Download: Philosophy and Human Values (1990) Lecture 2: Epicureans, Stoics, Skeptics

Transcript: Well in the last lecture I tried to just make a few suggestive remarks in order to get us off the ground about what might be called the Greek way of life, and different forms of human conduct of which only one I suggested and discussed, and that was the Socratic life of enquiry. And I didn’t mean by that life of enquiry an inactive life, an apolitical life or one unconcerned with the state or with other humans. But, in fact, I wanted to present it not as some academic debate, but as a life deeply immersed in your social situation, and to understand who you are and who your fellow citizens are.

Among the values that Greek society held out as an answer – one possible localisable and possibly usable answer of what human life was like for the Greeks was, to sum it up in one word – and this is all I will have to say about Aristotle or Plato – is “Excellence”. In a way, it’s well known that the Greeks have an ideal of Excellence. Where by Excellence, the Greeks meant something like this: to be an all rounder. You know, in sort of West Texas parlance, “an all rounder”. Somebody that, you know, could write a country song, punch out a big guy, shoot a game of pool, work a full days work, and was smart enough to read a thick book. And I don’t mean to make it too mundane, because if you look at the description of Odysseus in Greek literature, that was sort of an ideal of Excellence in their culture. It’s not like our ideal, because Odysseus was, one, a clever liar, two, was someone who would cheat the gods when possible, and necessary… who could drive a furrow, throw a discus, sail a boat, you know, and a bunch of things, right.

And so for the Greeks, excellence was a whole series of traits of human beings – well rounded in all respects. One of the great Greek tragedians was buried, and his marker remarked on what a great soldier and orator he had been. It said nothing about him winning the prize for the plays for which we know him today. So, the Greeks had this idea of excellence, which to us can only be a pale shadow in a society where we mean something so radically different by excellence. By excellent, we would have to mean – and perforce have to mean – an excellent lawyer, an excellent politician, an excellent housewife. I’d rather say worker; an excellent houseworker. Hard to say “worker” when they are unpaid labour, but… houseworker, and so on. So Excellence, in a society in which labour is greatly divided can only be, as it were, be a pale shadow of this Greek ideal, okay. Ah, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be excellent at your job, and learn to ski. But the Greeks meant a bit more by it than that.

So, what we will pursue now, in a discussion that unfortunately has to be far too brief, will be ideals of Excellence in Roman society, and I am going to run through those. Some of them are fairly well known to us today. So I am going to run through a few of those ideals of human excellence. Again, localisable to the Roman Empire, again, very Western. You know, all traditional, no problem there. And then I will end with a little intimation of something I will try to pick up on again at the end of the lecture. Even though Christianity as a form of belief dominated Western civilisation for so long, I am going to have very little to say about it in the early part of the lectures, for a reason I’ll give you toward the end of this one.

So now, to move from the Greeks to the Romans. There are three different views I want to discuss in terms of how to conduct ones life, and two of them bear a nice historical parallel with conditions in the Roman Empire and its fate. One of the positions with which many of you are familiar – at least in name – because the word, although it means something slightly different today, this position is probably familiar. One of the answers to “how to live?”, given during the rise of the Roman Empire, when the markets were filled with goods, and there was much to enjoy. Even for some of the Plebeians there was much to enjoy, because Rome was looting the world. Maybe some of you understand this condition from your experience. I don’t know, but anyway. It was a good time in philosophy: it was Hedonism.

Now, it’s important to understand that philosophers of the old school make a living refuting Hedonism, because how could a view about what is the best kind of life for humans, or the right thing to do – and I’d like to make this simpler by just using Spike Lee‘s phrase – how could “do the right thing” mean “do what makes you happy”. But actually, this view is harder to refute than one might think. Because in answer to the problems of life, the Hedonist response that you should do what makes you happy is actually a fairly powerful view, I think. Now, I think that it’s more powerful under conditions where it’s possible to do that, for obvious reasons.

