Archive for the ‘Angels’ Category


True Love and the Wisdom of Cole Porter — Derek Jeter

December 27, 2012


I am a hopeless romantic and nowhere does it manifest itself more than in the movies and the old film stars. I gulp back tears for Grace Kelly, our American Princess of Hollywood who abandoned us all and went to her dismal end with her dark prince in Monaco. Oh, if she had only stayed on that yacht with Bing.

Suntanned, windblown
Honeymooners at last alone
Feeling far above par
Oh, how lucky we are

While I give to you and you give to me
True love, true love
So on and on it will always be
True love, true love

For you and I have a guardian angel
On high, with nothing to do
But to give to you and to give to me
Love forever true

For you and I have a guardian angel
On high, with nothing to do
But to give to you and to give to me

One of the wonderful things about Loving Luisa is that, as an atheist, she is almost an anti-romantic. She will have no knowledge of this song and I will tell her how lucky she is when I sing it to her. I can imagine her at 60, long after I am gone, poor and destitute. Will she ever be reminded of my promise of marriage, how my disability pension would have looked after her as surviving spouse? One day she will hear this song and remark to a friend:

Yes, I had a man sing that to me once. I cut him off at that guardian angel bullshit – should have seen the look on his face, poor deluded Catholic nitwit, couldn’t believe anyone would shit on his precious Grace Kelly. I think I broke his heart and he died a few years later. You can still read his blog though, Paying Attention to the Sky.

Ah, Life is so unfair, My Jesus. And thank God I don’t exaggerate when I write about these things. And I’m not given over to spasms of self-congratulatory regard. Not me. Never.

But didn’t Cole Porter create this song so utterly perfect? With the opening images of “Suntanned, windblown Honeymooners at last alone,” the two lovers alone on a beach on the outer Cape, accessible perhaps by a small sailboat, a beetlecat. Then the witless “Feeling far above par,” the combination of love as a feeling and the moronic sport of golf (pardon to all you golfers out there), the knuckle dragging ape with the club pursuing a small white ball. What more can one say?

But follow that up with the cry “Oh, how lucky we are!” Aren’t we just? Aren’t we just?

That’s the same cry of recognition we find in Dorothy Day’s autobiography when she looks at her infant child playing in the sunlight on her porch and recognizes a need so deep in herself of thankfulness. This is the happiness not of the hap of happenstance but as Peter Kreeft pointed out in yesterday’s post of eudaimonia, or makarios in Greek or beatitudo in Latin, meaning true, real blessedness. For blessedness creates in us a need to thank God. It just bubbles up in the human heart.

And such blessedness. “For you and I have a guardian angel On high, with nothing to do.” To have a guardian angel who has nothing but time on his hands because God is radiating within you the very love you feel for each other. Your love, true love, is the essence of His love, forever true, and the light of his face smiles on you. And just so you don’t miss it, Cole gives you the ten words that sum up the self-emptying kenosis of our loving God: “While I give to you and you give to me.” With all your heart, and all your soul and all your might, let me add.

It’s just a perfect song and a perfect screen moment. You need to draw someone close and say “Honey, shut up and watch this with me.”

Hopefully she is not an atheist and won’t crush your dreams with “Jesus, Guardian Angels, what will you come up with next?” Such snarkiness…

A Prayer In Time Of Trouble

Do not hide your face from me, for in you have I put my trust.

Lord, listen to my prayer:
turn your ear to my appeal.
You are faithful, you are just; give answer.

Do not call your servant to judgment
for no one is just in your sight.
The enemy pursues my soul;
he has crushed my life to the ground;
he has made me dwell in darkness
like the dead, long forgotten.

Therefore my spirit fails;
my heart is numb within me.
I remember the days that are past:
I ponder all your works.
I muse on what your hand has wrought
and to you I stretch out my hands.

Like a parched land my soul thirsts for you.
Lord, make haste and answer;
for my spirit fails within me.
Do not hide your face
lest I become like those in the grave.

In the morning let me know your love
for I put my trust in you.
Make me know the way I should walk:
to you I lift up my soul.

