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21.08.23 Holopainen, A Historical Study of Anselm's Proslogion

21.08.23 Holopainen, A Historical Study of Anselm's Proslogion

This book sets out to show in detail how Anselm came to write his famous Proslogion as a way of presenting "the reason for faith" [ratio fidei] which would render his Monologion more acceptable to a wider audience than the carefully chosen few to whom he had sent a draft of that work. Toivo Holopainen argues that Anselm's project in both works was to exhibit the internal logic or internal intelligibility that exists in the content of faith or in the things that the faith is about (213). He sets out that case in three parts, which I shall review in the order of the historical occurrence of the events described.

In Part II Holopainen argues plausibly that Anselm joined the monastery at Bec in 1060 to become an associate, not a pupil of Lanfranc, who was Prior at the time (95). His arrival coincided with Lanfranc's involvement in a controversy about the interpretation of the Eucharist sparked by Berengar of Tours. Berengar had been required to recant his interpretation by a Synod held in Rome in 1059, but later responded by publishing a short work called Scriptum contra synodum analysing the views expressed by the Synod and defending his own position. Holopainen presents a careful and illuminating analysis of Berengar's Scriptum and of Lanfranc's rhetorical attack on it in his De Corpore et Sanguine Domini, describing the latter as "an example of sophistic misuse of dialectic" and an "irresponsible and dishonest use of the liberal arts" (102) and as "glorifying unintelligent faith" (224).

He suggests that Anselm might have contributed to the writing of De Corpore (104). However, that suggestion seems somewhat at odds with Holopainen's interpretation of the Monologion as "an alternative to the model of theology that De corpore had endorsed" (142). For he continues, Anselm ran "the very real risk that the audience influenced by 'Lanfranc's heritage' would find Anselm's rigorously rational method in the treatise offensive" (142).

In Part III Holopainen painstakingly explains how the Proslogion came to be written against that background. The main body was published c.1077-1078 under the title "Fides quaerens intellectum" (222) as a "devotional exercise" focussed on "the contemplation of God". Holopainen observes that that expression can be used to refer both to direct vision of God, and to an intellectual contemplation of truths about God, and argues that both endeavours are evident in the text. Claiming that this draft was composed with a believing audience in mind (212), he describes its main goal is to advertise the idea of faith seeking understanding, as well as to justify and defend it (214). He sensitively discusses how Anselm's quest for a vision of God pervades his argumentation.

Anselm published the final version under the title Proslogion about five years later, adding the Preface, the list of chapter headings, the numbers in the margin to indicate where each chapter begins, and the three appendices: the Sumptum (an extract of Proslogion 2-4), the Pro insipiente, and the Responsio. He released the Monologion to a wider audience at the same time. Holopainen makes the interesting suggestion that Anselm published the two treatises together so that the more devotional Proslogion would provide cover for the less devout Monologion, lest the latter be attacked as too intellectual in an environment conditioned by Lanfranc's polemic against Berengar.

In the Preface to the Proslogion Anselm tells his readers that he asked himself whether an unum argumentum could be discovered which "would need no other than itself alone for proving itself and for demonstrating alone that God truly exists, and that He is the Supreme Good, ...and whatever else we believe about the divine substance." In 2007 Holopainen wrote a ground-breaking article exploring the use of the term "argumentum" by Boethius, Abelard and Lanfranc, and proposing that Anselm's unum argumentum is the descriptive phrase: "That than which a greater cannot be thought". [1]

In Part I of this book, Holopainen argues more thoroughly, and at greater length, for that proposal, presenting it against a detailed review of the background of relevant sections of the Monologion, and reiterating his analysis of Boethius's discussion about argumenta and related logical topics. Arguing that an argumentum is a means of argumentation, he defends his proposal as the most plausible of six alternatives, and tries to show how it fulfils the objectives which Anselm stipulated that his unum argumentum would satisfy.

Both Anselm's Preface and Eadmer's biography give the impression that Anselm wrote theProslogion after discovering the unum argumentum he was seeking. But Holopainen points out that "there is reason to suspect that the accounts are misleading regarding this point" (199). He suggests that most of the Proslogion may well have been written in advance (100). Indeed, he suggests, "it is even possible that a complete draft of the treatise already existed before Anselm's discovery of his unum argumentum" (200). For there is no mention of the unum argumentum until it was republished with those additions.