Now, the Hedonists back up their arguments with two kinds of claims, and we’ll return to this again, where we get a kind of modern form of social Hedonism in John Stuart Mill. But the Hedonism of the Roman Empire was connected with various schools: the Epicureans, and others – where we get the word Epicure – that ought to already tell you something about the kinds of pleasures to be pursued. And this will be disappointing to many of you. The kinds of pleasures the Epicureans wanted to pursue – and nearly every version of Hedonism makes this distinction – were the “higher” pleasures. By which they meant the ones that don’t have the negative payback. The higher pleasures are, as the word “epicure” indicates: excellent food in moderate quantity. Like swordfish, steak, just right, blackened a little, yuppified just a little. A little picante sauce, which has become quite popular; tex-mex variant. Just enough though to be healthy, good for the heart… a little running. These things in moderation. A little learning, but not too much; not enough to trouble the mind, but enough to satisfy it. On the other hand, one wouldn’t indulge in those pleasures that have a strong negative side. I mean, this is the way the philosophical position is. Myself, I have always wanted some Hedonists to just come out and say “I am for the really gritty ugly pleasures, I like them”, but that’s not a view… I want to defend partially that view, but it’s not a view that is, you know, philosophically respectable, although it may even be more plausible.

No, the lower pleasures are things like getting dog drunk, which provides a lot of pleasure, until the next morning. Then you have a lot of pain. Falling dumbly in love. Which provides a lot of pleasure, and then gives a lot of pain. These were to be avoided because they led to a troubled mind. So, those pleasures were, as it were… not… this was a very rational position, see. The idea is to maximise ones pleasure, so you follow the most rational course to do that. You go after “higher pleasures” that don’t have a bad down side, and avoid the so called “lower pleasures” that have this down side. A good drunk…

Again, our culture is familiar with this: “just say no to drugs”. Well, the reason for that can’t be that they don’t make you feel good. You know, I’m an old 60′s person, and I know better. They make you feel good! But they have a downside. So, I am not arguing – don’t charge the stage – I am not saying “say yes to drugs”. I am just saying you’d be a fool to say “They don’t make you feel good”. They do make you feel good. You gotta be… you got to tell the truth about things once in a while. It won’t hurt. Even in Reagan and Bush’s America it doesn’t hurt to tell the truth once in a while. Just don’t get caught by your friends, okay. In any case, the problem with drugs though, is that they have this down side. You know, the “Cocaine Blues” is a familiar, not only country song, but phenomenon. Way up, way down. This view of seeking pleasure was quite widespread in a period where Rome has a lot of pleasures to seek… booty from all over the world.

During the decline of Rome, a rather different view of the best kind of life for human beings arose – and I’ll discuss it briefly too and then we’ll compare them, because the comparison is very interesting – and that’s Stoicism. And just like Hedonism still means something like Hedonism to us, when we call someone a Stoic today, it still means something like what they meant by it: Stoic. Now, it’s important to see that there is a connection between these modes of beliefs, and the social and historical conditions that people are actually responding to when they formed these beliefs.

So, when less booty is available in Rome, and Caligula is wasting a lot of it anyway – and scaring the hell out of you – one way to respond is the set of beliefs of Stoic fortitude. And the word that was important for them – that they chose to model their way of life on – is not like for the Greeks’ Excellence, or for the Hedonists’ happiness. For the Stoics, the word was “Apatheia“. Now, I am saying it in its Latinate form, rather than in English, because if I say it in English, it’s “Apathy”, and you get the wrong idea. For the Stoics, Apatheia was something you cultivated. Unlike our society where they cultivate it for us, but then again, you know. Apathy was something you cultivated, and it didn’t mean withdrawal, except in the sense of a courageous stance against, as it were, the buffeting powers of fate over which you had no control, so the best one could do was to “buck up”, and face a bad situation.

