Anselm on Divine Power and Greatness

Recently, the web-comic xkcd put out a one-panel one-liner that caught my immediate attention as a sometime scholar working on Anselm of Canterbury.  He's often credited with originating the "ontological argument," in some important senses a misattribution, since that term comes into use much later, in the 18th century, and since Anselm's "unum argumentum" is actually nearly the whole of the Proslogion, not just the second chapter -- there's even more to be said, but those are topics for another day, and a different post.

What's particularly interesting to me about this is the question that's being asked in the panel -- not the part about a "flaw" in the ontological argument, but rather the much more intriguing question hinted at about divine power, or rather omnipotence, and its intersection with the "that than which nothing greater can be thought" reasoning driving Anselm's argumentation in the Proslogion.  Here's why that issue is well worth thinking through in light of Anselm's actual texts and thought:

That Than Which Nothing Greater Can Be Thought

I suspect that many persons' reading of Anselm is restricted to only the portions of the Proslogion that later get anthologized along with others as an example of the "ontological argument -- chapters 2-4, or perhaps even just chapter 2.  That's a shame, and not just because philosophical texts do deserve to be read in their entirety (especially texts as short as that one), but because by skipping over the rest of the work, one misses out on something vitally important about Anselm's famous formula, quod maius cogitari non potest, "that than which nothing greater can be thought." 

There's two complementary ways to approach this.  One is to actually read the preface to the text, in which Anselm tells us:
I began to inquire, whether it might be possible to find one argument that, requiring no other argument other than itself in order for it to be established, would also by itself suffice for demonstrating that God truly is, and that God is the supreme good lacking no other good, and which all need in order that they be and be well, as well as whatever else we believe about the divine substance.
Notice several things coming to light in that passage.  First off, although Anselm does speak of a "single argument," it clearly cannot be just Proslogion 2-4 (let along chapter 2 on its own), since it is supposed not only to demonstrate that God is but equally a number of other important things typically asserted about God.  Second, Anselm does not say, "first, that God exists," and "then, all this other stuff," but rather this, and then that, and also that as well.  Third, the other thing the argument is explicitly supposed to bear upon is divine goodness, which includes all-surpassing self-sufficiency.

Another complementary way is to go past chapter 4, and see what Anselm actually does in the chapters that follow.  By doing that, one gets to see the single argument worked out in its fullness.  And, one will also mark one common element running throughout the argument - the logic of the "that than which nothing greater can be thought," being employed and unfolded in a variety of contexts.

It will turn out that this phrase supports a dynamic activity of thinking-things-out about God by the rational human creature along a number of distinct but complementary lines.  Each of them involves working out more fully what the genuine implications of God being that than which nothing greater can be thought are.  They invite the reader, the human thinker, to attempt to think something greater (in one respect or another) that what that human being thinks God to be -- and then, as that line of thought proceeds, it fails, it reveals its insufficiency to the human thinker's starting assumptions about God, and the need to think these matters out better, more fully, more adequately to the object of thinking, God.

Thinking Up Something Greater Than God's Power

One of the puzzles -- a perennially recurring one -- that Anselm considers through the lens of his logic is the age-old conundrum about whether there can be any limits upon God's power.  Before looking at Anselm's own resolution, consider a few often-expressed initial ideas about this.

If God is assumed to be omnipotent, then it is natural to assume at first that this simply means that God can do anything.  Nothing is beyond God.  Nothing can resist His will or decree.  If you reflect upon that for a moment, though, it seems a rather problematic assertion.  If God can do literally anything, then God can abrogate the laws of logic just as easily as he can interrupt any causal or natural laws bearing upon the created universe.  Some religious thinkers have indeed taken that position -- but Anselm is not among them.

So does that then mean that God would be all-powerful, but only within the constraints of some limits, some requirements, some boundaries?   Then it's not really omnipotence then, is it?  Or at the least, it's not a very impressive kind of "omnipotence" -- and something(s) greater can be thought.  One traditional way out of this -- which Anselm does take -- is to maintain that whatever conditions  from our point of view to be limitations upon God are not really so, since they ultimately derive from God, from the divine nature.

So, for example, God cannot lie, since lying is something wrong (it quite literally does wrong), but God does not will wrong because something else compels him not to will wrong, but because God is (among other things) rightness (rectitudo) itself.  So, God is just remaining true to the divine nature by not doing, and in some sense not being able to do, certain things. 

That does leave one classic problem untouched, though -- one at which the xkcd cartoon hints -- a problem that arises when we imagine divine omnipotence, as it were, split apart.  For instance, could God create a stone so heavy that God himself cannot lift it?  If God can create such a stone, as an expression of his own omnipotence, then paradoxically, the God who cannot lift it is also not omnipotnent, since there's something he can't do!  But, if he can't make such a stone, say because it's logically impossible, then he's not omnipotent in that case either. . . .

Rethinking What God Can't and Can Do

That particular age-old conundrum is fruitful to examine in light of Anselm's "that than which nothing greater can be thought" formulation.  In doing so, I'd like to counsel that our thinking should be less about trying to immediately settle into some points of rest, so that we can be done with the hard effort of thinking -- and instead be more about seeing where thinking leads, and what more thinking is revealed as required.

