Magazine article The Spectator

Just Think about It

Magazine article The Spectator

Just Think about It

Article excerpt

They had dined well and were warming their Armagnac. From the inclination of the ebony cigarette-holder, Charles Morse could deduce that his host was in didactic mode, and it was with little hope of success that he attempted a diversion: 'Well, as you know, Jean-François, we English don't like to discuss religion - for us, it's a private matter, like politics and personal hygiene, not something you argue about in public.' 'Mon cher ami,' cried Charpentier - who in moments of emotion would lapse into his native tongue - 'mon cher ami, how I adore your little English ironies. But you do not need to remind me that the most subtle - the most exquisite - of all religious arguments was discovered in England. For if I recall aright, the ontological argument for the existence of God was discovered in Canterbury, in the year 1078, on a Sunday in April, at two in the morning.'

Morse knew when he was beaten - you do not easily divert the holder of the chair in metaphysical theology at the Sorbonne, and in any event Charpentier had given him a remarkably good dinner. He tamped his pipe, and settled back. 'Yes, of course you are right, though St Anselm was hardly a typical Englishman, and "ontological" is not an English word.'

'Perhaps not - it is one of those ponderous German epithets which some ponderous German attached to the argument. But let us agree to call it Anselm's Argument: what matters is not its name but its substance.'

'Its substance . . . would you mind frightfully jogging my memory a little about its substance?' It was a generous long-hop, which Charpentier had no compunction in accepting. 'Nothing could be easier,' he began; 'for it is really the simplest of arguments: a couple of premises which even my dear students could understand, and a conclusion which follows as the night the day, in the words of your goose of Avon. First, then, we lay it down as an axiom that God is something than which nothing better can be conceived.'

'You mean that He is unimaginably good, I suppose?'

'Not at all, mon cher,' said Charpentier, rather nettled by such an early interruption. 'It is only Protestant theologians who say that God passes our feeble human understandings. What I mean is precisely what I said: God is so good that nothing could conceivably be better. This Armagnac is very good, really extraordinarily good, but we can both conceive of something better, even if we are very unlikely ever to find anything better. Your gracious Queen' (like most Frenchmen, Charpentier was a royalist to his bootstraps) 'is extremely good, quite exceptionally good for an English lady' (like most Frenchmen, Charpentier had limited ideas on the subject of English women), 'but we can both imagine something even better. God is not like that: He is not only supremely good, infinitely good - nothing at all could conceivably be better.

'You ask me how I know that?' Morse wondered if he did. No - the question was rhetorical. 'There is nothing deep or mysterious about it: it is a simple a priori truth, a truth which expresses one aspect of our concept of what God is, which depends on nothing but the very meaning of the word "God". How do I know that a triangle has three sides? I know it insofar as I understand what a triangle is or what the word "triangle" means. How do I know that you can't divide a prime number by any numbers other than itself and one? …

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