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Medieval Philosophy

by John Wippel editor

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Although this survey of philosophy includes a wealth of interesting discussions from Augustine to William Ockham, students are only assigned section VI, which focuses on Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God. After Anselm presents his case, a monk named Gaunilon responds to the argument “on behalf of the Fool,” and then Anselm responds to Gaunilon’s objections.

For many students, Anselm’s ontological argument will seem like a conjuring trick. Their over-simplifications make his argument sound silly: So, since I can think of God then God must necessarily exist?!? Gaunilon does much the same thing, making a caricature of Anselm’s argument by imagining a perfect lost island: “You can’t doubt any more that this island, which is more excellent than any land, really exists somewhere, since you don’t doubt that it is in your understanding and that it is more excellent not to be in the understanding only. Hence it is necessary that it really exists . . .”

But Anselm’s argument is not so easily refuted, as philosophers will tell you. Men still concoct responses to it more than 900 years after it was proposed, and none of these responses are completely satisfying. If existence really is better than non-existence—and what existing philosopher would argue otherwise?—then perhaps Anselm’s argument that the most perfect being must necessarily exist is not so far-fetched.

Still, it’s a shame that the ontological argument is Anselm’s primary claim to fame. Because of this, most people view Anselm as a cold rationalist, setting the stage for the scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas. In truth, Anselm would have been the first to say that men cannot reason to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. His self-proclaimed motto was fides quaerens intellectum—“faith seeking understanding,” which clearly indicates that he knew men must begin with faith in the God Who reveals Himself in order to understand anything at all.

by Jeff Baldwin