God is also that than which nothing LESSER can be thought

In his famous argument for God’s existence, Saint Anselm of Canterbury began by defining and identifying God as “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” Several centuries later, Nicholas of Cusa reasoned from this starting point that, if so, God must also be that than which nothing lesser can be thought. As he argued:

[S]ince the absolutely Maximum is all that which can be, it is altogether actual. And just as there cannot be a greater, so for the same reason there cannot be a lesser, since it is all that which can be. But the Minimum is than than which there cannot be a lesser. And since the Maximum is also such, it is evident that the Minimum coincides with the Maximum. (On Learned Ignorance 1.4, trans. Hopkins)

God is so great, in other words, that he altogether transcends the very opposition between greater and lesser. Or put differently, in God the opposed relations of greater than and lesser than come full circle and converged onto each other. This is Cusa’s famous doctrine of the “coincidence of opposites.”

Anselm on whether God can create a rock too heavy for him to lift

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 15

The Proslogion’s most direct remarks on divine power and possibility appear in his well-known discussion of God’s omnipotence in chapter seven. Anselm introduces the subject of omnipotence in the preceding chapter when, from his premise that God is id quo maior cogitari non potest (“that than which nothing greater can be thought”), he infers that “it is better to be percipient, omnipotent, merciful, and impassible than not.”[1] The first thing we might observe in Anselm’s treatment of God’s omnipotence, accordingly, is his view that such power follows from God’s status as “that than which nothing greater can be thought,” a point I shall return to later. The fact of God’s omnipotence thus established, Anselm’s entire discussion of omnipotence in chapter seven is devoted to reconciling this truth with the paradoxical reality that there are many things we say that God cannot do. In his own version of the infamous question as to whether God can create a rock too heavy for him to lift, Anselm inquires: “But how are you omnipotent if you cannot do everything? And how can you do everything if you cannot be corrupted, or lie, or cause what is true to be false (as, for example, to cause what has been done not to have been done), or many other such things?”[2] In a passage redolent of Lady Philosophy’s argument for the utter impotence of evil in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Anselm replies:

Or is the ability to do these things not power but weakness? For someone who can do these things can do what is not beneficial to himself and what he ought not to do. And the more he can do these things, the more power misfortune and wickedness have over him, and the less he has over them. So whoever can do these things can do them, not in virtue of his power but in virtue of his weakness. So when we say that he “can” do these things, it is not because he has the power to do them, but because his weakness gives something else power over him… In the same way, then, when someone is said to have the “power” to do or suffer something that is not beneficial to himself or that he ought not to do, by “power” we really mean “weakness.” For the more he has this “power,” the more power misfortune and wickedness have over him, and the less he has over them.[3]

For Anselm as for Boethius before him, whatever function they may serve grammatically in our language, privations such as evil deeds, falsehoods, and corruption represent not a true power on the part of those who do or suffer them, but a form of weakness or impotence. They are not positive possibilities open to acting beings, but certain “un-possibilities,” refusals or deprivations of those real possibilities that belong to things as a consequence of their created actuality. Similar to his near contemporary Peter Damian, Anselm further applies the Boethian (non-)modality of evil to God in a way that allows him to reasonably conclude that, far from God’s omnipotence being somehow threatened or called into question by his “inability” to do these things, divine omnipotence consists precisely in his freedom from such liabilities: “Therefore, Lord God, you are all the more truly omnipotent because you can do nothing through weakness, and nothing has power over you.”[4]

[1] “Verum cum melius sit te esse sensibilem, omnipotentem, misericordem, impassibilem, quam non esse…” Proslogion 6.

[2] “Sed et omnipotens quomodo es, si non omnia potes? Aut si non potes corrumpi, nec mentiri, nec facere verum esse falsum: ut, quod factum est, non esse factum, et plura similiter: quomodo potes omnia?” Proslogion 7.

[3] Proslogion 7.

[4] On the similarities between Anselm and Boethius here, see D.P. Henry, The Logic of Saint Anselm, 150-4, cited in Whitman, “The Other Side of Omnipotence,” 133n9.

God of the Appearances: Does God possess sense-perception?

According to Augustine, the answer is “No,” but according to Anselm, the answer might just be “Yes.” In her study of The Neoplatonic Metaphysics and Epistemology of Anselm of Canterbury, Katherin Rogers argues that, his overwhelming debt and consistency with St. Augustine notwithstanding, Anselm actually seems to differ with the Bishop of Hippo in his theological understanding of sense-perception. For Augustine, Rogers writes,

man is not a true image of God when he is concerned with the senses… The mind is a true image of God only when it contemplates eternal things, and especially when it knows itself as being able to remember, understand, and love God. Augustine… thinks there is no real analogy between the human word born of the senses and the Divine Word.