Now, many of the Stoics… and I am oversimplifying to get the arguments clear. Certainly oversimplifying these two broad historical movements, but we gotta make the positions clear. Some of the Stoics thought – with the Hedonists – that happiness would be the best thing, but they thought it was unattainable in this world. That’s a very important belief structure, given the next belief structure that will be historically dominant in Western Civilisation. Its a very important switch in belief. It’s that now happiness is still considered to be something great if we could get it, but if you can’t, the next best thing is to face up to it; you know, “buck up”. An attitude with which I am still familiar, as I say, from my background in you know, sort of the West Texas attitude toward a drought: “Well you can’t be happy living out here…” – “Damnit, they are not going to run me off this place”. Well, that’s kind of Stoic! There’s nothing apathetic about it, I mean, the wind blew all his crops away, his farms gone 80 miles down the road, and you know, to be happy about it would be crazy, but you could face it with some kind of courage, some kind of fortitude. So that was the Stoic ideal.

So, as I say, many of them believed that happiness would be good, but was not possible. So their arguments for that are based on two things, one of which you may have already caught me on – and I hope you have – is that for the Stoics, the distinction between higher and lower pleasures is dubious; is questionable. Where do you really draw the line with that one, and why? I mean, are there any pleasures that don’t have a down side? And, for the Stoics, there aren’t; there are none. Even, you know, enjoying Beethoven’s Fifth requires lots of work to get into a position to enjoy it. You know, you don’t just walk in and go – well some people do, who like to bluff – they go: “Ain’t that great…”. It’s the first time they ever heard classical music: “Yeah, I love it…”. No, to really enjoy it, to get pleasure from it, requires listening to a lot of things first. To really enjoy Moby Dick is more than just seeing the excellent movie by John Huston, written by Ray Bradbury. You have to actually read Moby Dick, and it’s long and there are sections in it about rendering whales… and that goes on about 200 pages and you’ve gotta get through them, they are important to the story. So that’s work, you know…

So, for the Stoics, there is not this simple distinction between higher and lower pleasures. All pleasures have, as it were, a down side. All of them. And for people who try to lead a single minded life of happiness or pleasure – to set that out as their goal – may fall victim to an old Eastern Proverb from Eastern philosophy, and that’s that “Chasing happiness is like chasing your own shadow”. It’s almost as if one could get still, one might be able to find it, but it you keep chasing it, it’s always a little bit ahead. Well, the Stoics had some view like that about happiness. If you chase it, it runs. So, the Stoic answer was to lead this courageous life of… you know, it sounds a little corny, but it’s not any cornier than “Let’s buck up and take it” guys; sort of a male kind of thing, you know, I have to admit. Definitely, well, it’s sexist, like most of this tradition. In any case, that was the view, and it’s important to see when the two views were popular, and in what ways. One view corresponded to a rising empire and its values, the other view was more prevalent during the falling, or declining empire and with its values.

So, in modern parlance, one might expect in a society on the ascendency to have all kinds of optimistic values. In that regard, let me quickly refer you to the commercials that were made in the 1950′s. Especially those 1950′s commercials that projected what life would be like in the year 1990. We are there now and we look back at those commercials, and guess what. They missed it, okay. It was wrong. They missed it. They missed it by a long way. You can look at The Jetsons and go: they even missed that. They missed it. The future didn’t turn out to be like they imagined. Very optimistic account of the future.

In this current period… to try to again, drive my analogy home about how ways of thinking and views of human conduct are rooted in real life problems, in real social and political problems. In our current period, in what form do we imagine our futures? One of the most striking examples to me here, are the new movies that I call “near future” movies. My favourite is Blade Runner. Now, Blade Runner – I don’t know how many of you have seen it – is a magnificent film for this simple reason. It is post-apocalyptic. Bored with the apocalypse. There’s not going to be a nuclear war because the world is not that interesting. See, that’s already, sort of, more cynical than many of us want to be. The world is not interesting enough for us to enjoy the sting of a real death. Instead we’ll have this decline, and smudge into the life where our lives and the lives of machines will become ever more blurred, as it is becoming.

So, in Blade Runner, we get just a near future projection that shows us what Los Angeles would look like in thirty years if things just keep going on the way they do. You don’t need any apocalypse to watch Blade Runner You just need to know it is going to get more polluted, more people from more places are going to come there, and they are going to make more money, and it’s going to look like that, and then you’ve got Blade Runner. So, those near futures help to say something about how we see our future as a culture, as opposed, for example, to the culture of the 50′s. Now, in my view, other cultural artefacts like the apocalypse movies, were really ways to dodge the sticky and ugly task of facing a plausible near future. See, the easiest way to do this is to have a big apocalypse and start all over, then you don’t have to face all the nasty questions about what’s really going to happen if things just grind on. So, Blade Runner would be an example I would use there to try to remind you that our culture too has different views, different periods that code its rise, decline, and so on… and it’s not unusual. So, in the Roman case as well, toward the declining period of Rome Stoicism became a dominant view.

