Monday, May 14, 2012

Origins of the Ontological Argument Antecedent to Anselm?

My friend, Edgar Foster, recently shared the following with me, which I post here for for a wider audience, which I think it well-deserves:

The ontological argument for God's existence often is attributed to Anselm of Canterbury (circa 1033-1109 CE). If by "argument" we mean a systematic and developed case made for a belief or set of beliefs, then yes, Anselm might be credited with the first theistic argument based on the concept of perfect existence. However, I believe the roots for the ontological argument can be found in writers like Cyprian of Carthage or Minucius Felix. For instance, Cyprian writes:

"To God who alone is, belongs the whole name of God; therefore He is one, and He in His entirety is everywhere diffused. For even the common people in many things naturally confess God, when their mind and soul are admonished of their author and origin. We frequently hear it said, 'O God,' and 'God sees,' and 'I commend to God,' and 'God give you,' and 'as God will,' and 'if God should grant'; and this is the very height of sinfulness, to refuse to acknowledge Him whom you cannot but know" (On The Vanity of Idols 9).

I have yet to see an author make this connection although someone has possibly associated Cyprian with Anselm in this way before. I'd like to advance this idea to see if it can float.




Yes, but it seems to me that Cyprian is not presenting an argument for the existence of God at all. Even the common people know of God, so everybody knows, so arguments are unnecessary, so God-denial is a sin.

Possible analogy: 17 countries have made it illegal to deny the systematic genocide of Jews during World War II. They don't find it necessary to provide arguments for the existence of the Holocaust. If you deny the obvious, you have evil motives.

On the other hand if you take the broader view and say that Cyprian is expressing a case for the existence of God, it's one which anyone could have made any time, in a culture pervaded by the idea of a single invisible God.

Cyprian might have been the first one to publish this in Latin, but you can hardly say he originated it. Someone must have been the first to publish the expression "... can't all be wrong", but it's too commonplace to have been originated by that person.

Steve Finnell


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