Enter Anselm, who around 600 years later writes in ch. 6 of his Proslogion: “Therefore Lord, although You have no body, nevertheless You are, in a way, supremely capable of sensing, in that You know all things supremely, though not as an animal knows by its bodily senses.” As Rogers comments:

Anselm’s attitude towards sense knowledge seems rather different from Augustine’s… Anselm sees the ability to perceive sensible things as a perfection. Since it is a perfection God must have it. God does not see with eyes nor taste with a tongue, nonetheless, in knowing everything, He knows how sensible things look and taste. This is quite a remarkable assertion. Not only does it mark a deaprture from the earlier Neoplatonism which denigrates sense knowledge as “mere” appearance, but it suggests far-reaching epistemic implications. In Western philosophy, since ancient Greece, it has been almost a truism that sense data such as color, taste, sound etc. do not reflect truth or render knowledge. The Platonists say this because the world of sense is mutable and, in their eyes, only the unchanging can genuinely be known. The empiricists say it because they hold that the impression of the object perceived is produced as much by the perceiver as by the object. Thus Locke agrees with the ancient atomists that blue, for example, exists, qua blue, only in the mind of the perceiver. There is no blue “out there” in the blue objects. By holding that God has sense knowledge Anselm seems to give the sensible world an objective reality which most Western philosophers have denied to it. (Rogers 35)

We have sense-perception, in short, because in God there exists some perfection to which our powers of sense-perception are a real analogy or likeness. Rogers elaborates:

Surely the way individual things appear is part of the divine plan and so known by God from all eternity. It seems very odd to say that God has number the hairs on one’s head, but that He does not know what color they are. Augustine might say that knowledge of colors, tastes etc. is not really knowledge, that real knowledge must be of superior, non-sensible things. But this would put the sensible world outside of, or below, God’s plan. Augustine certainly thinks that the physical world was created and ordered according to God’s knowledge. Any other opinion is heresy. Thus it seems that the Christian philosopher ought to say that God eternally knows the appearances of things. (Rogers 35-6)

For Anselm, theology really does “save the appearances,” for God is the God of the appearances.

Athrabeth as Sub-Creative Theology

So I’ve been characterizing Anselm’s understanding of his own philosophical theology as a kind of “sub-creative theology,” a theology, that is, that at once seeks to provide an internally consistent, logically cohesive, and to that extent “necessary” account of the otherwise objective, universal truth about God and salvation, all the while recognizing the finitude of the sub-creative theologian’s own perspective and the fallibility of human reason, no matter how carefully conducted. I’ve also made some vague gestures that somehow Tolkien’s Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth might also be seen to belong to this theological sub-genre. What do I mean by this?

Set in the “Elder Days” of the history of Middle-earth, the Athrabeth is a dialogue and at times debate between the Elf-lord Finrod and the mortal woman Andreth. As Tolkien summarizes the conversation in his commentary on the work, the Athrabeth represents “the attempt of a generous Elvish mind to fathom the relations of Elves and Men, and the part they were designed to play in what he would have called the Oienkarmë Eruo (The One’s perpetual production), which might be rendered by ‘God’s management of the Drama'” (Morgoth’s Ring 329). He explains that it is

not presented as an argument of any cogency for Men in their present situation (or the one in which they believe themselves to be), though it may have some interest for Men who start with similar beliefs or assumptions to those held by the Elvish king Finrod…. There are certain things in this world that have to be accepted as ‘facts.’

In Anselmian terms, we might say that the argument of the Athrabeth involves an exercise of fides quaerens intellectum, or “faith seeking understanding.” Beginning with certain “beliefs or assumptions,” in other words, Finrod is attempting to discern and understand the inter-connectedness and internal consistency of these beliefs. Tolkien allows that the resulting argument may very well be without “any cogency for Men in their present situation (or the one [i.e., situation] in which they believe themselves to be),” though “it may have some interest”–and hence some cogency–for Men who start with similar belief or assumption to those held by the Elvish king Finrod….” As Tolkien views it, the argument of the Athrabeth does not involve the Enlightenment myth of a pure and autonomous reason, but presents a case of rationality operating on the basis of certain pre-rational commitments. Somewhat like Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, therefore, the Athrabeth offers us not a neutral, “unbiased” argument, but a kind of “possible necessity,” a necessity that is real but which is only going to be fully accessible to and appreciable by a mind that humbly accepts those deliverances which are prior to and the foundation of the proper operation of reason.

(To be continued….)

Anselm’s “Ontological Argument” as Eucatastrophe

Last week I posted on Tolkien’s eucatastrophe-like account of the circumstances under which he first made the connection between the literary eucatastrophes found in all true fairy-stories and their ultimate fulfillment or realization in the real-world (“primary world”) events of the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. On my end, what actually prompted (“eucatastrophically,” you might say) that particular reflection was my re-reading of Anselm’s Proslogion, in which Anselm likewise describes his discovery of the famous argument at the heart of his work as an unexpected “sudden joyous turn” (as Tolkien might put it). In the prologue to the Proslogion, Anselm comments on his dissatisfaction with his earlier attempt at offering a “meditation on the reason of faith,” the Monologion, which he describes as having been “constructed out of a chaining together of many arguments.” His goal in the Proslogion, accordingly, was (to borrow again from Tolkien’s phraseology) the “ray of light” that was to be “glimpsed” between “the very chinks” of the Monologion’s “chain of arguments”; as Anselm himself puts it, he wondered

whether it might be possible to find a single argument that needed nothing but itself alone for proof, that would by itself be enough to show that God really exists; that he is the supreme good, who depends on nothing else, but on whom all things depend for their being and for their well-being; and whatever we believe about the divine nature. (Williams trans.)

