Bertrand Russell Interviews St. Anselm of Canterbury

BR: Thank you for being here, Bishop.

Anselm: Glad to be here. Glad to be anywhere after all this time.

BR: Just a few preliminaries: You are the author of this treatise, called Proslogion?

Anselm: Why yes. It’s my best work. Proslogium, please. And I never liked Professor Kant calling my argument “ontological”—it was never called that in my day.

BR: Oh, and what was in called in your day?

Anselm: Anselm’s Argument.

BR: I see. And in this treatise you propose what you call an air-tight and foolproof argument for the existence of God?

Anselm: Well, air-tight is your word. I said fool- proof. I had to deal with Guanilo you see, a real fool, albeit a Benedictine. There was not such a thing as air tight in my day. Things were draughty.

BR: My impression is that your case for God is a bit draughty as well, but for the record, could you state what your argument is, exactly?

Anselm: Yes, of course. God exists.

BR: That’s not an argument, that’s a statement.

Anselm: No it’s a proof, strictly speaking.

BR: How is it a proof?

Anselm: Well, where do you think I got the word God from?

BR: From your head.

Anselm: Exactly, and how do you think it got there?

BR: You thought it. You made it up.

Anselm: No. You see, I couldn’t: because when I say God I mean the highest possible thing, si quid digne dici potest as we used to say.

BR: But how do you know it’s the “highest possible thing.”

Anselm: The highest possible thing one can conceive.

BR: Conceive where? In one’s head? There’re other places you can conceive things.

Anselm: No, dear boy, if it’s only in my head it isn’t very high is it? I’m only about five feet tall myself. A little taller when I wear my bishop hat.

BR: So, it’s in your head because he put it there?

Anselm: Who?

BR: God.

Anselm: You see, it’s in your head too. It couldn’t very well be in both our heads unless we could think it. Could it? I mean I can think unicorn and you can think balderdash there ain’t no bleeding unicorn, and one of us would be right.

BR: Which one?

Anselm: Why the one who says there isn’t of course

BR: And why not the other? You see, I have always thought your argument favoured unicorns and lost islands.

Anselm: Because neither of us has seen such things?

BR: Because no one has seen God either—that’s just my point.

Anselm: Well of course. But God isn’t a unicorn is he?

BR: No I never said he was—I mean if he existed he wouldn’t be. In fact, I don’t know what he would be because I have an idea of what a unicorn looks like and I know what a paradise island looks like–it looks like Tahiti–but I can’t say I have any such notion of this greater-than-anything being of yours.

Anselm: Well, theoretically you could see a unicorn if they existed. But God is very much bigger. Takes up all my thinking space, really.

BR: Exactly How much bigger than a non-existent unicorn is God?

Anselm: Ah! That’s where my argument comes in. Infinitely greater, greater than anything else you can think. Greater than my bishop hat, greater than anything that is or ever can be.

BR: You said bigger a moment ago and highest before that. What is it? Trees can be big and birds can fly high. Is God bigger than the biggest tree? Does he fly higher than a soaring eagle?

Anselm: I’m quite sure I didn’t. You are mincing my words. I meant greater. God is not an infinitely big thing but a being that is greater than anything you can think of. Is the picture forming for you now?

BR: You know bishop, this is all gas formed into words but it still comes out vapour. It doesn’t really matter whether you say “bigger” or “greater” if you can’t see this God and have no idea what an infinitely great being would be. I think he has crowded logic and reason right out of your head. You have no idea of such a being.

Anselm: Of course I do; I do have an idea of it. It’s amazing.

BR: But you are using a comparative degree, bishop—“greater than” as in 5 > 4? What in the realm of being are you referring to, either in your head or out of your head—popes > donkeys, though I shouldn’t be too sure of that last analogy.

Anselm: Ah, that’s’ the beauty of my argument: I don’t need analogy or examples or instances at all. Begins here, in my noggin. That than which nothing greater can be thought can be thought. If that than which nothing greater can be thought can be thought, it exists in reality, so that than which nothing greater can be thought exists in reality.

BR: You are still talking about popes and donkeys in my view. You have to start somewhere—why not with amoebae—and go upwards with it and end up saying, Well, that’s just about it: can’t think of anything higher than the sky—whoops–just did. I thought higher than the sky. So that’s greater and it must exist too.

Anselm: No, you’re leaving out my exceedingly clever use of “greater,” because when I say “greater” I really mean perfection and for something to be great in the sense of perfection it would need to exist, wouldn’t it? I can add on other things later, like goodness and knowledge and changelessness, because perfection, I mean absolute greatness, needs those attributes too.

BR: No, not if it didn’t exist in the first place. Or exists only in the head of some episcopal gasbag who needs his hat refitted to restore circulation to his brain. What you’ve created is a divine-attribute-generating machine in the sky who exists in the same way a sausage-generating machine exists to make sausages. Except the universe isn’t a sausage. And you can’t see your machine.

Anselm: I didn’t say sky, you did. And I haven’t even got to the universe yet. Allow me now to examine God’s impassibility, timelessness, and simplicity…

BR: It’s all very…obscure, isn’t it?

Anselm: You think this is obscure? Thank God we’ll both be dead when Rowan Williams sits in my chair.

The Archbishop of Canterbury