Now, there is a very positive thing to say about Stoicism. It has a deeply democratic side to it. Egalitarian side, better, since the word democracy has become polluted through misuse and so on. What word hasn’t, but it in particular. It has an egalitarian aspect to it. The two most famous of the Stoic philosophers: one was a king, and one was a slave. And the beauty of that was as follows: that they were brothers in suffering. Both would have to put up with outrageous… what, you know, Shakespeare, Hamlet, calls: “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. A Kings’ life is full of troubles. Shakespeare again says, you know: “Uneasy sets the crown upon the head”, so the king needs to be a stoic, because he’s got troubles. And of course, the slave does too, and this view has beneath it an egalitarian notion that we are alike in a couple of respects.

We are all going to have troubles, and then there is that absolutely democratic institution, that as far as I know hasn’t been abolished yet, and its death. The one absolutely democratic institution on the planet. I mean, isn’t that beautiful? In a way, rather that to be, sort of, existentialist about it – that sort of dress in black, 60′s attitude about it – I mean death is a kind of utopian concept for me because even the rulers have to face it. I mean, I actually laugh, and some of you must too, when you see the poster: “He who dies with the most toys wins”. You know, well, you go: “That’s kind of a relief, you know”. In the end, Trump just has three limousines at his funeral, well at the rate Trump is going, he may only have one. But in any case, the point is that there is a democratic institution widely respected by us and feared, even when we don’t want to think or talk about it much. And beneath it, as I will argue later, there is a greater danger.

Okay, I talked about Hedonism, and I’ve talked about Stoicism. The important connection I want to make is: it seems difficult to imagine how on the ruins of the Roman Empire, Christianity could have arisen and conquered, and had its conditions conquered so quickly in the West. I mean, that really is a rather remarkable historical, you know, turn of events. That a slave religion, banned throughout the empire, would end up being adopted and then spread. Now we don’t want to be too mystical about this, because the historian Gibbon said that it spread not by the preaching of the word, but by fire and the sword. That is a way to spread certain doctrines. I read the paper this morning. You can still spread a doctrine that way. Not simply through the preaching of the word on TV, but the fire and the sword are sometimes handy. There is more than one way to convince someone, in short. I am arguing that there are preferable ways to do it. But, in any case, Stoicism helps us to understand this: during the declining part of the Roman Empire, the Stoics’ account of their social reality and of the limited chances for happiness within it… you know, this courage, Apatheia, was also backed up with an almost – and here I am going to use the Americanised version – existentialist view, that sort of “All is vanity”.

So for me, a classic Stoic doctrine you can all go back and read during break – it’s not an assignment – it’s in every motel. It’s the Gideon bible. Open your Gideon bible, find the book of Ecclesiastes, and read Ecclesiastes. It is a magnificent Stoic doctrine because it says “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. Pretty big statement. ALL. The guy goes: “Look, I had money, but that was vanity. I gave myself to knowledge, that was vanity. All is vanity”. Well that interesting old text helps to explain why the Stoics were ready to hear, finally, the message of the Christians, which about the world, was the same. In other words, Saint Augustine’s account of this world, and the Stoics’ account are the same. Augustine calls this world “the region of unlikeness”; everything is garbled up, messy, based on a text of Saint Paul’s, you know… “We see through a glass darkly”, you know.

And so, I want you to see that Stoicism, as it were, prepared really fertile ground for the preaching of the word of the early Christians. And the reason it did seems to me simple: because the Stoics had a problem but not a good answer. Namely, they had a good account of the problem, and then along come these, ah, weirdos who you have been previously hunting down and killing, and they go: “Wait a minute, now listen to us again. We know when you had all your power, this didn’t sound so smart; now you might want to listen”. And then the answer comes: “But there is good news. Although there is a world like this one, there is another one…”. When we discuss Freud, we will understand why humans sometimes make such projections. While this world isn’t working out, there’s another one, and while justice won’t be rewarded here, it will be rewarded there. While happiness isn’t possible here, the right kind of life will give it to you there.

