Monday, July 31, 2017

"Ontological" by James Frederick William Rowe

Editor’s Note:  This poem and the notes that follow it are well worth the time it will take to read critically.  For a primer on Saint Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God and the arguments of various philosophers against it, see http://www.iep.utm.edu/ont-arg/.

Ontological
James Frederick William Rowe

I will fill myself on the flesh
Of an imaginary fruit
A glorious apple
Plucked from a precious Tree
On a perfect isle
And think myself wise

I have not erred

Anselm,
     Anselm,
Would that you were bishop of Glastonbury
Then in sight of Avalon
That Touranian monk
Could not have chided you
Naive of legendary islands

And what do you know of thalers
Upon bureaus or elsewhere
You, a Benedictine?
Leave it to a Prussian Protestant
To insist upon sola fide
When we have reason also

Reason which renders
So sensible infinite notions
We cannot comprehend beyond what we can experience?
You have never uttered a word of truth
Committed to such a narrow view of proof
Transcendental though your idealism be

And indeed reason which demonstrates
Existence a perfection
The absence of which
The greatest cannot admit 
Assuring reality to that conceived
And granting proof to the divine

Anselm,
     Anselm,
It is no wonder you are a saint
For your miracles were woven in life
Deducing necessity from a potential
That all must grant
By thought alone establishing what must be

Poet’s Notes:  Ontological is my tribute to St. Anselm of Canterbury's ontological argument for the existence of God, which I so happen to favor, alongside Aquinas' argument from contingency (the third way) as demonstrating a rational proof of God's existence. 

I began this on the subway, and with a certain degree of difficulty, I continued it later. Specifically, I had a difficult time figuring out how I'd end it but eventually I decided to make the last two stanzas reflect on the argument itself, rather than playing with the attempted refutations proposed by Gaunilo of Marmoutiers ("that Touranian monk") and Immanuel Kant ("a Prussian Protestant"). Throughout the poem, the philosophies of the argument and of its refutations play the central theme.  For ease, here is a breakdown of all the references organized by stanza:

            Stanza 1: Guanilo's "perfect island" is referenced here, blended with the Biblical imagery of plucking from the Tree of Knowledge. In other words, I am suggesting I am willing to accept the ontological argument here, as evidenced by the stand-alone verse "I have not erred".

            Stanza II: Anselm was archbishop of Canterbury, an English seat, but I imagine him as more prepared to immediately deal with Guanilo's argument if he were archbishop at Glastonbury, the legendary grave of King Arthur, and so "then in sight of Avalon / that Touranian monk / could not have chided you / ignorant of legendary islands". Avalon also hearkens back to the first stanza's reference of apples, as Avalon is the "isle of apples".

            Stanzas III and IV: Here I deal with Kant's famous rebuttals to the ontological argument, where he suggested a hundred thalers on a bureau are not given existence by being better than their non-existence. Kant also thought that God is known through practical reason, or he said in the preface to his Critique of Pure Reason, “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith." This declaration is found in my "leave it to a Prussian Protestant / to insist upon sola fide [faith alone] / when we have reason also" and goes on to criticize in the next stanza Kant's transcendental idealism, which suggests we can make no metaphysical claims that are transcendent of possible experience. 

            Stanza V: In this stanza I take up Kant's "existence is not a predicate" argument but do so only by ignoring it. A long proof demonstrating why existence is indeed a predicate did not fit into this poem's structure, and so I didn't attempt to make a refutation; rather I just went with the idea that Anselm is right.

            Stanza VI: The poem concludes with the suggestion that the real miracle of St. Anselm's life is the creation of the ontological argument, which uses pure reason to deduce the existence of the perfect being. Though I think the argument sound, I nevertheless recognize that being able to show something exists from mere argument is indeed somewhat out of the ordinary.

Aesthetically, the bulk of the poem consists of stanzas six verses in length, aside from one stand-alone verse. Two of them include my repetition of Anselm's name, the second indented, which I thought was appropriate given that this is a "love letter" to Anselm's achievement. 

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