Rescue me, Lord, from my enemies;
I have fled to you for refuge.
Teach me to do your will
for you, O Lord, are my God.

Let your good spirit guide me
in ways that are level and smooth.
For your name’s sake, Lord, save my life;
in your justice save my soul from distress.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
world without end.


Do not hide your face from me, for in you have I put my trust.


Reasons for Affirming the Possibility of Angels – Mortimer J. Adler

August 3, 2011

Thomas Cole, Angels Ministering to Christ in the Wilderness, 1843

A short bio of Mort Adler is at the beginning of this post here.

One reason for affirming the possibility of angels has already emerged. The fact that materialism — the philosophical doctrine most antagonistic to the notion of spiritual beings — provides no grounds for denying the possibility of such beings is a negative approach to affirming their possibility. To acknowledge that we have no reason for thinking angels impossible is tantamount to conceding that they are possible. Can we go beyond this and find positive reasons for an affirmative conclusion?

St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out that the failure to acknowledge the possibility of spiritual beings stems from the failure to distinguish between sense-perception and imagination, on the one hand, and intellection or understanding, on the other. This failure led some philosophers to the conclusion that nothing exists or can exist except that which can be sensed and imagined. Since nothing is perceptible or imaginable other than bodies, these philosophers concluded that only bodies exist or can exist.

Both Plato and Aristotle, Aquinas observed, corrected this error on the part of earlier philosophers. They both recognized a realm of intelligible objects — objects of thought, quite distinct and separate from a realm of sensible objects — objects of perception and imagination. Corresponding to that distinction, they recognize that man has two distinct powers of apprehending objects: on the one hand, the sensitive powers that man shares with other animals; on the other hand, the intellectual powers that only human beings possess.

Intelligible objects or objects of thought are not apprehended as bodies or as having bodily attributes. On the contrary, they are apprehended devoid of all corporeal or material characteristics. That such immaterial objects exist as objects of thought does not lead to the conclusion that they also exist in reality, quite apart from human thought, but it does at least permit us to affirm the possibility of their existence.

A second reason advanced by Aquinas for thinking that minds without bodies are possible is the view he held concerning the human intellect and its action. Adopting Aristotle’s analysis of man’s powers, Aquinas maintained that all but one of these are corporeal powers, the actions of which are the actions of bodily organs.

According to this view, digestion is the act of the organs of the alimentary system; locomotion, the act of the skeletal and muscular systems; sensing, the act of the sense organs and brain; imagining, the act of the brain when the senses are not in operation. But intellection — understanding and thinking — is not correspondingly the act of the brain. It is the act of an incorporeal power that man possesses.

Neither Aristotle nor Aquinas supposed that we can understand or think without that activity being accompanied by the activity of the brain. They both recognized the effect upon our power to think of brain injuries, of drugs, and of the fatigue poisons that cause sleep. However, to admit that we cannot think or understand without using the brain is not to say that we think or understand simply by using the corporeal organ that is primarily an organ of sense-perception, sensory imagination, and sensory memory.

The moderate materialist, as we have seen, regards brain action as both a necessary and a sufficient condition for all mental processes, whether these are sensory or intellectual; but he does not identify mental processes with the processes of the brain and nervous system. He recognizes that they are distinguishable. Each has properties not possessed by the other.

It would, therefore, appear quite appropriate to call Aristotle and Aquinas moderate immaterialists. They do not go to the extreme of asserting that a mind that is associated with a human body has the power to think and understand in and of itself, without dependence on any bodily organ. In contrast to such extreme immaterialism, their view is that the action of the brain and nervous system is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for understanding and thinking. The action of the human intellect — in their view, an incorporeal power, a power not seated in a bodily organ — is required for understanding or thinking to occur.

Here, then, we have another argument for the possibility of minds without bodies — intellects not associated with bodies as the human intellect is. Affirming man’s possession of an intellect that is an incorporeal power, moderate immaterialists, such as Aristotle and Aquinas, see no obstacle whatsoever to affirming the possibility of intellects superior to the human intellect, superior precisely because they are totally divorced from bodies.