There is much in Part I which I commend. Holopainen correctly reports that the train of reasoning inProslogion 2 does not start from having the concept of God but from the uttering of an expression, and correctly observes that "the inference in Proslogion 2 does not end with the affirmation that God exists" (3). Indeed, he rightly observes that Anselm "obviously held that no real definition of God is possible" (52). All that implies that Anselm's proof of God existence is not '"the ontological argument" standardly attributed to him.

Holopainen describes the arguments in Proslogion 2 and the first half of Proslogion 3 as "stages in Anselm's inference about God's existence" (17-18). Those third-person deductions end with the conclusion of Proslogion 3: "Something-than-which-a greater-cannot-be-thought so truly exists that it could not be thought not to exist."

Holopainen says that "In the middle of Proslogion 3, the conclusion of the argument is applied to God" (44). "This", he says, "is a matter of course" (both 44 and 56)! However, that conclusion cannot be immediately "applied: to God because nothing so far establishes that its subject is unique and without that, the identification is invalid.

Anselm is aware that more is required, for he introduces two reasons which supply what is required. The first implies that "no mind could think of something better than You" and the second is: "Whatever is other than You can be thought not to exist". Holopainen dismisses these reasons as "some remarks on the appropriateness of that identification", commenting, "It would nevertheless be exaggerated to see these remarks as a 'proof' for [that] identity" (44). Perhaps he does so because both those reasons are beliefs which presuppose that God is the Creator of all other things.

But if his assessment were true, God's existence would not be proven. However, the conclusion proven in the first half of Proslogion 3, together with those reasons, entail both that identity, and that "You alone so truly exist that You could not be thought not to exist". Proving that second conclusion fulfills the second objective of Anselm's unum argumentum.

Anselm manifestly takes himself to have proven that God exists, because he immediately after drawing the conclusion quoted above in Proslogion 3, he asks: "Why then has the Fool said in his heart, 'There is not a god', when it is so obvious to a rational mind that You exist most greatly of all?"

In the second-last section of the book, Holopainen addresses the issue of whether unbelievers are part of Anselm's intended audience, insisting that it is "eminently clear that Anselm composed the Proslogion with a believing audience in mind" (212), ignoring Anselm's rhetorical question.

Furthermore, in Proslogion 4 Anselm's reiterates his conclusions, declaring that he now understands that God is that than which a greater cannot be thought, and therefore exists. He could not have understood either if he had not proven the truth of those conclusions.

Holopainen's glossing over this issue is understandable. I surmise that he has not discerned how Anselm could have validly deducedhis conclusions without begging the question. How could Anselm prove that God exists from his belief in the Creator? Demonstrating how that is possible is not straightforward, but it is possible. [2]

Holopainen bases his case for identifying the description "that than which a greater cannot be thought" as Anselm's unum argumentum on "a synchronized reading of three important passages": the Preface; Responsio 10; and Responsio 5 (58). I translate the relevant passage in Responsio 10 as:

"The signification of this utterance, ["something than which nothinggreater could be thought"], holds within itself such force that this thing itself [hoc ipsum] which is spoken of, on account of the thing itself [eo ipso] which is understood or thought, by necessity is really proven to exist and to be that thing itself [id ipsum] which is whatever it is proper to believe about the divine substance."

Holopainen comments, "Anselm is obviously here referring to his description of the single argument in the preface, even though the formulations are different" (36). The difference in the formulations is evident in Holopainen's own translation:

"For the signification of this utterance ['something than which a greater cannot be thought'] contains in itself so much force that what is said is necessarily, by the mere fact that it is understood or thought of, proved both to exist in reality and to be whatever should be believed about the divine substance" (35).

There are three major problems with his translation:

  • First, he has omitted to translate " hoc ipsum ", making it appear that Anselm is referring to the meaning of that description, rather than to this thing itself which is signified by that description.
  • Second, translating " eo ipso " as "by the mere fact that" alters the sense of the sentence, so that it appears that the fact that the description is understood or thought is what enables Anselm's conclusions to be proven. But, as the text of Proslogion 2 bears out, it is the fact that the thing itself [ eo ipso ] is understood or thought which enables Anselm to deduce those conclusions.
  • Third, by omitting to translate " id ipsum ", he has eliminated the fact that what enables "whatever it is proper to believe about the divine substance" to be proven is that this thing itself [ hoc ipsum ] is proven to exist and to be identical to that itself [ id ipsum ] which is whatever it is proper to believe about the divine substance, i.e., the being of God Himself.

Anselm is making two points in these final reflections. Firstly, that it has been proven that this thing itself which is described as "something than which nothing greater could be thought" really exists and is that itself which God is. Secondly, he is implying that proving that identity is what has enabled all the objectives of his unum argumentum to be fulfilled.

