Aquinas: Can the Angels Sin?

It’s finally our day! After all our lead-up, we’ve finally hit 1a.63, regarding sin in the angels. There’s nine articles here, and we’re not going to cover all of them, but they’re a pretty interesting read, so check them out here. We’ll start off today with 1a.63.1: Can there be moral evil in the angels?

Aquinas starts the ball rolling by saying no, obviously. He brings out a few arguments against the idea, and one of them seems pretty familiar:

“Desire can only be of the good or the apparently good. Now to an angel nothing can appear good that is not really so; for he cannot fall into error, at least not before actually sinning. Hence he can desire only what is really good; and no one sins by desiring that: therefore no angel sins, through desire, at all.”

We’ve basically been over all this before. We’ve been touching on it for the last few weeks – through the free will article, the article on angels knowing God, all that kinda stuff. And here Aquinas finally makes the argument himself. There’s a couple of other arguments too, some of which are kinda interesting. For instance, Aquinas says that if you naturally possess something, you can’t lose it – which seems like a weird premise, but okay. Angels are naturally attracted to God, he says, and so therefore they can’t lose that attraction, because it’s natural, and so therefore they can never sin – because they follow their attraction and thereafter they’re perfect.

In his rebuttal, Aquinas starts by suggesting that hypothetically, sin is possible for any existing creature. We’ve got all of these intelligent creatures that have a range of options available to them, and to sin, you just have to pick a bad action. Hypothetically, then, angels are probably able to sin, because they have the ability to choose and it’s hypothetically possible that they’d choose a bad action. This argument doesn’t solve the ‘how’ component – it doesn’t explain how angels would somehow get to the stage where they decide that they’re going to do a bad thing – but as a premise, okay, well, sure, it’s hypothetically possible.

Let’s tackle that nature argument next. Aquinas accepts that yes, angels are naturally attracted to God, but suggests that angels don’t just function off that natural attraction. They also receive grace, which allows them to turn to God “as the source of a supernatural happiness.” According to Aquinas, angels can reject that grace – they can refuse to rise into glory. That’s sin. Okay, I guess, but I’m not really sure where that argument’s going. Let’s move on to the main event.

So here’s the job for Aquinas. He has to prove how it is that angels, who intuitively see all possible connections and meanings of any given thing immediately upon perceiving it, can make the wrong decision. He starts off by suggesting that there are two different types of sin – you can be ignorant, or you can choose to do a good thing in the wrong way, “without due regard to a measure or rule.” So for instance if you’re an adulterer, you’re ignoran- uhh, what? Oh – okay, so you really want to get laid, and you’re really fired up about it, and it kinda clouds your better judgement. So your intellect is fettered by passion and you’re basically being dumb. The second type of sin is more straightforward – you’re trying to do a basically good thing, but you’re doing it without paying attention to all the rules. Aquinas has a bit of a weird example here: he says you can choose to pray, but not take notice of some ruling of the Church – so maybe you’d have like a rule that says ‘You can’t pray for people to die,’ and someone could go to pray and ignore that rule and pray for someone to die. So you’re choosing to do a good thing (praying), but not taking notice of all the relevant rules and regulations while you’re doing that – so the end result is bad. It’s a bit weird, but I think we can understand the basic point.

We’ve got these two types of sin, then. Aquinas argues that the second type of sin isn’t actually predicated on ignorance: “all that they necessarily presuppose is that one does not consider what one ought to consider.” He argues that the devils sinned under this second category: “of [their] own free will [they] pursued a good for [themselves] without regard for the rule of divine will.” Remember we talked about this a couple weeks back – Aquinas argued that angels intuitively know every natural thing that could happen, and that’s just part of their genetic make-up or whatever, but they don’t necessarily know about every supernatural thing – for that, they have to be actively attuned to God’s will. Knowing God’s will is a gift of grace, and that’s where the angels can fall out of sorts – they can disregard God’s will and set aside divine grace without contradicting their nature.

Okay, but why would they disregard God’s will? You’d kinda have to be pretty stupid to actively know that God exists and also be like ‘Nah, fuck that guy.’ But apparently that’s something the fallen angels chose to do. In 1a.63.2 Aquinas talks about how the main sins in the fallen angels are pride and envy. We’ll touch on them briefly next week, when we do 63.3, which specifically looks at Satan and where he might’ve gone wrong. For now though, we’ve got our answer – perhaps somewhat unsatisfying, but there it is. The angels were perfect, and they know every natural thing in the universe, and so they can’t really pick the wrong thing from that perspective – but there’s also a supernatural knowledge that they don’t have naturally, and they can deviate from that because it’s not part of their nature in the same way. In a sense, Aquinas puts the angels in basically the same position as us – they were given access to God’s will, and they actively chose to set it aside and do their own thing. You could argue that the angels were smarter than us, but that’s really the only significant difference. More next week!

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