So if you read Ecclesiastes all the way to the end, the reason Ecclesiastes is not finally a Stoic doctrine, is because the preacher has the hope in his heart that the messiah will come, and there will be an answer to these problems. But, with the Stoics, they both agree about the world that we are all in now – the mundane world that we are in now – that it’s “a bad show”; not working. So, that is the way in which these movements – and that’s a very brief account, but – that’s the way in which these three answers to human conduct arose in succession, sort of. Not rapid succession, these were massively long historical movements, many variants. And when I say movements, you’ve got to remember that as long as I am discussing Greek society, Roman society, and Medieval society, you have to point out that if you talk about movements among people who think, you are only talking about a very limited number of folks. Not in terms of them thinking, but in terms of us having any record of it. For all I know, they thought more and better about all of this.

But, it seems to me that Marx has a banal truth down, and I know today it’s not popular to say that Marx got anything right. But one thing, certainly I think Marx got right was that as far as the history of ideas go, the ruling ideas in each epoch are basically the ideas of the ruling classes. The dominant ones. Not all the ideas, but the dominant ideas of each historical period will be the ideas discussed by the dominant classes. The reason that’s not a surprising thesis is that the women are out having babies this fast; and that’s almost biologically required, as well as required by patriarchy for a society to continue. It’s required by both. Doesn’t justify it, its… barbaric. And then slaves are doing necessary labour, without which you do not have the leisure to pursue philosophy.

It’s important to remember that this is a leisure activity. Without leisure time, you can’t pursue it. It may be why we don’t have a very philosophical culture now. It’s because we work longer and harder now than we did forty years ago. I think that’s right statistically, although there must be a sociologist somewhere in the crowd. But, it’s right according to the advertisements I have been seeing on TV that, as it were, brag about it: “We now work 65 hours a week”, and I went: “Oh, joy! That’s a real thrill. Glad it’s going up, hope you guys can get it back up to where it was when Dickens wrote. Congratulations”.

I am sorry, I am off on a squee, I’ll have to get back to the point. I just… my mind wanders, I don’t know… watching too many Robin Williams skits. Anyway… these three forms of human conduct. The last, and that is that the slow ascendency of Christianity. Spread by both the preaching of the word, and fire and the sword. Based on a mystery, wrapped in an enigma and a very confusing one at that. We will discuss that later… ah, not on the first day. You don’t do the God stuff on the first day. We’ll do it in a more modern context, when I think I’ll throw in a few remarks about Kierkegaard. He’s a philosopher who gives a stunning attempt to defend Christianity in an era in which he says “Because all are Christians, ipso facto, none are”. Which I think is a quite elegant and correct argument; structurally it is. Very interesting, but we will discuss that later. It’s a snotty thing to say, but it’s worth saying.

So, the Christian era. And here is a vast wealth of views about the best kind of life for human beings in the Medieval period. Modernist scholars, scholars who will concentrate on the figures that I will after the break: Kant, Mill, and others vastly underestimate both the diversity of knowledge in the medieval period and what it discovered in the sciences and so on. Now, we are right that it was “The Dark Ages” in terms of the political dimensions I have been mentioning. But then, we hardly have room to throw stones in that regard today either. So “The Dark Ages”… is overkill.

In the Medieval period there are a lot of views, but it is fair to say, along with the sociologist Max Weber, that the Middle Ages were somehow “enchanted”. Now, by that he meant that at the centre of the ideologies in the West… remember as we do philosophy, it’s a Western discourse, okay. It doesn’t mean that no other people in the world are good enough to do it. I mean that’s the way we have understood it here, and certainly it doesn’t mean that our way of doing it and understanding it is at all right. I’ll come around to that, but only at the last lecture when we go back over this train of doing Western philosophy. But, in the West it’s important to remember that this period was much more variegated than the simple “Dark Ages” account.