There is still a fourth view to consider — that of the seventeenth-century French philosopher, Descartes. His theory of the human mind is that it is, in and of itself, a thinking substance — a res cogitans. It is associated with the human body, which is an utterly different kind of substance, a res extensa or extended substance, having the tri-dimensionality of physical bulk.

Let us ignore for the moment all the well-nigh insoluble difficulties of the so-called “mind-body problem” that arise from the association in one individual of two such disparate substances. I will return to them later. Here we need only note two things.

The first is that the Cartesian view completes the picture by being the extreme immaterialism that lies at the other end of the line from the extreme materialism that totally identifies mental with physical processes. In between these two extremes are the two moderate views that I have described as moderate materialism and moderate immaterialism.

The second point is what follows from the Cartesian affirmation of the existence in the human individual of an intellect that is a thinking substance, not only distinct from, but also separate in its existence and operation from, the extended substance that is the human body. Holding that to be the case, the Cartesian doctrine does not hesitate to embrace the possibility of there being minds totally divorced from bodies.

In fact, on the Cartesian view, the existence of such completely separated thinking substances is less difficult to understand than the existence of the human mind that, while separate in its existence from a body, is nevertheless associated with one — inexplicably.

In one of the Objections and Replies attached to his Meditations, Descartes tells us that from the ideas we possess of God and of man, especially our idea of the human intellect as a thinking substance, we have no difficulty whatsoever in forming the ideas of angels as pure intelligences — thinking substances not in any way associated with bodies, as human intellects are. Certainly, any philosopher who, on rational grounds, affirms the real existence of God can affirm, not the actual existence of angels, but the possibility of their existing. One qualification must be added to the foregoing statement; namely, that the God whose existence is affirmed must be understood to be not only the supreme being, uncaused and unconditioned, but also a purely spiritual and infinite being.

Even to ask the question whether such a being really exists presupposes the acknowledgment of the possibility of its existence. As much as the theist who affirms, the atheist who denies makes this acknowledgement. Atheism, in all its forms, does not deny the possibility, but only the actuality of God.

So, too, the agnostic denies only the knowability of God — our being able to know by reason God’s existence or attributes. The agnostic does not deny that God is thinkable by us — that we can form the notion of a purely spiritual being, having an existence that is independent of the existence of anything else.

If the possibility of there being a God, or of our being able to ask whether or not God exists, rests on our being able to think of God without self-contradiction, then, a fortiori, the same reasoning applies to angels — purely spiritual beings that are finite rather than infinite. Unlike God, if these finite spiritual beings do really exist, they exist dependently, not independently. Their existence depends upon their being created by God and sustained in existence by God.

A metaphysical insight underlies all the arguments advanced so far in support of the affirmation that God and angels are at least possible beings. It has two ingredients.

One is the conception of a substance as anything having an existence separate from the existence of everything else, even though its existence may interact with or be related to the existence of other things. An atom, a stone, a tree, a horse, a human being — each is a substance in this sense of the term. The atom’s weight, the stone’s shape, the tree’s height, the horse’s color, and the human being’s talents are not substances. They are attributes of the substances to which they belong. They do not have any existence separate from the existence of the substance of which they are attributes.

The second element involved in the underlying metaphysical insight is the recognition that the various physical dimensions or properties that comprise the characteristics of corporeal substances are accidental rather than essential attributes of substance itself.

This is tantamount to saying that while this or that physical attribute may be necessarily present as a property of corporeal substances, it is not necessarily present in all substances. The notion of substance does not necessarily involve the possession of such attributes.

Therefore, it follows that incorporeal substances, such as angels or minds without bodies, can exist without having the physical attributes possessed by corporeal substances.

To see that this is so is to see that purely spiritual substances — God, angels, or minds without bodies — are possible modes of being.

There remains only to add the contribution made by John Locke to the discussion of this subject. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, he dwells at length and in many places on the comparable intelligibility of corporeal and incorporeal substances. He is at pains to point out all the difficulties that confront us in dealing with the notion of substance as that underlying substratum in which attributes inhere. But our difficulties, he declares, are no greater in the case of spirits, or incorporeal substances, than in the case of bodies, or corporeal substances.