So, we imagine to ourselves (in Anselm's terms, we form in our intellects an image of) God creating a stone of infinite, unsurpassed heaviness.  Put aside for a moment the sorts of concerns that this would raise from the perspectives of modern physics (e.g. Wouldn't that immediately create a black hole, since it would have infinite and irresistible gravitational force? or How would that stone be given such heaviness, in a system of other objects attracted to each other through gravity based on mass and distance?)  In the very act of making that stone, we further imagine God chuckling to himself, saying that just for a joke he's going to make this one too heavy even for himself.  And, BAM, there's the stone, and God is standing there scratching his head, musing about what he's now going to do with a boulder not even he can move. . . .

Could this occur as we imagine it?  What are we imagining, really?  We're thinking about a more or less traditionally conceived God, who has among his many other attributes that of omnipotence.  And then we think about something greater than that God, greater at least in the sense of being beyond even his omnipotence -- that paradoxical stone, product of the divine will.  What we're also thinking about is a capacity hidden within divine omnipotence, namely that of being able to contradict or nullify itself, and we're assuming that in thinking about this, we're also thinking about something greater as well.

If you can actually think -- coherently, consistently, comprehending what it being thought -- of something that is greater than what you take to be God, Anselm would say simply:  "Well, now you know that you weren't really thinking about God, or that the image you had in your mind was really very far from a perfect resemblance to what God actually is.  Now, you've actually got a shot at bringing that dim, far from adequate image a bit closer to what God must be, but it's going to take some additional thinking on your part."  By the way, this approach is not unique or even original to Anselm -- it's one of the guiding themes threaded throughout Augustine's Confessions, for one.

It is really power, Anselm asks, in Proslogion, chapter 7, to be able to be subjected to something else, to have something else fundamentally determining matters?  If it is, then it would indeed be greater to have that sort of "power" than not to have it. . .  but, upon analysis, it's actually not so, because it's really a lack of power, or a weakness, an impotentia.  For God, the one genuine unity, to be able to be divided against himself (as e.g. a human being can be) would not actually be a power.  Although we can imagine it so (after all, we can imagine all sorts of things that aren't the case!), this would not really be to be greater.

It probably needs to be pointed out that when we're following out implications of God as "that that which nothing greater can be thought," in our own thought, we have to become attentive enough to distinguish between facsimile and spurious "greater"s and genuine "greater"s -- and the only real instrument we have for this is, as it turns out, our somewhat limited intellectual faculties.  But, at least from an Anselmian perspective, it is by thinking through these tangled, murky matters that those faculties of thinking are gradually improved and made more adequate to their objects -- including the divine.

A Bit More About What God Can't (Won't) Do

The intersection between thinking about God as "that than which nothing greater can be thought" and thinking about an omnipotent God as not able to do some things recurs consistently in Anselm's works.  One major thematic within which this occurs is the reconciliation of divine justice with divine mercy, a topic that Anselm approaches from varied perspectives in the Proslogion, in the Cur Deus Homo, and in many of his Prayers and Meditations (for my fuller views on mercy and justice, you can read my piece on the Proslogion, and my more recent piece on the Cur Deus Homo).

Anselm fleshes this out in relation to other problematic matters as well.  The discussion in De Libertate, chapter 8 provides a particularly interesting case.  The question there is whether, when a human being (or really, any rational being) possesses justice in his or her will, God could or could not remove that state of justice.  It turns out that God cannot, and we thus seem to be placed in the presence of another case where we can think something greater than God -- namely a God who possesses the power to take away the justice from the will of a just person.  So, if God really is "that than which nothing greater can be thought," then shouldn't we say that God must be able to take away justice (or rectitude of will maintained for its own sake -- Anselm's consistent definition of "justice")?

The answer simply put is No -- because then God would actually be something lesser, not something greater.  Why?  In that very discussion, Anselm's stresses an interesting distinction:
God can reduce to nothing the whole substance that he made from nothing.  But he cannot separate rectitude from a will that really possesses it.
Why not?  Well, this would involve a contradiction to be introduced within the heart of the divine will.   I leave it to the reader to undertake the short reading of that chapter, and will simply summarize the problem thus:  Were God to will for a human being, who is presently just (and willing justly) to now abandon justice by willing injustice, God himself would be willing injustice -- and would be doing so by willing for that person to will precisely what God does not will!

Again, we can ask -- is having such a capacity to introduce contradiction within one's will a power, a potentia, or a lack of power, an impotentia?  If a power, then when we think that, we think a way in which God could be greater than God is assumed to be -- and then God had better be that way in he's going to be God!  If it amounts to a lack of power, however, to possess it would be a way in which God would be lesser, and thus not actually God.

None of this, of course, directly bears on the challenge the xkcd cartoon is supposed to cheekily raise.  That's because, unless we think through quite a number of other matters, it's not really clear at this point whether being able to find a "flaw" (presumably, it would have to be the greatest possible flaw, no?) in the "ontological argument" would be something conducive to divine greatness or not.  It's a rather moot point, really -- does our conception of God really include him thinking about a range of "arguments" for or against his own existence in textbook form.  I suppose it could, but one might suspect that could be a rather diminutive sort of godling, really a product of impoverished human imagination . . .