The Medievals though did live in a world kind of enchanted by an overarching belief system which can be seen not just in their religious texts – in other words, not just in philosophy – although there it is beautifully expressed by Aquinas – better expressed by Augustine, one of my favourite writers – but by Aquinas, and then towards the Late Medieval period, Duns Scotus and others. Saint Bonaventure and many other great writers. And some of them who disagree quite wildly on many things. And that period produces one of the most elegant arguments in the whole philosophical tradition, and that’s Saint Anselm’s Ontological Argument for the existence of God, which is the closest thing we have in philosophy to a knockdown argument. It argues that God has got to exist, and if I have time I’ll run through it briefly here in a second.

But anyway I am trying, as I say, to draw this 2000 year period to a close in modernity, because while this period is enchanted around a set of beliefs at which Christian – various Christian views are at the centre….

…and in which society is, again, sort of hierarchically arranged with differential relations to God, and yet each one of those mediated relations confers meaning. In other words meaning not in some small sense like: “Well, my life has meaning – I have got a good job and a lot of friends”. No, meaning in the sense that you are an actor in a cosmic drama, in which your decision to… to sin, or not to sin, to be saved or not to be saved was crucially important in a big cosmic drama. Which while your everyday life might be really bad… “cave laborem” was no fun. While that may not have been so hot, there was a way that your life had some structure of meaning. Also, in this period of Western Civ… – and I think this is clearly right – because all things were seen to be created, right. Then even the very rocks and stones, and you know, Saint Francis and all this: the birds, the rocks, the trees, the stones, all were signs of God.

Now, that view of Christianity continues on at least until Melville. Why do you think he is so mad at Moby Dick? You know… the good old Norman New Englander goes well: “I don’t understand” – the Starbuck goes to Captain Ahab – “Why are you so mad at a poor dumb fish that did but strike thee out of blind instinct”. And Ahab just said: “You’re crazy, all things are guided by…” – of course he doesn’t say the word ‘God’, that would have been a little over the edge – “…by some inscrutable power that has hounded and dogged us since first we walked upon this earth”. It is the thing behind the fish I cheaply hate, which is of course Melville thought he had written a very nasty book – he had – for that period.

In any case, the world of Melville that he evokes there – and in the medieval period which I don’t think in some practical ways is at all over by then, and in some ways still isn’t over – was an enchanted world. By enchanted, I don’t want you to get the happy idea; that Walt Disney notion of it. But it does contrast with what Max Weber will talk about when I discuss these modern philosophers, and that’s a disenchanted world.

My easiest and quickest way to give you Max Weber on this is to suggest two things. One, a disenchanted world is one in which there is a place for everything, and everything is in its place, where quantitative relations (numerical ones) were more important than qualitative, by and large. Where rules and procedures are followed, period. That’s procedural rationality for Weber; [it] characterises bureaucracies and economies. Rules are followed. Period. It’s a principle of them. But without giving you a lot of Max Weber, I can simply refer you to a better critic of bureaucracy; Franz Kafka. So, if you want to read “Before the Law”, or “The Trial”, you get a better sense for just exactly how disenchanted modern institutions can appear.

I mean, it is true that the justice of the medieval period was arbitrary, but while it was arbitrary, there was something human about it. In other words, it could take account of differences. Under procedural justice… if you have ever been in traffic court, you know how that works, right? “Driving drunk – one year in jail, one hundred dollar fine, probation, one year in jail, hundred dollar fine, probation…” Nobody cares why you were drunk, it doesn’t matter if Uncle Henry died, it doesn’t matter, because there is a procedure and they follow it. That’s a disenchanted world, one in which the rules are there. Now, in not all respects do I mean to that that is worse than an enchanted one – not at all. I just mean, that from our perspective now, we don’t want to call that – “Modern life” – that’s so hot, and this other stuff the Dark Ages. It’s not that simple. It’s not that simple.