The fact that the attributes of bodies are perceptible by our senses, whereas the attributes of spirits are not, does not make spiritual substances any less intelligible to us than corporeal substances. The fact that we can know the existence of corporeal substances directly by sense-perception, whereas we have no such immediate knowledge of the existence of spiritual substances, does not affect either the intelligibility or the possibility of the latter. The possibility of angels, or minds without bodies, being thus explained as something we need not hesitate to affirm, philosophy is called upon to explore that possibility. Granted that angels are possible beings, what more can be said about them by the philosopher proceeding, as he should, without any light drawn from Divine revelation or from articles of religious faith?



Who Says That Angels Are Impossible? Mortimer J Adler

August 2, 2011

The last post featured a short bio of Mort Adler.

Who, indeed? The materialists — those who assert that nothing exists except bodies, corporeal substances occupying physical space by their extension or bulk.

The atomists of antiquity — Leucippus and Democritus in Greece and their Roman disciple, Epicurus, whose views are celebrated in the great philosophical poem by Lucretius, On the Nature of Things — laid it down as their basic tenet that nothing exists except atoms and the void, the empty space in which atoms move about.

This central tenet of ancient atomism was espoused in modern times by Thomas Hobbes, whose views about the impossibility of angels we shall examine in a moment. Locke had Hobbes in mind in his effort to refute what he regarded as a dogmatic denial of spiritual substances. Since the sixteenth century, materialism has become a much more sophisticated philosophical doctrine than that of atomism in either its ancient or its modern form.

The notion of the atom as an absolutely indivisible unit of matter has been replaced by conceptions of the atom as a complex structure comprised of more elementary particles. Their divisibility or indivisibility does not affect the central tenet of the more sophisticated forms of materialism, which still declare that nothing exists except bodies.

Even when it is conceded that mental processes cannot be reduced to physical processes — that acts of the mind are distinguishable from the action of the brain — it is still stoutly maintained that mental acts do not occur independently of brain states. Just as seeing or hearing do not occur without the action of eyes or ears, so thinking does not occur without the action of the brain.

To concede, as the more moderate materialists do, that thinking is at least analytically distinguishable from brain action, is not, in their view, inconsistent with regarding brain action as both a necessary and a sufficient condition for thinking or any other act of mind.

Only the most extreme materialists, now generally discredited, persist in rejecting even an analytical distinction between mental and physical processes, regarding them as so completely identical as to be indistinguishable.

The notion of angels — of minds totally devoid of bodies — is anathema to materialists of every variety, atomistic or not, extreme or moderate. The gist of their argument runs as follows:

  1. Nothing exists except corporeal things, whether these be atoms, elementary particles of matter or units of energy, or complex bodies somehow constituted by these simpler components.
  2. Angels are said to be incorporeal beings, minds without bodies, purely spiritual substances.
  3. Therefore, angels — spiritual substances — do not exist.

Let us for the moment grant the truth of the first premise. The truth of the second premise is beyond question. From these two truths, the conclusion inexorably follows. It cannot be avoided or denied.

But what does that conclusion assert? That angels, spiritual substances, minds without bodies, do not really exist? Or that they cannot exist — that they are impossible? On the face of it, the former, and only the former.

From the assertion that nothing actually exists except corporeal things and from the acceptance of the statement that the word “angel” is here used to refer to something totally incorporeal, the only conclusion that can be validly drawn is that the word “angel” refers to nothing that actually exists. The premises certainly do not support the conclusion that the word “angel” refers to something which is intrinsically impossible and, therefore, the word “angel” is totally devoid of meaning.

Yet it is precisely this conclusion that Thomas Hobbes did in fact draw from his materialistic premises.

In his book The Leviathan, Hobbes did not deny the reality of angels, for that would have involved him in rejecting the testimony of Sacred Scriptures. However, he interprets the scriptural passages in which their earthly visitations are described by saying that they are “nothing but supernatural apparitions of the fancy, raised by the special and extraordinary operation of God, thereby to make His presence and commandments known to mankind, and chiefly to His own people.”

