Brian Leftow on Anselm’s view of Divine Perfections

February 6, 2007

“Anselm seeks “names” or “words” – bits of language. He is being careful when he says that he seeks these rather than seeking properties that God has. There are at least two reasons to speak this way. One can be traced to the Monologion’s first argument for God’s existence. This proceeds, again, by first arguing that something plays the role of a property of goodness. “Good” applies to anything other than the property of goodness because it has a property distinct from itself, namely goodness. “Good” does not apply to goodness because it has a property distinct from itself, for goodness is not distinct from itself. “Good” applies to anything else because it has a relation of real dependence on goodness. If it applies to goodness, it does so because goodness is identical to goodness. Identity to goodness and real dependence on goodness are distinct attributes. Nothing can have both. So while one term, “good,” applies to goodness and other good things, it applies in virtue of different attributes. But really, there is an even deeper problem here. What makes goodness good is not a property that goodness has. It is instead the property that goodness is. If intrinsic attributes are by definition “things had” and distinct from the item having them, goodness has no intrinsic attribute of goodness. Nor then does Anselm’s God, who is identical with goodness. “Good” applies to Him, and is a purely intrinsic description. But it does not apply in virtue of an attribute at all. It applies due to what God is, not what He has.”
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“This threatens to leave the perfect-being project pointless: why apply words to God if we do not have any idea what they say when so used? Anselm recognizes the problem (Mon.65). His reply is that we can at best draw conclusions about God based on what is like Him, and say about Him things which are true, but not in the senses in which we understand them (Mon. 65).” (Cambridge Companion to Anselm, pp. 134-135).