Despite his aspirations, Anselm’s discovery of this “single argument” was a long time in coming. He goes on to recount his intellectual struggle, despair, and even attempted abandonment of the project:

And so I often turned my thoughts to this with great diligence. Sometimes I thought I could already grasp what I was looking for, and sometimes it escaped my mind completely. Finally, I gave up hope. I decided to stop looking for something that was impossible to find. But when I tried to stifle that thought altogether, lest by occupying my mind with useless speculation it should keep me from things I could actually accomplish, it began to hound me more and more, although I resisted and fought against it. (emphasis added)

At last, however, came the break-through, Anselm’s intellectual eucatastrophe:

Then one day, when my violent struggle against its hounding had worn me down, the thing I had despaired of finding presented itself in the very clash of my thoughts, so that I eagerly embraced the thought I had been taking such pains to drive away.

The “single argument” Anselm discovered, of course, was his famous definition of God as “that than which nothing greater can be thought,” from which premise Anselm was able to derive not only his famous proof for God’s existence (e.g., God cannot be thought not to exist because a thing that can’t not exist is “greater” than something that can not exist), but such attributes as his eternality, omnipotence, and even his triune nature.

(To be continued….)

Tolkien’s discovery of eucatastrophe as itself a eucatastrophe

I’ve made a couple of posts recently arguing that Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation can give us some insight into St. Anselm’s understanding of his philosophical theology as providing a “possible necessity.” In this and a follow-up post I’d like to suggest that Tolkien’s theory of eucatastrophe may provide a similar perspective into Anselm’s Proslogion.

In a 1944 letter J.R.R. Tolkien explains to his son Christopher his thesis–first developed in the epilogue to his essay “On Fairy-Stories”–that the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ were the “greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story,” and his view that it was fitting that “Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story.” As he defines it here, eucatastrophe is “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” Indicating at once the unexpected immediacy (note the recurrence of the word sudden) of his discovery and–in characteristic, Tolkienian fashion–his own, comparative passivity in arriving at the insight, he comments on how in his essay he was “led to the view that it [eucatastrophe]produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back.” More than this feeling of tearful relief and joy, Tolkien attributes to the experience of literary eucatastrophe a subliminal perception of or awareness into the nature of reality itself: “It perceives—if the story has literary ‘truth’ on the second plane (for which see the essay)—that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made.” Elaborating further on his metaphysical characterization of eucatastrophe as an unexpected deliverance from the dyscatastrophic chain of “material cause and effect, the chain of death,” Tolkien describes eucatastrophe as “a sudden glimpse of the truth behind the apparent Anankê [Greek for necessity or constraint—see Plato’s Timaeus]of our world… a glimpse that is actually a ray of light through the very chinks of the universe about us.”

As fascinating as Tolkien’s account of eucatastrophe is in its own right, of at least equal interest, perhaps, is his subtle insinuation that the way he came about this discovery (or more precisely, the way this discovery came about him) as to the connection between the Resurrection and fairy-stories was itself a kind of “eucatastrophe.” He recounts:

I was riding along on a bicycle one day, not so long ago, past the Radcliffe Infirmary, when I had one of those sudden clarities which sometimes come in dreams (even anaesthetic-produced ones). I remember saying aloud with absolute conviction: ‘But of course! Of course that’s how things really do work’. But I could not reproduce any argument that had led to this, though the sensation was the same as having been convinced by reason (if without reasoning). And I have since thought that one of the reasons why one can’t recapture the wonderful argument or secret when one wakes up is simply because there was not one: but there was (often maybe) a direct appreciation by the mind (sc. reason) but without the chain of argument we know in our time-serial life.

Like the eucatastrophe in a good fairy-story, Tolkien’s discovery of the “meta”-eucatastrophe of the Resurrection of the Son of God involved for him a “sudden” turn (in this case, of the mind), a break of thought that he was unable to trace causally back to any prior “chain of argument” or reasoning. In the “clarity” and “conviction,” moreover, of his conclusion concerning the Resurrection’s fulfillment of all fairy-stories, we discern a more explicit, self-conscious recognition of the real-world truth that Tolkien believed to be dimly “perceived” in all literary eucatastrophes. It’s hard not to suppose, finally, that this intellectual eucatastrophe had by Tolkien while riding his bicycle must have had some influence on the scene in Leaf by Niggle in which Niggle (Tolkien’s autobiographical self-portrait) rounds a corner while cycling and discovers the very tree he had been painting for so long: “Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive…” In any event, Niggle’s response to his real-life Tree seems to match well enough Tolkien’s response to the discovery that the Resurrection is the real-life eucatastrophe anticipated in every fairy-story: “ ‘It’s a gift!’ he said. He was referring to his art, and also to the result; but he was using the word quite literally.”