As for the existence of angels quite apart from such earthly visitations in various bodily forms, Hobbes insists that if angels are supposed to have permanent being, then they must be corporeal.

Why? Because, according to Hobbes, the very notion of an incorporeal substance is as self-contradictory as is the notion of a round square. Anyone who understands the signification of these words “substance” and “incorporeal,” and who also understands the word “incorporeal” to mean “having no body at all, not just a subtle body,” should be able to see at once that these two words taken together “imply a contradiction.”

Hobbes’s argument holds for “round square,” but not for “incorporeal substance.” The phrase “round square” is on the very face of it self-contradictory. Being self-contradictory, it refers to nothing that is thinkable — to no possible object of thought.

To recognize that “round square” is a self-contradictory form of speech is to recognize more than that round squares do not really exist. Round squares cannot exist either in reality or as objects of thought. The phrase “round square” is, therefore, truly meaningless. It refers to nothing at all.

The same argument would apply to the phrase “incorporeal substances” or to the phrase “spiritual being” if — and only if — the meaning of the word “substance” is identical with the meaning of the word “body” or if — and only if — the meaning of the word “being” is inseparable from the meaning of the word “physical” or “corporeal.” But, as I will try to show in the following section, that is not the case. Neither our understanding of substance nor our understanding of being so entails the notions of corporeality or physical existence that the phrases “incorporeal substance” or “spiritual being” become self-contradictory in the way in which “round square” is.

If words or phrases that do not refer to anything that actually exists in reality must be regarded as totally meaningless because of that fact, it would be impossible for us ever to ask whether something we are able to think about does in fact exist. The phrase “round square” being self-contradictory, we do not ask whether round squares really exist. Precisely because the phrase “incorporeal substance” or “spiritual being” is not self-contradictory, we can and do ask the question whether angels — minds without bodies — really exist.

The materialist may be correct in his denial of the reality of angels, or of minds independent of bodies. Whether or not he is correct depends upon the truth of his basic premise that nothing really exists except corporeal substances or bodies. This premise, to say the least, is philosophically questionable. It is certainly not self-evidently true; nor has any cogent demonstration of its truth ever been advanced. This is not to say that it must be rejected as false, but only to say that the conclusions of the materialist rest upon an assumption open to question.

The materialist assumption that spiritual substances do not exist is as much an act of faith as the religious belief in the reality of angels. The latter is an act of religious faith; the former, it might be said, is an act of anti-religious faith. But, with one or two notable exceptions, the religious faith in the existence of spiritual beings is not ordinarily accompanied by the denial of material things or by the notion that bodies are impossible.

The denial of reality to angels is one thing; the denial of their possibility is quite another. The materialist assumption that nothing really exists except bodies or corporeal substances does not render the phrase “incorporeal substance” or the phrase “spiritual being” self-contradictory or meaningless. It does not, therefore, lead to the conclusion that angels are impossible.

They remain possible as objects of thought about which we can meaningfully ask whether or not they really exist; i.e., exist independently of our thinking about them. And if the fundamental tenet of materialism — the questionable assumption on which the doctrine rests — turns out to be false, the religious belief in the reality of angels may be true. Whether or not that is the case, good reasons can be given for rejecting the materialist’s denial of their possibility.



The Possibility of Angels – Mortimer J. Adler

August 1, 2011
Bernini, The Ecstasy of Saint Therese, 1647-52. The Ecstasy of St. Teresa di Avila, a large statue (height 3.5m) designed to be illuminated by reflected light from a hidden window. The statue depicts a remarkable mystic experience related by St. Teresa herself.

Mort Adler was born in New York City on December 28, 1902, to Jewish immigrants. He dropped out of school at age 14 to become a copy boy for the New York Sun, with the ultimate aspiration to become a journalist. Adler soon returned to school to take writing classes at night where he discovered the works of men he would come to call heroes: Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, John Stuart Mill and others.