Okay so if one wanted a sort of moniker for the whole Medieval period, in one way or another the imitation of a life like Christs guides that period to the extent that it’s possible for whoever can do it, and to the extent that various groups start demanding a role in that life; because struggle plays a role in each one of these social formations that I’ll have to wait until I discuss Marx to get around to… but I am willing to wait.

Okay, I guess that now, since this is a philosophy course, I’ll give you a philosophical argument since I have just been doing talk about human values and laying out three positions. I hope I have out there at least one Hedonist, one Stoic, you know… you can still be these things. I mean, as far as I know, you can go down to the mall and get little books on them, and it even tells you what to wear, and some of the things to say [crowd laughter].

Let me give you Anselm’s magnificent argument in the medieval period for the existence of God. I don’t have it written down here, I’ll have to reconstruct it from memory. Now, you won’t understand Anselm’s argument… let me warn you in advance that many philosophers consider it a trick. But to understand Anselm’s argument, you have to see that it’s an argument between only two interlocutors: the fool who has said in his heart there is no God, and the believer. If you are neither, this argument won’t have any impact on you. In other words, if you are a person who is not either someone who said there is no God or there is [a God] then you are really not a party to this dispute. So in a certain sense I am not, and it gives me kind of the freedom to throw the argument out quickly to you and let you consider it. But I do think that it’s important to point out that as weird as it sounds today to believe in God and to do it seriously – it sounds weird to me too, I am not up here preaching, I don’t… – I am not even suggesting this, it sounds absolutely weird. In the history of philosophical discourse, this argument I am about to give is the one that’s most nearly proved. It’s a very powerful argument, so…

It holds between interlocutors – one of which doesn’t believe and the other does – and the argument goes something like this. It starts with a magnificent definition that is not an attempt to tell us all about what God is, but about how we understand God, and that definition is as follows: “God is a being greater than which cannot be conceived, period”. God is a being greater than which cannot be conceived, period. Now, once you have bought that, you may see where the argument is headed… The second premise is this one: “It is greater to exist in the mind and in reality than in the mind alone”. Now, let me say a bit about those two premises, then I’ll quickly give you the conclusion. The first one seems to be a simple definition about how we use the word “God”. Namely, when we in the West say “God”, we mean “A being, a bigger one than which you ain’t got”. So, it’s silly to us to go “Well, my God is going to whip yours, cause ours is the biggest there is”, so He is a being greater than which we can’t conceive. The second premise, however, looks like a trick, but it isn’t. It’s directed at the non believer. Because clearly the dispute between the two is this: the non-believer also must accept the premise that “It’s greater to exist in reality than in the mind alone”, because what the non-believer is trying to argue is that God does not exist in reality. So, if he didn’t believe that, or she didn’t believe it, there wouldn’t be a non-believer. They wouldn’t care about the dispute. So, here Anselm has given two premises that seem to be absolutely acceptable to both interlocutors. But from just those two premises, it follows that God must exist. Must exist – in reality – because if he did not, we could conceive of greater.

Now, if you think that is a trick, I’ll just do it again . This is where we do philosophy like: “Can he pull a rabbit out of a hat?” I’ll do it again. If it’s greater to exist in the mind and in reality than in the mind alone, and we are conceiving God… if we conceive a non-existent God, that ain’t him. Because we could conceive of greater: one just like that one, plus one that really exists, follow me? So when you use the word, you are committed to belief in God’s real existence. Anselm’s argument is elegant. In a dispute between believer and non-believer, only on pain of absolute contradiction can you get out Anselm’s argument, it’s a bind. Because God being a being greater than which cannot be conceived, if you buy the premise that it’s greater to exist in reality and in the mind than in the mind alone, it follows that God exists in reality and in the mind. So that’s Anselm’s Ontological argument. I won’t pursue what has been pursued for, oh, a thousand years and more since, and that’s the whole series of objections to this argument. I would simply say that in terms of an elegant conceptual argument, it is perhaps one of the greatest in philosophy, and goes to show as Nietzsche once said that: “Aren’t the strangest of things the most nearly proved?”. It looks like a trick, doesn’t it. The argument kind of looks like a trick. I see [some you reacting as though]: “That’s kind of tricky”. Maybe it is, but if it is, it’s a good trick.