The Ontological Argument
Any argument which attempts to prove God’s existence a priori based only on His nature can be termed an “Ontological Argument”. Historically, however, the term is inextricably associated with the famous argument presented in Anselm’s Proslogion chapter II, and with the later variant advanced by Descartes in his fifth Meditation and subsequently developed by Leibniz. Some have claimed that Anselm’s argument was anticipated in the thought either of various classical philosophers (notably Aristotle, Parmenides, Plato, and Zeno of Cition) or of Augustine, but although there are indeed suggestive passages in their writings, Anselm’s explicit “proof” of God’s existence based on his Nature does appear to be a genuinely original discovery.
The scope of Anselm’s argument, and its place within his thought, have been much disputed, with some commentators, notably Barth, interpreting it not so much as an argument for God’s existence starting from a definition of what He is understood to be, but rather as an illumination of God’s existence, starting from a revelation of His nature. Such an interpretation, according to which the argument moves from faith to understanding rather than the reverse, corresponds well with the Proslogion’s original title “Fides quaerens intellectum”, but it threatens to render Chapter II, traditionally seen as the heart of Anselm’s argument, otiose – if one starts from the premise that God has revealed Himself as having a certain nature, then it is hard to see any point to an argument for God’s existence which starts from that apparently question-begging premise. However in Chapter III Anselm goes on to develop his line of reasoning further, arguing that God exists in such a way that His non-existence is inconceivable. Hence if Chapter II is seen not as a self-standing argument but rather as a preliminary for Chapter III, then these might be taken together as an exploration of the character of...
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