God must exist in Latin, but not necessarily in English

René Descartes, the French philosopher who scored a hit in 1637 with “I think, therefore I am,” laid out a logical argument for the indisputable existence of God. In Principles of Philosophy, published seven years later, he wrote the following:

“Next, the mind considers the various ideas it has within itself; and one stands out far above the rest, namely that of a being which is totally intelligent, totally powerful, and totally perfect. It discerns that this idea includes existence – not merely possible and contingent existence (as in the ideas of all the other things of which it has a distinct conception), but unlimited necessary and eternal existence.”

The short version of this argument is that a perfect being, by definition, has to exist. If the perfect being we call God was just an idea, it wouldn’t be perfect. Therefore, there is a God.

“Most English-language readers find the argument implausible,” according to the authors of a terrific book called Doing Philosophy, “because even if we accept that we can imagine a perfect and omnipotent being, we do not see why this idea of perfection has to include existence.”

So how did Descartes manage to get away with such a flimsy and implausible argument? Simple: he wrote Principles of Philosophy in Latin, not English.

“We tend to think of ‘perfect; as covering no more than moral or aesthetic perfection,” the authors explain, “whereas in Latin perfectus also includes a concept that can be understood as ‘fullness of being’. So the concept that Descartes is talking about (originally in Latin) does have a connection with actual existence, since a thing can hardly have maximum fullness of being if it does not actually exist.”

Pretty neat, right? No wonder all those churches are so big on Latin. Why mess around with a “johnny come lately” like English when it’s only going to weaken your faith?

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