I have similar difficulties with Holopainen's interpretation of the passage in Responsio 5. Anselm is there comparing his own argument in Proslogion 2 with Gaunilo's parody which misrepresented Anselm's descriptive phrase as "that which is greater than everything [else]". Anselm points out, quite correctly, that the logic of the argumentation in Proslogion 2 does not work when Gaunilo's phrase is substituted for his own. Anselm recognizes that for an analogous contradiction to be inferred from Gaunilo's formulation his inference must be supplemented, writing in Responsio 5 that:

"For it is in need of an argumentum other than what is said [to be] greater than everything. However in this [i.e., in the inference in Proslogion 2] there is no necessity for another than this thing itself [hoc ipso] which is spoken of as 'than which a greater could not be thought'."

Holopainen comments that:

"First, the passage makes it clear that Anselm is willing to apply the term 'argument' (argumentum) to entities like 'that than which a greater cannot be thought' or 'greater than all'" (63).

But Anselm is referring to what those phrases signify, not to the phrases themselves as what is needed to repair Gaunilo's inference, whereas the thing he himself has spoken of needs nothing else. Anselm continues in Responsio 5:

"Therefore, it is not possible to prove in the same way about that which is said to be greater than everything what [something]-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought proves about itself through itself [de se per seipsum probat]."

Holopainen comments that:

"Second, even though Anselm does not use the exact formulation in Responsio 5 that he used in the preface, it is clear that here he comments on what it means that the single argument 'would need no other [argument] for proving itself than itself alone'" (63).

While Anselm is here alluding to the prescription in the Preface, it soon becomes clear that he is nothere identifying that phrase as his unum argumentum, because near the end of the passage Anselm reveals what the other argumentum needs to be. Anselm concludes this discussion in Responsio 5 by writing: "For in no way can [that]-than-which-a-greater-could-not-be-thought be understood unless it is that which alone is greater than everything [else]."

The other argumentum which Gaunilo's inference needs is that identity--not a descriptive phrase! So, the very passage which Holopainen cites as supporting his proposal shows that he has misidentified what, for Anselm, an argumentum is: I do not find it surprising that the required 'other argumentum' turns out to be the identity which Anselm has asserted, for Holopainen reports (76) that Boethius endorses the following definition which occurs in Cicero's Topica. [3] An argumentum, however, is a reason which would produce belief regarding a thing in doubt [ratio rei dubiae faciat fidem].

Since, as Holopainen reports (76), Boethius explains that an argumentum will not be able to produce belief regarding something unless it is expressed by means of propositions. For Boethius, an argumentum is a reason which must be expressed as a proposition.

Despite his reporting those illuminating comments, Holopainen dismisses Cicero's definition as "not very helpful" (76), but I find that Anselm uses "argumentum" exactly as Cicero defines it. For I surmise that Anselm's unum argumentum is the identity which, before he begins his proof, Anselm says "we believe": You are something than which nothing greater could be thought.

Although that identity proposition does not--indeed, could not--serve as a premise in his proof, it is the source from which Anselm first extracts that indefinite description to prove that what it signifies is in reality and therefore so truly exists that it could not be thought not to exist. He then extracts the pronoun "You" and validly deduces that that identity is necessarily true. Since that conclusion is equivalent to his belief, that identity has both 'proven itself', and demonstrates that God truly exists, "by itself alone". So, examining the passages cited by Holopainen has yielded a different answer to the question: What is Anselm's unum argumentum?

The strength of this book lies in Holopainen's analysis of the historical context in which Anselm wrote the Proslogion, even though his proposal of what Anselm's unum argumentum is, and his philosophical analysis of how its objectives are fulfilled are disputable. Despite that, it makes a significant contribution to our understanding of Anselm's intriguing and challenging 'little book'.



1. "Anselm's Argumentum and the Early Medieval Theory of Argument," Vivarium 45 (2007): 10.

2. I demonstrate in A Cosmological Reformulation of Anselm's Proof that God Exists (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming 2021), how that is possible. The first reason implies that "Because it can be thought that You are the Creator, it can be thought that You are something than which a greater cannot be thought", which does not presuppose that God is the Creator. And the second reason can be discharged in the course of the deduction, so the conclusion is deduced from that belief, but is not dependent upon it.

3. Holopainen is quoting Boethius, In Ciceronis Topica I, [2, 7-2, 8], p. 35.