He failed to pass the required swimming test for a bachelor’s degree (which is why, I guess, these esteemed institutions have honorary degrees — Columbia rectified its nonsense in 1983), he stayed at the university and eventually received an instructorship and finally a doctorate in psychology. While at Columbia University, Adler wrote his first book: Dialectic, published in 1927.

In 1930 Robert Hutchins, the newly appointed president of the University of Chicago, whom Adler had befriended some years earlier, arranged for Chicago’s law school to hire him as a professor of the philosophy of law; the philosophers at Chicago (who included James H. Tufts, E.A. Burtt, and George H. Mead) had “entertained grave doubts as to Mr. Adler’s competence in the field [of philosophy]” and resisted Adler’s appointment to the University’s Department of Philosophy. Adler was the first “non-lawyer” to join the law school faculty. Adler also taught philosophy to business executives at the Aspen Institute.

Adler and Hutchins went on to found the Great Books of the Western World program and the Great Books Foundation. Adler founded and served as director of the Institute for Philosophical Research in 1952. He also served on the Board of Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica since its inception in 1949, and succeeded Hutchins as its chairman from 1974. As the director of editorial planning for the fifteenth edition of Britannica from 1965, he was instrumental in the major reorganization of knowledge embodied in that edition. He introduced the Paideia Proposal which resulted in his founding the Paideia Program, a grade-school curriculum centered around guided reading and discussion of difficult works (as judged for each grade). With Max Weismann, he founded The Center for the Study of The Great Ideas in 1990 in Chicago. He passed away in 2001. The following is adapted from his 1982 bestseller, The Angels and Us.
Adapted from a Wikipedia Bio

The Crux of the Matter
If we could not be assured that angels are at least possible beings — that it is possible for minds to exist without bodies — much, if not all, of what has been said about them so far would be nullified and nothing more could be said. Religious belief in angels would be rendered absurd. The rational explanation of that belief, it will be recalled, involves an affirmation of the possibility of spiritual creatures. A created universe that did not include them would have failed to realize an important range of possibilities. The reality of angels is that realization.

Theological reasoning about the existence of God attempts to prove that God really exists. Theological reasoning about the reality of angels does not try to prove their existence; but, assuming that they belong in the realm of the possible, it offers a rational explanation of an article of religious faith — the belief in their reality. If it is impossible for angels to exist, all of this goes up in smoke, and with it the religious belief it tries to explain.

So much for looking backward on the steps we have taken so far. Turning now from religion and theology and looking forward to what philosophy can contribute to the discussion, we find our path blocked. To proceed philosophically, we do not need to affirm that angels really exist. There is much to be said about them as possibilities, much that has great philosophical significance. But nothing at all, if they are impossible. Some philosophers have thought that a tenable and cogent argument for the reality of angels can be constructed. Examination of it reveals why it fails.

The argument rests on the following premises:

(a) that God, the supreme being, not only exists, but is supremely good — good in the moral sense of that term;

(b) that God’s supreme goodness necessitates his creation of the best of all possible worlds;

(c) that, since angels are among the possibilities to be realized, a universe in which they were missing would not be the best of all possible worlds.

Hence, the reasoning concludes, God could not have created the best of all possible worlds without creating spiritual creatures as well as corporeal things.

The first of these premises, as I have tried to show in How to Think About God, goes beyond philosophy’s power to affirm. The affirmation of God’s existence is philosophically tenable, but not the affirmation of God’s moral goodness. That is an article of religious faith.

The second premise not only goes beyond philosophy’s reach. In addition, it is theologically questionable that God is under the necessity to create the best of all possible worlds.

With the first and second premises eliminated, we are left with a crucial clause in the third premise — the statement that “angels are among the possibilities to be realized.” Whether or not they are realized in the universe that now exists; whether or not this universe is created by God; and whether or not, if created, it is the best of all the possible worlds within God’s power to create; the statement that they are at least possible remains for us to consider.

In addition, it is a proposition about which philosophers disagree. Some affirm it; some deny it.

