Reading Anselm: Context and Criticism

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Friday, 11 December 2009

Mistranslations of the Proslogion

One of the most frequently mistranslated passages in Anselm's writings is the following from Proslogion, 4:

'Deus enim est id quo maius cogitari non potest. Quod qui bene intelligit, utique intelligit id ipsum sic esse, ut nec cogitatione queat non esse. Qui ergo intelligit sic esse deum, nequit eum non esse cogitare.'

'For God is that than which a greater cannot be thought. Whoever understands this [i.e. that than which a greater cannot be thought] properly, understands at least that this same thing exists in such a way that not even in thought can it not exist. Therefore, whoever understands that God exists in the same way [i.e. as that than which a greater cannot be thought], cannot think that He does not exist.'

The word 'Quod' is usually left ambiguous. It refers to 'that than which a greater cannot be thought', rather than to the phrase 'God is that than which a greater cannot be thought'.

The phrase 'id ipsum' is commonly translated as 'God' or 'he', suggesting that the translators do not understand the argument at this point. Since this is a summary of Anselm's argument in Proslogion 2-4, that is a problem to say the least.

Interestingly Jasper Hopkins is one translator who recognised this error and amended his earlier translation of this passage (see J. Hopkins & H. Richardson, Anselm of Canterbury, Vol. 1, London 1974, p. 25) in his A New Interpretative Translation of St. Anselm's Monologion and Proslogion, Minneapolis 1986, p. 229.

I have more to say about this in 'Whoever understands this: On translating the Proslogion' in New Blackfriars, 89 (2008) 560-74.

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