Aquinas: Do Angels Know Material Things?

This week we’re gonna deal more in depth with an issue that was tangential to my last entry. 1a.57.1 asks, do angels know material things? The basic idea of angels is that they’re incorporeal beings. They don’t have bodies, which means they don’t have eyes or ears or other senses, which means they can’t get images of things into their bodies like humans do. So do they know about anything in our world, or not? 

Now obviously angels pop up a bunch in the Old Testament especially, and they seem to have physical bodies in those moments. Aquinas deals with that issue over in 1a.51, which I skipped over on the blog – but it’s a good read, so go read it. The basic conclusion is that angels sometimes assume bodies, but they aren’t real bodies and they can’t like use their senses or anything like that. So angels on Earth don’t see or eat or hear or anything – but they do “fashion sounds in the air like to human voices.” Sound like a weird conclusion? Welcome to angelology.

Anyway, the point is that angels are incorporeal and so they don’t have eyes or ears. Even when they’re inhabiting physical bodies, they apparently can’t hear or see in those either. So logically, they probably can’t know material things. You might remember Aquinas’s theory of knowledge from last week: basically there’s form and matter, and when you see an object, you get the image of it in your head, abstract the form from the matter, and then you understand it based on your mental possession of the form. So for instance, if you saw a cup, you’d get the image of the cup through your senses and abstract the form of ‘cup’. If I then said “Hey, there’s another cup behind you,” you’d know what it looked like without turning around, because you’ve got the form in your head. But angels can’t collect images through their senses, because they don’t have any senses, so they can’t know material things. They’ve got no way of getting the form of the cup into their heads.

But wait, Aquinas says. “What a lower power can do, a higher can also do.” Angels are considered a higher power than humans, and if we’re able to do something, they should be able to do it as well – otherwise they’re not really higher powers. Brief tangent – this is relevant to Aquinas’s conception of sin. We can sin, and God can’t – so therefore we can do something that God can’t. Against this idea, Aquinas suggests that sin is always a failure to do something rather than a thing in itself. Sin has no substance, but is merely how we refer to the degradation of good things. So rather than saying we can sin, Aquinas would insist that we have a deficiency where God does not. You’ve got to phrase sin in negative terms for this theory to make sense – if you say, for instance, ‘I can have a deficiency and God cannot,’ then you’re phrasing it in positive terms and the whole thing falls over.

Anyway – angels. If we can see shit, so can the angels, because they’re better than us and it’d be embarrassing if we could do something they couldn’t. Aquinas continues: “The order of reality is an order of degrees in perfection; that is to say, what is found in inferior beings in a defective, partial and dispersed sort of way exists in a nobler manner, and with a certain fulness and unity, in greater beings.” So yes, angels can see things – but what’s the delivery mechanism? How do they get these material objects into their non-material heads?

Well, we said before that humans get ideas by receiving images and then abstracting the form from the matter. It’s a distinction between the senses and the mind. Obviously angels don’t have senses, according to Aquinas, but there’s no reason why the ideas of material things can’t be sort of pre-loaded into their minds by God: “[the angel] knows [things] by possessing, as part of [its] nature, intellectual representations of things.” We collect ideas by seeing things and abstracting the ideas out of them; angels just get pre-loaded with ideas by God.

Now obviously there are some problems here. If we can see things and angels can’t, surely we have a skill that the angels don’t – and therefore they’re not really higher beings. But refer back to the quote above – the order of reality is an order in degrees of perfection. Aquinas is basically suggesting that angels know in a better way than we do. Angels don’t have to worry about translating objects into ideas via sensory transmission – they have direct access to the ideas as part of their nature. The implication is that our bodily senses are an inferior form of access to ‘reality’. The real reality is the reality of ideas; this physical world is just a veil, a partial and imperfect un-reality.

This philosophical tradition stems from Plato, and ultimately results in the degradation of the human body. Historically, white thinkers and writers have often associated Africans with the body, often portraying them as animalistic or bestial. The logic develops from this philosophical tradition: the intellect is more perfect, the body is less perfect, and Africans are associated with the body and are therefore lesser beings. It’s the core of Achebe’s criticism of Heart of Darkness – he notes Conrad’s obsession with the black body. Of course, Conrad gets it a bit rough, because he’s trying to say that Western civilisation is just as degenerate and existentially empty as Africa, but – yeah, no, still racist. Alternately, you might have noticed this news story from a while back – it’s two or three days ago when I’m writing, but it’ll be a month or so by the time this article goes live. Florida is in the process of electing a new governor, and the Democratic candidate, Andrew Gillum, is black. So when Republican candidate Ron DeSantis told Fox interviewers that “the last thing we need to do is monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda,” there was, predictably, outcry. We have a bit of a history of associating black people with monkeys, and – to bring it back to the point – it’s tied up in the philosophical traditions that Aquinas is putting forward. To be clear, I’m not blaming Aquinas for the entire colonial enterprise. But it’s one of the results of this philosophical tradition. You might think that all our chat about angels is silly and pointless speculation, but there are real world consequences. Just a thought.

3 comments

      • I’m reading Edward Feser’s book on Aquinas. On his blog a few years ago Feser wrote that according to catholic theology (from Aquinas) Angels have no imagination, and also that once they make a choice they are irrevocably locked into that decision – they cannot change their minds. I find these ideas both intriguing and obscure.
        I’m a big fan of the Inklings and their reverence for the imagination – Tolkien saw himself as a ‘subcreator’, a ‘maker’ because his creator was a maker. For the Romantics the imagination was a divine faculty that revealed profound truths. But according to Feser, images are the raw ingredients of the imagination and incorporeal beings apprehend reality directly without the senses, without imagery, and therefore have no imagination.
        Similarly it is our partial corporeality that can steer us both towards and away from the Good, but when we die we are ‘locked on’ to our choice forever.
        I’m not a conservative like Feser but I find his writing wonderfully lucid and clear. For me these ideas and insights into how an incorporeal mind might function really stimulate my imagination 😀 I think things like, what if you found a body that an Angel had clothed itself in and then discarded? Your explanation in one of these posts that Angels put on bodies but cannot see or hear or sense through them is bizarre, eerie and kind of thrilling!
        Also what is the nature of this DIRECT apprehension of reality that Angels have, and what does that tell us about reality??

        Feser’s blog posts on this are here, the first makes reference to arguments in the second:

        http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2018/03/no-hell-no-heaven.html
        http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2016/10/how-to-go-to-hell_29.html

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