In the year during which I was engaged in preparing to write this book, almost everyone I told about the book in process popped two questions at me. “Do you believe in angels?” followed by “How many can stand on the head of a pin?”

At first I brushed these questions aside by saying that they were inappropriate to ask a philosopher. That proved to be an unsatisfactory response. The frequency of the questions finally led me to develop carefully formulated answers.

To the first I replied by saying that religious Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that angels really exist, but that I, writing as a philosopher and a pagan, was concerned only with the possibility of their real existence. I then went on to explain why I was concerned with this question: first, because affirming the possibility of minds without bodies is indispensable to the credibility of the religious dogma about the existence of angels; and, second, because that possibility is itself a disputed question in philosophy. It is one that has serious consequences for many other matters of great philosophical interest.

To the second question about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, I felt compelled to inform my questioners that that problem had never occupied the attention of a single thinker in the Middle Ages when angelology was so fully developed. Nor was it among the disputed questions that scholastic theologians and philosophers have been traditionally supposed to wrestle with in endless — and fruitless — debate.

So far as religious beliefs go concerning the mission that angels perform on earth at God’s behest, dancing on the head of a pin is not one of them. The myth that intense discussion focused on the number of angels that might dance on a pinhead is simply one of the many modern inventions contrived to make a mockery of mediaeval thought.

Having dismissed this venerable piece of modern nonsense, I then pointed out that a serious question remained and that it was one a philosopher can and should answer. Angels being bodiless, how many can be present at a given location in physical space — a place occupied by a body such as a human being, with regard to whom an angel might have a mission to perform?

The reason why that question cannot be avoided and the reason why the answer to it must be “Only one” will be made clear in the next chapter where I will undertake to explore the philosophical consequences of affirming that purely spiritual beings — minds without bodies — are genuinely possible. In the Middle Ages, almost all of the great philosophers were also theologians — Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. The treatises on angels which they wrote did not sharply distinguish, on the one hand, questions that belong strictly to the sacred or dogmatic theologian alone (because asking and answering them cannot be undertaken except on the basis of texts to be found in Sacred Scriptures) and, on the other hand, questions that belong to the philosopher quite apart from theology (because asking and answering them in no way depends on Sacred Scriptures or Divine revelation).

In modern times, not many philosophers of eminence — philosophers who are not also engaged in the work of sacred theology — have given much thought to angels. Since the eighteenth century, there have been almost none except philosophers who also happened to be imbued with profound respect for the tenets of sacred theology. But in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, two noteworthy English philosophers — Francis Bacon and John Locke — not only affirmed the possibility of angels, but also regarded the consideration of the possibility a proper subject for purely philosophical discourse.

In Bacon’s Advancement of Learning, which he wrote as a survey of the whole realm of human inquiry and as an appraisal of future progress therein, he maintains that it is improper for philosophers “from the contemplation of nature and the principle of human reason, to dispute or urge anything with vehemence as to the mysteries of faith.” But it is not inappropriate, he declares, for philosophers to consider “the nature of spirits and angels; this being neither unsearchable nor forbid, but in a great part level to the human being on account of their affinity.”

Bacon does not further instruct us concerning angels in the Advancement of Learning, but he does make one further point about them in his Novum Organum, his treatise on the methods to be followed in scientific and philosophical inquiry. There, in the context of developing his theory of induction, Bacon denies that the human mind has the power to ascend at once from particular experiences to the most universal forms that inhere in things. Human induction should proceed gradually from the less to the more universal. “It is only for God (the bestower and creator of forms),” he writes, “and perhaps also for angels or intelligences at once to recognize such supremely universal forms at the first glance of contemplation.”

John Locke’s consideration of angels — or spiritual substances — is both more extensive and more argumentative than Bacon’s. It is a matter of prime importance in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, especially in those parts of his essay that deal with the scope and validity of human knowledge. In addition, Locke engages in dispute with those who would deny the bare possibility that purely spiritual substances can exist, quite apart from the question whether in fact they really do. He advances what, in my opinion, are persuasive arguments in support of the proposition that minds without bodies are as possible — and as intelligible to us — as bodies without minds.


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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