The Scholastics

Who were the scholastics?

The scholastics were the first heavyweight philosophical school of medieval times. Their eleventh-century founder was St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), who was followed by Peter Abelard (1079-1142) and Peter Lombard (1100-1160) in the twelfth century. During the same time, Jewish and Islamic philosophers reintroduced Aristotle to the West. This innovation culminated in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), followed by John Duns Scotus (1266-1308).

What did St. Anselm of Canterbury begin?

St. Anselm (1033-1109), known as "Anselm of Canterbury," was a Benedictine monk and the second Norman archbishop of canterbury. He is famous for his ontological proof for the existence of God in Proslogion, and for his model of satisfaction in the Atonement in his Cur Deus homo.

Anselm's ontological argument to prove God's existence amounts to this: Imagine a being that is the greatest being that can be imagined. Such a being exists in the intellect alone. If this greatest being were to exist only in the intellect, a greater one that existed in reality could be imagined. But there cannot exist in reality a greater being than the greatest being that can be imagined. Therefore, that imagined being is the greatest being.

Now, this greatest being would be everything and have every attribute that it is better to have than not to have: living, wise, powerful, true, just, blessed, unchangeable, non-physical, eternal, beautiful, harmonious, sweet, and so forth. That is—and this is the crux of the ontological argument—because being is better than non-being, God will have being, which is to say, he will exist.

Anselm goes on to claim that God, as the greatest being that can be imagined, is simple. Everything that exists is better insofar as it more resembles the creator of all things: namely, God. All created beings, which are created by God, owe their being and well-being to God. But God is independent and has no obligations to his creations.

Did Anselm face objections to his ontological argument?

Yes. Also, different forms of St. Anselm's (1033-1109) argument kept popping up in the history of philosophy after Anselm died, as did different objections to it. It remains a subject of debate in some circles to this day. Anselm had posed his argument as something that a fool, who did not believe in God, would have to agree with. His contemporary, a monk called "Gaunilon," took up the position of the fool.

Gaunilon first said that it was impossible to conceive or imagine "a being than which nothing greater can be conceived." Anselm's response was that if the words "a being than which nothing greater can be conceived" are understood, then one (the fool) has conceived of or imagined this being. And because this being is so great and existence or being is greater than non-existence or non-being, the being exists.

What are the roots of St. Anselm's ontological argument?

First, St. Anselm's (1033-1109) argument for God's existence seems to depend on pure reason as means to truth, which goes back to the ancient Greeks. That it only depends on reason, without observation or experience, perhaps makes it closer to Plato, or the Neoplatonists, than to Aristotle. Second, the argument relies on the ancient assumption that being or having more being is "better" or more perfect than non-being or having less being.

Has anyone succeeded in refuting Anselm's ontological argument?

Many philosophers believe that Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) killed Anselm's argument with his claim that existence or being is "not a predicate" or a quality that a thing can have or not have. But other philosophers continued to debate both Anselm's and others' forms of the ontological argument.

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