God, concepts of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K030-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 12, 2024, from

3. Perfect-being theology

Perfect-being theology has a long history. Plato (§14) assumes that gods are ‘the…best possible’ to argue that they are immutable (Republic II, 381c). To work out the nature of God, Aristotle takes as a premise that God is ‘the best substance’ (Metaphysics XII, 9, 1074b). Cicero (§3) records the perfect-being arguments of the early Stoic Zeno of Citium:

That which is rational is better than that which is not rational. But nothing is better than the cosmos. Therefore the cosmos is rational. One can prove in a similar manner that the cosmos is wise, happy and eternal, since all of these are better than things which lack them, and nothing is better than the cosmos.

(On the Nature of the Gods II, 21)

Zeno plainly envisages many applications of this basic argument form:

  • (5) Whatever is F is more perfect than whatever is not F.

  • (6) Whatever is most perfect is more perfect than everything else.

  • (7) So whatever is most perfect is F.

  • (8) X is most perfect.

  • (9) So X is F.

The project of filling out a concept of God by successive applications of (5)–(9) is a version of perfect-being theology. To many, Zeno’s taking ‘the cosmos’ as a value of X in (8) will look odd. Cicero’s case for Zeno is that ‘since the cosmos includes everything and since there is nothing which is not in it, it is perfect in all respects’ (On the Nature of the Gods). Cicero’s thought is perhaps this: the cosmos is composed of other objects, its parts. So the cosmos’ perfection is the sum of its parts’ perfections, and thus it is greater than the perfection of every object it contains. But the cosmos contains every object other than itself. So the cosmos is the most perfect actual being.

Cicero seems even to think that the cosmos is the most perfect possible being:

Nothing at all is better…than the cosmos. Not only is nothing better, but nothing can even be conceived of which is better. And if nothing is better than reason and wisdom, it is necessary that these be present in that which we have granted to be the best.

(On the Nature of the Gods II, 18)

Reasoning out the nature of a greatest possible being is another form of perfect-being theology. Taking the cosmos as the greatest possible being, Cicero applies to ‘reason’ and ‘wisdom’ a form of argument which, like (5)–(9), yields a general theological programme. Why might Stoics call the cosmos the most perfect possible being? Suppose that to be a cosmos is to be all-inclusive, a sum of all other things. If so, then no matter what, if anything exists, a cosmos also exists: there is a sum of all things, and this sum is the most perfect actual thing. Suppose we now add that no matter what objects made it up, the cosmos which existed would be the same individual cosmos as the one which now exists. It then follows that the cosmos is the greatest possible being, in the sense that no matter what possible things existed, our cosmos would be greater than any of them. Stoics may have thought this way (see Stoicism §§3–5).

The Christian tradition invokes perfect-being theology at least as early as Augustine (§7), who wrote: ‘When we think of…God…thought takes the form of an attempt to conceive something than which nothing more excellent or sublime exists’ (Christian Doctrine I, 7, 7). Augustine tells us to construct a concept of God by seeking a concept of the most perfect being there is. He adds two concrete rules. One is to deny God whatever attributes we think to be imperfections, the other is to affirm of God in the highest degree any attributes we find to be perfections (On the Trinity V, 1, 2; XV, 4, 6).

Boethius (§5) stated an axiom stronger than Augustine’s, that God is such that nothing greater than him is even conceivable (The Consolation of Philosophy III, 10). Anselm of Canterbury (§§3–4) at first based his perfect-being theology on Augustine’s axiom, that God is the greatest actual being (Monologion, chaps 1–3). To fill out the concept of God, Anselm directed, ascribe to God all attributes F such that whatever is F is better than whatever is not F (Monologion, ch. 15). Thus Anselm’s Monologion recaps Zeno’s theological programme. In his Proslogion, Anselm switches to Boethius’ axiom, and suggests filling out the concept of God by many arguments of this form:

  • (10) Nothing greater than God is conceivable.

  • (11) If God is not F, something greater than God is conceivable.

  • (12) So God is F.

Replacing ‘is conceivable’ with ‘is possible’ yields a form of argument theistic philosophers still respect. Replacing ‘F’ with ‘existent’ yields Anselm’s ontological argument for God’s existence (see God, arguments for the existence of §2).

Citing this article:
Leftow, Brian. Perfect-being theology. God, concepts of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K030-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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