The Reason God Created Angels – Mortimer J. Adler

June 16, 2011

Any argument, scientific or philosophical, that attempts to establish the existence of something that is not immediately evident to sense perception must take the form of positing the existence of a cause that is needed to explain observed phenomena or to explain the existence of something that is already known to exist.

The only justification for affirming the existence of something unperceived and, perhaps, imperceptible is that whatever it is that needs to be explained cannot be explained in any other way. This is the sound rule laid down by William of Ockham in the fourteenth century and it has been followed ever since by careful, cautious scientists and philosophers.

The reasoning of nuclear physicists concerning the existence of certain elementary particles that are intrinsically imperceptible takes this form. So, too, does a valid argument for the existence of God.

No similar form of argument is available with regard to the existence of angels. There are no observed phenomena (excluding, of course, experiences reported in Sacred Scriptures) that cannot be explained unless we affirm that angels exist and engage in certain causal actions. Nothing known by us to exist has an existence that is inexplicable unless it is understood as an effect of angelic action.

What is often miscalled an argument for the existence of angels amounts to nothing more than an effort to explain why God included them in his creation of the universe. Why, in addition to creating the whole physical cosmos and all the corporeal things that constitute it, did God also create a realm of purely spiritual beings — intelligences or minds without bodies?

If rational reflection can provide the explanation, it not only enhances the religious belief in angels by rendering it intelligible. It also defends such a belief as reasonable against those who scoff at it as absurd or preposterous.

The explanation advanced by Thomas Aquinas rests on a single insight. In his Treatise on Angels in the Summa Theologica, answering the question whether there are entirely spiritual or incorporeal creatures, Aquinas asserts that “the universe would be incomplete without [them].”

In another treatise on the same subject, Aquinas further explains that the reason why God created angels is “the perfection of the universe.” To have perfection, “it must not lack any nature that can possibly exist.”

Aquinas then adds a second reason. The perfection of the universe not only requires the existence of every kind of thing that is possible. It also requires an orderly arrangement of the things that constitute the aggregate of created substances.

An orderly arrangement would not be present if there were unfilled gaps in the scale of beings. “At the topmost summit of things there is a being which is in every way simple and one; namely, God.” Therefore, Aquinas argues, corporeal things cannot be “located immediately below God, for they are composite and divisible.” That is why “one must posit many intermediates, through which we must come down from the highest point of the Divine simplicity to corporeal multiplicity.”

Angels, being incorporeal and, therefore, having the simplicity that belongs to anything indivisible, occupy places in the scale of beings between God and man. This completes the picture.

The orderly arrangement that Aquinas thinks must characterize any universe created by God involves an ascending scale of beings from

(1)     inanimate and mindless physical things to
(2)     living beings without minds, and
(3)     minds that are somehow associated with animate bodies, and from them to
(4)     spiritual beings — minds without bodies.

Etienne Gilson summarizes the argument by saying that “the general plan of creation would display a manifest gap, if there were no angels.” An orderly arrangement of the created universe involves “a hierarchy of created perfections” from the most perfect to the least perfect of creatures, i.e., from creatures that have the highest grade of being to creatures having the lowest. To this it must be added that all creatures share in the creaturely imperfection that consists in their dependence on God for their existence.

It is not surprising to find a reiteration of this reasoning by Dante who, in his Convivio, declared that, in an orderly universe, “the ascent and descent is by almost continuous steps, from the lowest form to the highest and from the highest to the lowest.”

Dante then went on to say that “between the angelic nature . . . and the human soul there is no intermediate step” as is also the case “between the human soul and the most perfect soul of the brute animals.”

The same line of reasoning can be found in the work of a seventeenth-century English empirical philosopher, John Locke. In Book III, Chapter VI, Section 12 of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke observed that

in all the visible corporeal world we see no chasms or gaps.. . . Down from us the descent is by easy steps. . . . There are some brutes that seem to have as much reason and knowledge as some that are called men; and the animal and vegetable kingdoms are so nearly joined that, if you will take the lowest of one and the highest of the other, there will scarce be perceived any great difference between them; and so on until we come to the lowest and most unorganical parts of matter, we shall find that the several species are linked together, and differ but in almost insensible degrees.

In the light of this observation, Locke then continued as follows:

When we consider the infinite power and wisdom of the Maker, we have reason to think that it is suitable to the magnificent harmony of the universe, and the great design and infinite goodness of the architect, that the species of creature should also, by gentle degrees, ascend upwards from us towards his infinite perfection, as we see them gradually descend from us downwards.

Locke repeated this argument in Book IV, Chapter XVI, Section 12 of his Essay, but there he pointed out that, since the reasoning rests on the principle of analogy, the conclusion it reaches concerning the existence of angels is at best only probable, not certain. On this point, he differed from his philosophical contemporary and opponent, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, who employed similar reasoning but regarded it as establishing the conclusion with certitude.

In the same century, Sir Thomas Browne, in his Religio Medici, expressed wonder that “so many learned heads should so far forget their metaphysics, and destroy the ladder and scale of creatures, as to question the existence of spirits.” This line of thought generally prevailed in the following century, too, and not exclusively in philosophical circles, though undoubtedly under the influence of John Locke.

The essayist Joseph Addison wrote, in one of his occasional papers, that

if the notion of a gradual rise in beings from the meanest to the most high be not a vain imagination, it is not improbable that an angel looks down upon a man, as a man doth upon a creature which approaches the nearest to the rational nature.

The poet Alexander Pope, in his Essay on Man, exclaimed:

Vast chain of being! which from God began, Natures aethereal, human, angel, man, Beast, bird, fish, insect, what no eye can see, No glass can reach.

And a great American statesman, John Adams, echoed Pope, maintaining that “Nature, which has established a chain of being and a universal order in the universe, descending from angels to microscopic animalcules, has ordained that no two objects shall be perfectly alike and no two creatures perfectly equal.”

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  1. The most comprehensive statement Browne made on Angels is – ”The learned Gaspar Schottus dedicates his Thaumaturgus Mathematicus unto his tutelary of Guardian Angel..now though we must not lose God in good Angels or, because their presence is always supposed about us, hold less memory of the onminprescency of God in our prayers and addresses for his care and protection over us; yet they who do assert such spirits do find something out of Scripture and Antiquity for them. But whether the Angel which wrestled with Jacob were Esaus good angel; whether our Saviour on earth had one deputed unto him, or whether that was his good angel which appeared and strengthened him before his passion; whether Anti-Christ shall have any,whether all men have one, some more; whether these Angels do guard successively and distinctly unto one person after another or whether but once and singly but one person at all; whether we are under the care of our mothers good Angel in the womb or whether that spirit undertakes us when the stars are thought to concern us, that is at our nativities, men have a liberty and latitude to opinion.
    Source British Museum Sloane MS No.1875

  2. Wonderful.

  3. Thanks for this. I always like to hear someone talk about the place of angels in the universe and the Church.

    When I read St Thomas, I was surprised that he basically said Plato and Aristotle should have known, by reason, that there are angels. This took my by surprise. I love to relive that surprise in reading other authors, too.

    • Thanks, Ben. This essay is one of the more popular posts on PayingAttentiototheSky and as I reread it from time to time, I find it shockingly well argued. If you’re like me, I start out with my default skepticism but by the time I finish I am understanding what angels are and why they are necessary (BTW also the name of a Wallace Steven’s essay, “The Necessary Angel.”)

  4. [...] Love You, Jesus, in Your Angels and in Your Saints – – * See this post on another blog for a philosophical discussion of the nature of angels and why they were created. [...]

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