sense-experience, and our knowledge of (the world of) universals comes from Christ within us, that is, our experience of Christ the Teacher within us. Thus, it is only on the basis of this experience that Augustine can speak of knowledge (versus belief) of God.

This, it seems, is likely the reason Anselm wrote the Proslogion as he did. As we know Anselm sought knowledge of God, but, given Augustine’s theory[15], that knowledge must (somehow) come through experience, not words; verbal argumentation is all but ruled out. Notice the experiential nature of Anselm’s argument in chapter three of the Proslogion: it’s more a thought experiment, really, than an argument[16]. Yes, (obviously) there are words involved, but only in an effort to describe an experience anyone may have if they would simply turn inward and conceive of necessary being.

Conclusion

Given the distinction of the Middle Ages between authority and tradition on the one hand and human reason on the other (faith and reason), Anselm was able to explore the capabilities of the human intellect alone. We know that Anselm was greatly influenced by Augustine in many ways, not least of which was the latter’s Theory of Signs. Given this theory, words are useless to attain knowledge of God; only experience, which can provide knowledge of what the words signify, can teach. Both Anselm and Augustine invite us to turn inward and experience the intelligible Light of Truth, thus proving God’s existence.

———————-

[1]All references to Anselm’s works are taken from Brian Davies and G. R. Evans, eds., Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[2]The Twenty-first century has witnessed a significant resurgence of interest in the Anselmian argument, both positive and negative. See, for example, Steven Davis, God, Reason, and Theistic Proofs (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997), 15-45; Steven Davis, “The Ontological Argument,” in The Rationality of Theism, ed. Paul Copan and Paul K. Moser (London: Routledge, 2003), 93-111; J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 41-63; Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), 79-95; Charles Hartshorne, The Logic of Perfection and Other Essays in Neoclassical Metaphysics (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1962); Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom and Evil (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 85-112; Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 197-221.

[3]Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. by Edward Bouverie Pusey (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1991), 1.1.

[4]Anselm, Proslogion, 87.

[5]Cf. Confessions, 7.9.13

[6]Confessions, 7.10.16.

[7]Proslogion, 84.

[8]Augustine, The Teacher, 8.21. All references to The Teacher come from, Augustine: Earlier Writings, trans. and ed. by J. H. S. Burleigh (Louisville: Westminster John Know Press, 1953).

[9]Ibid.

[10]Indeed, he says “It is established then that…nothing is taught without signs…” (The Teacher, 10.31).

[11]It is worth noting that Augustine says that “ though it is false that things universally are to be preferred to their signs, it is nevertheless true that whatever exists on account of something else is inferior to that on account of which it exists. Knowledge…is more important than the name, while the name is also to be preferred to the thing it designates” (The Teacher, 9.26).

[12]The Teacher, 10.32. Actually, it turns out there’s a lot of these things (cf. op. cit. 10.33).

[13]Ibid., 10.33, emphasis mine.

[14]The Teacher, 11.38, emphases mine.

[15]It is, in fact, widely agreed that Anselm did espouse Augustine’s theory. Gregory Schufreider writes: “That Anselm himself aims to align his argument with what would have been the theological tradition to which he was heir, that the specific view of reason and, thus, the way his reasoning is designed to work, is meant to invoke the legacy of earlier medieval thought, especially Augustine, is clear from the fact that he refers…to the ‘illumination’ he has received through it” (Confessions of a Rational Mystic: Anselm’s Early Writings [West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1994], 199). See also Gareth Matthews, “Anselm, Augustine, and Platonism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Anselm, ed. by Brian Davies and Brian Leftow (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 61-83.

[16]Kierkegaard’s inherent misunderstanding of Anselm now becomes clear. In an 1853 journal entry entitled “Curious Self-Contradiction” Kierkegaard wrote: “Anselm prays to God in all sincerity that he may succeed in proving God’s existence. He thinks that he has succeeded and throws himself down to thank God; curious, he does not notice that this prayer and thanksgiving are infinitely more proof of God’s existence than—the proof.”

2 Responses to Augustine & Anselm on Where to Turn for Knowledge of God

  1. […] presents Augustine & Anselm on Where to Turn for Knowledge of God posted at SUMMA PHILOSOPHIAE. Keith discusses the writings of Saints Augustine and Anselm and their […]

  2. Ian says:

    Very interesting, but the fact is that Anselm was a dialectician, and actually did think he was presenting a dialectical argument. Since he taught the trivium, including dialectic and rhetoric, we can be fairly confident that he thought words were more important than you appear to suggest he does. See for instance his De Grammatico. I agree that Anselm’s argument has an experiential basis, see what he say about the best way of coming to God in the Monologion. But he did think that the anyone, believer or unbeliever, could understand the argument he put forward in the Proslogion (an argument he did not limit to Proslogion, chapter 3), and that they could only reject its conclusion by acting irrationally.

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